211 to 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (III) Dreaming In Asia

Part One: The Beginning

Part Two: The Road Broadens

With the early sections of African qualifying finished the focus swings firmly back to Asia, with the other confederations still to begin. The Second Round of AFC qualification sees the heavy-hitters of the continent come into the competition, and the faint hopes of the minnows put under serious pressure. From Damascus to Taipei, players and fans dream of progression.

Part Three: Dreaming In Asia

19. Paragons Or Puppets: Syria

20. “I Told You So”: Australia

21. Hands Across The 38th: North Korea/South Korea

22. Sing It Out: Cambodia

23. The Second System: Hong Kong

24. The One Country: China PR

25. The Team Of Hope: Iraq

26. The Journeymen: Chinese Taipei

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19. Paragons Or Puppets: Syria

(10/10/2019) 

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Star striker Omar Al Somah epitomises both the hope and contradictions of the Syrian national side.

In January 2011 the Syrian football team competed in its fifth AFC Cup Finals in Qatar, managed by Romanian Valeriu Tita. They beat Saudi Arabia 2-1 in their opening game before falling to Japan and Jordan, to finish a respectable third in their group. Tita left the job in the aftermath to take up a club management role. The Syrian FA took a while to replace him, but looked forward to that summer’s commencement of Brazil 2014’s AFC qualification, with a two-legged Second Round tie with Tajikistan to navigate, a match-up Syria was tipped to win. At home, as a consequence of the growing Arab Spring movement, a small number of protests began to take place against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they attracted little attention.

Fast forward a year. As Syria itself devolved into warzone with the anti-Assad protests having morphed into an all-out insurgency war, there was no comfort to be had from the football field. After being forced to play their “home” game against Tajikistan in Jordan for security reasons, Syria were disqualified from qualification for Brazil 2014 after fielding Swedish raised George Mourad without filing the proper paperwork. Their 6-1 aggregate win – where Mourad scored the first – was turned into a 6-0 walkover defeat. 

How this low ebb, matched by the Syrian conflict’s mutation into a worse and worse conflagration, was turned into a new dawn for the football team should be considered one of the most interesting stories of 21st-century sport. From being disqualified in the running for Brazil 2014, Syria went to being the kick of a ball away from taking a place in the intercontinental play-offs for Russia 2018. How did this happen?

Playing home games in Syria was of course impossible – unlike the more recent controversy over Sri Lanka’s security arrangements, playing any kind of international football match in Damascus was certainly asking for disaster – but the Syrian FA found friends abroad (further abroad than their immediate neighbours, who are not so friendly) willing to help out. Whether it was Jordan, Oman or Malaysia, Syria’s footballers were given homes away from home, places where they could prepare and train away from the bombs and the bullets, spared the physical stresses if not the mental ones, before taking to the field. Other countries in similar situations have not been so fortunate. At times the going has been tough, with players not knowing where they were actually going to play until the day beforehand, but the point is that Syria have been afforded the possibility of playing. Given that the war has left the national side essentially broke, it is all the more important that they have found suitable places to play.

Syria also has a wealth of talent to actually pick from in a nation that can be considered as football-mad as any in the immediate area. The current crop of players has been described more than once as a “golden generation”, playing competitively in leagues around the Middle-East. Internally the Syrian league has, against many odds, continued to function during the conflict, and there is a diaspora to supplement. This is not, in other words, some two-bit minnow whose players are amateurs or semi-pros. They can play.

And then there is just something that you can only describe as belief, a never-say-die, attitude, that manifested itself at several points of Syria’s 2018 qualification campaign. In the Second Round group stage, they dropped points only to top-seeded Japan on the way to a comfortable second-place finish ahead of Singapore, similarly affected Afghanistan (both ties being played outside the home country) and Cambodia, racking up a three-goal a game average. Such a stroll was evidence of Syria’s footballing level, as even with all the turmoil at home they were still able to waltz through the lesser Asian opposition.

Onto the Third Round then, and a tougher task in Group A with Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China PR and Qatar. In a dogfight of a group, Syria scored only nine goals in ten games, but four of them came in injury time, in wins against Uzbekistan and Qatar, and draws with China and Iran. The last was the most crucial, on the final day, when Omar Al Somah popped up to score his nation’s second in a 2-2 draw in Tehran, with 93 minutes played, securing third place in the group. The Syrian commentator burst into tears, and viewers in Damascus took to the streets. That goal, and that point, edged Syria ahead of Uzbekistan by two GD.

The reward was the AFC play-offs and another giant to tackle, in the form of a heavily favoured Australia. The home leg, played in front of 2’000 fans in Malaysia’s Hang Jebat Stadium, saw Al Somah slot home an 85th-minute penalty to counter Robbie Kruse’s first-half opener. Advantage Australia on away goals. In the second leg, played in Sydney five days later in front of 40’000, Al Somah gave Syria a first-half lead they held for what must have been a rollercoaster seven minutes, before Tim Cahill equalised. Syria pressed as well as they could for a second away goal that would win them the tie, but couldn’t find it. In the 19th minute of extra time Cahill struck again, a looping header that Syrian keeper Ibrahim Alma could only graze, despairingly. Syria had no answer. The miracle run was over. The Aussies went on to beat Honduras to book a spot in Russia. It should not be considered too speculative to state that Syria may well have been able to do the same.

Even with the defeat to Australia, it’s still a hell of a good news story, the kind that Syria, and its people, badly need. Even as the Civil War became a dogfight between four different factions, each with their own internal sub-factions and international supports, even as the death toll rose and the refugee crisis escalated, still, their football team was competing on a level playing field with the very best of Asia, and ended up not being all that far from the final 32. One only has to take a look at some of the Syrian news headlines on the same day as their above heroics, with thousands killed in the Battle of Raqqa which ended as the Australia play-off went on, to get a sense of the dichotomy at play.

But all may not be what it seems. Perhaps we should discard the easier narrative, and look again. The Syrian team may not be the plucky underdogs we think them to be. Are they representative of the Arab Spring spirit that encouraged the early pro-democracy cries? Or are they instead a mirror of the Assad regime, propaganda-by-sport, whose success is a boon to the government, and to little else besides?

It must be remembered that there is no single Syria anymore. There is the Syrian Arab Republic of Assad that controls around two-thirds of the recognised Syrian territory at time of writing. There is the predominantly Kurdish de facto state of Rojavo controlling most of the north-east. There is the myriad forms of the “Syrian opposition”, in the north and south. And there are the more radical players, ISIL and Tahrir al-Sham, that still have footholds in a significant part of the country.

The Syrian national football team may claim to represent all, may be perceived as doing so by some, but in reality it is the side of the Syrian Arab Republic. Claims to the contrary ring a little hollow when the team turn up to pre-match press conference wearing shirts emblazoned with the President’s face, or when they take the time to publically salute Assad after matches, most notably at the conclusion of that famous draw in Tehran. Players who have expressed support for rebel factions have found themselves frozen out. Plenty of other promising footballers have joined the heaving mass of humanity leaving Syria, hoping for new, better lives in Europe, rather than stay and play under Assad’s flag.

Take Al Somah as an example. Despite his reputation as one of the best strikers on the continent, that fateful strike against Iran was the then 28-year old’s first goal for his country. He was not picked for Syria after a brief promotion to the senior side in 2012, until the team came calling in 2017. Was it an exile or a freeze-out? “Political” is as good a reason for Al Somah’s absence as you will find, with indications that he has, or had, sympathy for the Syrian opposition at points. And yet in 2017 Al Somah was playing, and praising Assad after the Iranian game along with his teammates. It has gone to extraordinary extremes in some cases, like with team captain Firas al-Khatib, who takes part in the praising of a regime that bombarded his own home town with artillery: having previously vowed never to play while the killing continued, he has more recently claimed that the situation in Syria is impossible for those in his position, who will face hatred and death threats from 12 million people whatever they decide.

