211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (VI) March Madness

Part One: The Beginning

Part Two: The Road Broadens

Part Three: Dreaming In Asia

Part Four: Football In The Time Of COVID

Part Five: Getting On With It

Four months after the last game of World Cup qualifying the whole process burst back into life in March, with three confederations holding matches simultaneously: North America and Europe got their shows on the road, while Asia continued drip-feeding us games. It was a hectic final week of the month, with well over 60 games packed into a tight timeframe: dreams were met, dashed, or dared to be grasped, in little more than seven fateful days.

Part Six: March Madness

43. In The Eye Of A Hurricane: Puerto Rico

44. “We Are Not Bad Either”: Tajikistan

45. The North Remembers: Canada

46. Doped: Russia

47. The Eruption : Montserrat

48. 15%: Faroe Islands

49. The Forbidden Door: Japan

50. Expressions Of Nationhood: British/U.S. Virgin Islands

51. Lions And Eagles: England/Poland

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43. In The Eye Of A Hurricane: Puerto Rico

(24/03/2021)

Nearly four years on from a defining catastrophe, Puerto Rico’s footballing community tries to progress on the field and give back to the community.

Football, actual international football, recommences today in terms of World Cup qualifiers, after a break of four months. The arena is the First Round of CONCACAF’s qualifying process, where the majority of the lower-ranked sides in the confederation compete in a single round robin group stage over the course of a few hectic months. The winners of each group progress. The other teams are finished. It is likely to be a road to nowhere for many sides, island minnows who will be happy for the chance to play more competitive games than is usual. For others it will be a tense, nail-biting affair, where the single round format will make every goal scored, and every goal missed, all the more important, a figurative matter of life-and-death.

But away from football, one of the sides engaged today has already had more than enough literal life-and-death situations in the not-too-distant past. The island of Puerto Rico continues to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria three-and-a-half years ago, and aside from the lives lost, the homes destroyed and the after-effects on the islands economy and society, the sporting life of Puerto Ricans continues to be affected. Today’s tie, St Kitts & Nevis in the nominated host nation of the Dominican Republic, is a chance to return to something resembling normality, even as the game does its best to contribute to the ongoing effort to mitigate any future disasters, and to give back to the community that sustains it even in the most difficult of times.

Even before Maria, Puerto Rican football was up against it. The island’s status as a unincorporated territory of the United States – a long-standing debate continues, with no end in sight, over whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state – means that American culture has had a large influence, with basketball and baseball being the most popular sports. Even after them, football – and it is “football”, not “soccer”, despite Uncle Sam’s impact – lags behind boxing. Various iterations of a national league, mostly competing with amateur or semi-professional sides, have come and gone, while the national team has struggled to ever be considered anything other than a CONCACAF also-ran, its lone appearance at a finals being at the 1993 Caribbean Cup. While football is a popular sport in terms of participation at young ages, the island has never been able to cobble together a truly competitive side.

In many ways, more emphasis has been placed on Puerto Rican clubs playing in continental leagues than on the national side. One of the most prominent of those recently was Puerto Rico FC, who played in the North American Soccer League, which at the time of its existence constituted the second tier of American soccer. The club was somewhat competitive in the few seasons of that existence, providing a professional outlet for the best footballers from the island, but when NASL got into financial trouble in 2018, deferring its season and then vanishing altogether, the latest hope of Puerto Rican football followed the league into oblivion.

Before that oblivion came the hurricane. Over three terrible days in September 2017, Puerto Rico was battered by the Category 5 Maria, the most powerful storm to have hit the island in nearly a century. Close to 3’000 people were later adjudged to have either been killed by the hurricane, or by its effects in the aftermath. $90 billion dollars worth of damage was done to the island, including the destruction of its electricity network, and widespread battering of water systems, the agriculture industry and the almost complete gutting of several urban centres. In the face of a totally inadequate response from the Trump administration, and only a few weeks after the less devastating, but still destructive, Hurricane Irma had wrecked havoc, Puerto Rico was landed into an enormous humanitarian crisis.

The clean-up was lengthy, and the consequences for all manner of Puerto Rican institutions immense. The economy of the island was wrecked, and a debt crisis led to an extremely controversial law that allowed for an appointed committee to control the country’s budget. This resulted in an imposed austerity that has cut the legs out from under large parts of Puerto Rican society and turned the years after the hurricane into one of the defining political crises of the island’s history. To talk about football in the face of such human misery seems somewhat tawdry, but it can be acknowledged that every single aspect of Puerto Rican life was hit in some way by Maria and the aftermath, and football was a victim too.

Numerous pitches and stadiums were completely smashed, most notably the national stadium, and home of Puerto Rico FC, the Juan Ramon Lubriel just outside of the capital San Juan. In the aftermath, sporting life was rightfully placed far behind the necessitates of survival and rebuilding vital infrastructure, though football did its part: charity games held on the island and throughout America contributed to the relief effort, football served as an escape and mental health boost for some, and the plans for a new Puerto Rican league, the LigaPro, are tied to the ideals of being a major socioeconomic contributor to the island (though they may yet come into conflict with the PRFF, which runs its own “official” leagues).

