211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (V) Getting On With It

Part One: The Beginning

Part Two: The Road Broadens

Part Three: Dreaming In Asia

Part Four: Football In The Time Of COVID

With the world learning to keep going despite the threat of the virus, World Cup qualification soldiered on. In the last few weeks of 2020 South America took up the bulk of attention, but then Asia and Europe also got involved before the end of the year. Things couldn’t remain at a standstill, as we looked forward to a 2021 full of football.

Part Five: Getting On With It

36. Eating Liver: Bolivia

37. Twins: Paraguay

38. “Life Does Not End Here”: Columbia

39. A Burgundy Fall: Venezuela

40. Yeah, Right!: Brazil

41. Poles Apart: Qatar/Bangladesh

42. Boom, Bust, Boom: Ireland

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36. Eating Liver: Bolivia

(12/11/2020)

When the talent of their footballers won’t cut it, Bolivia falls back on their more geographic advantages.

Bolivia did not get off to a good start in the qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. The opening matchday saw them with the unenviable task of facing Brazil away from home and, in the Corinthians Arena, Bolivia were torn open, conceding five without reply, playing the part of what seemed like little more than warm-up opposition. A few days later they continued the difficult start by welcoming Argentina to La Paz. They went in front but couldn’t hold onto the lead, losing 2-1. Two games of 18 in, and they are rock-bottom of the CONMEBOL table, already looking like a very unlikely bet to challenge for a place in Qatar.

But the words of coach Cesar Farias offer some sign that there might be more fight in Bolivia than initially appears. Ahead of welcoming Argentina and Lionel Messi to La Paz, he was in a boisterous mood. He declared, in a press conference, that he no longer cared if his team gain a reputation for being “nasty”, before going on to encourage his side to “eat the liver of our opponents”. Such an extraordinary statement from the coach of a national team would be headline news in some parts of the world, but has gone little remarked upon in this particular instance. Perhaps that is because they lack, well, bite: if Farias’ words are meant to embolden his own players and put the fear of God in the opposition, he has a whole lot of mediocre history to face down at the same time.

In a continent with only ten nations that contest World Cup qualifiers, Bolivia rank fairly low in historical terms, with a legacy that only, perhaps, outshines Venezuela. They’ve been to three Finals, but only really qualified for one, being an invitational/automatic participant in 1930 and 1950. 90 years ago they played two games and lost them; in 1950 they played one game and lost it; in 1994 they played three games, losing two and achieving one draw. On the continent, their performance is one of subpar mediocrity, save for two instances, in 1963 and 1997. In the first instance they won the Copa, in the second they finished as runners-up, both events acutely ingrained on the national Bolivian consciousness. More recently, Bolivia have struggled, little more than an also-ran in Copas and CONEMBOL qualifying, never really coming close to achieving a place at the highest table.

Those two spectacular Copa performances had something very important in common, Bolivia’s ace in the hole, perhaps the one unique advantage that they can employ over the rest of their South American rivals. In both instances Bolivia hosted the competition, but I do not speak of home field advantage and raucous fans. No, Bolivia’s trump card is simple height. The country is one of the highest in the world, with La Paz 3’640 metres above sea level, by some margin the highest capital city on the planet. At that altitude, the thinness of the air has an immediate, obvious and often debilitating effect on the human body’s ability to maintain respiration at the required rate, and that effect is multiplied many times when sporting performance comes into it.

Altitude can be a very strange thing when it comes to sport. For those examples of athletic activity that involve short-bursts of intensity – sprint running, jumping – it’s actually a boon, as there is less air resistance and the body is not at its highest level of performance long enough for the oxygen content to have an effect. World Athletics even notes records broken under such conditions with an “A”, to mark out the favourable conditions. For everything over that level of performance though, it’s a major problem. When you go above 2’000 metres the saturation of oxyhemoglobin, the internal process wherein the body converts intaken breaths and uses that contained therein to oxygenise blood, becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, and it only gets harder the further you go up. La Paz is classed in the middle altitude region, and is far from the so-called “death zone” of 8’000 metres, but is still high enough that those visitors unused to the conditions can suffer headaches, dizziness, nausea and potentially more serious illness.

Bolivian players, especially those on the national team who play their club football in Bolivia (which would be most) have a lifetime of practice in such conditions, and so their bodies are naturally attuned to the lack of oxygen. Most of their South American opposition – Ecuador are a notable exception, their capital getting as high as 2’700 metres – are not so lucky, and it is fact of life in CONMEBOL that a trip to Bolivia is always difficult, with teams needing just the right amount of acclimatisation ahead of a game so that they can get somewhat close to their optimal level. Bolivia regularly exceed standard expectations when playing at home, something that is obvious when you look at even recent results: the way that mauling against Brazil turned into a tightly contested match against Argentina wasn’t just because Bolivia upped their game.

That’s Bolivia’s whole plan really. They know that they don’t really have the squad to go toe-to-toe with the very best that the continent has to offer. They have only a handful of players working outside of Bolivia, and star-man Marcelo Moreno, of Brazil’s Cruzeiro, is 33 and past his prime having already retired from the national side once. They have to use the altitude to their advantage, and it’s at home that they aim to win most of their points. The loss to Brazil is one that many Bolivians were willing to shrug their shoulders at, with key members of the team left in La Paz to await the more winnable match with Argentina. As stated, Bolivia were ahead early in that contest, with Martins heading home from close range after fine build-up play down the left. But Argentina, who took the somewhat risky step of arriving earlier than usual in La Paz to acclimatise (the common wisdom is to arrive a few hours before the game so altitude sickness doesn’t get a chance to take hold) came back into the match, and goals from Lautaro Martinez and Carlos Correa either side of half-time were enough to take all three points. It was Argentina’s first win in La Paz for 15 years, and was marked by unpleasant scenes at full time as Messi and Moreno squared up to each other and exchanged insults, Farias’ words perhaps having their effect.

So qualification is difficult to foresee, but it is not entirely impossible. Bolivia have eight more games at home, and stalwarts will say that maximum points in those contests would have them knocking at the door, provided they can also pick up a few away. But this seems more of a fantasy than possibility really. The majority of the squad haven’t played a competitive game of football since March, the national league halted by COVID and further stymied by a vicious power struggle in the higher echelons of Bolivia’s footballing authority, the BFF: several players have left the squad at the request of their club employers, unfortunate pawns in that larger battle to control Bolivian football. Farias has been accused of extorting squad-members who support the Bolivian players union, accusations that have been upheld by the FIFA Ethics Committee. And day-to-day life in Bolivia itself is not very conducive to athletic success at the moment, with the country only just starting to emerge from a bruising political crisis after elections held last month. The results of that vote does not yet mean that stability has been brought back to the nation’s affairs following an extended period of military intervention in government and violent counter-protests. Such things are a potent distraction for Bolivian footballers.

Thier next game, tonight, is a home encounter against Ecuador, where the altitude advantage will be somewhat negated by the opposition’s familiarity with it, and where Ecuador are coming off of a defining victory in the last round of matches. If Bolivia are to live up to the big words of their coach, if they are to, metaphorically at least, eat their opponents’ livers, then they need need to make a statement and get three points, before a winnable tie with Paraguay in a few days. Otherwise, they may remain little more than a problematic away trip in CONMEBOL, one where altitude is a crutch for a team that does not seem capable of repeating the success of decades ago, and whose internal problems threaten more regression. Just like the atmosphere of La Paz, Farias’ words could turn out to be only be so much thin air.