Naturally those opposed to Assad, be they opposition fighters continuing to wage war in Syria or any one of the millions forced to flee their home country, can sometimes be at best ambivalent about the national team’s fortunes, and at worst openly contemptuous of them. Plenty of Syrians cheered against their nominal team throughout that Russia 2018 run, and continue to do so, seeing them as little more than an extension of a murderous and illegitimate dictatorship, a tool to try and project normalcy where little actually exists. The other states, de facto or otherwise, are in no position to put forward alternatives, though teams filled with veterans of the “Free Syrian Army” have played at the lower levels of Lebanon’s league pyramid.

Assad’s regime, one that defines itself by a mantra of denying there even is a war, is well aware of the possibilities of football. The aforementioned Syrian league does still function but only in Assad territory, primarily in the few urban centres his forces control: the dominant teams are those of the police and the army. Footballers opposed to his regime are as liable to be “disappeared” as anyone else: by 2017 over one hundred professionals had been identified as having suffered such a fate.

Some members of the national team vanished for a year after being arrested, only to suddenly turn up again on the pitch. There have been claims that some of the team play only because they fear reprisals against their families and friends should they refuse, and that many would defect if given the choice. FIFA looks on, insisting on its own powerlessness to sanction the Syrian FA for what appears to be obvious political interference. Syria thus encapsulate the complicated nature of football support in a time of war and territorial disintegration.

Whether the Syrian national team are the paragons of the underdog tale or puppets of dictatorship, their campaign to reach Qatar 2022 kicked off last month, in an away game against the Philippines. They showed just why they can be considered a potential wild card once again, notching five goals to the home team’s two, Al Somah netting twice. China PR are the only real threat in a group otherwise occupied by island minnows the Maldives and Guam.

It is the Maldives that Syria play next, their first “home” game, that will be played in Dubai. Nearly nine years on from the start of the civil war, and Syria remain a team without a home. Regardless of anything else, no amount of cheer-leading for Assad has been able to change that.

20. “I Told You So”: Australia

 (11/10/2019) 

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Australia reached the promised land against Uruguay in 2005, but are at risk of being labelled a perennial also-ran in the Finals themselves.

In 2004 Johnny Warren, long-time veteran, stalwart and promoter of Australian association football, passed away at the age of 61 after a battle with lung cancer. Renowned for his support for the game in Australia, in one of his final interviews he was asked what he wanted his own sporting legacy to be. He answered simply that he wanted to be able to say one thing to the game’s detractors in Australia, there being no shortage of them in a country more commonly associated with cricket, rugby and Aussie Rules. Warren’s legacy, he said, would be “I told you so”.

Warren’s dream, the moment when he would get to say those four words, was when Australia would get to the Finals of a World Cup. Yes they had been there once, in 1974, a tournament that Warren himself played in. But that effort, where Australia attained a single point and scored no goals, was ancient history by the time Warren expressed what has since become Australian football’s pre-eminent rallying cry. Between 1974 and 2006, Australia tried and repeatedly failed to get back to world football’s grandest stage. The history of that journey, and what occurred at the culmination, is fundamental to the story of Australian association football.

There were many reasons why Australia spent 32 years in the cold: the sport’s lack of importance in Australia, the dearth of exceptional talent and the unfairness of the qualification system, that routinely hobbled Australia by placing them in preliminary groups with incredibly limited Oceanic opposition – the source of some of the game’s record international scorelines, most notably a 31-0 win over American Samoa in 2001 – before suddenly throwing them against much more capable opposition in do-or-die play-offs.

In 1986 it was Scotland. In 1990 it was Israel. In 1994 it was Argentina, Australia beaten by an own goal. In 1998 it was Iran. And in 2002 it was Uruguay. Time and again Australia found themselves strolling through the earlier rounds against tiny Pacific dots, before becoming undone against the first genuine challenge they faced.

The Iranian tie in 1998 was a particularly bitter affair. A Terry Venables-managed Australia had scored 26 goals and conceded 2 – in six games – to get to that point with a team benefiting from a diaspora plying their trade in European leagues. Mark Bosnich, Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell were all members of what was commonly perceived as the best Australian side ever assembled. In a raucous away leg in Tehran they got out with a 1-1 draw. In the home leg, in front of 100’000 fans in Melbourne, they were two-up with 75 minutes played, looking like dead certs to qualify.

And then Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi popped up to score twice in five minutes for Iran, and the Socceroos had no answer. 3-3 it finished, the Iranians through on away goals. Commonly regarded as one of the greatest tragedies of Australian sport, the match is notable for Johnny Warren openly weeping on commentary after the final whistle. Australia would not go to France, despite having lost no games in qualifying.

It is a typical example of life’s many unjust cruelties that Warren did not live to see the final fulfillment of his decades of hard work to promote the sport in Australia. Only two years after his death the Socceroos made it to a World Cup Finals, in Germany 06. Now under Guus Hiddink, this was the Australian team dubbed as the nation’s “golden generation”: Viduka and Kewell were joined by the likes of Mark Schwarzer in goal, Lucas Neill and Tony Popovic in defence, Tim Cahill and Jason Culina in midfield and Archie Thompson and John Aloisi in attack.

By then Australia’s hometown talent were mostly playing in numerous European leagues, most commonly England of course, and many could justifiably claim to be household names. Australia were challenging teams in the Confederations Cup and continued to breeze through the OFC but another of Warren’s long-term ambitions, to get out of that confederation and into the much more competitive AFC, had already come to fruition, with the 2006 campaign the last in the OFC.

2006 qualification came down to another play-off, again against Uruguay. Australia overturned a 1-0 defeat in Montevideo to take the second leg to penalties. John Aloisi scored the critical kick, and Sydney went mad. Listen to the emotional commentary of that moment, and it will be a hard heart indeed that is not struck to its core by what is said, and what is unsaid: “At last…at long, long last”.

Many countries in Australia’s position would have rested on their laurels and considered qualification a triumph in itself, but Australia’s drama-filled time in Germany is an epic that deserves consideration. Hiddink targetted progression to the knock-outs, a tall enough order in a group that contained defending champions Brazil, a decent Croatian outfit and arguably Asia’s strongest side in Japan. But Australia tore up the form book quick. 1-0 down on 84 minutes to Japan in their opener, they ended up winning 3-1, in what has been dubbed the “Miracle of Kaiserslautern”. Two of their goals came from Tim Cahill, then with Everton, rapidly establishing himself as his nation’s major star.

A predictable defeat to Brazil followed, before an extraordinary final group game against Croatia. The match is most famous for being the last international reffed by English man in black Graham Poll, who inexplicably gave Croatian defender Josif Simunic two yellows, forgot to send him off, then gave him a third yellow and a red after the game was over. The comical nature of this event has overshadowed what was bad tempered affair where Croatia’s Dario Simic and Australia’s Brett Emerson were also given their marching orders. In terms of actual football, Australia came from behind twice to secure the required draw, Harry Kewell with the final strike 11 minutes from time. Croatia, and Graham Poll, went home. Australia, so often the running joke of international football, were now one of the last 16 on the grandest stage.

Their Second Round tie, against Italy, was a drama all of its own. For 95 minutes, Australia more than put it up to one of world football’s dominant powers. Despite missing an injured Kewell, the Soccoroos bossed much of the game, aided by referee Luis Cantalejo’s decision to send off Marco Materazzi for a clumsy, yet not terribly red-worthy, tackle in the 51st minute. With extra time looming – Hiddink even kept back two subs in expectations of an additional 30 – Fabio Grossi burst into the Australian area, going down after contact from Lucas Neill.