Now the quest to rise from the ashes has begun in earnest. In terms of infrastructure, that means the rebuilding of stadiums – already accomplished in the case of the Lubriel – and the relaying of pitches. In this, there are efforts to create lasting eco-friendly structures that will be better able to face up to the winds of another hurricane. Better yet, the new grounds that have gone up, with some help from CONCACAF and FIFA, are being specifically designed so that they can, in time of need, be more easily turned into shelters and temporary refuges for those made homeless by another storm. In that respect, Puerto Rican football is committed to not suffering the same damage again, and to being a contributor to a larger national effort to forestall another catastrophe. In terms of the team it means the hiring of Dave Sarachan, once an assistant to Bruce Arena in the U.S., as the head coach, who took over a few weeks before this campaign.

In Group F of the First Round, Puerto Rico face relative giants Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, the Bahamas and today’s opponents St Kitts & Nevis. Fourth seeded, few expect much from Puerto Rico, who would be doing well to take three points from the Bahamas, and maybe one or two elsewhere if they really play-up. But this should not be taken as meaning that the side have no ambitions. Puerto Rico, like a lot of the Caribbean islands, are looking more to 2026 than 2022, when the combination of the enlarged tournament and the absence of co-hosts Canada, America and Mexico from the qualifying process, will open up some slots that were not open before.

Puerto Rico’s new would-be league claims that it is fully behind the building of a national side that will be able to have a tilt at qualification at that time, and are trying to lay the groundwork for that now, with that new competitive structure for the island, with better facilities, coaching and attractiveness, from which a World Cup worthy squad might be available. But 2022 is not off the radar yet, and Puerto Rico will have to face four difficult games before they can put that behind them. Hopefully they will be contests that test the mettle and teach some lessons, if nothing else. Puerto Rican football has survived a hurricane: after that, there’s really no telling what it could end up doing.

44. “We Are Not Bad Either”: Tajikistan

(25/03/2021)

Tajikistan host the return of World Cup qualifying in Asia in Dunshabe, in the hope that they can have their football make headlines for the right reasons.

Tonight, football resumes in the worlds largest continent, four months after the last qualifying game. The competition is AFC’s Second Round, Group F, the arena is the Pamir Stadium in Dushanbe, and the game sees Tajikistan take on Mongolia. For the visitors, still nominally in contention to progress, the game is yet another chance for them to roll the dice and try to upend the odds, having already taken one scalp, in the form of Myanmar, already. But the game is far more important for the hosts, who have the genuine possibility of progression to the last stage of World Cup qualifying in their hands, should they choose to seize it. It has been a somewhat remarkable rise in fortunes for the Tajik’s in recent years, having been also-rans for some time: as defender Akhtam Nazarov said when Group F was first drawn “All of the teams are good: Japan are strong, Kyrgyz Republic are strong” before adding, with a degree of devilish understatement, “and we are not bad either.”

Popular perception of sport in Tajikistan often focuses on the altogether remarkable horseback game of buzkashi, but football is the biggest draw in the country, and largely has been since it was introduced there in the 1920’s. The national league is extremely popular and the national team rarely fails to pack out the Pamir, perhaps as they are the best means of exhibiting the country’s status and sovereignty, as one of the smallest breakaway Soviet republics, on the international stage. But in terms of the World Cup, the efforts to get to one has resulted in a history of failure. From their first attempt for France 1998 Tajikistan have consistently fallen at an early hurdle. Things grew rather desperate in the last decade, as South Africa 2010 qualifying was ended with a rather humiliating loss in a play-off to Singapore, Brazil 2014 qualifying saw them battered by Uzbekistan, Japan and North Korea before much the same happened against Australia, Jordan and Kyrgyzstan for Russia 2018.

The reasons for this litany of underwhelming results are obvious if one takes even a cursory look at how the sport is managed within the country. Tajikistan’s inability, or unwillingness, to send players out to foreign leagues is obvious, so they rarely get the chance to improve their skills like others do. The national side has had an unfortunate preference for a succession of failing coaches in the last ten years, who come and go with an average reign of just over a year. Blatant nepotism in its footballing organisation is obvious, with the biggest example being the fact that the son of the country’s dictatorial ruler, Emomali Rahmon, is President of the Tajikistan Football Federation. The same son runs the capital’s Istiklol Dushanbe club who have, in an eye-raising coincidence, won every Tajik league since 2010. Hooliganism has been a oft-seen part of the club game in response to Istiklol dominance and perceptions of corrupt officiating. And there is the inevitable impact of political instability at home, with Tajikistan fighting a low-level military conflict with eastern militants for some time now along with frequent incursions by terrorist groups like Islamic State. All of these factors help to negate the popularity of the sport internally when it comes to the fortunes of the international team.