37. Twins: Paraguay

(13/11/2020)

They might not be the first pair of internationally capped twins, but the Romero’s hope to be the next such duo to play in a World Cup.

Paraguay are off to a decent start in the qualifying for Qatar 2022. They probably should have beaten Peru, coming from one down to lead 2-1, before conceding a late equaliser: still, starting out with a score draw against one of 2018’s qualifiers was nothing to sniff at. They followed it up with a hard-fought victory, by a single goal, away to Venezuela, Gaston Gimenez doing the necessaries, side-footing home coolly five minutes from time, before keeper Antony Silva saved a penalty. The mood in the camp must be a positive one, even with harder games to come. That mood may be benefited by the inclusion in the squad of a very deep familial connection: Paraguay have the fairly unique distinction of having twin brothers among their regular call-ups.

The brothers Romero, Oscar and Angel, may not have the same exact career trajectory, but their status as one of the few twin pairs to play at the highest level deserves a bit of consideration. Born in 1992 just outside of the Paraguyan capital of Asuncion, the twins came into a family in some difficulty: their father had walked out on their mother, Maria Lucia, two months before she gave birth. She was obligated to work 12 hour days in a nearby sugar cane factory to support her family, with the two boys largely raised by their grandmother and aunt. In a ragged field near their home the two, like so many others from the area, got their first taste of football. Unlike so many others, for them it rapidly went beyond a past-time.

At the age of seven the two started together at the local Sport Primavera club, where they quickly caught the eye of scouts, with their mother making sure to explain the best way to tell them apart: a mole under Angel’s right eye. They excelled in a footballing academy run by Adolfino Canete, a veteran of his nations Mexico 1986 campaign, running rings around kids older than them, and demonstrating an understanding of space, passing angles and movement that was beyond their actual years. Angel was perhaps the more flashy of the two, and racked up an impressive goal-scoring record in underage leagues as a centre forward, with Oscar making his home in an attacking midfielder role, with less goals but no less import. Their obvious talent had some significant names on the continent inviting them for trials, including Argentinian giants Boca Juniors, but there that fraught paternal situation had its insidious effect: such clubs needed both parents authorisation to sign the twins, and their father was nowhere to be found.

With such foreign adventures seemingly impossible, the twins choose to stay at home and joined Cerro Porteno, one of the biggest clubs in Paraguay, at age 14, making their debut in the senior side five years later. Angel got in there first, starting a week ahead of his brother and scoring a goal in the process. Two years later they were regular starters for the Porteno side that won the Campeonato de Clausura, Paraguay’s second annual league competition, undefeated. Again they drew notice, this time from around the world: with parental signatures no longer required, alleged interest came from Spanish powerhouses. Instead however, they stayed continentally, but with their first separation, Angel going to Sao Paulo’s Corinthians in 2014, and Oscar to Buenos Aires’ Racing Club a year later. Angel would win two national and two regional leagues with Corinthians, though Oscar would have less success in Argentina, loaned out for the last two years of his contract to Alaves in La Liga, before two seasons in the Chinese Super League with Shanghai Shenhua: I don’t know if the separation was behind the loss of form, but there are worse explanations.

National call-ups came after they had established themselves in the Paraguayan league, though the two have only been in and out of sqauds (though the first time they both started together, it was a famous away victory in Buenos Aires in the qualification for Russia 2018). Where Angel has more of the glory on the club level, Oscar has had more of a stable relationship with the national side, playing in three consecutive Copa’s, including Paraguay’s run to 4th place in 2015, though he was on the pitch for less than a half of game of football. Paraguay in that time have bounced back from their rock bottom position in CONMEBOL qualifying for Brazil 2014 to get within two points of progression for Russia, with either Romero brother contributing two goals to the process.

The two may be twin brothers, they may sit next to each other on the bench when not playing, they may even share a Twitter account, but they are very different players in many ways. Angel is half Van Nistelrooy/half Torres: a skillful forward comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to hit a pass delivered to him in the box first time or pull-off a snap volley from distance. His small size belies a player who is tougher than he looks, not liable to go down at first contact, and he has room in his game for some very South American flicks and tricks when the need comes. Oscar scores fewer goals, but contributes more in assists: he can whip in crosses from either side, take players on ahead of neat through-balls, or deliver pin-point accurate passes from deep.

In 2019 the time apart came to an end, as both twins wound up signing contacts with San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, helping the club to one of its highest league positions of recent times last season, scoring six goals between them in the process. The reunion may well have been a boon to Angel, and he showed that in Paraguay’s opening World Cup game, coming off the bench to score twice in his nation’s 2-2 draw with Peru, both of them close range volleys, and getting to start the following win over Venezuela. Oscar remained rooted to the bench, his own skills not as badly required as his brothers’.

In last night’s match away to Argentina, the brothers were both in the squad, but Angel got onto the field, playing on the right hand side of a forward three. It was a scrappy game for Paraguay, who had to spend the vast majority of it without the ball, and too frequently needing to foul the Argentinians to shut the opposition down. But it was the visitors who drew first blood, and it was Angel who did it, slotting home a penalty after captain Miguel Almiron was taken out on a charge. Angel did so with some style, with a stuttered run-up, an exaggerated jump ahead of the kick, and then a precise finish into the right-hand corner with Franco Armani largely stationary. But Argentina were not to be denied, Nicolas Gonzalez equalising with a powerful header off a corner just twenty minutes later. The home side dominated the rest of the game, with Messi hitting the bar and having a goal chalked off by VAR, but there were no more changes to the scoreline. Oscar remained on the bench for the 90, Paraguay’s midfield deemed to not need support. For the moment, it is the more attacking Romero who has the primary role with the national side.

Paraguay are not quite back to the level of the side that reached three consecutive World Cup Finals from 2002 to 2010, including that memorable Quarter-Final run in South Africa. But they are getting there. It’s a re-building project, that has seen players like midfielder Almiron, defender Gustavo Gomez and forward Antonio Sanabria become regulars in the team. The Romero brothers remain outside of that level, but have become mainstays in the larger squad, and after his recent performances Angel will be hopeful of emulating his brothers more consistent appearances. They will next have the chance of making an impact in a few days when Paraguay host Bolivia. Regardless, the Romero twins will still be an oddity that draws the eye: twins, club mates, national comrades. And, with the right set of results, maybe they might add World Cup Finalists to that list.

38. “Life Does Not End Here”: Columbia

(14/11/2020)

In 2014 Colombian football stepped out of the shadows, in one of the most exciting tournament performances of recent times.