The decision to award a penalty is not quite the robbery some Australian fans have deemed it since – Grossi had beaten Neill before his left leg was caught by the defender’s body, and Neill can be seen to lean back on the turf a little to impede the Italian – but was a sore point that is talked about to this day. Francesco Totti converted the kick, the ref blew full time shortly afterwards and the Aussies were headed home. At the time Italy, a team who played the most players at the World Cup owing to injury and suspension – and were still recovering from the “Calciopoli” scandal of that summer – were not fancied as genuine challengers, but of course ended up winning their fourth title that summer. Australia could only look at their route to that triumph – a handy quarter-final against a limited Ukraine, an extra-time coup de grace to an as-yet not fully formed Germany in the semi, and then penalties against a French team that also had its own issues – and wonder about what might have been.

Undoubtedly however, Australia’s exploits in Germany in 2006 captured the public imagination back home in a way that the football team had never been able to before. The genie was out of the bottle then. One glimpse at success in a tournament setting, and Warren’s clarion call could be boomed with gusto by every Australian player and fan.

But if Australian football has become more supported and respected by the population down under since 2006, it is also fair to say that things have become a bit more routine. Accession to the AFC, as Warren hoped, has helped Australia enormously, and they have qualified like clockwork for the Finals at every edition played since. Better competition has improved standards, to the extent that the necessity to beat Syria and Honduras in play-offs to get to Russia last year could already be considered an aberration, and an unwelcome reminder of things long past.

Such stability is nothing to sniff at, but less welcome is the similarly straightforward manner of Australia’s tournaments in 2010, 2014 and 2018. Winning one game in nine is a poor return, reflective of a general inferiority of AFC teams at the top table, an over-reliance on the aging “golden generation”, some manager drama, a dearth of really stand-out striking options to pair with or replace Tim Cahill and, perhaps, a diminishing of desire as a place in the final 32 becomes routine. A low ebb for Australia in this time was 2013-15, when they plummeted in FIFA rankings, winning just a single friendly in a 13 month period, though this was countered by their triumph in the 2015 AFC Cup, a tournament they hosted. Next year they will take an invitational spot in the Copa America, a sure sign of the increased stature in the game that Australia enjoys.

The 2022 campaign is already off to a dominant start. A team with leaders like Hertha Berlin’s Matthew Leckie in attack, Brighton’s Aaron Mooy in midfield and Matthew Ryan in goal is never likely to be troubled by the Second Round group stage: Kuwait and Nepal have already been dispatched with ease, the latter yesterday by a 5-0 scoreline, where Melbourne City’s Jamie McClaren, once of Hibernian, notched a hat-trick. Chinese Taipei and Jordan are unlikely to put up much in the way of opposition in matches to come.

Ups and downs, swings and roundabouts: World Cup qualification may be becoming a given, but at least Warren would be satisfied that things are rarely boring. His stated aim always went beyond World Cup qualification of course, and into the realms of being World Cup challengers. That is, as of yet, unobtainable, but by no means impossible, given enough time. “I told you so” may yet come to have a deeper meaning for Aussie fans who, once long-suffering, now enjoy a more comfortable existence.

21. Hands Across the 38th: North Korea/South Korea

(15/10/2019)

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Nearly 70 years on from the end of the war that divided their peninsula, the two Korea’s have taken some steps to promote better relations through sport.

One could not help but feel somewhat uneasy on the 17th July, when the draw for the AFC Second Round stage drew together the two nations on either side of the 38th parallel. The sharp intakes of breath from some of those in the room were sign enough of how, on paper, the inclusion of both the Republic of Korea and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea – better known to us as South and North Korea, respectively, terms I will use here – in Group H adds a potentially dicey political element to what are likely to be decisive home and away ties.

But, the thing is, the two Korea’s already have played each other since the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953. Plenty of times actually, a total of fifteen matches from their first meeting in 1978 all the way up to the regional EAFF Cup in 2017. Far from being the exercise in seething hatred that some western commentators might blithely assume they would be – an Irish spectator like myself might naturally think so from a sporting context, considering – the rivalry between the two teams has been remarkably low-key, even friendly, a marked contrast to the manner in which their opposing governments have often acted towards the other.

The first contest was in the 1978 Asian Games (a continental version of the Olympics essentially). By then the division of the Korean peninsula was twenty-five years old, and both sides had, of course, pursued separate football programs. Both claimed success: the North for their heroics at getting to the quarter-finals in 1966, beating Italy along the way, and the South for two AFC Cups and consistent presence at the business end of that competition. The little-noted or remembered final of the ’78 Asian Games saw the teams play out a 120-minute 0-0 draw. In the style of days that we will likely never return to, the gold medal was shared. Despite the seeming importance of the contest, and the story-book nature of its resolution, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any information about it. It was, perhaps, something both team would rather have forgotten.

The South won the next three contests between the two, in qualifiers for the 1980 AFC Cup, the 1990 World Cup and a little-remembered regional tournament, also in 1990. Later in the same year the two sides would meet twice more in friendlies arranged twelve days apart, which was also the first time they played in each other in their respective sides of the Korean peninsula. The matches were part of a Chinese-led effort to get the two nations talking, at least over cultural issues, that had almost led to a joint Korean side participating in the 1988 Asian Games in Beijing. The expectation and hope was that friendly matches on either side of the border could lead to a greater mutual understanding between the two. The sides shared the spoils, North Korea recording their only win in the rivalry in Pyongyang, 2-1, and South Korea 1-0 victors in Seoul.

A 1-1 draw in another regional tournament in 1992 was followed just over a year later by arguably the most important game between the two sides up to that date, the last match of the AFC’s qualification process for USA 1994. A six-team repechage format held in Qatar saw North Korea put out of contention quickly, eventually finishing last with a single win, but the South maintaining hopes of qualification going into the last round of games. Needing a big win against their northern neighbours while hoping Japan would slip-up elsewhere, the South scored a 3-0 victory, that turned out to be enough owing to goal difference, their eastern neighbours conceding an injury-time equaliser to Iraq. One would not dream of implying that the North Koreans played lightly, but given the nature of sporting fandom on the peninsula, where denizens of one axis are happy to support the other when it comes to it, it is not absurd to imagine that the North Korean team were happy to see one representative of either side of the 38th parallel succeed, especially if the team to lose out was the historical common enemy.

That match, a much-beloved South Korean sporting memory, would be the last time the two teams would play each other for over ten years. Northern dictator Kim Il-Sung would die in 1994, followed quickly by the devastating North Korean famine, that lasted until 1998 and may have killed up to a million people or more (the secluded nature of the country makes estimations tricky). It has been the penchant of the North Korean government to downplay the effects of the famine, but it coincided with a withdrawal from international play for the football team, who would not attempt qualification for a World Cup again until Germany 2006. In the meantime the South co-hosted a World Cup, stunning the international football community by finishing fourth in that tournament. 1966 must have seemed a long way off.

2005 was the next occasion when North and South met, first in a scoreless draw in an EAFF Cup match – the North would eventually outplace the South in that tournament, in another rare example of them one-upping their rivals – and then in an especially arranged friendly fixture in Seoul a short-time later. That match was the brainchild of the South Korean Unification Minister at the time, who thought the two country’s could temporarily come together to celebrate a common anniversary: the 60th year since liberation from Japan in 1945. When in doubt, come up with someone for you both to unite against, even for 90 minutes: South Korea strolled a 3-0 victory.