And from the outside looking in recently, some of the biggest headlines internationally about Tajik football have also come with a rather negative tinge, as they come arm-in-arm with examination of the country’s lackadaisical approach to the COVID pandemic. COVID hit Tajikistan as hard as it hit its neighbours though Rahmon’s government, never one to allow the press much freedom, has always been quick to downplay its impact, going as far as to declare the country “COVID-free” earlier this year (numerous international agencies disagree). But despite this, the Tajik football pyramid, most notably its “Higher League” went ahead on its normal schedule from April 2020 onward, in line with a general “as you were” attitude for most of Tajik society.

The Federation only went as far as banning spectators, but sides like Istiklol went ahead with their games as if nothing was amiss. For a period Tajikistan was one of only a handful of countries – the others including Belarus, Nicaragua and Burandi – maintaining its league system, virus be damned. This meant that it garnered an unexpected amount of interest from a western football-watching community starved of competitive sport, with Tajik club games suddenly getting ten times their usual audience. The government and TFF were able to crow about their outlier status, especially in the face of record streaming rights revenues, but such things appear to have come at an enormous cost for Tajik society and sporting life. Throughout April, and despite government denials, the COVID incidence rate was sky-rocketing. Eventually, around a month after the start of the season, it was realised that the situation could not hold and the TFF suspended its play, though only for a month-and-a-half. In the end a reduced 18 game season was completed, with a predictable winner.

It’s a bad situation no matter which way you look at it, but at least in terms of the international game Tajikistan can point to better news that carries less of a taint with it. In March 2018, following setbacks in qualifying for the Asian Cup, Uzbek Usmon Toshev was brought on to coach the national team. With a background as a bit of a journeyman manager throughout Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Toshev came out of nowhere to a certain extent, but in line with having a hold on the Tajikistan underage set-ups, he has managed to do great things in a very short amount of time. He’s been helped by what appears to be a veritable golden generation of youth players who are making a big impact, having come up through overachieving U-16 and U-17 sides. They include 18-year-old Rustam Soirov and 22-year-old Shahrom Samiev upfront who have been banging in goals for their clubs, with Samiev making a rare jaunt outside of Tajikistan to do so with Moldova’s Dinamo-Auto Tiraspol. Rustam Yatimov in goal, Zoir Juraboev in defence and Amirbek Juraboev in midfield are similar examples of very young players who have gelled competing together for the underage sides, and also for the same club: you probably don’t need three guesses to determine which one. At the extreme end, a promising 16-year-old, Alijoni Aini, may make his senior international bow as well. The average age of the squad to face Mongolia is under 22, making Tajikistan’s team one of the youngest in international football history. With this comes inexperience, but it also comes with speed, enthusiasm and a lack of history weighing them down.

The current campaign has, at least in part, played out well in terms of Toshev’s preference for youth. A hugely impressive opening day victory over neighbours Kyrgyzstan was followed up with victory over Mongolia before an almost inevitable defeat to the destined group winners Japan. A degree of overconfidence heading into the game against bottom seeds Myanmar perhaps resulted in Tajikistan being on the wrong side of a seven-goal thriller and they needed to bounce back a few days later with their hopes of progression in the balance. Seven minutes away from doing the double over main rivals Kyrgyzstan, the Tajik’s had to settle for a a 1-1, in their last competitive game over 16 months ago. Despite that catastrophic loss to Myanmar, it has been a mostly positive campaign for the Tajik’s, who now face into what are bound to be the most nervy matches of their recent history.

Tonight it is Mongolia, a game where they simply must take all three points. There will follow the return game against Japan, where a draw would be a minor miracle and more likely can already be dismissed as an exercise in learning some lessons from the continents best team. They close against Myanmar, where they will presumably need little in the way of motivation. Level on points with Kyrgyzstan, who play the same opposition in a different order, Tajikistan must hope that their neighbours slip up and drop points, as they languish 7 GD behind them. And it must be remembered that whoever comes out on top of this horse race for second spot might yet be denied progression to the last stage of Asian qualification, as only the best five of the eight second-place teams will gain that prize. But Tajikistan still being in contention for that spot, and still having most of their destiny in their own hands, is an enormous improvement for a side that have never gotten to that last stage in qualifying, and hasn’t looked likely to do so for the better part of 20 years.

The confidence that these results have engendered in this young Tajik squad, who can now declare themselves on the same level as their rivals, is obvious. The lengthy wait between qualifiers may only swell this feeling: a team of youth has had a year to mature, and most of them got a season of club football in during that time, even if the manner that they did so was troubling. Tajikistan are unlikely to be among the 32 in Qatar, but if they were to make it to the AFC’s Third Round, a promised land all of its own for teams that have never made it that far, it would be the kind of headline that its footballing stakeholders will prefer over those that carry with it criticism of their COVID response. “We are not bad either” can be the the unlikely rallying cry for this new generation, that seeks to move beyond the virus, beyond the dictatorship and beyond a history of underachievement to stake a brighter future for Tajik football.