If you ever want to talk about Colombia and the World Cup, there is one topic and two moments of infamy, that will come up again and again, and those are the own goal scored by Andres Escobar that was one of the factors that sunk the country’s USA 1994 hopes, and Escobar’s subsequent murder. In many ways, it has become a tired and repetitive trope, that often does a disservice to the events in question – it isn’t really clear if Escobar was murdered because of that own goal, or if he was just an unfortunate victim of a car park fight that went too far – and it must be considered by many Colombian fans to be an irritation for those events to be consistently brought up in relation to their subsequent World Cup campaigns. The shadow of 1994 we might call it. And that’s a shame, because, as Escobar himself said in reference to 1994, “Life does not end here”: Colombia have had one hell of an experience at a subsequent World Cup, and that was when they wowed the world for a few weeks in the summer of 2014.

Having missed out on three consecutive World Cup’s beforehand, Colombia faced into the qualification for Brazil with the possibility of being nearly-men for that generation, but stunned some by finishing second, behind only Argentina. Highlights included a 4-0 annihilation of Uruguay at home, a hard-fought scoreless draw in Buenos Aires and a thrilling six-goal stalemate with Chile that provided confirmation of automatic qualification. Under Jose Pekerman Colombia played a fluid style that often vacillated between direct long-ball and something close to tiki-taka: the coach also frequently changed up his starting line-ups, often to the frustration of people at home, with Colombia losing four times in the course of that qualification campaign. Many expected that a team with the attacking talent of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, with a backbone provided by David Ospina in goal, Mario Yepes in defence and Juan Cuadrado in midfield, should not have been having any problems qualifying, but Colombia undoubtedly made things harder for themselves than they may have needed to be. But the opposite argument could also be made, that such experimentation would end up being a long-term boon. Pekerman, who operates very much on a “one game at a time” mentality, then and now, had the last laugh.

Certainly, many were appreciative of Colombia’s forward-thinking style ahead of the World Cup, with the phrase “dark horse” thrown around liberally. The squad itself buckled down and tried to ignore such labels, and comparisons to the similarly titled 1994 team. Some of the hype certainly died down when Falcao was ruled out of the Finals with an ACL tear, but it was just such an eventuality that Peckermen had been preparing for in many ways.

Colombia had a relatively favourable group for the Finals and they announced themselves fairly definitively in their opening game against Greece. Full back Pablo Armero turned in from inside the box after five minutes (followed by an eye-catching coordinated dance number from several players), Teofilo Guiterrez prodded home from a yard out just inside an hour, and James Rodriguez opened his account with a simple side-footed effort in injury time. And there could have been more. Against a side famous for their defensive rigidity, Colombia had banished any concerns about the absence of Falcao in 93 scintillating minutes. Peckermen was unequivocal in the aftermath, stating that the team now had a chance “to prove how great Colombian football is”.

Cote d’Ivoire were next. It was a tough game, with the Africans giving it as good as they got, but Colombia’s better variety of attacking options told in the second half, first from a bullet Rodriguez header, and then Quintero’s breakaway finish a few minutes later. Cote d’Ivoire kept it interesting with Gervincho’s strike, but Colombia then showed their maturity and intelligence, packing their box and killing the game dead. Rodriguez later expressed astonishment when he learned which Ivorian player he had beaten to get the header: Didier Drogba, two inches taller than him. That he had scored with such a marker was a sign of confidence, translating into a spectacular tournament performance.

Only a point was required to top the group against Japan but Colombia, fully settled into their role as one of the tournaments brightest, most watchable sides, wouldn’t settle for that. Cuadrado opened what would become a rout with a penalty, Martinez steered a second home early in the second, got a third with a sweet curling effort before Rodriguez bamboozled both the Japanese defence and their goalkeeper to chip the ball delicately into the net after a superb solo run. Notwithstanding Japan’s efforts to get back into the game earlier that had netted them what turned out to be just a consolation, the 4-1 result was the third example of how good Colombia could be, and had many declaring them to be in contention to go all the way. Their attacking play, the obvious joy in their success and yes, the sense that they were doing what the 1994 team had proved unable to do, all contributed to Colombia becoming the darling of the neutral.

If Colombia were generating nothing but positive headlines, their opponents in the Second Round were generating nothing but negatives. Uruguay was absent their, ahem, mouthy talisman of Luis Suarez, and trying to get a handle on the storm of bad press he had given the side for his antics in the group stage. Despite Oscar Tabarez’ attempt to fire up his team with talk of injustice, it was to be expected that they would struggle to assert themselves, and the opening half-hour was a scrappy contest. Then Rodriguez received a header from Pereira 25 yards from goal, controlled it on his chest, turned, and volleyed the sweetest possible shot in off the crossbar. It was the goal of the tournament, demonstrating control, confidence and precision all in one glorious moment. Rodriguez added a less awesome second on the 50 minute mark, essentially a tap-in from a Cuadrado cross-goal header, with the Uruguayan defence floundering. Colombia retreated to manage the rest of the game out, allowing Uruguay a few chances fluffed, and were into the last eight. The moment belonged to Colombia and “J-Rod”, feted as the player of the tournament, eclipsing the absent Suarez and the injured Falcao.

Now the talk of Colombia as a World Cup winner in waiting really took off, especially as their opponents in the Quarter-Finals were hosts Brazil, who had been less than impressive thus far in the tournament. But Colombia, for the first time in the Finals, got thrown off their rhythm by an early goal for Brazil, Thiago Silva finishing from a corner in only the 7th minute, Peckerman’s side perhaps affected by the enormous noise being generated by the home support. Brazil had perhaps their best half of the tournament afterwards, with Rodriguez marked out of the game by several defenders anytime he got near the ball, when he wasn’t simply being hacked down by Fernandinho: three times he fouled Colombia’s star in the first half, and received no punishment beyond conceding the free. The game stayed at 1-0 by half-time, and the second half was a unattractive affair, scrappy, foul-ridden, stop-and-start. Colombia had reason to complain, with the host nation treated leniently in terms of cards while Colombia’s best attacking players were repeatedly tripped, pulled and otherwise impeded. Luiz’ free-kick put the game beyond Colombia, despite Rodriguez’ sixth goal of the tournament from the penalty spot a short time later.

The attacking Brazil of the first 45 vanished as they killed the game through delay and impediment, suddenly absent Neymar whose stretchering off provided the game’s other major talking point, and Colombia’s World Cup adventure came to an end. Of course, in many ways Colombia had the last laugh: Brazil, criticised for another subpar performance overall, would be humiliated a few days later by Germany, an opponent that Rodriguez and company may well have been better placed to take on. A “what if” without any chance of an answer, but Colombia could be well satisfied with what they had accomplished. They may not have won the World Cup, but they had sparked an appreciation of their football that had not existed internationally for the better part of 20 years. “We came here to play a great World Cup and didn’t consider it sufficient to just participate” Peckerman said, in terms of closing thoughts on the tournament. “That is the most important thing I can say about this squad.”

Colombia have not quite pushed on since. A 3rd place finish in the 2016 Copa has been their best performance after Brazil, and in the 2018 World Cup they ebbed and flowed, with an impressive victory over Poland before exiting too easily in the last 16 to England. James Rodriguez has never quite blossomed into the megastar he seemed poised to be, and the team remains somewhat reliant on the aging Falcao and Cuadrado for goals and stability. Peckerman has moved on, with Carlos Queiroz currently in the hot seat. Qualifying thus far as only really been OK, with a demolition of Venezuela, a late-won point away to Chile and a poor 3-0 reverse against Uruguay a few days ago. Tonight, Colombia tackle the thin air of Ecuador as they aim to continue their progress.