After a 1-1 draw in the 2008 EAFF Cup, the two sides ended up facing each other four times in the qualification for the 2010 World Cup, drawn together in both the Third and Fourth Round group stages. They swapped scoreless draws in the first instance, where North Korean obstinance on displaying South Korean flags or playing the South Korean anthem forced FIFA and the AFC to move their home game to Shanghai. The situation was replayed in the Fourth Round for a 1-1 draw in September 2008, before South Korea finally put their rivals away in Seoul, an 86th-minute goal from Kim Chi-woo – little known on this side of the world, save for a brief loan spell with Partisan Belgrade – giving them a 1-0 victory. The North Koreans were not impressed, their government claiming their team had been the victims of an orchestrated food poisoning, something South Korea, of course, strongly denied.

Regardless of whether food-based shenanigans had taken place, both sides qualified for South Africa,  the North out at the group stage after a 7-0 loss to a Ronaldo-inspired Portugal, the south in the Second Round to a Suarez-inspired Uruguay. North Korea’s record prompted wild stories of the players and coach being sent to labour in mines as punishment. This, as is typical of many of the weirder stories to allegedly come out of North Korea, had seemingly little basis in reality. Two more clashes in the EAFF Cup – a 0-0 draw in 2015, and a 1-0 South Korean win in 2017 – rounds off the encounters between the men’s sides.

It is only fair to mention that South Korea’s dominance in the men’s games is matched by North Korea’s dominance in the woman’s game, with the DPR having won eleven of their thirteen encounters since 1990. Why the men’s side of the equation has not been able to replicate such success is a question without a single obvious answer, but a likely one is their inability to grow and develop their football, through international club careers for their players, at the same rate as the South. That has changed a bit more recently: the once firmly shut-off country has opened enough to allow some players to flourish outside the dead-end of the North Korean league, with the likes of Jong Il-gwan playing in Switzerland or Pak Gwang-ryong in Austria. However they are still far behind the more wide-ranging South Korean side, that has recent Champions League runner-up Son Heung-min as a talisman, and boosts players plying their trade in Germany, England and France.

Last year the two countries were experiencing something akin to a detente, relatively speaking. Kim Jong-un talked some of the right talk at least, though military and nuclear tensions have never gone completely away; more recently the walls have, literal and metaphorical, crept back up. Talk of reunification remains severely aspirational, even if there are instances of joint-teams competing at the Asian Games, and grand pronouncements about applying to host the Olympics together in 2032. But when the two teams take to the field tomorrow they will be adding to that ever-so-slow coming together, with the match being the first competitive fixture between the two in Pyongyang, flags and anthems and all, even if it will not be televised, and even if it is unclear this morning if any spectators will be (permitted to be) present. Next June they will play the return fixture in Seoul.

While South Korea will obviously be the favourites – both Korea’s have won their two opening contests, but the South have scored ten goals in the process – the North will be hopeful of recording that second victory they will long have craved. In a stadium that is mostly know for its spectacular, albeit unnerving, propaganda displays from an indoctrinated citizenry, a bad reverse will not be well received. It is more likely the game will be a competitive event, and equally as likely that both Korea’s may make it into the next round. Regardless, the main focus of the game will hopefully be the manner in which sport can cut across boundaries and be a uniting experience, where the two Korea’s, starting across the 38th at each other for 66 years, can achieve a spectating unity for 90 minutes.

22. Sing It Out: Cambodia

 (16/15/2019) 

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Sometimes, one voice can seem louder than many.

Iran’s second qualifier of the AFC’s Second Round was noteworthy for a few reasons. Initially most news outlets only picked up on two: it being the first occasion where Iranian women were permitted to enter the Azadi Stadium to watch matches, selling out their 3’500 allocation, and, secondly, the final result. Iran humbled their opposition, Cambodia, by a scoreline of 14-0, with Karim Ansarifard, once of Nottingham Forest, scoring four times, Sardar Azmoun of Zenit nabbing a hat-trick and eight players rippling the net in total. It was the most lopsided scoreline in AFC qualifying in nearly twenty years.

But amid the baby steps of women’s rights in Iran and the example of the huge gulf evident between the AFC’s top table and its perennial also-rans, there was something else that also caught the eye of some of the world’s media and commentators. Not many Cambodians were in a position to make the trip, and the away section of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium was mostly empty. But there was a few fans there and one, standing all on his own in front of his nations flag, with only a drum for company, could be seen banging and singing for almost the entirety of the contest, even as the team that he came to support was largely humiliated by their opponents.

Football can be a sport that inspires a lot of cynicism nowadays, and plenty of negative headlines. The club game has never been more commercial. The international game has headed the same way. Racism is shutting down contests, hooliganism hasn’t gone away, and the traditional power centres of success at this level have not changed in some time. The largest governing bodies of the sport are routinely accused of various shades of corruption, and the very contest that these thoughts are leading to was more than likely awarded to the host nation on a fraudulent basis.

It is important, in such circumstances, to grasp a hold of the signs and stories that show football as an affair that can still inspire positivity and hope, excitement and fervour, even in the most difficult of circumstances. The sight of this Cambodia fan, who remains unidentified, is certainly one of those stories. It is a common human trait to sing out in the face of adversity and disaster, and this follows through in football, when those watching their teams go down to humiliating reversals will tune up the pipes.

Some will debate the reasonableness of this, insisting that such deflection only masks on-pitch problems, something my own country experienced due to the crowd reaction to a 4-0 defeat to Spain in Euro 2012. That day, four goals down and heading out, “The Fields Of Athenry” rung out lustily from the PGE Arena; the power of that moment was much commented upon at the time, mostly positively. But there were some, most famously Roy Keane, who denounced what occurred.

Such people miss the point. The singing of the Irish fans that night, and the drumming of this Cambodian fan against Iran, were not meant to excuse the team, or to demonstrate their own value. They are acts of communal self-healing, fighting back against the emotional trauma of seeing your home country humbled, and reminding yourself that the sporting expression of national determination in the form of a representative team, flying the flag, playing the anthem, is an achievement worth celebrating on its own.

Cambodia are not a very good footballing nation. Their national side has frequently been a victim of the country’s political instability, and did not compete in major international competitions for the better part of three decades owing to the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent war with Vietnam. Since their return to the scene in the mid-90’s they have predictably struggled, with sides usually made entirely out of players from the poor Cambodian league. For 2018 qualifying, they beat Macau over two legs in the First Round, then scored one goal and conceded 28 in the Second Round. A subsequent win over Afghanistan during qualifying for the 2019 AFC Cup has been hailed as the most significant result of Cambodia’s recent football history, a sure sign of the level we are talking about.

The current campaign has been much along the same lines as the last. A First Round win over Pakistan, 4-1 on aggregate, was followed by a creditable opening day draw with Hong Kong in the Second Round. Then the floodgates opened. The hammering from Iran has come in-between losses to Bahrain and Iraq, and Cambodia are already floundering after four matches. The game against Iran was characterised by amateurish defending and impotence elsewhere, showing that Cambodia’s footballers really do not have the ability to be competitive with Asia’s top tier.

Against Iraq last night, all four goals indicated a frailty: the first, a practically goal-line header from an unmarked Ibrahim Bayesh; the second, another header, where the Cambodian defender in proximity to the scorer failed to jump for the ball; the third, a distant strike that flew past a motionless goalie; and the fourth, yet another header, from a corner, somehow steered past the goalie and three defenders. The intervening periods were marked by constant Iraqi pressure, who will surely deem the game a missed opportunity to run up their GD, vital in a system where not every second place team will reach the Third Round. Cambodia were left clinging to their few half-chances – a deflected effort that Iraqi keeper Mohammed Hameed managed to tip onto the post being the closest they came – as proof that they belong where they have landed, but it is not exactly very convincing.

