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Few would ever have thought that it would be over a year after Chinese Taipei bowed out that another ball would be kicked in the qualifying for World Cup 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic hit football hard, bringing to a screeching halt the processes of the AFC, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, with knock-on effects to everyone else. It was a time of draws, re-formatting and waiting, but eventually football did return.
Part Four: Football In The Time Of COVID
27. Cinicenta: Venezuela
28. By The Year 2000: Senegal
29. Silence: COVID-19
30. 211: Anguilla
31. GOAT: Argentina
32. Reflection: Chile
33. Gol Da Alemanha: Brazil
34. Depredador: Peru
35. Statements: Ecuador/Uruguay
27. Cinicenta: Venezuela
Today, the “draw” for the CONMEBOL qualifiers was held, setting in motion the process for the third continent to join the race to Qatar. I used quote marks there because no groups are being decided, only the arrangement of fixtures: for the sixth tournament running, the ten nations of CONMEBOL will compete in a single division, with each side facing each of the others home and away. The top four are going to the World Cup, with the 5th place side heading to the intercontinental play-offs. The draw is a relaxed affair, taking only ten or so minutes, with Roque Santa Cruz on hand to do the necessaries.
There are the traditionally dominant sides – Argentina and Brazil, who have topped every edition of this one group format, as well as having seven World Cup’s between them – those who can be considered to be just as competitive if not quite as successful – Uruguay, Chile and more recently Peru – and the others who have gone through phases of obsolescence and contendership: Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay. Every one of those teams has been to the World Cup at one point or another. In CONMEBOL, there is only a single side who hasn’t, South America’s odd one out.
That nation is Venezuela. “La vinotinto” – so called because of the burgundy colour of their jerseys – have been trying for over 50 years at this point, since their first campaign for England 66. Because of this they have long been known by the alternative nickname of “Cenicenta”, the Cinderella waiting for the chance to go the ball. It’s a long time to wait, and a long time for their fans to experience the same heartbreak over and over again, while their rivals and neighbours have made it to the promised land repeatedly. And it has largely been a wait without hope: the first time the one group format was used, Venezuela went winless in 16 games, and have consistently been in the bottom three places since, with one exception. The Copa America has offered little comfort at the same time, with Venezuela exiting at the group stage on 12 straight occasions. But, this time, in this campaign, the moment might just finally come.
Just why Venezuela have had to suffer such a paucity of success is not all that hard to determine. In the footballing mad confines of South America, Venezuela stands out for being baseball mad, the sport having developed in the country on the backs of North American immigrants who came to work oil fields and oil rigs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At a time when the larger ball was taking hold across the continent, the smaller, harder one was capturing the imagination of the Venezuelan people, and so it has remained ever since. The Venezuelan Baseball League is the biggest competitive sports competition in the country, and hundreds of Venezuelans have played in North America’s Major League Baseball. Football has lagged behind, competing with basketball to be the country’s secondary sport. Less popular interest leads to less players, less investment and less success.
The efforts to finally round out the Cinderella story go back to the late nineties, in the still relatively nascent days of Hugo Chavez’s regime, so memorably characterised by his fiery anti-American rhetoric. It is here that the first of four critical figures were selected to lead the team into a new era, the directing forces seeking to drag Venezuela, kicking and screaming, into contendership for World Cup places. The appointment of Argentine coach José Pastoriza to manage the national side set the ball rolling, and though he stayed for less than two years, he helped to institute a more positive, outwardly attacking approach to the Venezuelan game, with an emphasis on technique, discipline and instilling a belief that the team could be competitive. His role was part football coach, part psychologist, as he went about eradicating the crippling self-doubt that infected Venezuelan football at the time.
Part of this was improving performances on the pitch, and part of it was demanding that the national team be treated as such, with better accommodation, direct chartered flights to away matches, and so on. That went for the players too, with Pastoriza laying into his charges whenever they acted in any manner that he felt besmirched their status, even if it was something as innocuous as throwing ketchup packets across the dinner table. Pastoriza left the side in 2000 and died only four years later – nearly every memory of him includes references to an intense smoking habit – but he is still regarded as the father of modern Venezuelan football.
His successor, Richard Paez, continued the work. He added to the greater attacking focus with an effort to blood in the Venezuelan youth sides that he had coached himself, with an additional emphasis on positive man management. In a period known as “Auge Vinotinto” – the “Burgundy Rise” – Venezuela went from being perennial also-rans to being a side worthy of consideration and respect by their opponents, winning more games than ever in World Cup Qualifying. The talent coming through or maturing at this time was noteworthy: free-kick specialist Jose Rey in defence, Miguel Vitali and Ricardo Paez (the coach’s son) in midfield and, most importantly, the classic #10 Juan Arango up-front, then with Mallorca in La Liga.
The baseball-obsessed Chavez had enough wherewithal to understand that the rise in fortunes of the national footballing side was something that he should be mindful of, and when the time came for Venezuela to host a Copa America, in 2007, it came with heaps of new investment in the sport, in the national league, and in its infrastructure, with improved stadia. In that tournament, the Paez-coached host nation broke the hoodoo and made it to the knock-outs, losing to a Diego Forlan-inspired Uruguay in the last eight. As an example of what the Venezuelan team – and the Venezuelan nation – could achieve, it proved pivotal in continuing the sudden burst of interest in football.
Paez’ reign would end shortly after, as he choose to pursue club management, later citing dissatisfaction with the Venezuelan footballing authority, the FVF. His successor was Cesar Farias, a successfull manager from the national league who continued Paez’ emphasis on youth sides, concurrently coaching the U-20 national team to the 2009 World Cup knock-outs. A rule that all Venezuelan club sides had to field a player under 20 years of age in every league game also helped. Farias preferred a more defensive-minded approach, with target-man Salomon Rondon, eventually of West Brom and Newcastle, as a focal point of direct tactics. Rondon’s height and nose for goal soon saw him rocketing up the charts, becoming the record-holder for his country barely ten years after his debut.
The upturn in results continued in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, where Venezuela finished just two points off progression, in a campaign where they put more long-running negative streaks to bed, with wins away in Ecuador and Bolivia, and points taken off of Brazil. That was prelude to the crowning moment of Venezuelan football history, a fourth placed finish in the 2011 Copa America that captivated the public back home, followed by another impressive, albeit failing, run at the World Cup for 2014.
The “failing” part is the main point: for all of the improvements at home, for all that the production line of players has excelled, Venezuela have still been unable to get over that hump, with Farias calling it quits after the 2014 campaign. Amid a deepening political crisis at home between supporters and detractors of the late Chavez, Venezuela regressed for the 2018 campaign, finishing bottom again after a disastrous start under the ill-fated Noel Sanvicente, dropped mid-qualifiers. This downturn coincided with legal issues in the FVF and a delegation of players demanding change at the high tables, with claim and counter-claims slung back and forth that threatened to undo all of the good work of the last decade, issues that have still not been entirely worked out.
The current coach is Rafael Dudamel, a former goalkeeper with 56 caps for his country. He managed to right the ship from Sanvincente’s reign bit-by-bit, with a focus on tactical flexibility, a mixture of the traditional short-passing game and the long ball aimed at the still vital Rondon. The hope is that Dudamel will be the final point on the road from 1998, the successor from Pastoriza who can finish the job started twenty years ago, a player who helped Venezuela on the pitch through this period of improvement, and may now be best placed to hit the hither-to unreached heights.
After back-to-back successes in getting to the knock-outs continentally he has managed to drag his team to their highest ever FIFA ranking and now he faces his, and Venezuela’s, biggest challenge. The generation of kids who watched the team in 2007 and 2011 has now come of age, and expectation is high. The current political situation in the country is one that provides a scream for unity in any way, shape or form, and the football team can be that outlet. After the draw held today, Colombia in Barranquila will be the first game of 2022 qualifying, as Venezuela attempt to get, at last, to the promised land. Or rather, the ball.
28. By The Year 2000: Senegal
Pele may be one of the greatest footballers in the history of the sport, but he was no clairvoyant. It’s almost a running joke that if you hear a prediction made by the man you should immediately expect the opposite to happen, like his claim that Brazil would crash out at the group stage in 2002, while tipping France to win that tournament.
But easily, Pele’s most infamous prediction revolved not around his country, or any country, but an entire continent. In 1977, Pele confidently predicted, for the first time but not for the last, that a side from Africa would win a World Cup by the year 2000. He was wrong, and that prediction, a punchline to a joke recycled every four years, has been an albatross around the neck of African football since it was made, drawing attention always to its failure to produce any teams that could genuinely be called contenders for the top international prize.