This is the Colombian football team really: a side that has problems and concerns, but which should not count among those the looming shadow of 1994 and Andres Escobar. In terms of football, there are more than enough happy memories to eclipse the bad ones. “Life does not end here” said Escobar, and his national team have proven that in subsequent displays. And they aim to go on proving it, with the next stage of life in the Middle East in 2022.

39. A Burgundy Fall: Venezuela

(17/11/2020)

Jose Peseiro has a job few would want, with the raised hopes of a nation squarely on his shoulders.

In a previous entry, I talked about the status of Venezuelan football in relation to the current qualifying campaign where, for the first time perhaps, there were genuine expectations that the vinotinto could challenge for a place in the 32 heading to Qatar. A chain of managers stretching back to 2000 had brought about a revolution in the sport for the country, and the latest head coach, former goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel, had the team competing well in the latest Copa and achieving their highest ever FIFA ranking. The future seemed, if not blindingly bright, then brighter than it had been.

But since I wrote those words things have crumbled somewhat for Venezuela, and the country now seems more likely to turn back to darker days where they held up the other nations of CONMEBOL in the qualifier standings. The major issue is the departure of Dudamel, who resigned from his position at the start of the year, citing a deteriorating relationship with the VFF. The exact details are sketchy, but it appears that a combination of Dudamel’s fractious relationship with certain players (Jozef Martinez of Atalanta had refused to play for the man) combined with various pressures from the federation, that may have had political overtones (a successful Venezuelan national side suddenly has garnered interest from the halls of power in a way they haven’t before) has resulted in him feeling that leaving now might be better than being forced out later.

Dudamel’s replacement is Jose Peseiro, a Portuguese coach best known for being a UEFA Cup runner-up with Sporting Lisbon in 2005. His was not an enviable job: to not only come in replacing a successful coach, to not only take the reins of a nation that had grand expectations in the immediate future, but to do so with the pandemic meaning that he can have no warm-up games and limited opportunities to get to know his squad, with whom he was only able to meet a week before their first competitive game together. Preparations were further hampered by the absence of Saloman Rondon, barred from travelling by his Chinese Super League club, who needed him to fight a relegation battle.

Peseiro could have had an easier opening contest too, asked to take charge of the Venezuelan team and their aspirations for the first time away to Colombia. They are another team coached by a Portuguese man, namely Carlos Queiroz, though the two were quick to downplay any rivalry. Pesiero aimed to have his team play with a shape meant to hit Colombia on the counter, but the on-field result was an unbalanced 4-2-3-1, with Venezuela cut to ribbons repeatedly in the first half: the back four was constantly caught ball-watching as the hosts raced into a 3-0 lead. The pick of them was Luis Fruto’s counter-attack where he ran almost the length of the pitch, tormenting John Chancellor, before blasting past Farinez in goal. Venezuela improved enough in the second half not to concede any more goals, but couldn’t score any themselves. Post-match, Peseiro was quick to say what many Venezuelan fans desperate to go to Qatar would not have wanted to hear, which was that the team, and their new management, needed time. He hoped that the next game, Paraguay in Merida, would have a better showing.

He was to be disappointed. In a difficult and hard-fought encounter Venezuela spent 90 minutes struggling to hit the target, and when the ball did end up in the net five minutes from time, it was Paraguay’s Gaston Gimenez who did it, powering home from a right-flank cut-back. This time it was the midfield that was largely at fault, heedlessly leaving Gimenez unmarked to nip in and chase the ball while the Venezuelan back-four was actually doing its job. Peseiro kicked a water bottle in frustration at the sideline, having seen a 65th minute Yangel Herrera header chalked off by VAR for use of the arm, a decision he disputed. In the dying moments, the chance for a draw was batted away by Paraguayan keeper Antony Silva, saving a penalty from Herrera. Again, Peseiro was left to call for time and patience in post-match interviews.

A month later, and things looked a bit better internally, with Rondon finally released from his no-longer relegation threatened club, and able to provide some much needed attacking focus. Externally, Peseiro would not have been looking forward to the third game in charge: away to Brazil, scorers of nine goals in the first two games of qualifying. In the end, Venezuela perhaps did better than expected but still came out of the game with nothing. Roberto Firminho’s 67th minute goal was another example of Venezuela being unable to deal with crosses, the defence scrambling under a ball played in high, allowing Firminho to sidefoot the ball into the net from only a few yards out. But it was not an unjust result: Venezuela largely refused to play, giving their opponents an astonishing 75% of possession, as they aimed for a scoreless draw and then proved unable to achieve a score one. Peseiro praised his teams defensive organisation afterwards, but if it wasn’t for the offside flag Brazil may well have won by more.

Chile at home is the next test tonight. For Peseiro, the match may already be viewed as make-or-break. While sympathy and understanding must be given to him for the way in which he was obligated to start his reign, for a team with genuine expectations of making it to Qatar to start with three losses, and no goals, does not bode well. No side has ever started CONMEBOL qualifying with such form and gone on to make it to the Finals. To get a result against Chile Peseiro will have to make do without suspended captain Thomas Rincon, and find a way to contain one of the continents’ most potent attacks.

But Venezuela have no other option but to win. If they fail to, and if they lose, those high hopes they had at the start of the year can be considered dead and buried, and a very real possibility of being the wooden spoon will be on the horizon. Whatever the reasons behind Dudamel’s departure, it is looking like a costly one now, with Peseiro clinging on. One thing is for sure: a turnaround from this position will be worthy of a the Cinderella story Venezuela have come to encapsulate.

40. Yeah, Right!: Brazil

(18/11/2020)

He may have missed the final shot, but Ronaldo de Lima made advertising history regardless in 1998.

As Brazil bask in the enviable position of being four for four in CONMEBOL qualifying, and already looking like the safest bet in the world in terms of likely participants in 2022 World Cup, one can’t help but wonder if we are finally seeing glimpses of a consistent “samba” style creeping back into their play. I wrote previously about how such a description has frequently been inappropriate for Brazil, a team who face unrealistic expectations for how entertaining they should be in pursuit of footballing success. But the way they have gone about their business in the competition thus far has been scintillating enough: a 5-0 demolition of Bolivia, a dominant 4-2 win over Peru, a 1-0 victory against Venezuela; and, last night, a comfortable 2-0 result away to neighbours Uruguay. They are the only team to have taken maximum points from the first four games. They appear to have clicked in an attacking sense, in a manner that echoes the exploits of previous teams like those of 1970 and 1998.

It is the 1998 side that was been brought to my mind especially. That was a notable year for me, as the first World Cup I was old enough to properly appreciate. And most who watched that World Cup will have in their memory a very special part of the promotion for it: a TV advertisement featuring the Brazil team that captured perfectly the positive perception of “jogo bonito” and sought to re-frame the entire sport from dingier examples of its highest level. It wouldn’t be too much to suggest that “Airport 98” might be the most famous football ad ever, an exhibition of how sublime the sport can look, through the canary-yellow clad Brazilian team and the way in which they could move the ball around an unlikely arena.