And yet, there is still that one cheering, singing drum-beating fan, who may have traveled as far as 6’000 km’s to watch his team getting annihilated in the manner they did. That kind of support offers more legitimacy for Cambodia’s involvement than their actual play on the field: a sign that the team carries with it some belief from its supporters, a commitment that goes beyond the scorelines and the play. World football needs more of that, not less: perhaps someday, Cambodia’s players will be worthy of such support in their actions on the field. Not today, and not this campaign. Until the moment comes, Cambodia’s fans can comfort themselves by singing it out.

23. The Second System: Hong Kong

(14/11/2019)

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The political situation in Hong Kong remains fraught, and football is not immune to the effects of the recent protest movement.

It is the 10th of September, and the city-state of Hong Kong is hosting Iran in their first home match of World Cup qualifying, a few days after a 1-1 draw with Cambodia. 14’000 raucous fans are inside the simply named Hong Kong Stadium to watch their team, “the Strength”. Before the game begins, the usual formalities are observed. The players line up, Iran’s national anthem is played without incident. And then it’s Hong Kong’s turn. The “Special Administrative Region” uses the same anthem as the People’s Republic of China, the “March of the Volunteers”. It receives thunderous boos from the home crowd, many of whom turn their backs to the field. On the pitch, Hong Kong go on to lose 2-0 with goals either side of the break, the first a sweet volley from Sardar Azmoun, the second a close-range shot powered into the net by Karim Ansarifard.

Hong Kong is a city and a “SAR” in crisis. Long-standing pro-democracy protests and demonstrations erupted into a more rancorous and noticeable movement in March owing to the attempted passing of a law that would have made extradition to the Chinese mainland legal. Since then, the city has rarely been out of news headlines, as protesters mass in the streets, the legislature gets taken over and airports are shut down. A popular movement of a scope comparable only to events like the Arab Spring, it has called into question every aspect of the so-called “one country, two systems” arrangement that has been at the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s existence since it became a semi-autonomous part of the People’s Republic in 1997. That “Second System”, wherein Hong Kong has continued to enjoy privileges and freedoms that the rest of China does not, has never been more under threat. The city’s sporting life is no exception.

The Hong Kong football team has never been a major player in footballing circles. Relative glory years back in the 1950’s, when they hosted and were competitive in Asian Cups (the nascent 4-team variety), are practically ancient history. The real stand-out moment of Hong Kong’s footballing past have, predictably, revolved around matches against China, such as a 2-1 win in 1985 that denied China progression in qualifying for Mexico 1986, and twin 0-0’s draws in the more recent qualifying for Russia 2018. The latter shows the general level Hong Kong is at: competitive, but very much stuck in the lower-mid tier of Asian footballing nations. Those draws against China were as good as it would get for Hong Kong in that campaign, as they failed to progress to the final group stage.

Par for the course: Hong Kong, a team whose players come almost exclusively from the limited local league, have never qualified for a World Cup, and do not appear likely to ever do so. That league has only been fully professional for around six or so years, part of a reform drive – “Project Phoenix” – meant to drag Hong Kong football out of the doldrums. That drive has also included a surge of government investment in facilities, the hiring of new senior staff for the FA (which includes Finn Mixu Paatelainen, once of numerous Scottish and English clubs, as the head coach), most of whom are sourced from outside the city and China, and an emphasis on youth development and coaching. However while Phoenix may have improved the standard of club football in the SAR, its success internationally is decidedly more mixed: excepting regional tournament contests against other minnows, Hong Kong haven’t won a game in two years.

And yet that lack of success is essentially meaningless in the larger context of the pro-democracy movement. As discussed previously when I wrote about Lesotho, international football teams are more than just eleven people kicking a ball around a field. They are a symbolic representation of the nation whose flag they stand before ahead of matches. It is only natural that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement would gravitate to such a symbol, an example of Hong Kong being represented as equal with other nations, SAR status or no. It is no surprise nor coincidence that attendances at Hong Kong games are up in the last few years, and peaking this year: people of the city want to show their support for an unadulterated example of Hong Kong as an entity of its own, and such occasions provide a great facility for demonstrators to meet and try to encourage others to follow their lead.

During that Iranian game, those of the crowd choose to exercise their still existent right to protest, and in the same moment to make clear their own pride in being Hong Kongers. It is not a new phenomenon. The home game against China in 2017 saw the “March Of The Volunteers” heavily booed by crowds that, even then, were experiencing the simmering resentment that this year boiled over into white-hot rage. The Hong Kong football association was fined by FIFA for the disrespect shown to an opposing team’s anthem, but the supporters cared little for such relative slaps on the wrist. Nowadays they prefer to sing “Glory be to thee, Hong Kong”, a tune composed online by pro-democracy activists that many have adopted as a protest anthem this year. And one cannot forget the shadow hanging over such protesters: before things went to hell with the Hong Kong legislature, a law was going through the system that would have made disrespecting the anthem a criminal offence, punishable by jail time.

However things will turn out in Hong Kong, it seems likely that the football team will continue to be a focal point for demonstrations of  sovereignty and rejection of China’s hegemony. Today, Hong Kong play Bahrain. The result will probably not mean much, with the home team having taken just one point from nine so far, and staring down the barrel of early elimination again. Undoubtedly those attending will boo the anthem, turn their backs and hold up five fingers, the popular representation of the pro-democracy movement’s demands. Another fine from FIFA is predictable: less so is the reaction of mainland China. The day may well be coming when the Hong Kong football team no longer exists. But until then, the Strength on the field must be matched by the strength in the stands, and in the streets.

24. The One Country: China PR

(15/11/2019) 

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Football is increasingly big business in the People’s Republic of China, whose construction projects are a match for their big ambitions.

Whereas Hong Kong must be considered a sporting, and political, minnow, its neighbour to the north, the “one country” of the “two systems” is really anything but. The People’s Republic of China is one of only a few true global superpowers, whose reach and influence in pretty much all aspects of our lives is undeniable. And yet, for all this power, for all their population, for all their pretensions at being a leading light on the international stage, China PR has never been able to produce a national football team to match their ambitions.

China PR has made only one appearance at a World Cup Finals, in 2002, when they lost to Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica, scoring no goals in the process, and shipping nine. They have never won an Asian Cup, being runners-up twice, once when they hosted. They have never won medals at the Olympics or the Asian Games, and their FIFA ranking, while fluctuating, has steadily dropped since such records began. Only in regional tournaments have the Chinese found any kind of success, and that is far below where the leaders of the People’s Republic want them to be.

Because they have pretensions not just of being a regional footballing power, not just of consistent qualification for the World Cup, not just of hosting (a 2034 bid is inevitable, if not before) but of being World Cup winners. Leader Xi Jinping has even set a deadline for the feat to be achieved: 2050, eight tournaments from now. But how does China get to that point?

The first way is through state investment: billions upon billions of it. Xi’s government has been putting football facilities in every school, making copious amounts of funding available for underage teams and has made sure to tax to the hilt the foreigners signed to play for Chinese clubs. The People’s Republic will never be short of money, or at least certain parts of it never will be, and Chinese football will, as a result, never find itself short of a few bob. Money does not automatically result in success, but it helps. The self-evident fact that the Chinese administration has its hands all over the football association – the CFA – is something FIFA seems happy to ignore.

And then there are the efforts to make a China a place worth talking about when it comes to club football. China has only had a professional league since 1994, and that was plagued by bad management, corruption, and match-fixing. Clubs came and went in rapid succession, before the establishment of the Chinese Super League, that has managed to create a high-profile system that has become one of the more dominant in Asia, helped by the sometimes mind-boggling bank rolling powers of the companies that own the clubs. The “CSL” undoubtedly has the highest profile internationally of any Asian league.