Africa’s World Cup success in the popular consciousness naturally revolves around the three teams that have reached the high water mark of the quarter finals. 1990’s charmingly entertaining Cameroon are a rare high point from one of the worst tournaments on record, 2002’s Senegal beat the holders on the way to an extra time exit to Turkey and 2010’s Ghana were a hairs breath from the semi’s before Luis Suarez’ hand got in the way. But that is is far as Africa has gotten.
When looking for contenders who could possibly reach that same high water mark and then go beyond, the eye is naturally drawn to the higher ranked sides of African international football as 2020 begins. The top seeds of today’s draw include some mainstays like Tunisia and Nigeria, some perennial under-achievers like Egypt and Cameroon, and some faces unfamiliar to World Cup aficionados, like Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But above them all, the top ranked team of the continent, and 20th in the world, is Senegal. If there is to be a break-out from Africa, it stands to reason it should be the “Lions of Teranga”.
Think Senegal and football, and like most your mind will more than likely wander to that incredible May day in Seoul, when they opened the 2002 World Cup by beating their former colonial occupiers, with the only goal scored by Papa Diop. Two draws in their other group games, including an extraordinary 3-3 result against Uruguay where they were 3-0 up at one point, got them to the knock-outs, where a golden goal for and against was the story of their run: for against Sweden, from the boot of Henri Camara, and against in the quarter-final, scored by Turkey’s Ilhan Mansiz. The World Cup run was not a bolt from the blue, if you were smart enough to be paying attention to that year’s AFCON, where Senegal finished runners-up to Cameroon (who subsequently went out at the group stage in South Korea/Japan).
Senegal were captained in that run by defensive midfielder Aliou Cisse, a legend in his own country. Growing up in Paris after moving from Senegal aged nine, Cisse dreamed of playing for PSG, achieving the feat after spells at Lille and Sedan. But it was not all it was cracked up to be, with his career with the Parisians amounting to only 43 appearances in four years before being sent out on loan for a season, seemingly surplus to requirements during an easily-forgotten lean spell for the club.
Still, he had achieved enough notoriety to be playing regularly for his country, and wear the armband in South Korea/Japan, and in the 2002 AFCON, where he missed the crucial penalty in the shoot-out that decided the tournament. After the World Cup he took his trade across the English Channel to the somewhat less flashy surrounds of Birmingham, where an injury-blighted spell was noticeable more for the amount of yellows and reds Cisse accumulated than anything else. He lost several members of his family, including a sister, in a Gambian ferry disaster shortly afterwards, keeping his teammates in ignorance until after a game with West Ham. Manager Steve Bruce called such an action courageous, but later fell out with Cisse over ill-discipline both on and off the field. He was sidelined until a transfer to Portsmouth, a deal later cited in the 2006 Stevens Report for dodgy agent activity. After another unexceptional run he returned to France, where his career petered out in 2009, with Cisse retiring aged only 33.
Four years later he moved into management with the Senegal under-23’s, moving up to the senior side in 2015. 17 years on from 2002, it is as clear a link with the glory days as you could like for a side looking for positive inspiration in their management. Cisse is distinctive as a manager, young for the level he has attained, and yet carrying an obvious imposing demonour that deflects any accusations of inexperience. It’s hard to miss the dreadlocked figure calmly watching on from the sidelines, except for those bursts of temper, that he has never fully shed.
Senegal have routinely been one of the better sides of African international football, but Cisse has done what he can to bring them into the modern age of the game, no doubt influenced by his time in France and England. His team take their cues from the attacking mindset of Guardiola and Klopp. In defence there is an emphasis on marking zonally and pressing the opposition as high up on the pitch as can be managed, while in attack players are encouraged to be flexible, inter-changing positions to bamboozle opposing defences and maximise opportunities.
Like the best managers though, Cisse’s work has not been confined to tactics on the pitch. He’s undoubtedly a strong personality, something often badly required with international teams on the African continent. This can sometimes be viewed as arrogance – in a recent interview he emphatically declared he was a better manager than his rivals in the running for CAF awards – but can more accurately be seen as the sort of winning confidence designed to seep down to the players under his command, to whom he must be part-boss, part-father figure. For those who aren’t willing to be led, or are ruthlessly judged to be surplus to requirements, the way is pointed quickly to the door: Demba Ba, once of Newcastle and Chelsea, is one noticeable example who, despite strong club performances, has been consistently ignored as a striking option by Cisse since 2015, possibly due to a less than engaging personality.
Of course, it helps when you have the talent on hand that Cisse does: unlike many of his neighbours, he has the luxury of selection headaches. Senegal’s system of privately run footballing academies has always been a standout on the continent. One, Generation Foot, has become so prominent that it fields a team in the Senegal Premier League. The result has been a constant production of quality footballers. They excel in European leagues, and this diaspora has driven their rise to their current rankings summit. Sadio Mane is the obvious stand-out, in superb club form and on course to surpass Henri Camara as his country’s top-scorer. But he’s just one link in a strong chain. Captain Kalidou Koulibaly heads the continents strongest defence that conceded just two goals in last year’s AFCON. The midfield boasts a range of defensive, attacking and box-to-box options like Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate. And in attack, it’s an embarrassment of riches: names like, Ndiang, Balde, Sarr and Konate means that Mane is never the sole option for goal getting.
The result has been what is nominally a brighter than normal period for Senegal, who have lost just eight times in 56 matches under Cisse, with most of those being friendlies. However, it is undeniable that it is those losses that have come to define Cisse’s tenure, three in particular. In 2017, the run at that year’s AFCON came a cropper in a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage, with Mane missing the critical kick: victors Cameroon went on to claim the tournament. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia Yerry Mina scored the only goal in the final group game for Colombia, as Senegal crashed out on the hard-to-accept tiebreaker of disciplinary points: Cisse had the good grace to claim no feeling of injustice at the result, but plenty felt it a poor way to determine a knock-out qualifier. And at last year’s AFCON, Senegal were undone twice by Algeria, once in the group stage, and again in the final, both by 1-0 scorelines. Thus, Cisse has the rare and regrettable distinction of being an AFCON runner-up as both a player and manager.
Such defeats inevitably led to Senegal being branded as nearly-men, consistently top quality but falling at the critical juncture. That reaching the AFCON final was an achievement in itself is largely forgotten. Instead, Cisse must turn his players to the task of World Cup qualifying, instituting as much of a psychological reset as possible. It is likely that he has another tilt at AFCON glory in 2021 more prominently in mind than what will probably be the routine of the CAF Second Round of Qatar 2022 qualifying: the last time this format was used, for Brazil 2014, only one of the ten top seeds failed to advance.
The draw is not difficult looking. The Republic of the Congo, Namibia and Togo await, with the journey starting in October after the decision to re-schedule the 2021 AFCON from summer to winter. If Cisse’s modern tactics hold, if the wealth of talent available to him performs, if all goes as expected, Senegal should make it through to the Third Round where they will undoubtedly be favourites to advance to Qatar. By then, Pele’s prediction will be 22 years overdue, and it would be a brave person who would think his prophecy would be fulfilled. Senegal would seem best placed to try though, and to finally remove the albatross from the neck of African football.
29. Silence: COVID-19
The stands are empty, the dressing rooms unoccupied, the pitches closed. The bars aren’t open, the fan-zones are deserted, the training grounds are silent. Such is the world of international football in the shadow of the virus. Today’s entry should be about the next round of games in the Second Round of AFC qualifying. Some day I will get the chance to write up that entry, but not right now. COVID-19 rules the day, and deserves some attention all of its own.
The postponement of these matches naturally evokes a hollow feeling. The effects of coronavirus, if lucky enough to not have been actually infected or have had a loved one infected, will only truly lodge themselves in the mind when they begin to impact on your time, your schedule, your hobbies. Until then, it will have been just another news story, one that carried with it an undeniable hint of unhelpful hysteria. Or at least, so you may say to yourself at these moments. I am probably not alone in only really grasping the severity of where things lay when sporting contests began to be postponed, including really giant ones like EURO 2020 and the Olympics.
I am fortunate enough to live on the edge of Europe, where becoming ill from this flu strain is far more manageable than it is in other parts of the world. In those circumstances the sight of toilet paper disappearing off of shelves and the dominant issue of political discourse being the possible cancellation of the Paddy’s Day Parade made the whole thing seem more like an irritating inconvenience. That was until the daily news of the death toll began to become grimly regular. The words I write below are not meant to be taken as a dismissal of these tragedies by focusing on something altogether mundane in comparison. I was initially planning to ignore COVID in this series altogether, as my own personal rebellion against its impact. But the monster in the room cannot be ignored. Instead of pondering on testing, and clubs’ financial woes and on player health, I thought I might go confederation by confederation, and limit my focus to how they could possibly deal with the virus’ impact from a structural perspective as we look to plan out the rest of the World Cup Qualifiers.