Where did “Airport 98” come from? The ad was the brainchild of Pierre-Laurent Baudey, then the advertising director for Nike. At the time the company was only just starting to get into the football market, but had pretensions of becoming #1. They were trailing behind their competitors, especially Adidas; that rivals official sponsorship position for the World Cup meant that Nike were going to have to try and make a splash with the tournament some other way. A major market research project that took in teams on three continents came to an important conclusion: that international football was in danger of becoming seen as a bore, after a series of uninspiring tournaments between 1990 and 1996 (if you aren’t English anyway). How to counter this perception? Why, it had to be with the defending World Cup Champions, who just so happened to have recently signed a multi-tournament deal with Nike.

Storyboards from a contracted advertising agency began to flood into Baudey’s office, and an outline of what would become “Airport 98” rapidly became clear. The Brazil team lounges in an airport somewhere, the most boring place on Earth, waiting for a delayed flight. Suddenly, a strike of inspiration: to pass the time the team start doing tricks with a handy football, and then suddenly they are soloing, dribbling, deking and volleying their way around the whole of the airport, dodging security guards and luggage trucks in the process. At the conclusion, star man Ronaldo has a makeshift goal at his mercy for the coup de grace, and of course hits the makeshift post to the comical disappointment of a previously wowed crowd. And everywhere, that Nike symbol.

He had an idea, he had a vision, but where Baudey really hit pay-dirt was in the man he was able to get to direct the whole thing: none other than John Woo, fresh from Face/Off, a man famous for creating films replete with ballet-like action sequences. Woo jumped into the task with energetic abandon, and turned out to be the perfect choice for turning the tricks and flicks of Roberto Carlos and Juninho into something akin to a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. As Ronaldo himself put it, Woo “told us to do karate moves, Matrix moves”. It was to be the ultimate marriage of footballing skill and modern entertainment.

And yet if you were to go by the experience filming, which took place mostly in Rio de Janeiro’s Galeao Airport, the project could well have been stillborn long before the World Cup gave it the spotlight it was designed for. There were problems getting all the players together, and then keeping them on-set throughout the mundanity of a shoot (on one occasion, Ronaldo had to be fetched from a sojourn at the beach). Filmed over Christmas, it was difficult getting needed supplies promptly at a time when many offices were closed. There were divisions on who the in-plane footballing celebrity who reacts to what is happening should be, with Woo’s first choice of Diego Maradona nixed in favour of Eric Cantona when it was realised Brazilian audiences would react negatively to the first choice. In the heat – a full 45 degrees by reports at one stage – outdoor filming on a tarmac became torturous, and the actual film had to be kept specially stored to stop it melting. Crew worried that cameras wouldn’t be able to take the temperature either. Later, a sudden thunderstorm threatened production.

Despite all this, Woo and Baudley struck gold. Woo’s kinetic style and scope for encouraging improvisation on-set proved a hit with the footballing cast. Many of the more eye-catching moments were improvised, with Woo happy to let the Brazilian superstars at it in terms of whizzing around or ricocheting the ball off of walls. Ronaldo, Denilson, Roberto Carlos and co were often asked to just do what seemed natural while surrounded by cameras. In other instances, they wowed the production crew by pulling off requested shots with little effort, right from the first take, like Denilson sending the ball straight through an x-ray machine, or Ronaldo hitting the post at the conclusion. Woo’s signature technique of getting a shot from multiple angles and picking the best one in post would pay dividends when things were wrapped. No Brazilian player has ever voiced anything close to a negative opinion of Woo or the experience.

The crew were left with a mountain of footage to parse through, and excitement built based on what they had. But it needed an auditory element to really send it into the stratosphere. Over 200 songs were considered to be the backing track for “Airport 98”, with Blur’s “Song 2” the frontrunner for a while. But, after initially discarding it, the producers came back to “Mas Que Nada”, an up-tempo samba classic by Jorge Ben, with “Airport 98” using the better known cover by Sergio Mendes. Loosely translated, the title is a sarcastic rejoinder along the lines of “Yeah, Right!” or “Whatever!” as the singer passes by someone in the way of an opportunity to dance. Conceived as part of a new beginning for popular samba when it was first released in the 1960’s, the entrancing vocals with the subtle blend of drums, piano and jazzy beats meant that the tune really did encapsulate the sense of effortless cool that the team wanted the ad to show. What was already a well known song in Brazil, and reasonably well known outside of it, was about to reach its biggest audience.

“Airport 98” made its debut on the 25th March 1998, played at half-time during a round of pre-tournament friendlies. While the real team was beating Germany in Stuttgart – Ronaldo scoring an 88th minute winner – it was the fictionalised versions that were leaving viewers gobsmacked. The next day, the Independent perhaps summed it up best by comparing the ad to England’s 1-1 draw with Switzerland: “…for armchair viewers, the evening did yield some moments of spectacular action. Regrettably for Glenn Hoddle, they came during the commercial breaks.” In time awards flooded in for the 90 second commercial, “Mas Que Nada” was suddenly a worldwide hit and Nike’s big gamble was completely justified in terms of sales and impact.

Of course, the actual World Cup would end in heartbreak for Brazil and Ronaldo, and there followed some unpleasant accusations directed at Nike about that extraordinary day ahead of the final. The alleged conspiracy to play an unwell Ronaldo at the instigation of the clothing giant was something that would wind up being investigated by Brazilian lawmakers, but there has never been anything close to hard evidence presented to back up the claim. A spokesman for Nike around the time of the World Cup emphatically declared “We do not own Brazil, we are their kit supplier…the perception of us as some kind of dark force is absurd”.

But time passes and such things begin to fade. I bet a lot of the people you could ask nowadays might well remember “Airport 98”, but would be less likely to remember the company it was advertising. Instead, they’ll think of Roberto Carlos launching a ball across the tarmac, Denilson dancing across an automated walkway and Ronaldo’s final failing shot. It’s rare that a corporate exercise can create something so genuinely entrancing, and iconic; if something released in the lead up to Qatar 2022 can best it, it would be something to see.

41. Poles Apart: Qatar/Bangladesh

(05/12/2020)

At extremes and yet connected, Qatar and Bangladesh gets the AFC back on track.

While the vast majority of sides in Asia will resume their World Cup qualifying campaign next March, two teams did so four months early last night, owing to an agreement between their respective associations. And it was the sort of match where the two teams couldn’t be more different in most respects. The 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, playing in front of a 20% capacity in the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium, faced the practically eliminated Bangladesh. It was a game with nothing really on the line in terms of the World Cup, but with plenty otherwise: an AFC Cup berth, FIFA rankings points and a continuing effort from both sides to prove that their place at this stage of international competition is justified.

For Qatar, the only reason they have featured in the Second Round of World Cup qualifying is because of the way that it doubles as entry to Asia’s continental competition, and when the next two games are done Qatar will be looking ahead to guest appearances in other continental competitions. The Asian champions have plenty of work to do: notwithstanding their success in 2019, that caught many off guard, they remain a side that you suspect may struggle when asked to go up against teams from the traditionally stronger confederations. Accusations that they are overly-reliant on naturalised talents to boost their standing remain, and the squad, currently made-up entirely of players from the Qatar Stars League, faces a very different test in late 2022. But the largess of the government of Qatar is not inconsiderable, and has clearly made the team much more than they were when the 2022 World Cup was awarded to them.