“Foreign” players are limited by quotas, but the amount of money being tossed around has allowed for some high profile signings like Fernandinho, Eder and Javier Mascherano, matched by managerial appointments, with the likes of Marcelo Lippi and Luiz Scolari leading teams to league titles. The influence of foreign players and foreign managers has introduced the still majority Chinese players to new, updated systems of football, which invariably has a positive knock-on effect on the national side. But there are other reasons to look at those foreign signings in that context.

A nation with the population that China has should probably not have any problems finding players, but that hasn’t stopped the CFA from looking abroad to see if they can take advantage of FIFA’s grandparent and naturalisation rules. Take the case of Jiang Guangtai, better known up to now by his birth name of Tyias Browning. Liverpool born, Browning came through the Everton underage structure to play a few games for the senior side, along with loan spells at Wigan, Preston, and Sunderland. In that time he also played at several underage levels for England. Injury marred his efforts to stake a more permanent place at Everton and, in February of this year, he signed for CSL side Guangzhou Evergrande, and just a couple of months ago was granted Chinese citizenship.

There’s nothing untoward about that either, as Browning – or rather, Guangtai – has a Chinese grandfather. But his past with English national sides and sudden granting of Chinsese citizenship has been enough to raise some eyebrows when it comes to the possibility of him slotting into the national side of his adopted homeland, something that may not yet happen for a while: legal discussions remain ongoing at time of writing.

Browning/Guangtai’s situation is just one aspect of China’s efforts to manufacture a successful national side by looking outside of its borders. China’s central defence has recently been bolstered by the debut of Li Ke, aka Nico Yennaris, once of Arsenal and Brentford, and the English underage set-up. Ke has a Chinese mother, and also recently signed for a CSL side. Both he and Guangtai at least have a biological connection to the People’s Republic, but that is less clear in other cases.

Take Ai Kesen, better known as Elkeson. The Brazilian-born forward has played in the CSL for nearly seven years now and, having avoided any playing time for the country of his birth – he got on the subs bench, once – he now qualifies for the Chinese team through FIFA’s “Five Years” rule. Elkeson has made an immediate impact, scoring three times in his first two games, but being the first man to play for China with no blood connection to the country has raised some uncomfortable questions, even if the man has done all he can to present himself as a proud Chinese player. Another Brazilian, Ricardo Goulart, is awaiting clearance to play for China, having established himself as one of the CSL’s most valuable players in his five years there.

There are many other foreigners currently plying their trade in the CSL teams, that have drawn presumptions that China may be seeking to have them ready for Qatar and beyond. The importation of such players – one man’s diaspora patriot to another man’s mercenary – has a divisive effect on the fanbase, such as it had in previously mentioned Timor Leste. The average Chinese fan may have more appreciation for a true homegrown talent like Wu Lei and Yang Xui, scorers of most of China’s goals in the current campaign, than a player like Elkeson. The CFA have copped that too: Al Jazerra are one international media entity that claim they have been unable to get interviews with such players as the CFA won’t allow it.

That’s just one facet of the tricky problem that is the Chinese men’s national team, that simply can’t seem to get going. Managerial difficulties have badly effected the side at times over the past twelve months, with Italian supremo Marcello Lippi having two stints with China in 2019 alone, quitting after their exit in the Asian Cup, but brought back in when his replacement, Fabio Cannavaro, lasted only two games. Lippi’s gargantuan wage packet is more evidence of Chinese football’s largess, but throwing money at the problem seemingly isn’t enough.

Chinese players continue to struggle to get club careers going in Europe or elsewhere: only Wu Lei in the most recent national squad plays abroad, for Espanyol. The CFA may see such uniformity as a requirement of a self-sufficient system meant to make China seem like a country that requires no outside assistance, but in truth it is more a reflection on the average Chinese professional. The league and individual players continue to be the subject of unpalatable rumours, related to gambling and corruption, perhaps inevitable in a system where so much money is being thrown around.

There is also the difficulty of instituting a common policy and common goals across a country of such immense size. China has 100 cities that contain a million or more inhabitants, all with their own unique cultures and idiosyncrasies. Not everyone is going to be onboard with every facet of the footballing plan, and not everyone is going to have the patience to stick with a sporting system that exhibits little in the way of short or medium term success, not in a country where a new skyscraper seems to go up every other day. The women’s team are consistently competitive at the top level, and China dominates plenty of sports elsewhere: why the men can’t get it right is a source of frustration and, eventually, apathy.

The road to Qatar has been a little bumpy. Having missed out on an intercontinental play-off spot by a point in the qualification for Russia 2018, China have stuttered in the current campaign, with a disappointing 0-0 draw away to the Philippines coming after predictable tonkings of island opposition the Maldives and Guam. Last night came the real test of where China is, in the form of the away tie with second seeds Syria, held in Dubai, and the Chinese came up short. A powerful header from Osama Omari gave the nominal home team the lead before a cool close range finish from Wu Lei left honours even at half-time, but the Chinese couldn’t build on that leveller. The winner came 15 minutes from time, a result of a disastrous miscommunication between defender Zhang Linpeng and goalie Yan Junling, which saw Zhang unnecessarily go for a Syrian cross that was only going into Yan’s arms; Zhang miskicked, and the ball ended up in the net.

The result leaves China PR second in their group, five points behind Syria, with four games to play. They are also without a manager, with Lippi resigning today amid CFA statements that squad reshuffling and “reflection” will now take place. Qatar’s success elsewhere, they being ineligible to actually go to the next round, will have the knock-on effect of meaning five of the eight second placed teams will progress, and it seems likely that China will have to rely on that method of advancing. Things are tight in those specific standings, with just three points between top (Oman) and bottom (Uzbekistan): China lie 5th, and won’t play again until March.

They have much to do if they are to really be considered contenders for a spot in the Finals. Players must strive to get more opportunities in foreign leagues, managerial dramas must be concluded and patience must be embraced. Despite the billions invested, the leagues organised and the grandchildren groomed, the position of the People’s Republic remains a reminder that footballing success can remain elusive, even with obvious advantages.

25. The Team Of Hope: Iraq

(19/11/2019)

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Perhaps no other team in international football history has had such varied ups and downs as Iraq.

The Iraqi football team are off to a confident start in their campaign to reach only their second World Cup Finals. Ten points from twelve see them top of Group C, a status solidified by Friday’s win against their fiercest rivals, Iran. A 92nd minute winner from Alaa Abbas gave the nominal home team – the game was played in Jordan, for obvious reasons – a famous victory. Today they face Group C’s second placed side Bahrain, and a result there will let them place one foot firmly in the Third Round.

Iraq are a team whose history is worthy of a TV mini series, such have been the ups, the downs, the triumphs and the tragedies. Ever and anon they have managed to scale a height, and ever and anon they have been pulled back to the Earth with a crash. It is impossible for a team hailing from this portion of the world to not be affected by the events that have routinely shattered what little peace there is to be had: the successes and failures of Iraqi football go hand in hand with the successes and failures of the nation. They have been called, at times, “the team without hope”, but so often they have striven, and sometimes achieved, to be the exact opposite, to be the inspiration amid the dark. Three spotlights will suffice to make the point.

The golden era of Iraqi football is commonly traced back to the 1980’s when the national team prospered. They won gold medals at the Asian Games, and swept up a number of regional competitions. Their only appearance at a World Cup, in Mexico 1986, occurred in this period, and while the memory may not be entirely pleasant – Iraq lost all three of their games, to Paraguay, Belgium and the hosts – it was still a worthy achievement for a part of the world that largely continues to have an insignificant record at that level. With talismanic goalscorers like Hussein Saeed and Ahmed Radhi, and famous captain Adnan Dirjal, the Iraqi’s were a match for most teams.