45. The North Remembers: Canada

(26/03/2021)

The moment of moments in 1985, but Canada’s greatest footballing memory comes with a large asterix.

Canada began their own delayed journey to try and make it to the World Cup Finals last night, away to the Cayman Islands. The Canadians will have optimism that they can get through this opening stage, and make a creditable effort at qualification for Qatar, ahead of their automatic place as co-hosts in 2026. Improvements in their position and quality of play recently have been obvious, but the Great White North has never been a footballing hotspot, with precious little in the way of major success in their history with the international game. The one significant exception to that was their appearance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, but that moment, the kind of thing that should be a hallmark of footballing consciousness in any nation with a paucity of achievement, carries a stain owing to events in the aftermath. Little discussed nowadays, how some of the most important players who got Canada to the Finals ended up exiled from that team just a short time later remains one of that country’s darkest sporting stories.

Canada in the 80’s were a team on a slow upwards trend. Following many disappointing decades of humdrum results in World Cup qualifying and continental competitions, the result of poor administration, amateur or semi-amateur status and constantly being overshadowed by the two nations to their south, the team began to get better results. This was thanks largely to English coach Tony Waiters, who took over the side in 1981 and instantly began to manufacture an upswing. An English international with five caps, he had narrowly missed out on a place in the squad that won the World Cup in 1966, something that perhaps motivated his own sterling efforts to give Canadian international football a shot in the arm. After a brief career at the club level in Canada he was promoted to the national side and was able to utilise some of the most exciting talent that Canada had ever seen up to that point. They included pacy forward Carl Valentine and, more importantly, Igor Vrablic, a Slovakian-born emigre who was his adopted nations most potent attacking threat. In 1984 Waiters was able to steer them to a respectable Quarter-Final appearance in that year’s Olympics, where they went out to Brazil only on penalties. The following year would be Canada’s apogee, as they faced into the 1985 CONCACAF Championship – the forerunner of the Gold Cup – that doubled as qualification for Mexico 1986.

Canada had gotten to the tournament on a walkover after Jamaica withdrew from qualification, a sign of how badly run things frequently were in the confederation at the time. They were given a favourable draw in the First Round, facing Guatemala and Haiti: the former were dispatched at home and held to a draw away, while the latter were relieved of four full points. That got Canada into the Final Round, alongside Honduras and Costa Rica (Mexico were qualified automatically as hosts, while the States had crashed and burned beforehand).

That Final Round was a roller-coaster all of its own in many ways, played home and away and with only one game ending without a draw or a single goal victory. Canada opened with a hard-fought stalemate with Costa Rica, followed it up a week later with a momentum-gathering win away in Honduras – who had been to Spain ’82, so were no slouches – and then ground out a scoreless draw in San Jose. For the last game of the group, Canada vs Honduras in St John’s, all three teams were on three points, with the Canadians top by virtue of a single goal difference. A win or a draw would do it.

That entire game can be found online, and is a classic example of 80’s football coverage. The broadcast opens with a track-suited, and very awkward, Waiters attempting to confidently assert that his team has a great chance of qualification, but looking very much like a rabbit in the headlights. He needn’t have been so concerned. A rabid record-setting crowd had filled the King George V stadium – a ramshackle affair situated in the centre of a park, buttressed with temporary stands for the match – and they saw a tough, physical game, as they so often are against Central American sides. The weather was bitterly cold, which was half the reason Canada had chosen to play the match there, utilising their familiarity with the temperature (and their opponents unfamiliarity).

Canada took the lead through veteran striker George Pakos 15 minutes in, as he drove a loose ball home after a scramble in the box, a moment that had the Canadian goalkeeper sprinting up the field to join celebrations. The Hondurans came back though, and equalised early in the second half, Porfirio Betancourt prodding home from close range after the home defence was split open down the right. A draw was still enough but the Canadians, mindful of missing out on previous World Cup appearances by very slim margins, pressed on. Just past the hour, a swift corner was whipped in, going over the heads of attackers, defenders and a mis-positioned goalie alike, and Vrablic was on the line to knee the ball into the net. The passionate crowd, seeing history unfold in front of them, cheered the team home. At the final whistle, they invaded the pitch. Canada were North American Champions, and World Cup qualifiers, something that would have seemed an impossible dream barely a decade earlier.

Canada’s time in Mexico had less happy memories, but one cannot expect miracles. They were placed in a tough group, against heavyweights France, a Soviet Union team that would be European runners-up within two years and a not inconsiderable Hungary side. They put up a worthy fight in the opening game against Platini’s France, holding one of the pro-tournament favourites to a stalemate until 11 minutes from time. Platini had his head in his hands while addressing the press afterwards, while Waiters, and his accomplishment in undermining expectations his side would be walloped, was largely ignored. His side went on to two routine defeats to the other teams in the group, both 2-0, and were on the way home soon enough. But getting there, and being competitive there, were major achievements. In line with the launch of a new Canadian Soccer League the following year, things looked bright for Canada’s footballing future.