Felix Sanchez Bas, the head coach of Qatar, must be in dreamland to a certain extent. A key part of the Barcelona youth set-up that brought us that golden generation, he entered Qatar’s underage system as a coach in 2013, graduating to the senior side in 2017, a time when money was rolling in and important players in the game nationally and internationally had a vested interest in making Qatar as competitive as possible. Glamour friendlies that other Asian sides can only dream about, invitations to join the Copa America and Gold Cup, that AFC Cup victory last year; Qatar have come a long way from the little known pre-2010 side, that had never made a major impact in World Cup qualifying and counted a quarter-final appearance in the AFC Cup as the height of their achievements.

On the other side of the scale, poles apart from Qatar, lie Bangladesh, rock bottom of the qualifying group, albeit not quite eliminated from contention ahead of this game. In reality the height of the Red and Green’s ambitions, having gotten this far by scraping by Laos in the First Round, will be to see if they can get to 4th or 3rd place in the group in their remaining games, which would get them a bye into a later round of AFC Cup qualifying. Football faces an uphill struggle in Bangladesh, where it is perennially in the shadow of cricket: a recent minor surge in the sport’s support is largely down to journeyman manager Jamie Day, who arrived in the country, with the double job of coaching the senior side and the U-23’s, two years ago. Positive results in regional tournaments and making the side reasonably competitive in the current campaign – a 4-1 reverse in Oman is as bad as it has got, and Bangladesh were two minutes away from scoring a famous away win in India before a late equaliser – has largely been his work. COVID has been a major interferer in Day’s plans more recently, alongside the more ever-present problems like the constantly cash-strapped nature of the Bangladeshi Football Federation.

It’s probably COVID more in Day’s mind though, as the Englishman tested positive for the virus on the 16th of November, forced to stay behind as his squad and coaching team flew out to Qatar without him, assistant Stuart Watkiss taking the reigns. Additional positives came during a mandated quarantine in Doha, but eventually the team was able to get training in, and play some warm-ups. Stuck in Dhaka, Day was left to fume about the opponents Qatar came up with for those friendly matches ahead of the tie, which consisted of a second tier league team and a Qatari Army side (Bangladesh lost both): As Day said, “I needed better opponents than the ones provided…Qatar played Costa Rica and South Korea.” Such differences exemplify the massive gulf between Qatar, nominally one of the richest nations on the planet, and Bangladesh, one of the poorest. One side is more likely to have excellent training facilities, top-tier warm-up opportunities and a lower risk of contracting COVID. Bangladesh, as sides of their level always must, make do. A week before the game, the BFF President described the tie as an exercise in damage control.

The undercurrent of the match lies in the demographics of the host nation. A huge proportion of Qatar’s actual population, if one includes non-citizens, comes from the Indian sub-continent: as of last year, it was believed that 400’000 Bangladeshi nationals are resident in Qatar, economic migrants working menial jobs, especially in the construction sector. This is low-paid employment undertaken in often miserable conditions, that have included the building of World Cup stadia and brought widespread condemnation from human rights groups. It’s a dangerous existence in many ways, where exploitation is rife, yet still preferable for many against the abject poverty they are fleeing at home. Many are resident in Qatar illegally, without legitimate visas: for them COVID lockdowns and work stoppages this year have been a literal matter of life and death as much as the virus. Such men and women are left with no means of generating any income and are contemplating starvation in the face of an unsympathetic state and an uncaring Bangladeshi embassy. Seeing Bangladesh playing Qatar in Doha is a rare opportunity of exhibiting national pride in these circumstances: no surprise then that some of the loudest noise in the stadium comes whenever Bangladesh are on the ball.

Day did get to join his team a few days before the tie, but it was hardly ideal preparation, and most believed that his team would line up to sit-back, frustrate and take whatever chances they could get on the counter. They rely a lot on midfield veteran Jamal Bhuyan, one of the only members of the squad playing outside of Bangladesh, and had little expectation of threatening the opposition goal. Remembering a surprisingly hard-fought encounter in the reverse fixture earlier in qualifying – a 2-0 Qatari victory – Baz entered this game showing plenty of respect for the opposition in his selection and tactics. The AFC’s Player of the Year Akram Afif started, as did the 2019 AFC Cup top-scorer Almoez Ali.

The pattern of the game was set from the off, and continued for almost the entire 90 minutes: unrelenting Qatari pressure, with the majority of the Bangladeshi team staying behind the ball. The visitors counted their time in possession in seconds, doing well just to get enough space to boot the ball into the Qatari half for a few moments. The World Cup hosts always came back at them quickly, passing the ball around the Bangladeshi half, probing for weaknesses, and peppering the opposition goal. Within five minutes, they hit the post. Within ten minutes, they were in front. The opening goal came from the boot of Abdulhaziz Hatem, a side-footed effort that took a crucial deflection off of Topu Barman, leaving Anisur Rahman in the Bangladeshi goal flat-footed.

Qatar simply did not let-up, looking to kill the game off in a half. In many ways it is to Bangladesh’s credit that they did not fold in the face of the pressure: only one more of Qatar’s 18 unanswered first half efforts at goal went in. When it did it was Afif who got it, and it was a beauty: a right-footed curler from just outside the box, beating Rahman at full stretch. And yet as loud as the goals were greeted by the home support, one cannot but be heartened by how the Bangladeshi’s watching greeted, with a wall of cheering, their team’s sole corner, which constituted their only serious foray forward in the opening 45.

The second half was simply more of the same, as Day pragmatically attempted to stifle Qatar and prevent further goals, and Sanchez urged his team to convert more of their chances and exhibit a ruthlessness they will have to hone between now and December 2022. Rahman in goal, in only his second appearance for his country, played a blinder: within a few minutes he denied a close-range Ali header, and then turned a scorching Mohammed Waad effort from over 30 yards out around the post. But inevitably the Bangladeshi’s tired, and Qatar’s 75% possession stat was eventually reflected on the scoreline. Just after the 70 minute mark substitute Moayad Hassan was tripped in the box, and Ali powered home the resulting penalty. A few minutes later Qatar cut the opposing defence open with an incisive high cross, side-footed expertly by Hatam into the path of Ali, who awkwardly chested it into the goal: he was then taken off after colliding with the post in the process. Afif finished the late pile-on in injury time, confidently scoring from the left of goal after finding unexpected space.

In some ways it is an unjust result, given the obvious effort that Bangladesh put into the game and to the enacting of their plan: it seems more likely that match fitness was responsible for the final three goals than Qatari skill, with the Middle-Eastern side often forced to rely on speculative efforts. On the other hand, Qatar finished the game with 32 attempts on goal, to Bangladesh’s one: so perhaps Bangladesh can count themselves somewhat lucky the final score was not more lop-sided. In the end, the result cannot really be said to be a surprising one, for either side. It certainly didn’t stop the Bangladeshi fans cheering.