The AFC isn’t very far from finishing its Second Round of qualifying, with most teams having only three games left to play. It seems likely then that this Round will conclude, even if it requires empty stadiums and extensions into the matchdays currently reserved for the Third Round. It is the that final round where changes could potentially be made. Currently set to be the traditional two groups of six, with the top two in each qualifying and the two third place sides facing each other in a play-off to reach the intercontinental portion of affairs, it could be altered fairly easily into three groups of four teams. The group winners could qualify, the best runner-up could join them, and the other two runner’s-up could go into the play-off. This system would see six group games over the current model’s ten, so AFC could stick to its qualifying schedule without needing to organise completely new matchdays.
The CAF may yet get away with it entirely. Before COVID a restructure of their qualifying schedule to accommodate changes to the next AFCON pushed the first fixtures of the Second Round to October. That stage is already four team groups, so can’t conceivably be made much smaller. It leads into the Third Round play-offs, which also can’t get much smaller either. It is to be hoped then, that the CAF can maintain the current structure.
CONCACAF is in a more awkward position. It had announced a sea-change in the way it approached qualifiers, with the six topped ranked members as of this month going straight into a round-robin “Hex” with the top three qualifying, and everyone else competing in an elongated format of a group stage followed by two-legged knock-out ties, that sought to reduce 29 teams to one. That team would face 4th in the Hex for a shot at the intercontinental play-offs. With everything due to start in September, it is still possible that CONCACAF may proceed as they stated, but there has already been noise from the confederation higher-ups about changes, if postponements become inevitable or if holding games behind closed doors is unfeasible. A possible suggestion is for the Hex to transform into three groups of four, from the top 12 ranked nations, for a round-robin format of six games instead of ten, with the group winners going to Qatar and the three runners-up going into a repechage with the winner of the lower-seeded competition. That decision is seemingly to be made imminently, and, if it goes ahead, will surely be to the liking of the confederation’s biggest players.
CONMEBOL is a tough one. Having to make-up two matchdays will be hard enough without adding any more to the pile, and there have already been musings that the Copa America currently scheduled for the summer of 2021 could be sacrificed, or at least reduced in some manner (perhaps to a straight knock-out) in order to free up the dates. The other option is to try and fit CONMEBOL’s ten nations into multiple groups. Two groups of five, like the AFC’s Second Round, would need just eight games per team instead of the current 18, with the top two in each group progressing and the third place sides playing off for the intercontinental’s. Or you could hit the nuclear option and go for four, three and three, an admittedly unappealing proposition. Few easy choices here for a confederation that has prided itself in the past for having one of the more competitive formats.
The OFC is in a bit of limbo. The format for its qualifying had not been announced when all of this started happening, though it was naturally expected to follow that of 2018: using the qualification for and Finals of the OFC Nation’s Cup as the the initial rounds of World Cup qualifying, before a final group stage (two groups of three) with the winners playing off for the intercontinental spot. The cancellation of the Nation’s Cup throws up an immediate headache. A truncation of the qualifying process is possible – the elimination of the final group stage in favour of the top-ranked sides of the second group stage just playing off seems logical – but the OFC has the rare benefit of having so few teams that time is not as pressing. A format to reduce the 11 nations of the Pacific to one could conceivably take place over a fairly short time-period.
Last is UEFA, which does not see their scheduled qualification starting until next Spring, so no games have been missed yet. Hell, the draw isn’t supposed to be made until November. But the problem UEFA has is the rescheduled EURO 2021, which will be taking up some of the dates originally set aside for 2022 qualifying. If UEFA is to stick to the plan, they will need to either invent new matchday dates, or somehow fit three games into slots meant for two. The groups could be increased in number and reduced in size for less games, but this would have implications for the traditional play-off structure, which was meant to include the 2020/21 Nations League. There is plenty of time for UEFA to figure it out at least, but the problem is merely far away, and not dealt with.
In essence, there are options for every confederation whereby things can proceed, should COVID necessitate changes to reduce the number of matchdays. It is to be hoped, among so many other things these days, that it doesn’t come to that point. The pitches, the stands, the training grounds remain silent, but they cannot remain so forever. The sport will return, at all of its levels. If there is one thing that fans should know by now, it is that defeat is always momentary, and COVID cannot defeat football.
30. 211: Anguilla
The final form chosen for CONCACAF’s qualifying might still seem a bit odd – a group stage for the bottom 30, play-off’s to reduce the best six of those to three, and then those three to join the top five in an eight-team, 14-game round robin – especially when you consider that it essentially leaves most teams with more games to play, contrary to the realities of the ever-tightening schedule. But what’s decided is decided and, bar more COVID-related stops, CONCACAF will finally get going on the road to Qatar in September.
The draw for that first round, to consist of six groups of five, took place today, paradoxically, in Zurich. Unlike the other draws so far in the process, there is no audience, just a few dignitaries and CONCACAF sporting stars to draw the balls and make the announcements. The mix of teams included aspiring giants in the far north, Central American nations dreaming of emulating their neighbours’ trips to the Finals, and Caribbean islands whose own journeys to the World Cup have been few and far between.
In that last group lies a football team that is, at time of writing, the holder of the unfortunate status of being rock bottom of the FIFA rankings, behind San Marino, two different types of Virgin Islands and Eritrea, the team that is 211th out of the 211 that will compete for a place in Qatar. You would think that World Cup qualification would be a goal so distant for such a place that they would struggle to muster the enthusiasm to field a team. But for Anguilla, their status as the current worst of the lot masks a recent upturn in fortunes.
It wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world if you had not ever heard of Anguilla, which, even by Caribbean standards, is little more than a speck in the sea. A British overseas territory, it consists of one larger island and a few smaller ones, with a population under 20’000. It’s one of the few places in the world whose inhabitants voted to remain a colonial outpost after being granted a degree of independence, and is known today mostly for its beaches, its export of alcohol-related products and little else besides.
In terms of sports, football takes a position only of relatively minor import. Various kinds of sailing constitute the real national pastime, followed by cricket, athletics and rugby union. Football lags behind: the local single-tier league consists of only nine teams as of the more recent edition, and the winners of that get access only to the Caribbean secondary continental competition. The national side has not been able to do much to change the perception that Anguillian football is little more than a footnote in the country’s sporting history. They have played only ten World Cup qualifiers in that history, consisting of five two-legged First Round ties from 2002 onwards. They’ve lost nine of those, drawn one and won none. In the process they have scored two goals, and conceded 41. They last won a game ten years ago, a 2-1 victory over near-neighbours St Martin in the Caribbean Cup. 21 defeats and one draw have followed, with four of those defeats being by ten goals or more. Last year they hit the bottom of the rankings, and have stayed there since.
How could anyone describe a team in such a position as coming into an upturn? There are a few reasons. Chief among them at the moment might be that while the rest of the world has seen their football schedules wrecked as a result of COVID, Anguilla has been able to avoid significant infection rates, with only three confirmed cases and no deaths in total. Lacking any reason not to, Anguillian club football has proceeded as per normal, with the Roaring Lions of capital city The Valley lifting their 8th league title to a capacity crowd in July. Arrangements for next season continue apace. In a part of the world filled with amateur island minnows, the ability to play competitive football when everyone else can’t is no small thing.
There are other signs of potential too. Despite the larger popularity of other sports, football has maintained a foothold in the country’s educational system, and Anguilla has been able to field underage sides in competitions somewhat consistently. FIFA grants – surely politically motivated, but no one is turning their nose up at the cash – are currently being invested in a national strategy of underage development, with the aim of getting Anguillian kids all playing in the same way, with the AFA seeking to foster an environment of aggressive, attacking and attractive football. Something that must be mentioned also is that the women’s team consistently punches above their weight, and are currently ranked 31st of 40 CONCACAF nations that field female teams.
There is also the possibilities in the Old World. Like many island minnows, those in charge of Anguillian national sides have often looked to FIFA nationality rules for respite. Being a long-standing British colony means that Anguilla has a diaspora in the United Kingdom that has been a key resource as of late: a third of the matchday squad for their last international came from English teams. Of course, they were teams on the 9th or 10th level of the English league pyramid, so one should not be expecting too much. These are not full-time footballing professionals, but semi-pros at best, who mix weekend football and evening training sessions with their actual full-time work: recent call-up Luke Paris, of the Hellenic League Division One East club Langley, is an IT specialist for a logistics company, who now has five international caps for the country of his grandmother’s birth. But they are still footballers that have come from a better system with better coaches and a better environment, and that can pay off when they head west to their ancestral homeland.
And then there is the CONCACAF Nation’s League. Inspired by the European equivalent, the Nation’s League has been a godsend for the smaller class of CONCACAF’s 41 nations, who get eight guaranteed competitive games out of the competition, split home and away. The course that the competition runs is a mite complicated, but Anguillian’s wouldn’t care too much: more games will inevitably mean a better team. The results were not spectacular, with a draw away to Barbados as good as it got. But that draw was enough to leave Anguilla second last instead of last in the qualifying group, while a 3-2 loss to Puerto Rico in the second phase showcased positive signs for the team also, as used as they are to being on the wrong side of lop-sided scorelines.