But all the while the real world was having its effect. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship made Iraq a repressed and often rogue nation, and while the footballers were enjoying their 80’s boom, their home country was caught in a seemingly endless war with neighbours Iran, that only ended in 1988. Iraq’s pariah status contributed to their withdrawal from participation in the Asian Cup in this period, and then came the darkness of the 1990’s, which perhaps has helped make the decade previous shine all the brighter. This was when Saddam’s malicious son Uday was put in charge of the football association, and commenced a regime where players were terrorised and tortured if they under-performed. His sadism has been well-documented, alongside his self-aggrandising efforts to insure his own club team dominated Iraqi football. The results on the pitch got worse and worse, with Iraq failing to seriously compete for World Cup places. This culminated in perhaps their lowest ebb, twin defeats to lowly Kazakhstan in 1997 and a First Round exit from France 98 qualifying.

Fast forward ten years. Iraq changed from a brutal, but at least somewhat stable, tyranny, into an anarchy of civil war and insurgency. The American-led invasion toppled Saddam and killed his hated sons, but left the country in a wreck: with the post-war planning so ineffective, when it wasn’t plain non-existent, chaos was the inevitable result. Guerrilla attacks and bombings occurred every day, sectarian killing between Sunni, Shiite and Kurd was rife, and while the American troop surge temporarily had some positive effects, it was not enough to quell the violence. The football team sometimes trained while air strikes occurred nearby. How then was the Iraqi football team able to not only survive, but reach their greatest height?

Perhaps it was the chance confluence of exceptional talents playing together, like midfield captain Younis Mahmoud or winger Hawar Mohammed. Perhaps it was the right place/right time hiring of Portuguese/Brazilian Jorvan Vieira to coach the side just two months ahead of the 2007 Asian Cup. And maybe the miserable state of affairs in Iraq proved a warped form of inspiration, the ultimate example of football as an escape, for the players and for the people following them at home.

That 2007 campaign was something else. More than one player thought the team just there to make up the numbers, despite an impressive qualifying campaign. Their first match, a draw against minnows Thailand – there only by being a co-host – certainly backed that sentiment up. But then came the minor miracle, a blistering 3-1 defeat of pre-tournament favourites Australia, and suddenly people at home and abroad were taking notice.

A rare symbol of national unity, the football team drew support from all sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide, something that Coach Vieira did what he could to encourage, which included an unorthodox banning of pre-match prayer sessions, a practise many Middle-Eastern football teams undertake. This kind of secularism paid dividends in terms of squad unity, with the individuals already sharing the common grief of a destroyed country and untold lost relatives. The team’s physiotherapist was killed by a car bomb shortly before the tournament, and the threat of insurgent attack or kidnap was never-ending. And yet there was a desire to give the people back home something to smile about, and something to hope for.

After the Australian win, momentum was with them. A scoreless draw with Oman secured top spot in the group, and Maomoud got a double to beat Vietnam 2-0 in the quarter-finals. The semi-final brought Asian giant South Korea and a gruelling 120 minute contest, ending in a penalty shoot-out. Goalkeeper Noor Sabri was the hero, saving one and seeing another hit the post, as Iraq progressed to the final in Jakarta.

The crowds massing around TV’s back home cheered and fired guns in the air, before the pendulum between triumph and tragedy swung back again: two car bombs exploded in the capital, ripping through the assembled fans, killing 50 and wounding hundreds. The perpetrators have never been firmly identified.

From the heights of ecstasy to the pits of despair: as hundreds of families back home mourned, the team in the south-east of Asia considered what to do next. Some, grieving and emotionally spent, saw little point in continuing. Others, thinking more practically, wondered if playing in the final would only give other suicide bombers more targets.

In the end, the influence of a bereaved mother in Baghdad may have proved the difference, as Umm Haidar, who lost her 12-year-old son, appeared on television to publically encourage the team to play, and win, in honour of the dead. It was “a fire inside us” as one player said. Play they did, and win they did. Captain Maumoud got the only goal, a header from a corner after the Saudi Arabian keeper flapped carelessly at the incoming ball. Iraq, battered, bruised but still standing, became Asian champions, an achievement that can be reasonably compared to any of the more unlikely stories in the sport’s history.

The joy of that moment, was, as they always are, frustratingly fleeting. Fast forward 12 years, and the Iraqi football team is again dancing on the pendulum between hope and despair, between being an example and between being a target. The nation of Iraq may have moved past American occupation, but it would churlish to describe it as stable, it still a hotbed of limited government authority in some places, and overreach in others. The rapid rise and equally rapid fall of ISIS affiliated militias has shown that chaos is never too far away and more recently anti-government protests have gripped the capital and much of the south: the football team continues, by FIFA edict, to play their homes games outside of Iraq, after an all-too-brief period when it was reversed.

The qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022 – the World Cup remains the Holy Grail, that the 2007 generation wasn’t able to achieve – has gone well up to this point, including that injury time win over Iran. More cheering crowds greeted that result, but for more than just the fact that it leaves Iraq top of Group C. Tehran is commonly seen as being a major bolstering force for the Baghdad government, or serial interferers if you prefer a more incendiary description. The anti-government protests are part and parcel with an anti-Iranian sentiment. The crowds that gathered to watch the game, at least in part, were basically carrying out more protests, and many expressed hope that the win would only encourage more protesters, a reminder that if Iraq can best Iran in the sporting sphere, they can do the same politically. In the 25th minute, in reference to the October 25th start date of the movement, people watching the match chanted “We want a country”.

This is serious stuff: as many as 320 protesters in the current movement have been killed, and the crackdown otherwise bears more than a passing similarity to the days of Saddam. Stability and prosperity remain distant dreams for many Iraqis, but at least the footballing team can remain a symbol of unity and anti-sectarianism. Iraq will still have to play Iran away – another match sure to be a focal point for protests – but progress to the final stage of qualifying is likely. The next task is Bahrain, the game to be played in the designated home stadium in Amman, Jordan. Could World Cup qualification provide balm to the Iraqi people in an otherwise fraught and miserable situation? It is for the team of hope to find the answer.

26. The Journeymen: Chinese Taipei

 (20/11/2019) 

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For managers like Louis Lancaster, nations like Chinese Taipei are frequently just one stop on a long and varied careers.

Note: “Chinese Taipei” is the FIFA designation for the football team that represents the country that officially identifies as the “Republic of China” and is more commonly known as “Taiwan”. I will maintain use of the FIFA mandated term, but I do not so so out of any political opinion.

Louis Lancaster is having a tough time. From Barking, London, the 38 year-old was appointed manager of the Chinese Taipei football team in January, having previously served as an assistant for the island nation. Under Lancaster, Taipei faced into the Second Round of AFC qualifying with hope of building on some encouraging results since his initial involvement with the side began in 2017. Instead, following last night’s 5-0 thumping at the hands of Jordan, Chinese Taipei have become one of the first sides to be mathematically eliminated from contention for World Cup qualification at this stage.

Taipei has never had the best luck in national football. Its FA claims to be the original Chinese Football Association, forced to abandon the mainland with the conclusion of the Civil War in 1949. But the political status of the island, and the dispute over that status which is always being waged with the People’s Republic of China, has left Taipei in a precarious position at times when it comes to the beautiful game. Its greatest success, a third place finish at the 1960 AFC Cup, was accomplished with a team of players from Hong Kong and, for a period in the 70’s and 80’s, the dispute with the PRC meant Taipei was left in the doldrums of the Oceanic Football Confederation.