And then it all came crashing down. Waiters stepped away from his position after the World Cup, perhaps reasoning that he had laid the groundwork and that it was now time for someone else to bring the side forward. His replacement, Bob Bearmark, had his first opportunity to take the team at a friendly tournament, the Merlion Cup, in the autumn of 1986. Along with a core of veterans from the World Cup squad, Bearmark’s roster included plenty of youth and first-time debutantes. In a six-team round robin format, Canada easily progressed to the knock-outs, where they were down to face North Korea.

The night before the game, some of those veterans – Dave Norman and Vrablic – and some of those new faces – Hector Marinaro and Chris Chueden – sat down to play some cards. A late arrival to proceedings was midfielder Paul James, who suddenly found himself being given the chance to take part in a scheme involving the others at the table: to throw the game against the Koreans and then pocket a share of $100’000 they had been offered to do so by local bookmakers. James agreed, and the game was duly lost by a score of two goals to nothing.

But James was struck with pangs of conscience, and later returned his share to the other conspirators. That wasn’t enough to soothe his moral qualms, and he eventually divulged the truth to other players, Waiters and then the Canadian Soccer Association. A criminal investigation was launched, though as the events in question took place in Singapore no charges could be prosecuted (the Singaporean bookmakers got two years in prison). But the players in question, minus James, all received bans from the international side.

One must remember the precarious employment situation for these players, with their careers always dependent on clubs that seemed to fade in-and-out of existence with disturbing regularity, with the only outlet sometimes available in Canada being the less-than-glamorous world of indoor football: in such circumstances the temptation for a relatively massive payday would be huge. But Vrablic’s involvement remains puzzling, given his status. Playing for a top tier Belgian club at the time, he was taking in the kind of paychecks his Canadian teammates could mostly just dream about, so his willingness to risk it all is still confusing today. Was it simple greed, or the ego of a talented young athlete who thought he could get away with anything?

Norman’s ban was rescinded six years later after he was sufficiently contrite about his part, but it stuck for everyone else. Vrablic vanished from the game altogether, European clubs unwilling to hire him. He has lived in obscurity ever after, his career over before he was 22. With the nucleus and best attacking options of the side suddenly gone, and the manner of their absence leaving a pall over the team, Canada regressed sharply. For Italia ’90 they were swiftly knocked out of contention by Guatemala and, though they improved during qualification for subsequent World Cups, they spent the next decade floundering at the continental level.

Since then things have ebbed and flowed for the Canadians. A Gold Cup success in 2000 has been the height of their achievements, but comes against a litany of World Cup failures, Canada consistently failing to be on a par with Mexico, the United States or the best of Central America since 1986. There has been plenty of reasons for optimism more recently however. The establishment of a new top tier for Canadian club football, the Canadian Premier League, is a major plus, allowing Canada to form its own structures and potential feeder system for the national team, outside of the MLS (which remains the primary recruitment pool for the senior mens side). More Canadians are playing at an elite level in Europe, perhaps most notably forward Jonathan David with Lille, who became the most expensive Canadian footballer in history last year after a reported €30 million move from Gent. Current manager John Herdman is also of note, with his coaching background up to this point being almost entirely with womens teams: having guided Canada’s women to some success up to 2018, he has now been backed with getting the men to the sort of level they want to be at ahead of their guaranteed return to the World Cup in 2026.

Canada would dearly love to show that they don’t need co-hosting rights to get that privilege though, and have a chance to prove it by making it to Qatar. Getting past this First Round shouldn’t be the hardest, with their opposition all island minnows or semi-amateurs. In their first game last night, the Cayman Islands were put to the sword with Cyle Larin of Besiktas notching a hat-trick as Canada largely coasted to a 5-1 victory, with the opposition only getting on the board off an unlikely goalie error. Such games prove little difficulty for a Canadian squad with veteran found throughout MLS and European leagues, and top spot in the group is a strong likelihood. But they will then have the harder task of a home-and-away tie against a team of similar level in the Second Round before, if they get there, that eight team Third Round where the real giants of CONCACAF await. Top three get to Qatar, fourth gets the intercontinentals. Not impossible, but difficult: it may yet prove a step too far for Canada.

At least they can focus on the challenge with a certain level of expectation, and without any weight from their history. But while the suspensions of Vrablic and his conspirators are a little noted aspect of Canadian sporting history, it is there all the same. It’s a stain and a regret, that inevitably dilutes any celebration of that glorious day in St John’s when the dreams of their football fans – always in short supply in North America – came true. The chance to banish that regret entirely, and create a new generation of heroes out of the current team, remains. The North remembers, and it also expects.

46. Doped: Russia

(27/03/2021)

The relationship between Russia and FIFA has not been enough to prevent a banning of the Russian name from Qatar, another stunning stop on a road filled with dodgy dealings and unanswered questions.