The new qualifying format for the World Cup also means that Anguilla will get four competitive games instead of two, and in a part of the world where countries can go literally years between competitive matches, that is no small thing. Those games will take place against Panama, the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Dominica. Anguilla are not in any way good enough to challenge for a progression spot, and will likely lose all four games by varying scorelines, though they will presumably be targeting the Dominica game, away on the 11th November, as the best chance for some kind of upset. The signs are there that they are prepared to be more competitive than before, and to do enough to perhaps rise out of that bottom spot in the rankings. They remain #211, but only for now.
31. GOAT: Argentina
It is the 2nd of July 2005. Lionel Messi is 17 years old. He has just become a full-time member of Barcelona’s first team squad, having stood out immeasurably from everyone else in the “B” varieties, and having already become one of the youngest people to ever appear in the Nou Camp. He is already being touted as a likely superstar. Now, in the final of the U-20 World Cup, he all too casually slots home a penalty in the first half, and then does it again in the second half, either side of a Nigerian equaliser. The squad includes names like Pablo Zabaleta and Sergio Aguero, but Messi outshines them all, the only member of the team playing outside Argentina at the time. Argentina lift the cup. The future looks very bright.
It is now the 8th October 2020. 15 years has seen Messi acclaimed to be the greatest player of his generation, and perhaps the greatest of all time. He is awash with accolades earned both for his club and for himself: ten La Liga titles, six Copa del Reys, four Champions Leagues, six Ballon d’Ors. Beyond the medals and the trophies, Messi has showcased footballing skills, an intuition for teamwork and an eye for goals that had commentators running out of superlatives only a few years into his career. Only one other player of his generation has been able to come close and, on occasion, surpass him. Through all this time he has remained with Barcelona, and if he ever did choose to make good on recent threats to quit the club, he would have his pick of sides to go to. But, despite all of this success in Europe, Messi has never been able to get the job done on the international level, and may well be facing into his last chance.
Messi’s time with his senior national side is a catalogue of what-might-have-beens. His debut ended two minutes after his introduction, when a ref brandished a red for an innocuous brush-off when trying to dodge a defender. In the 2006 World Cup he played a supporting role and scored once, missing the quarter-final defeat that sent Argentina home. In 2010 he was part of a side floundering under Maradona, deservedly eliminated after a 4-0 thumping from Germany. In 2014 he dragged his side to the final, but couldn’t get past Germany, again. In 2018, Argentina, struggling with a players/management rift, again bowed out early. His experience with the Copa America has been similarly without that final victory: a runner-up in 2007, 2015 and 2016, third-placed in 2019, a quarter-finalist in 2011.
If we are being honest with ourselves, the players that we consider the best in the history of the game are players who have achieved success at the international level. Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Zidane, Ronaldo are the kinds of names I mean, players who excelled for their clubs and excelled for their nations, winning continentally or winning World Cups, and sometimes both. For the others, the Eusebio’s, the Puskas’ the Best’s, the Cruyff’s, the Giggs’, the admiration that falls on them is often tempered with an acknowledgement that, for whatever reason, they were not able to do for their country what they could do elsewhere. The World Cup remains the very highest level of competition and, fair or not, being able to succeed there is the highest position that a footballer can achieve. How to get to that level is the Gordian Knot facing Lionel Messi for the fifth time in his career.
Through the four World Cup’s that Messi has been a part of, you can get a picture of his relationship with his country when it comes to football, which has always been surprisingly complex. In 2006 he only had a minor role – that one goal came in the 6-0 rout of Nigeria – but the level of his talent was so obvious that then manager Jose Pekerman came under fire at home for not playing the young man more. Argentinians, twenty years removed from their last World Cup success and 17 years from their last raising of the Copa America, were hungry to be back at the top table, and Messi seemed like the real “new Maradona”, after so many pretenders to that title had come up short.
Four years later, Messi had established himself as the best in the world, but such success was matched by increasing unhappiness at home: when Argentina suffered that 4-0 loss, Messi was singled out by some, accused of placing club before country and facing the frankly tired criticism that, as the new Maradona, he should be single-handedly capable of taking his country to a World Cup triumph, even if the side around him was frequently sub-par. Maradona, whose catastrophic management of the team was more to blame, got off lighter: evidence of the unique ability that man has of still wowing the Argentine public and media, something the more unassuming and less flamboyant Messi has always struggled with.
In 2014 Messi, now captain, was that single force propelling an average team much further than they had any right to go, but he could only do much. The final, that tellingly was dubbed as the world’s best player versus the world’s best team by some, saw Messi unable, at the end of an exhausting season, to carry his team anymore. More criticism followed, of laziness at international level, of lack of commitment to Argentina, accusations that Messi felt more Catalan than Argentinian and simmering judgement that he had never actually paid his dues in Argentine club football. At times such criticism could seem harsh, at others outright nonsensical, but it had become an ever-present facet of Messi’s relationship with his country.
By 2018 Messi had retired from international football and then come back, spurred on by a campaign at home that included the input of President’s and Mayors, but the situation with the national side had only gotten worse with the unpopular management of Jorge Sampaoli. Again, Messi was called upon to be a one-man army, but Croatia’s Luka Modric had it right after captaining his side to a statement victory over Argentina in the group stages: “Messi is an incredible player but he can’t do everything alone”. Time and again, Argentina played with what seemed to be an overriding plan of passing the ball to Messi and seeing what he could do. Being knocked-out by eventual winners France led to suggestions that Messi was done in an Argentina shirt. And this time the cries of “Please don’t go Leo” were less loud.
Messi was not done in an Argentine shirt as it happened. After the 2019 Copa, where Messi received flak again for perceived lack of effort and mouthing off to officials, it appears as if he is willing to give the World Cup one more shot. That shot must first be achieved through CONMEBOL qualifying, a process that Messi’s Argentina have struggled with at times, most notably for 2018: needing a win in their last game away to Ecuador, Argentina went behind to a first minute goal, only for Messi to score a hat-trick to confirm qualification. Somewhat fittingly this time around, their opening opposition is Ecuador again, before an away trip to Bolivia in a few days time.
It is not as if Messi should have to do this all alone. Names like Otamendi, Paredes, Aguero and Dybala litter the latest squads, names that have plenty of accolades and praise separate to Messi. Some might say that this current Argentina squad is an average one, but it seems odd to have such luminaries in your team and for them to be considered only above-mediocre. Though, perhaps, it is simply because they are playing alongside Messi, against whom even the higher echelons of football may frequently look sub-par. Regardless, this is an Argentinian team that should, on paper, be strolling into a place in Qatar’s 32. Head coach Lionel Scaloni at least appears to be doing a better job than his unfortunate predecessor at keeping the team together, with 3rd place at the 2019 Copa nothing to sniff at really. But CONMEBOL qualifying will be a much bigger test of his abilities long-term, especially in the present circumstances.
And this must be the last chance, on the pitch, for Messi: he will be 35 come 2022, and if he is involved in 2026 it is likely to be in a non-playing capacity. So time is running out. If Messi is to secure the status of “GOAT” as so many already think of him, then an undeniable success at the highest international level, to rival that of Cristiano Ronaldo, is required. It is perhaps sad to think that only such a success at Qatar would make many Argentinians fully appreciate the talent that the team has had in Messi. More than likely they will have to come to that realisation without it, when Messi really does retire, a day that Argentinians should have more dread of than they may otherwise have right now. That’s the problem with the greatest of all time: there tends to be only one of them.
32. Reflection: Chile
The history of Chilean international football will be forever wrapped up in the events of the 3rd September 1989. The match against Brazil that day might have been viewed by many people back home as a welcome distraction from the election campaigning that was ongoing ahead of December voting, as the country turned decisively towards democracy after years of dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. Chile went into the contest needing a win in order to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, a tall task given that they had never been able to beat their opponents in a competitive match as the visiting team. Still, most would have thought that they had a shot. But, by the end of the day, their bid to make it to Italy became wrapped up in controversy, rancor, jingoistic violence and, ultimately, shame.
The facts remain fairly clear, despite an initial cloud that had most of Chile baying at Brazil’s doors. After a goalless first half, Careca put Brazil in front on 49 minutes. With Chile needing two goals and looking unlikely to get them, it seemed as if their World Cup hopes were done. Then a flare got thrown onto the pitch at the end that Chile were defending. Goalkeeper Roberto Rojas went down clutching his head, blood appeared, the outraged Chilean team marched off the field and the game was abandoned.