In the aftermath, Day professed satisfaction. Though the score-line indicates otherwise, Bangladesh stuck to a plan and made things difficult for their opponents for a considerable period which, given the difference in level, is feat enough. He looked forward positively to hopefully more competitive games in March. Sanchez was similarly happy, only wishing that his side could have converted more of their chances.

The result officially eliminates Bangladesh from World Cup contention, though hopes of perhaps finishing above last place in their group remain alive. A quirk of scheduling means that all three of their remaining games – Afghanistan, India and Oman, in that order – are at home. One win might be enough to avoid the wooden spoon. If Day’s side can keep the same cohesion and hard-work ethic as they demonstrated for most of the game against Qatar, there is no reason why they can’t pull it off.

As for Qatar, they are now on the cusp of being able to defend their AFC Cup in China come 2023. With two games left, they have an eminently winnable tie away to India and then a slightly trickier challenge at home to second placed Oman, which will likely decide who tops the group. But second would also be enough, barring a very unlikely set of results elsewhere. The long term outlook remains locked on the World Cup: on the basis of this result, Qatar may struggle against better opposition, but there is at least two years to build the side’s ability up, with the team down to play at least 24 games in 2021.

Qatar and Bangladesh remain poles apart, on just about every conceivable level. In footballing terms one is heading to a World Cup, the other is happy with whatever minor improvements in form and ranking they can get. Their positions are unlikely to change anytime soon. But one can’t help but be affected by that Bangladeshi support in Doha, who encouraged their team on any touch of the ball: stripping away the negativity surrounding Qatar and their hosting, we can see the pure beating heart of the sport in that, as faint as it may be. That is something to remember, and to cherish, ahead of the AFC continuing the qualification road in March.

42. Boom, Bust, Boom: Ireland

(07/12/2020)

A nice stadium with a lot of debt attached: Irish football in a nutshell.

FIFA designates the team that is representative of the Football Association of Ireland as the “Republic of Ireland” owing to a historical dispute with the Irish Football Association of Northern Ireland. I may use the same term on occasion, but will more frequently use the official name of the country – my country – which is just “Ireland”.

Today, the penultimate entry into World Cup Qualifying has taken place, as the long-awaited draw for the UEFA portion of events went ahead in Zurich, virtually, with no representatives of FA’s present. 55 nations were divided into ten groups from which they will embark on the long-road to Qatar, with the UEFA Nations League further complicating matters and offering additional chances. There are true heavyweights in most groups, true minnows, and plenty in-between. One of those in-betweeners, currently undergoing a crisis in their administration and a crisis in footballing identity, is my own: Ireland. If it can be said that a nation’s football team is a reflection of the nation, then the Irish football side has often matched Ireland’s propensity for success, followed by disaster, followed by success. A cycle of boom, bust and boom, and it remains to be seen if Ireland are currently mired in bust or on the cusp of another boom.

It is no exaggeration to say that some of the most potent collective memories in the history of Ireland – not the history of Irish sport, the history of Ireland – revolve around its three trips to the highest stage of football. Ask someone here to complete the phrase “A nation holds its breath” and I will bet any amount of money you care to name that you will receive the reply “Yes, we’re there!”, George Hamilton’s iconic description of the last penalty kick of the Italia 1990 Second Round shoot-out with Romania. They’ll remember Ray Houghton’s floating pot-shot that stunned Italy in 1994 before Paul McGrath neutered their attack for most of the game. They’ll remember Ireland’s Second Civil War over Roy Keane and his departure from the side ahead of the 2002 World Cup, Robbie Keane’s injury time equaliser against Germany in the group stages, and losing out to Spain in the Second Round. Every time we have gotten there, the experience has been a special one for some reason, good or bad. But it is now 18 years and counting since the last trip, and Irish footballing history since then has been a tumultuous affair, punctuated by a disastrous EURO 2012 and a much more creditable EURO 2016.

In that time the Football Association of Ireland has been dominated by one man. John Delaney became CEO in 2004, after being one of the board of directors for his local club Waterford United. He oversaw the association in the, as we realise now, dying days of the “Celtic Tiger” era, when the Irish economy appeared to be maintaining a position of extraordinary strength. He was pivotal in the re-development of Lansdowne Road into the Aviva Stadium, in the hiring of Giovanni Trapattoni as Ireland’s manager in 2008 and in the distribution of vital finds to football clubs of varying size and level throughout the country.

Delaney was able to garner an aura of a man who was capable of getting things done, especially financially: he had the ear of officials in FIFA and UEFA, of government ministers, TD’s and councillors, of figures in the media. After Thierry Henry’s infamous handball in 2009, he got €5 million off of FIFA for the association. He was the kind of man who enjoyed his position and the perks it brought: he was famously filmed, clearly inebriated, carousing with Irish fans in Poland during EURO 2012. In his time, the FAI became a highly centralised entity, with Delaney right at the centre: accusations of improper governance went largely unheeded.

The good times were not to last. The financial crash that heralded the end of the Celtic Tiger exposed huge swaths of Irish society to gutting, and the FAI was no exception, eventually. The debt from the Aviva Stadium construction was massive, grassroots football lost funding, clubs in the League of Ireland went to the wall. Delaney, increasingly seen as a problem-maker rather than solver, struggled to keep the plates spinning as wages in the FAI were cut and increasing attention was brought on the association’s general finances, with Delaney himself drawing an enormous salary. For a while, the train stayed on the rails, helped by that EURO 2016 run, the success of the LOI’s Dundalk in continental competition and Delaney’s position as the head of a patronage network of sometimes quite intense loyalists. Posters criticising Delaney at LOI matches were confiscated while a succession of embarrassments played out, such as the women’s national team threatening to go on strike when they had enough of paying for their own kit, or Irish clubs in Europe having to wait on prize money they had earned on the pitch that the FAI couldn’t dole out.

In 2019, long past the point when Delaney’s regime was in any way admired by the majority of Irish football fans, the house of cards most definitely collapsed. Among other alleged financial impropriety, it was revealed that Delaney had recently given the association a “bridging loan” of 100K to stop the FAI becoming insolvent. The loan, which was not adequately noted in accounts, opened the floodgates. Suddenly the FAI’s books going back years were put under scrutiny, and what was found was not pretty. Where they had once claimed to be in a solid position, it emerged the association was laden with debt, with numerous dodgy elements to the whole affair, such as payments to Delaney’s ex-girlfriend for supposed “professional services” (that she claims to have no knowledge of; Delaney is currently suing her for libel), numerous purchases on company credit cards that were not properly recorded, FAI money used to pay for a lavish birthday party for its CEO, treasurer’s who seemed to have no knowledge of FAI accounts and tax certificates, and an extraordinary appearance before a government committee where Delaney refused to answer any questions asked of him. The length and breadth of the scandal is too complicated to go into detail on here, but it suffices to say that Delaney appeared to be acting as if the FAI’s finances were, in fact, his finances, to do with as he pleased. The Irish government pulled public funding for the FAI until massive reform of its operations was enacted, and eventually, after a period where he desperately tried to cling on, Delaney was compelled to resign. Criminal investigations are ongoing at time of writing, with Delaney having apparently moved to England.