A few nights ago, the 2018 hosts got their 2022 campaign underway with the relatively easy task of Malta in Valletta. Russia walked away with all three points, after a slightly harder-than-expected 3-1 victory. Following on from their unexpected success in their own World Cup, Russia are off to a strong start, and it is likely that either they or Croatia will top Group H when all of the games are done. But this first match was taking place under a bit of a pall for the visitors, with an emphasis very much on “a bit”: it’s the first game the Russian team has played since confirmation that, if they are to make it to Qatar, they will be not be permitted to play in the World Cup Finals as Russia.

This unusual status is a result of a long-running series of investigations and tribunals connected to Russian sport and its doping practices, but the really important point is that the footballers of Russia are not actually barred from the tournament. No team from the Russian Federation that makes it there will be able to play as “Russia”, but they will be able to play, as long as they are labelled, to a sufficient extent, as “neutral athletes”. They won’t be able to walk out behind their flag, but they can use Russian colours in their jerseys. They won’t be able to hear the “State Anthem” before their matches – I’m not sure what would be used in its place – but once the anthems are over they will be able to take the field and play. This strange limbo has raised many eyebrows, a ban of a country but not its footballers, and naturally engendered questions as to whether it is a suitable punishment, or if it has any merit as a punitive measure at all.

Sports-based doping has a lengthy enough history in Russia, going back to the time of the USSR. The 1980 Olympics in Moscow were dubbed the “Chemists Games” by an investigatory committee, that claimed most medal winners from the host nation were on some drug or another, usually provided by the state as part of a finely researched and well-funded programme. Even after the fall of communism, the Russian Federation appears to have kept up the effort, with a long series of their athletes and teams implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but with the additional level of murk that comes with such things being state-sponsored.

The vast majority of attention on such matters, which really began to blow-up following the airing of a German whistleblower-influenced documentary, “The Doping Secret: ‘How Russia Creates its Champions“, in 2014, has been squarely on various shades of Olympic athlete, and the list is long on that score. But football has been far from guiltless in the growing scandal. In June 2016, another documentary, among other accusations, provided evidence that then Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko had been involved in covering up the doping of an unnamed player from Russia’s FC Krasnodar. The player was allegedly found to have hexarelin, a synthetic growth hormone, in his system, but the test was quashed. Mutko sat on FIFA’s governing council at the time, and was a leading name in the efforts to organise the 2018 World Cup. A month later the McClaren Report, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate state collusion in Russian doping, claimed that there were at least 11 separate instances where a positive drug test of a Russian footballer was the subject of an officially-backed “disappearing positive methodology”, where they either vanished or were swapped with a clean sample.

The report set-off a chain of further investigations related to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but as Russia had failed to qualify for the footballing portion of events there it is fair to say that this side of things got little attention. In regards the 33 footballers named in the report from Russia, FIFA would only go so far as to confirm that no Russian footballer had failed a drug test at the 2014 World Cup, or at the 2017 Confederations Cup, and that there was insufficient evidence to take any more action. Such things did little to dispell concern, and that concern became acute when, late in 2017, it was revealed that FIFA had sacked Professor Jiri Dvorak, their chief medical officer, while he was in the process of investigating Russian doping. The sacking, which came with no notice or explanation, occurred around the same time as the chairmen of FIFA’s ethics and governance committees were also removed: both had been involved in the investigations into Mutko’s role in the scandal and the discussions on whether he was suitable for a role on FIFA’s governing council. FIFA has made no official comment on the sackings, and also refused to confirm whether any of the appointed replacements were continuing the work.

By the summer of 2018, with the Russian World Cup imminent, the issue was back in the headlines when Grigory Rodchenkov, a whistleblower who claimed to have been intimately involved in the state doping programmes, claimed that a member of the Russian squad for the Finals had participated in one of those programmes. Again, FIFA insisted they could do nothing, and later confirmed that no Russian player in the Finales failed a drug test. That didn’t stop the father of Russian midfielder Denis Cheryshev claiming a few months later that his son had taken growth hormone supplements at the time, though Cheryshev was later cleared. But enough accusations of Russian footballers being involved in such programmes, combined with the telltale signs of an official cover-up, have been made that it is increasingly hard to take FIFA at their word.

The length and breath of the legal processes that have taken place because of all of these accusations are an epic in themselves, constituting a tangled web of inquiries, tribunals, punitive measures, appeals and counter-appeals, all going back and forth between numerous committees, watchdogs and court systems. Though the most recent ruling from WADA seems like it has an air of finality to it, there is likely going to more in the way of challenges still to be made, as people as high in Russian society as Vladimir Putin – I can’t really think of anyone higher – have previously expressed the sentiment that competing in international tournaments under a neutral name and flag is a humiliation that cannot be borne.