Almost from the start things seemed fishy, with referee Juan Loustau reporting that he was unable to inspect Rojas’ injury himself, owing to the throng of Chilean players around him. Chilean media fanned the flames, with some claiming a conspiracy to insure Brazil got to the World Cup, with a crowd soon found throwing rocks at the Brazilian embassy in Santiago. The fact that Chile were losing when the incident happened seemed not to come into their thinking. It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge: after images showed the flare landing nowhere near Rojas’ head, the goalkeeper confessed that his injury had been self-inflicted, using a razor blade he had secreted in a glove. Brazil were awarded a 2-0 walkover, Chile got a ban from the 1994 World Cup, and Rojas’ career ended in ignominy.
It is often said, no matter the reality of it, that football teams are a reflection of the countries they represent. The direct, no-nonsense long ball of England, the efficient domination of the Germans, the “samba” soccer of Brazil, are all the kind of sometimes trite comparisons made between nations and their footballers. If we are to accept such comparisons at face value, then it might be fair to say that the Chile team of the 1980’s were a reflection of the Chilean nation in the 1980’s. The Pinochet regime that led Chile for the better part of two decades at that time left a legacy of brutal authoritarian government, with over 3’000 people killed and 200’000 forced to flee the country. Among the most well-remembered aspects of that regime is its use of the Estadio Nacional in Santiago as a detention centre, where as many as 40’000 people were imprisoned at various times.
How was the Chile international football team of the time the team of Pinochet’s Chile? Perhaps we can simply say that it is because it was a team that was able to project an outward facade of defiance, confidence and success, while trying to obfuscate a darker reality. The team finished runners-up in the Copa America twice and made it to a World Cup while Pinochet was in charge and generally believed themselves to be one of the best sides in the continent. Players like Rojas were national icons. But underneath it all was a team with a dark reputation for brutal behavior on the pitch, and dodgy activities off it, impossible to separate from the Pinochet regime.
There is that 1973 play-off with the Soviets of course. The first leg in Russia has seen subsequent accounts bring up the possibility of pro-Chile officiating, along with the Soviets’ less than hospitable welcome for the away team. And then the Soviet Union refused to play the second leg in the Estadio Nacional given what was going on there. As a result, the Chile team turned up alone, kicked a ball into an empty net, and walked off, all while it seems likely political prisoners were being housed in the stadium facilities. Six years later, an underage Chilean team was caught up in an eligibility scandal when it was revealed ahead of the U-20 South American Championship that six of the squad were using doctored passports to make them appear younger than they were. One Roberto Rojas was among them.
Chile in the 1980’s, in their clubs and in their national team, was a footballing nation that demanded success and didn’t seem to particularly care how they got it. Results were all that mattered, and whether it was violent tackles, officiating shenanigans, illegal substances (Rojas received a ban in 1984 for taking steroids) or outright subterfuge, the team was going to try and get that result. The Pinochet economic model that had the country’s finances in a degree of turmoil for years favoured a small number of clubs – most notably Colo Colo, where Pinochet was chairman – and drove others to the wall. In such circumstances the possibilities for corruption and dirty dealing become endemic, and often irresistible. But of course the increased competitiveness of the national side, especially at a continental level, was all some people needed to point to.
Such is the inevitable trickle-down from dictatorship. Rojas’ action that day in the Maracana, and the degree to which he was supported in that activity by his teammates and coaches, was just the most obvious example of it. Of course it was also the end of that period, to a certain extent. Pinochet was gone, elections were held, and it took half a decade for Chile to be given the opportunity to compete in World Cup qualifying again. Inspired by Marcelo Salas and later Alexis Sanchez, they would make it to the knock-outs in France, South Africa and Brazil, where they would begin a bizarre, almost poetic series of cycles: making it through First Round before being defeated by Brazil again, and again, and again. It’s almost like the universe doesn’t want Chile to forget their moment of greatest shame on the pitch, and doesn’t think they have earned forgiveness just yet.
Of course, the Chileans have excelled elsewhere, winning two Copa’s back-to-back in 2015 and 2016, propelled forward by the attacking excellence of names like Sanchez and Vidal, with the defensive solidity provided by names like Medal and Isla. The team may be aging at this stage, and in danger of slipping firmly into the realm of also-rans at World Cup level, but they should retain enough skill, vigour and experience ahead of 2022 to give themselves a viable shot of settling the demons of 1989 and the Second Round.
But they still have to get there first. Chile’s 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign opened with a difficult trip away to Uruguay. It was a sometimes bad tempered affair, with Luis Suarez opening the scoring from the spot after a lengthy VAR check for handball on Sebastian Vegas, Chile a victim of the more recent changes to the rules that seem absurdly harsh in the light of day. Chile rallied back: a sweet interchange of passing early in the second half allowed Sanchez to ghost into the Uruguay box, take a touch and then steer the ball past Martin Campana for his 44th international goal. Both sides had their chances and half-chances in the time remaining, and Chile were left feeling aggrieved at some questionable handball decisions that did not go their way. In the end, it was the hosts that got the breakthrough in the dying moments, with an absolute rocket of a volley from Maxi Gomez, an outside the box effort that tore past Gabriel Arias and broke Chilean hearts. A losing start then, with Colombia the next challenge in a few days.
Chile today is a functioning republic, but still remembers the scars of the Pinochet regime. A section of the Estadio Nacional remains empty on match days, a symbol of the men and women who vanished during those years, some of them last seen entering the stadium under guard. Rojas’ ban has concluded, and he has demonstrated a degree of remorse and regret. The new Chile is the Chile of democracy, ranked at the top of South American nations on many metrics: the new Chilean football team is one of attacking acumen and success, and is counted at the top half of CONMEBOL. But the reality should not be skewed either: just as the 89 game took place in the shadow of major political changes, so too does the start of this campaign, with Chileans soon to vote on whether a new constitution is required, after protests last year over the cost of living and inequality drew a violent police response all too similar to darker days. Just as the often violent, often underhanded Chilean team of the 80’s was a reflection of Pinochet, so does the modern Chilean team seek to be a reflection of the modern Chile, forward thinking and, perhaps, willing to change. The final redemptive moment may await in Qatar.
33. Gol Da Alemanha: Brazil
On the 8th July 2014, myself and my girlfriend went to the local pub to have a few drinks and take in the first semi-final of the World Cup. 23 minutes into the contest, Germany were 2-0 up. It was obvious to anyone watching that the Germans were in cruise control, but few would have imagined the totality of what was about to happen. My girlfriend got up to use the facilities. When she got back, it was 5-0. She looked puzzled, having only been gone for a few minutes, and remarked earnestly “There’s a mistake in the score-line”.
If only, as far as Brazil was concerned. The 7-1 defeat, the “Mineirazo”, is probably the most famous World Cup game, outside of an actual final, ever. It was the ultimate humiliation that the hosts could have suffered, an undignified end to a journey that had been beset by unhappiness at home, criticism of the team’s playing style and a confidence shattering injury to star man Neymar. Players and coaches had their reputations destroyed, and some were never involved with the national side again. It devastated the Brazilian footballing community, embedded instantly into the national consciousness as a collective disgrace. A year to the day, Brazilian newspapers sarcastically celebrated “7X1 Day”. Political defeats were dressed up in the language of conceding seven goals to a ruthless opponent. Even today, “Sete A Um” – “7-1” – or “Gol Da Alemanha” – “Goal For Germany” – are phrases that are used as exclamations of surprise after some mishap in Brazil.
Despite it being only six years, it seems like it has been a long road back for Brazil. Former manager Dunga was re-installed after the departure of Scolari, but couldn’t get the team playing the kind of attractive football they were crying out for. Results were so-so, with scraped wins against Peru and Venezuela sandwiching defeat to Colombia in the 2015 Copa group phase, before Paraguay sent Brazil out on penalties in the quarter-finals. Brazil regressed for the 2016 edition, out at the group phase for the first time in nearly 30 years following a draw against Ecuador and a defeat to Peru. Dunga’s sacking came shortly after.
Victory in the Rio Olympics, where Neymar captained an U-23 side, provided some balm to the soul of Brazilian football, especially since the gold medal was secured in a victory over Germany. But Olympic football is not World Cup football, and was never going to be enough to erase the stain of 2014. There were signs that Russia could have been the place for that to happen, with the qualifying campaign for 2018, under new coach Tite, going very smoothly. Brazil lost just once on the way to topping the CONMEBOL group by over ten points. But the Finals were a different story.
Again, Brazil struggled to put together the kind of attacking displays the world expects and their fans demand. Again, they found themselves frustrated by sides a behemoth like themselves were expected to overcome. A draw with Switzerland, a late, late victory over Costa Rica secured by two injury time goals, and a win over Serbia got them into the knock-outs: after dispatching Mexico with relative ease, they were undone by Belgium in a game where traditionalists would have been forgiven for wondering if the sides had accidentally swapped jerseys before the game, with the Europeans the team playing in an attacking style marked with an almost reckless abandon.