The aftermath has been hard for the FAI. Efforts at electing a new board free of the taint from the old have proven difficult, and getting the Irish government to release badly needed public funding even more so. Anytime the organisation is the headlines, it’s typically bad news recently. The financial situation got so dire that a public bailout of the association was mooted, though resisted, a recourse that some posited could result in FIFA taking action and disenfranchising the FAI. That would have left Ireland without a team, and needing to come back up from the very bottom of rankings whenever they got back. The FAI has been able to struggle on and avoid that terrible possibility, but it remains an association clinging to solvency, with enormous debts that seem likely only to increase in the short and medium-term.

That’s the FAI. What about the football team? Ireland have ebbed and flowed since 2002, consistently failing to get back to the World Cup, despite some high profile, and expensive, managerial teams. For much of that period, Ireland have remained wedded to a basic, functional style: of setting themselves up to be “hard to beat”, of direct “hoofball” tactics, and of being happy to get draws when going for wins is just a tad too risky. This identity probably reached its zenith under Trapattoni, a man who was open – too open sometimes – about what he saw as his side’s limitations. The Martin O’Neill/Roy Keane axis had Ireland playing better football for a time, but they too reverted to the mean by the end.

The constant, never-ending debate behind the scenes, in the newspaper columns and among the fans, is whether Ireland should stick to such conservatism, or embrace a more modern, attractive style. In essence, are Irish players capable of being more like the best teams in the world, or should they stick to being “hard to beat”? The current system has had its ups and downs: just as with the country at large, and with the FAI, the cycle is evident. Boom, Ireland get to EURO 2012. Bust, Ireland are the worst team at the tournament and a few months later get trounced 6-1 at home by Germany. Boom, Ireland beat Germany in their next qualifying campaign, beat Italy in the group stage and are a half hour away from dumping France out of their own tournament in EURO 2016. Bust, they’re thrashed 5-1 at home by Denmark, ending their bid to get to Russia 2018.

But that’s just the national side. Irish football has problems all over, and the national team is just the end beneficiary of them. Fledgling Irish players are too often stuck playing a rudimentary style at underage level here, and then too quickly flogged off to English clubs when they show even the slightest morsel of talent. The League of Ireland, infamously described as a “problem child” by Delaney, is a perennial basketcase of a league, under-funded and under-supported, with nearly every club experiencing severe financial crisis at some point in the last two decades (Trapattoni would once infamously insist that Ireland “had no league”). The fact that most of Ireland’s best players in that same timeframe had some LOI experience in their formative years is lost on too many: the larger truth is that a successful national side needs to have a successful league underneath it. Attendances have fluctuated at the top level, association football is in a constant battle for attention with rugby union and gaelic games, and a unified, coordinated approach to tackle all of these problems has too often been eschewed for pie-in-the-sky magic bullets, like recurring schemes to try and merge the LOI with its Northern Irish equivalent, the NIFL.

Ireland’s recent managerial situation reflects the chaos that has defined the last few years. In 2018, a still Delaney-helmed FAI decided to replace O’Neill by looking back to Mick McCarthy, the man who had managed Ireland to Japan/South Korea before everything came unstuck around Roy Keane. With Ireland due to host games for EURO 2020, McCarthy was perceived as a safe pair of hands most likely to get them there. But, in a bid to ward off criticism that McCarthy’s second tenure was a sign of stagnation, the deal also included the provision that Stephen Kenny, famous within his country for turning Dundalk into a powerhouse, would be installed as the temporary U-21 boss before taking over from McCarthy once the upcoming qualifying campaign was done. Kenny was seen as a man who could change Ireland’s playing style to something more attractive, more passing focused, who would get the chance to do so with the U-21’s first. While there was logic to it, many were baffled at the decision to put a time limit on McCarthy’s job.

COVID complicated the situation still further, with EURO 2020 postponed and McCarthy’s contract running out before the campaign was finished. After an uninspiring run of results, McCarthy had gotten Ireland a route to the finals, but that didn’t matter, seemingly. Rather then keep him on to try and finish the job he started, it was decided to stick with the plan, so Kenny was brought in with Ireland facing a do-or-die play-off with Slovakia, with only friendlies and Nations League matches to serve as introductions to the senior side. It was an astonishing set of circumstances, with the team not just changing managers, but being asked to adopt a whole new playing style, all while COVID continued to play its part.

The results have been less than stellar. Kenny has had to deal with injuries and a swath of COVID-related pull-outs for every match of his short tenure, but even with that Ireland’s lack of cutting edge recently is of great unease. At time of writing they are on a seven game streak without scoring, including a shoot-out loss to Slovakia in that play-off. Possession and passing stats are up, and Ireland generally are attempting to make better use of the ball, but cutting edge in the final third has vanished entirely. Those who wanted Ireland to embrace a new style of 4-3-3 and build-up play from the back can only look on with mounting concern, as cries begin for the Kenny experiment to be ended before Ireland’s seeding takes too much of a hit. Calls for a return to conservative hoofball, of ground out results and a “hard to beat” sentiment, are already getting louder and louder, especially from media types that have little regard for Kenny and his LOI background. A silly incident involving an alleged “political” motivational video Kenny showed to players ahead of a friendly with England – that Ireland lost 3-0 – has also been a needless distraction. But given the COVID impact on the team he is due more patience, and will be granted at least the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign, with three critical games in March that will go some way to determining where Ireland stand under Kenny.

Ireland have been drawn in Group A, alongside Portugal, Serbia, Luxembourg, and Azerbaijan, with Qatar an informal sixth participant. It will be a tough task: getting top spot is a long shot at best, and a battle for second is as much as Irish fans can hope for, with an in-form Luxembourg hungry to take a scalp. But for Ireland, the coming campaign is about something more long-term than a place in Qatar. It is a battle for the very soul and ethos of Irish international football: between conservatism and progression, cynicism and idealism, pessimism and optimism. Between believing that Irish players have the talent to play, and believing they need to accept limitations and play only to their strengths. It remains to be seen if Irish international football can leave the cycle behind and enter an era of Boom without the inevitable Bust. By the end of March, with matches against Serbia, Luxembourg and Qatar in the rearview, we will be closer to an answer.

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, 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

Bangladesh, 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

*Should they qualify, Russia are banned from competing in the World Cup Finals under that name.

Photo Credits

Eating Liver: The Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, Bolivia, one of the highest stadiums in the world. Photo by Dennis Jarvis, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Twins: The Romero twins, Oscar and Angel, after a World Cup qualifier against Venezuela in October 2017. Photo by Getty Images.

“Life Does Not End Here”: James Rodriguez about to score for Colombia against Uruguay in the Second Round of the 2014 World Cuo. Photo by Chensiyuan, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

A Burgundy Fall: Venezuelan manager Jose Peseiro, photographed in 2016. Photo by Football.Au, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Yeah, Right!: Ronaldo de Lima in Nike’s “Airport 98” advertisement. Copyright Nike.

Poles Apart: Boualem Khoukhi of Qatar and Nabib Newaj Jibon of Bangladesh contest the ball in a World Cup qualifier in Dhaka in October 2019. Copyright AFC.

Boom, Bust, Boom: The Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by pickupimage.com

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2 Responses to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (V) Getting On With It

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

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

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