And there is the other side of course, the cavalcade of voices that feel like what has been decided doesn’t go nearly far enough when it comes to punishing Russia for what it has done with its athletes. Various sporting personalities have cried foul at what they see as WADA essentially washing its hands of the issue, with a punishment that doesn’t really punish anyone. WADA, an organisation seemingly designed not to make any friends in the sporting world, has come under increasing pressure to do more to combat such widescale doping programmes, and it would seem that the unstated opinion is that Russia should be banned, in any form, from going to Qatar. The news last week that FIFA had opened proceedings against three unnamed Russian footballers accused of taking performance enhancers has kept the overall story in the headlines, even if those three are uncapped at national level.

All of this overshadows what has been a relatively successful period for Russian national football. Few, among them myself, gave them much of a chance of accomplishing anything in the summer of 2018, having to tackle a group that included Uruguay and Egypt, but they came through it, and then scored a famous victory against a directionless Spain in the Last 16. They couldn’t repeat the trick in the Quarter-Finals against Croatia but getting that far was achievement enough, a run that left Russian football fans enraptured at the unexpected progression. Russia’s inability to ever really make good on its advantages in population, funding and not inconsiderable league is something that weighs heavily: 2018 showed that they have the potential to compete with the very best at this level. But one hopes they are doing so fairly. And if they are not, that they will be caught doing so.

After Malta, tonight’s match, Russia’s first home game of the campaign, should be the somewhat harder test of Slovenia. Russian footballers can still dream of a place in Qatar and a chance to prove that 2018 was not a fluke. But the accusations, recriminations and perceptions over what has gone on across Russian sport, regardless of FIFA’s dismissals, will continue to cast a shadow that is not so easily dispelled.

47. The Eruption: Montserrat

(28/03/2021)

The volcano looms in more ways than one over Montserrat, but now the football team will continue their efforts to make the island known for more than just that disaster.

In the northern stretch of the Leeward Islands, in the chain known as the Lesser Antilles, is the Caribbean speck of Montserrat. A British territory that is home to less than five thousand people, the island has always traditionally been one of the minnows of CONCACAF football, but have bucked that trend somewhat in their first game of World Cup qualification, a 2-2 with Antigua and Barbuda, in the COVID mandated surrounds of Curacao. Curacao is also where Montserrat take the field for their first nominal home game of Group A today, where they “host” El Salvador. The idea of making it to Qatar is an extremely distant dream for the Montserratians, but the long shot nature of that unlikely ambition should not deflect too much from a resurgence in the island’s footballing prospects as of late, as it continues to emerge from the shadow of not-too-distant disaster.

Montserrat has never been able to make much of an impact on the world, with the two most notable things attached to the place a metronome between the briefly curious and terribly tragic. The first is the island’s connection to Ireland, with large numbers of Irish settling there in the 17th century, many of them not by choice but rather at the, to put it nicely, insistence of British authorities. This gave, and still gives to a certain extent, Montserrat a distinctly Irish flavour in terms of its culture, even if the time when Irish ethnicity was a recognised fact of life on the island is long since gone. Place names include Kinsale, St Patricks and Cork Hill, the coat of arms is a representation of Erin, the 17th March is a national holiday and a few words in the local dialect can still be recognised as having Irish roots. For the footballers, this extends to being dubbed “the Emerald Boys”.

The second thing, the tragedy, was the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in 1995, which wiped out the settlements on the southern half of the island, including the capital, Plymouth. 19 people were killed, and in the following years the majority of the island’s population left for good, with only the northern half of Montserrat deemed capable of habitation. The years since have been about a slow and steady recovery, in population, tourist trade and economy, and while there have been some gains Montserrat remains a minor part of Britain’s modern-day colonial portfolio.

Football was far from immune from the destruction meted out by the volcano: having only been constituted in 1991, the nearly entirely amateur national team took a lengthy enough break from competition owing to both the destruction of facilities and the loss of many players who had moved permanently to the UK afterwards. With barely a thousand people on the island the chances of getting a league going, let alone a national team, were kaput for several years. After losing 11-0 to St Vincent and the Grenadines in a Caribbean Cup qualifier in May 1995, it would not be until February 1999 that Montserrat would take to the field again, losing 3-1 to the British Virgin Islands in a Caribbean Nations qualifier. Added on top of it all was the inability of the island to host its own home games, and it would not be until 2014 that Montserrat did that again.

Montserrat’s footballing status was so low at the time that when other teams were gearing up for the World Cup in 2002, the Emerald Boys were looking up at them from the very bottom, ranked dead last of FIFA’s then 203 nations. An unlikely opportunity for publicity arose from such circumstances however, when two Dutch ad agency partners, Johan Kramer and Matthijs de Jongh, organised “The Other Final” to compensate themselves for a lack of orange in South Korea/Japan. The game pitted #203 in Montserrat against #202 in Bhutan. Despite initial skepticism from either side about the project, the prospective FA’s eventually embraced it as a good publicity exercise if nothing else, with such an avenue especially important for a Caribbean island considerably down on its luck. The game, that took place in the high altitudes of Thimpu, ended in a 4-0 victory for the hosts, but the scoreline wasn’t really important. It remains the most notable thing in the history of Montserratian sport, an example of good sportsmanship and international opportunity through football.