But of course that is the point isn’t it? Samba soccer, a concept that really dates to the thrilling forward displays of the 1970 winning side, and saw a partial revival in the 1994 winners and 1998 runners-up, is not actually something that has marked out the majority of Brazilian sides down the years, and especially not in this century. After the heartbreak of Paris, a more workman-like Brazilian side took the trophy home in 2002, and they’ve never really swung decisively back to the days of playing keepy-uppy in airports since.
The “samba” label is in many ways a negative for Brazil, that makes their frequently more grounded and, whisper it, sensible style of play seem like some kind of heresy. The modern Brazil team has less players playing at home, and more playing in European leagues, and with a playing style that is molded accordingly. There is less individual flair, and more fouls. There are less rapid team-orientated counter-attacks, and more possession-heavy efforts to break opponents down. There are less superstars, and more functionality. The result is a team that does not play very attractive football, that is focused on results over entertainment, is often hopelessly dependent on the likes of Neymar, and all with the additional pressure that comes with being the team of “jogo bonito”.
Such things would have been on many minds last year when Brazil hosted the latest Copa, with Tite under immense pressure to actually make good on the promise of results over entertainment. It was a slog of a tournament in many ways, with Neymar out with injury: a goalless draw with Venezuela drew boos that complaining about VAR could only partially deflect, and even dominant wins against Bolivia and Peru were not enough to dispel the doom and gloom. But it all came together in the knock-outs: a hoodoo dispelling victory on penalties over Paraguay, a spectacular performance to send Argentina packing and a comprehensive showing in the final against Peru netted Brazil a ninth Copa. They conceded only one goal in the process, a nod again to their efforts to control games, not turn them into a stage show. Accusations that VAR was overly-favourable to the hosts in the knock-outs could only take a certain amount of the gloss off of the triumph, the first major accolade, excluding the Confederations Cup, Brazil had won in 12 years: a veritable eternity for the Selecao.
The foundation for a new era of success has thus been laid. Newer, younger, players are defining the team more and more, like Richarlison, Everton, and Roberto Lodi, while superstars like Neymar, Roberto Firmino and Phillipe Coutinho are still in the prime of their careers. Few would be willing to bet against Brazil making it to Qatar: they are the only nation in the world who have been to all 21 editions of the World Cup.
And the campaign to make it 22/22 began in some style. Bolivia were the opposition or perhaps, rather, the victim. The first, a close range header from Marquinhos after smart build-up play. The second, a tap-in from Firmino, after more simple, but effective build-up play, Neymar giving the final assist across the face of goal. The third, a simple one-touch finish from Firminho again, Brazil going from their defence to the goal in seconds. The fourth, an own-goal from centre back Jose Carrasco, heading past his own keeper after a good run and cross from Coutinho. The fifth, another header, this time from Coutinho, after a fine looping cross from Neymar. Tougher games will come, and come soon. But for one night at least samba soccer was back, with the opposition put to the sword, Brazil cutting them open with ease.
The weight of expectation will always be immense in Brazil. The fans want good football, and they want to win: the legacy of on-field excellence and five World Cup victories allows nothing else. But it is the wait that is also going to be on the shoulders of the Selecao, that twenty year wait, as it will be by the time we get to Qatar, twenty years since Cafu last lifted the World Cup in the canary yellow jersey. The longest Brazil ever waited between victories was the 24 years between 1970 and 1994: the current generation are on the brink of matching that record. They, and the fans, will be desperate that they not exceed it.
But more than that, they will be desperate to banish the memory of 2014, of those seven goals, a national humiliation and an entire generation scarred. The Olympics won’t cut it. The Copa won’t cut it. Thrashing Bolivia won’t cut it. Only a sixth World Cup crown will do it. Then, and only then, will “Gol de Alemanha” no longer be the defining statement of Brazilian footballing consciousness.
34. Depredador: Peru
Today, Peru continue their World Cup campaign against Brazil, having spent the first matchday of CONMEBOL qualifying playing away to Paraguay. There was a key absentee from that first game: Paolo Guerrero, the modern-day icon of Peruvian football, watched on from elsewhere, in the middle of a recovery battle following a knee ligament injury. Peru will have to do much of the work to get to Qatar without their aging talisman, whose life and extraordinary story, when it comes to the 2018 World Cup, have been some of the more defining elements of Peruvian sporting life over the last few years.
Guerrero was born in Lima in 1984. His was a footballing family: his uncle Jose Gonzalez Ganoza played in goal for the national team in the 80’s, and his older brother Julio Rivera did the same on the wing. It was inevitable that Guerrero would follow a similar path, starting out in the youth sides of local club Alianza Lima. He did enough there to attract international attention, and signed a contract with Bavarian giants Bayern Munich in 2003. That began a decade-long experience in Germany, in dribs and drabs with Munich and then more fully with Hamburger, where Guerrero was part of two double-winning sides with the former and an Intertoto winning side with the later. From there it was to Brazil, to stints with Corinthians, Flamengo and Internacional.
But it was primarily as an international player that Guerrero has made his biggest footballing impact. After successful stints for the underage sides, he made his senior debut for Peru during the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, and has notched up over a hundred caps since, with 38 goals scored, the Peruvian record. His excellent run timing, his hold-up play, eye for goal and general ruthlessness when it comes to exploiting defensive errors may explain the nickname that he has garnered from an adoring Peruvian fanbase: “Depredador”. I perhaps don’t need to spell out what it means. Under him, Peru have hit heights they haven’t seen in years, consistently in the business end of the Copa America, finishing runners-up last year.
Guerrero’s life has not been without its setbacks and tragedies. That uncle died in an airplane crash in 1987; Guerrero was taken to matches as a young child by the same man and the event has contributed to Guerrero’s own fear of flying. A nephew of his was killed during a botched robbery in Lima: Guerrero often pays tribute to the two men when he scores, pointing to the skies with both hands. There have been self-inflicted problems too; an incident in Germany when he threw a bottle at a fan haranguing him, earning a five match ban; an altercation with a ref in a 2008 World Cup qualifier that got him six matches on the sideline; and a brutal and unnecessary lunge on Stuttgart keeper Sven Ulreich in a Bundesliga game that got him eight matches out and a quick transfer back to South America. And there’s also the general sense that Guerrero never got a fair shake in Europe despite his obvious qualities, hindered, perhaps, by a nationality that doesn’t draw the eye the same way that Brazilian or Argentinian passports do.
Not that it matters, as Guerrero has arguably been a better player for Brazilian clubs in his thirties than he was in Germany in his twenties. Perhaps all of these things contribute to the legendary status that Guerrero has accrued, a poor boy from the the seaside district of Chorrillos in Lima who never forgot where he came from even while winning leagues in Europe, a man who has led his country to glory (relatively speaking) despite the cruel hand of fate and the perception that he deserved a longer time in the club career spotlight.
Because international football is big business in Peru, as big as anywhere else. The fans are intense, bathing stadiums in red and white, endlessly chanting “Arriba Peru” during games, exhibiting a fervor that is notable even for the football-mad continent in which they reside. Peru may not have had much success – they reached the last eight of the World Cup in 1970 and won the Copa five years later, events that are ingrained on the Peruvian national consciousness – but you would not think it looking at the packed stands of the Estadio Nacional on game days. Corruption problems off the pitch and ill-discipline problems on it have hampered the teams ability in the not too distant past, but that is the past. In line with the greater progression continentally Peru’s fans believed that in Guerrero they may have found the person to lead the line and bring the team back to the highest stage, having last been there in 1982.
That led to the drama that was the qualifying for Russia 2018. Captained by Guerrero, Peru lost four of their first six games before a late win against Ecuador and a walkover against Bolivia – they fielded an ineligible player – offered some galvinisation: hard-fought points gained from Argentina and a succession of single-goal wins put Peru on the brink on the last day. A late draw rescued at home to Colombia, in line with Chile losing away to Brazil, got them a play-off spot. A scoreless draw in Wellington left things on a knife edge, before New Zealand were put away at home 2-0. Peru were going back to the World Cup. Lima exploded.
But the result against the All-Whites was gained without Guerrero. He had led Peru in goal-scoring during the campaign, with critical strikes against Argentina and Venezuela, and had appeared in all but one game. But he was barred from the trip to Wellington, and the return match in Lima. On the 3rd November 2017, it was announced that Guerrero had failed a drug test, administered after a scoreless draw with Argentina the month previous. The play-off came during the initial 30-day suspension as the case was investigated further. The accusations certainly didn’t change the team or the fans perceptions of “Depredador”: when Jefferson Farfan scored the first goal of the play-off he celebrated with Guerrero’s jersey, to the delight of the baying crowd.