American and Japanese influence on the island means that the biggest sports are baseball and basketball: football is vibrant enough at an amateur level, but has never been able to establish a firm foothold beyond the semi-professional. Only a handful of nations are ranked below Taipei in terms of the AFC leagues. Its top tier contains only eight teams – the island has a population of 23 million – and is planning to contract to six next year. Suffice to say then that Taipei has little in the way of fallow ground to find players from at home, and the diaspora, up to recent times, didn’t provide much either.

Enter Gary White. Like many east-Asian nations and clubs, Taipei have often turned to journeyman managers. That term can be a bit loaded, but it is a fair one: places like Africa, the Caribbean, Oceania and south-east Asia are full of coaches from Western Europe or South America with little in the way of tangible success in their background, but who carry the undeniable appeal of hailing from footballing heartlands. Surely, the thinking goes, that must count for something? That, and they often tend to work for cheap. The combination can be intoxicating, and plenty of lower league clubs and lower-ranked countries will take a risk on such men. After all, most of them have very little to lose.

Taipei have had men in charge from England, Japan, Korea and Brazil during their history, but none have made as much of an impression as White. After an unremarkable playing career for Southampton youth sides and lower tier Bognar in the late eighties and early nineties, and then a spell in Australia, the winger turned to management before he had hit 25, and has since amassed an impressive resume with little-regarded micro-nations and unknown clubs. He gave the British Virgin Islands their biggest rankings jump in history, did much the same with the Bahamas, and later coached Guam to the heady heights I previously discussed in Part One.

From there it was Shanghai Shenxin, a second tier outfit in China, where he worked with the aforementioned Lancaster, the two having initially met while studying for their coaching licenses. China was a long way aways from Southampton and London however, with expectations of success that go beyond what many are used to in Western Europe. Such environments can be brutal affairs for journeymen: both White and Lancaster were on contracts that allowed for them to be dismissed without compensation if they lost three games in a row, and the side they took over were second from bottom. They lost the first two games but recovered: the White/Lancaster pairing got Shenxin to mid-table before they were dumped, only four months after taking over.

Shenxin’s loss – they have since slipped into the Chinese third tier – was Taipei’s gain, with the White/Lancaster duo brought to the island in September 2017. Taipei were already in the middle of 2019 AFC Cup qualifying at that time, having just shipped five goals to group leaders Bahrain. Three weeks after arriving, White and Lancaster led Taipei to perhaps their most famous result, a 2-1 win over the same opposition, with both goals scored in injury time. Another win against Singapore meant they missed out on the finals by a single point. White didn’t stop there. Under his stewardship Taipei hosted and won a regional invitational tournament, managed to maintain an impressive home record and jumped up the FIFA rankings.

There was also a greater effort to try and attract the diaspora. It is estimated that there are nearly two million people who could claim descent from Taipei living outside of its borders, and a few of them have grown up in areas with much better opportunities to develop footballing skill. White and Lancaster’s task has been aided by more concerted attempts to cast the net and find them. They include midfielder Tim Chow, once of Wigan Athletic and Ross County, promising youngster Will Donkin, who came from the Chelsea academy and currently plays his club football in Norway, and Emilio Estevez Tsai, who plays in the nascent Canadian Premier League. Such diversity in backgrounds is a desperately needed requirement, as the majority of Taipei’s squad comes from their own league or that of the similarly underdeveloped Hong Kong.

Such success brings notice, and White left for Hong Kong after barely a year in charge at Taipei. Lancaster got the promotion, and has attempted to continue the good work, doing his best to foster a strong spirit of team unity and getting the side to play the kind of attractive football that will garner as much notice as possible. The target for such things is not just the inhabitants of Taipei, but any more members of the diaspora who may fancy making themselves available. Having risen high enough in the ranks to avoid the First Round of AFC qualifying, Taipei were looking forward to demonstrating how far they had come in a short time when the Second Round kicked off. But, as we all know, football is a cruel game.

It began as it went on, with a loss, but at least a loss that showed signs of improvement. 2-0 down at home to Jordan, Taipei managed to scramble a goal back from Wen Chih-hao to have some hope, but had to settle for a fighting defeat. Less good was the follow-up a few days later: playing at home, against a Nepalese side significantly below them in the rankings, Chinese Taipei should really have won, but instead collapsed meekly, losing 2-0. The three games since then have all been disasters, even if all Taipei could have hoped for is to be reasonably competitive: 7-1 at home to Australia, 9-0 away to Kuwait, and 5-0 away to Jordan.

That final result, in a sparsely attended contest, was a just one. Taipei rarely exerted any kind of control over the game, and were guilty of plenty of bad defending, allowing the hosts to score from simple through-balls, distant efforts that should have been handled, frantic goalmouth scrambles and set-pieces. It was the latest in a line of abject surrenders, that makes the heights of 2017 and ’18 seem very far away.

With three games to play, Taipei’s focus turns to achieving a better place for future rounds of AFC Cup qualifying, itself a practically impossible task. Any furtive dreams of World Cup qualification are dead and buried, and it can still get worse. In the aftermath of the Jordan match last night, Lancaster expressed pride in his players and made the not inconsiderable point that most of their opponents are full-time professionals, something Taipei can’t match. But international football little notes such things, and the clock may well be ticking on Lancaster’s reign.

That’s the life of the journeyman coach, a revolving door of lesser known nations and clubs, where any bit of relative success opens the door to somewhere else, almost as fast as any bit of relative failure opens the door to nowhere. Maybe Lancaster can turn things around with Chinese Taipei, and maybe he can’t. Like White, he may eventually have a colourful and geographically impressive resume, or maybe he will fade into true footballing obscurity. One suspects, either way, that in a few years Taipei will have had a few more journeymen in charge, but it is doubtful they will get them any further.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chile, China (People’s Republic),  Colombia, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea (Democratic People’s Republic), Korea (Republic), Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, United States Virgin Islands, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Teams Eliminated But With Games To Play

Chinese Taipei, Guam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka

Teams Eliminated

Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei Darussalem, Burundi, Chad, Comoros, Eritrea, Eswatini, Gambia, Laos, Lesotho, Macau, Mauritius, Pakistan, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Timor-Leste

Photo Credits

Paragons Or Puppets: Omar Al-Somah of the Syrian national team. Photo by Mohammed Al-Dimashqi, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

“I Told You So”: A view from the stands of the then Telstra Stadium during Australia’s qualifying play-off win over Uruguay in 2005. Photo by Adrian Furby, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Hands Across The 38th: View from the stands of a 2010 World Cup qualifier between North and South Korea, held in Seoul. Photo by Julie Facine, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Sing It Out: The single Cambodian fan, watching his team play Iran in Tehran. Copyright Sports New Media Limited.

The Second System: Protesters in Hong Kong in June 2019. Photo by Voice of America, in the public domain.

The One Country: Pudong, Shanghai SIPG’s new stadium, under construction. Photo by AFP.

The Team Of Hope: The Iraqi team pose ahead of a World Cup qualifier in 2011. Photo by Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Journeymen: Louis Lancaster, manager of the Chinese Taipei national side. Photo by Elliotbyrne96, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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5 Responses to 211 to 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (III) Dreaming In Asia

  1. 2020gotosan says:

    Hi! I found valuable football match video.
    Uzbekistan against Nigeria 1995.
    FK kicked by Qosimov is amazing!

    I wish Uzbekistan win the qualification of Qatar World cup!
    Good luck Uzbekistan team!

  2. Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (IV) Football In The Time Of COVID | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (V) Getting On With It | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (VI) March Madness | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (VII) The Marathon | Never Felt Better

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