The results of the investigation were eventually to the benefit of Peru, desperate to have Guerrero cleared to play in time for Russia, but have left significant questions unanswered all the same, regards the process of appeals and the nature of stimulant-based suspensions. Guerrero was found to have tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a key part of cocaine. After investigation he was initially banned for a year, but this was reduced a short time later on appeal. Guerrero’s lawyers claimed that the drug entered his system through consumption of a traditional Peruvian coca tea, and as such should not be treated the same as a player caught snorting a line. FIFA seemed happy to accept such an argument.
The World Anti-Doping Agency, never the best of friends with FIFA, launched their own appeal, unhappy with FIFA’s back tracking. CAS agreed with them, and suddenly Guerrero’s ban had not only returned, despite an acknowledgement that he had performed no conscious wrongdoing, but been extended to 14 months. This after a hearing in May 2018, just weeks before the World Cup was due to start. Que a hectic fortnight of legal wranglings, as outraged Peruvians cried conspiracy, and players from numerous nations called for the ban to be rescinded. Guerrero was unequivocal about his own innocence, vowing to fight the charges to the very end. On the 31st, the Swiss Federal Tribunal temporarily lifted the ban pending further arguments, and Guerrero got to go to Russia after all. A few months later the ban was re-instated, and Guerrero spent seven more months on the sideline, losing a final appeal against the charges last year.
The entire case threw up some difficult topics. To what level should FIFA prosecute bans for recreational drug use, as opposed to performance enhancing? To what extent, if any, should the imminence of major tournaments be a factor in such decision making? Is it really WDDA’s role to second guess FIFA on such matters? Is it really just to state that a player is guilty of no wrong-doing, and then to extend his sentence past the initial one anyway? How can a ban be lifted for a World Cup, then re-instated afterwards?
In the end, the 2018 World Cup was to be a disappointing affair for Guerrero and for Peru, though he can perhaps be forgiven for his part, finding out he was cleared to play only ten days before Peru’s opening game. It was hardly ideal for preparations. In their opener, against Denmark, Guerrero started from the bench. After his team missed a penalty and then went behind, he was thrown on with half an hour to play, backheeling wide late-on. Guerrero played from the start in what was a sudden make-or-break showdown with France, but could only manage a tame shot straight at Hugo Lloris and a late free-kick saved, as Peru fell to a Mbappe goal and mathematical elimination.
All that was left was a stakeless (for Peru anyway) contest with Australia, where Peru recorded their first World Cup win in 36 years, with goals from Andre Carillo and Guerrero himself on either side of the break. Guerrero’s strike was typical of him, a poachers goal, where he was on-hand to receive a deflected bouncing ball and hook it into the net, on the turn, from only a few yards out. Peru finished two points shy of progression, and were left to rue the manner in which their pre-tournament planning had been so filled with off-pitch turmoil.
Since then Guerrero has seen out the rest of his suspension in time to lead the line in the 2019 Copa, where Peru fell in the final to a resurgent Brazil, their best tournament result of the modern era. From there, it is the World Cup again. Guerrero leads out a team that has plenty of talent – names like Cueva, Carillo and Farfan are all exciting attacking players – but which constitutes a golden generation that is nearing the conclusion of their time as a productive unit. Guerrero epitomises this: if Peru were to make it to Qatar, he would nearing the age of 39, and such an adventure would surely constitute the end of his international career. After the disappointment of 2018, and the near miss of 2019, Peru will be desperate to make good in 2022.
But they have to get their first. The campaign began with Paraguay away. In the empty Estadio Defensores, it was Andre Carrillo who stepped up to be the talisman, rifling in a sweet volley, and then getting a diving header a half-hour later to score both of his nations goals. Unfortunately, they came either side of two Paraguayan equivalents, both of them scored from close range with the defence paralysed at the critical moment, looking for an offside flag that would not be raised. 2-2 it finished, and perhaps Peru were left to wonder if they might have gotten two more points if their traditional target man had been able to play.
Now, a few days later, Peru face the huge test of getting something from Brazil, with their traditionally ravenous support barred from being in the same stadium. CONMEBOL qualifying can often seem like a laborious marathon, but the games go quickly enough: Peru, of all teams, know how a poor start can make qualification a metaphorical Everest to climb. Brazil are a challenge, but also an opportunity for Peru: to establish themselves as one of the key contenders for those top places still, and as a team that is more than just the one player that has come to be their defining element. Paolo Guerrero watches on, knowing that he will only be able to help his nation directly in the second half of this qualification process. It is up to the rest of the team to set the stage for Depredador.
35. Statements: Ecuador/Uruguay
The second round of games of the CONMEBOL qualification process brought together the teams of Ecuador and Uruguay last night, playing in front of the empty stands of the Estadio Rodrigo Paz Delgado in Quito. Though still early enough in the course of this elongated league, the game remained a crucial one for both sides.
Ecuador, coming off of a narrow and frustrating defeat to Argentina, are desperate to get things going, and also to get what can only be presumed to be a very difficult start out of the way. They are at a fairly pivotal moment in the history of their international football team. To a certain degree, they had gotten used to qualification recently, gracing the highest stage in 2002, 2006 and 2014 having never gotten there before. But 2018 qualification was a bit of a mess: having won their first four games, including an impressive 2-0 victory in Buenos Aires, Ecuador stuttered, then collapsed, losing their last six. This game comes as the second competitive fixture for new manager Gustavo Alfaro, who the Ecuadorian authorities will be hoping can steer the team into a new era after the previous manager, Jordi Cruyff, ended his six month reign without managing a game.
Uruguay are a different story, dealing with different pressures. Half of this is rooted in the past, with those two World Cup triumphs, both of them special in their own ways: winning the very first in 1930 and then traumatising the mighty Brazil in their own backyard twenty years later. Such legacy naturally breeds expectation. The other half of the pressure comes from the modern day, and the perception that the current Uruguayan side remains a golden generation that is rapidly running out of time: a team of Edison Cavani, Diego Godin, Maxi Pereira and, most importantly, Luis Suarez is one that has repeatedly garnered a tag of being a dark horse, then a favorite, of living up to the 1930 and 1950’s teams, or perhaps even surpassing them. The 2010 4th place finish in South Africa followed by a Copa triumph the next year was at the beginning of such expectations, but a decade on and we may well be nearing the end. If any manager can keep things going though it’s Oscar Tabarez, the author of the “Proceso” era of Uruguayan football, and one of the longest serving national coaches of the modern day game: soon to embark on his 15th year in the job, his position couldn’t be more starkly different from Alfaro.
Ecuador probably have the most to prove, coming off the two teams’ last meeting. In the opening game of Group C in the 2019 Copa, Uruguay ran amok, three goals up at half-time, and adding a fourth to no reply in the second. It was endemic of a poor tournament for the Ecuadorians, picking up just one point against a visiting Japan: now is the first chance to get some payback. Uruguay only got to the last eight in that tournament of course, below their expectations. As such, it can be said that both sides are looking to make a statement in the early rounds of CONMEBOL qualifying: Ecuador that they are competitive and relevant, Uruguay that they are not on the wrong side of the apogee yet.
Both teams have line-ups that could be described as lacking any notable absentees, with the exception of Cavani, self-isolating after his move to Manchester United. Cavani’s absence perhaps is a boon to Tabarez in a way, as it eliminates the more rigid 4-4-2 as a possibility, with the advantages of trying to accommodate Cavani and Suarez frequently more to Uruguay’s disadvantage in many ways. A debut is handed to Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo at centre back, one of the few changes from Uruguay’s opening triumph, with Giorgian de Arrascaeta also coming in for Nahitan Nandez. On the other side, Michael Estrada is slotted into the forward line alongside Enner Valencia, the change accommodated with Alan Franco making way in midfield. This allows Ecuador to adopt a more outwardly attacking shape, indicating from the off that they intend to run at their opponents. They have one key advantage that no amount of striking Uruguayan talent can adequately counter, and that’s the altitude of Quito, that away teams frequently struggle with.
The usual ceremonies are observed ahead of kick-off, with the anthems seeming faintly ridiculous with no fans to sing along. The TV broadcasts make do with more footage than normal of fluttering flags, before piped-in crowd noise erupts from the broadcast, also sounding faintly ridiculous. After that, we’re off, both teams in their traditional colours: yellow and black for Ecuador, white and light blue for Uruguay.
In the early minutes Ecuador are on top, following the prediction and running at their opponents, sweeping the ball from left to right, seeking to get the Uruguayans gulping air early. The away side have to be happy with some hoofing out of their territory, and don’t really control the ball in the Ecuadorian half in the first five minutes. The first chance comes in the 9th minute, and it’s for the hosts. Mena gets free down the right off a looped ball and cuts it back to Estrada, who has the goal at his mercy from close range, but Campana is able to somehow get a hand up and tip the ball over the bar. It’s an incredible save, and Estrada looks baffled.
Ecuador don’t let up and Uruguay remained hard-pressed, gaining position on the field only when they are fouled. But down Ecuador come at the other end immediately, again refusing to let up at the early stages. They win a corner, play it short to Mena, whose inward-swinging cross meets the head of Moises Caicedo, the midfielder ghosting in between defenders to subtly lift the ball over Campana. The Uruguayan defenders, dumbstruck, claim offside, but the ref doesn’t seem to even need the assistance of VAR in this case. 15 minutes in, and Ecuador are deservedly in front.
This certainly isn’t going to plan for Uruguay, which might explain their calamity right from the resulting kick-off, as they give the ball away in their half, allowing Mena, involved in everything, to stride forward in space. He has better options than to shoot, but shoot he does, dragging the ball well wide to his teammates’ annoyance. It looks like Uruguay are floundering, then they suddenly turn it-on: a flowing move from their own box to Ecuador’s see’s Suarez hit home from a Rodriguez cross, but the star-man is left outraged when the flag is raised for offside in the build-up. A VAR check confirms an extremely tight call. The tension is ratcheted up considerably, with memories of Uruguay’s good fortune with the officials in the last game sure to be in many minds. Regardless, it’s a good reminder of how dangerous Uruguay are.
It’s all go now, and Enner Valencia should do better when a cross lands at his feet in the box, but his miscues the contact and Campana collects. As Uruguay try to come into the game a bit more, keeping possession in the Ecuador half, the ball suddenly breaks, and a big forward pass sends Mena clear in space. His cross finds Valencia, but he heads wide from close range, another immense let-off for the visitors. Ecuador are clearly up for this, and keep pushing for a second.
It’s an open game, with space for both sides to attack deep without major obstruction. Dominguez comes out of his goal to spare the blushes of Xavier Arreaga after a poor back-pass almost lets Suarez in. That’s as good as Uruguay can do, with Suarez uncharacteristically wasteful when on the ball: the next time it is in the net it’s just past the half-hour and for Ecuador, Valencia muscling the ball off of Diego Godin, advancing, then laying it off for Estrada to finish from close range, what should be his first competitive goal for his nation. But it’s Ecuador’s turn to come afoul of VAR: after what is really too lengthy of a wait, the ref reviews, and determines that Valencia handled the ball in getting it off of Godin. It is the right call though.
Things are made a tad edgier as a result, and soon after Carlos Gruezo is booked for Ecuador after a clumsy challenge on Gomez. Tabarez is clearly unhappy on the sideline, urging his team to be faster on the ball, and they oblige with better link-up play, but can’t get the ball in the right position for a clear shot on goal. Things don’t peter out as we enter injury time though: Valencia gets free down the right and sends a shot skating over the grass and just wide of the far post, Uruguay come down the other end with a few teasing crosses, Preciado sends a by-line ball straight into the arms of Campana.
And then it happens: in trying to keep an unimportant ball in play Rodriguez leaves it open for Ecuador to steam down the right again, with Mena again. Into the box he goes, and Godin’s efforts to hook the ball clear only ends up putting it on a plate for Estrada, who isn’t denied this time, finishing coolly just a few feet from the penalty spot. A good time to score, and a bad time to concede: Ecuador go into the break in jubilant mood, and Uruguay in pieces.
Tabarez’ response is to shake up his midfield, with Nicolas de la Cruz and Darwin Nunez coming on for Nandez and Rodriguez at half-time. It’s an attacking change, and a risky one: Benfica’s Nunez, a striker for a midfielder, is making only his second appearance for his country in what is now a loose 4-3-3: the weakest part of the first half performance, central defence, must make do. Alfaro, clearly happier, sticks with the starting 11. The visitors are full of zip from the kick-off, nipping at the heels of Ecuador, clearly some words from the dressing room still ringing in ears. It takes only three minutes for Uruguay to put the ball in the net, and when they do it is Nunez, pulling in a rebound after hitting the post from a Martin Caceres cross. But VAR has its say again, after another frustrating wait, and Nunez is adjudged to have benefitted too much from an unintentional handball. It’s again the right call, but one wishes CONMEBOL’s VAR officials could hurry up a bit.
Games swing on such moments, and from being suddenly just a goal down, Uruguay find themselves three behind within seconds. Dominguez sends it long, some smart interplay in the forward line sees Valencia set Estrada free with a backheel, and Estrada thanks him by firing into the corner from outside the box with confidence. With not even an hour played, the tie looks done and dusted. Uruguay’s pep has vanished, as they now heedlessly chase the ball, and pass it out of play too easily when they get it.
Things get a bit scrappy as Uruguay try to chase the game, ineffectually. Both sides get half-chances, with Ecuador still looking the more likely to score. Tabarez responds by sending on Jonathan Rodriguez for Gomez in a straight swap, the latter of which has had a torrid enough hour. There’s no immediate impact, with Ibarra sending the ball a few feet wide for Ecuador straight away, after finding himself able to run with complete freedom down the left wing.
Alfaro starts winding things down: Valencia makes way for Gonzala Plata and Alan Franco replaces Ibarra. Uruguay have more of the ball, but can’t make anything with it. The biggest talking point for the next few minutes is an injury to Ecuadorian left-back Pervis Estupinan, who has to get driven off the field: Diego Palacios replaces him. Perhaps the change discombobulates Uruguay, as within a few minutes Ecuador are able to pass the ball at will inside the attacking third, eventually freeing Plata inside the box, who steers the ball home after dummying Araujo. A joyous Ecuador swarm the scorer, with the result of the Copa game last year now matched.
Uruguay look shell-shocked. A few later-than-is-really acceptable fouls start going in, as the frustration shows. Rodriguez draws a good save from Dominguez off a deflected effort, really as close as Uruguay have come. But then another pause as VAR comes in again, and Palacios is deemed to have fouled Rodriguez in the course of causing that deflection. It’s actually a terrible tackle in the replay, studs up, but Palacios only gets a yellow. Suarez steps up to take the kick, and slots it into the bottom left-hand corner. With six minutes of normal time left, Uruguay are off the mark, and Ecuador’s avenging scoreline is somewhat sullied.
The consolation galvanises Uruguay a little, a reminder that, yes, they can play and score. And there is still room for some additional drama. In the midst of ten minutes of injury time, Campana has the ball in the net for Ecuador, but the assist came from a ball already out of play and it’s ruled out instantly, VAR no longer deemed necessary. A minute later, and Araujo wins a second Uruguayan penalty, when his cross-goal header is deemed to have hit a defenders outstretched arm. Suarez hits it left again, just higher this time, and suddenly the scoreline is looking much more respectable. There is still time left, but Ecuador nix any idea of more goals with some decent ball retention in the final few minutes. 4-2 it finishes.
This can only be described as a definitive performance from Ecuador. Alfara can’t restrain himself at the final whistle, embracing his players like they’ve gotten to Qatar already. Their campaign is well and truly back on track, with very winnable games against Bolivia and Colombia to come. On the other hand, Uruguay are predictably stunned, at one of their worst defeats, and performances, in recent memory: Tabarez is quick to pivot in his post-match interviews, dismissing the loss as one defeat, with 16 more games yet to play. But Uruguay can’t afford to be too complacent, with Brazil visiting Montevideo in November.
Statements made then: Ecuador have established themselves as more than worthy of consideration as a likely qualifier, and Uruguay have fed the thinking that the golden generation is on the way out. But there is always room for more statements, and a long road yet to travel in South America.
Teams Qualified For The Finals
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
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
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Cinicenta: Venezuelan fans watching a game of the 2011 Copa America. Photo by David B.T., reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
By The Year 2000: Senegalese fans in Yekaterinburg for the World Cup 2018 game with Japan. Photo by Wild Child, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.
Silence: Thailand’s Rajamangala Stadium, empty, due to hold matches in the summer of 2020, that were subsequently postponed owing to COVID. Photo by Asian FC, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
211: An aerial view of the western coast of Anguilla, taken in 2008. Photo by Roy Googan, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
GOAT: Lionel Messi after scoring a goal against Nigerian in the 2018 World Cup. Photo by Кирилл Венедиктов reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Reflection: “Escotilla 8”, a section of Chile’s Estadio Nacional traditionally left empty as a memorial to those previously detained in the stadium. The dedication can be translated as “A people with no memory is a people without a future”. Photo by Carlos Figueroa Rojas, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.
Gol De Alemanha: The Brazil team line-up ahead of their 2014 World Cup Semi-Final against Germany. Photo by Agencia Brasil, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License.
Depredador: Paolo Guerrero celebrates his goal against Australia in the 2018 World Cup. Photo by Александр Вепрёв, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Statements: Uruguay’s Federico Valverde and Ecuador’s Michael Estrada compete for the ball in their World Cup qualifier. Copyright ELE.