The most notable until recently that is, when an eruption of a very different kind has occurred. An increase in the islands population, greater ties to players who have their club game in England – the current squad includes men from Bolton Wanderers and Maidenhead United – and the appointment, in 2018, of Willie Donachie as manager have all played in their part in what has been Montserrat’s best period ever. Donachie, a one-time Scottish international, is a renowned coach whose intelligence, mindfulness focus and holistic teaching methods has seen him become a fondly remembered part of the recent history of clubs like Oldham, Everton, Manchester City, Newcastle as well as other Caribbean sides. It’s unlikely, for example, that Manchester City would be the footballing behemoth that they are today without him, as he was an acclaimed part of the backroom team that saw the side recover from their Second Division position in 1999, that included that fateful play-off win over Gillingham.

He’s helped to blood a new generation of Montserratian footballers by concentrating on making the game enjoyable to play for them first-and-foremost, with a penchant for positive reinforcement when he isn’t advising players on breathing exercises. With a background in mediation and a pro-active attitude, Donachie has managed to inject a greater verve, cohesion and aptitude in his charges. And the aim has been more than just introducing a feel-good factor, but of making Montserrat a team worthy of respect, capable of going toe-to-toe with any of their neighbours.

The end product has been undeniable, with Montserrat entering the 2018/19 CONCACAF Nations League as one of the lowest ranked sides in the confederation, and leaving it with three wins – over Belize, Aruba and the Cayman Islands – and a hard-fought loss to El Salvador. Going into the competition among the worst seeded of 34 participants, Montserrat came within two GD of qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup. In the subsequent smaller groups, the team added more wins over the Dominican Republic and Saint Lucia and, due to the somewhat convoluted process of the competition, have made it to the final qualification tournament for the 2021 Gold Cup, due to take place in July. The campaign constitutes more than half of Montserrat’s winning performances in their entire history, and is a stunning endorsement of Donachie’s somewhat unique approach to coaching.

Now Montserrat aim to bring that measurable improvement in their fortunes to the next test. Montserrat have never won a game in World Cup qualifying. Last week, they got only their second draw. Today, they face a bigger test in El Salvador, the team that denied them that place in the Gold Cup. An unlikely grudge match, if Montserrat could get a win, or a draw, it would put them in contention for the kind of progression that nations of such size and population can typically only dream about. Regardless, Montserratian football has already played its part in a re-orientation of how the island is perceived from abroad, and can be safely backed to continue that trend, until that speck in the Caribbean is far more than just an island with a volcano.

48. 15%: Faroe Islands

(29/03/2021)

In one of the most isolated, and beautiful, parts of Europe, football finds a way to take root, survive and thrive.

Last week, one of Europe’s long-standing minnow nations began yet another seemingly hopeless campaign for World Cup qualification. Away to Moldova, Håkan Ericson’s charges sought to get things off to the best possible start, ahead of much tougher tasks later against Denmark and Austria, and were able to walk away with a 1-1 draw. Despite the nature of Ericson’s team, few would have automatically called it an embarrassment for Moldova. The Faroe Islands have always been tough, have always taken their pride in representing their country and have always turned that pride into a resilience on the pitch beyond their nominal level. This doesn’t mean that they punch above their weight too much, but it does mean they can be a very tricky opponent, with any trip to Torshavn a potential banana skin. From their famous 1-0 win over Austria in their first ever competitive match in 1990 to their record points hall in the qualification for Russia 2018, the Faroese have frequently defied expectations in terms of their competitiveness.

The reasons you might think little of their footballing chances are obvious. The place is a windswept collection of small islands, islets and skerries, with the nearest populated part of Europe being almost 300 km’s away, so the opportunities to be part of a larger footballing community is already facing a substantial geographic obstacle. Little more than 52’000 people call the islands home, making their way almost entirely through fishing and fish farming, so there isn’t an enormous (footballing) catchment area. They stick mostly to the coasts, with the interior of the islands rugged and rocky, so there isn’t much room for football pitches. And the Faroe Islands are not a fully sovereign country, being rather an autonomous territory of Denmark, that has been humming and hawing about independence for decades; there are few examples of such political entities making good on a sporting stage.

And yet, these are all obstacles that the Faroese have consistently battled to overcome. It helps that, in line with their culturally-similar brethren in mainland Scandinavia, the population of the islands has every opportunity to embrace athleticism. Those 52’000 people spend a lot of time and energy on sporting endevours, embracing the Nordic model of publicly backed sporting facilities being readily available for every citizen. This means that participation levels are through the roof in the Islands compared to other European nations, with plenty taking part in handball, volleyball and rowing. But football outstrips them all. A staggering 8’000 Faroese citizens are either registered football players or confirmed as playing the sport recreationally on a regular basis: 15% of the overall population. In comparison, studies have found that in England only 8% of the population can say the same. In pitches that dot the landscape wherever they can be fitted, often of the artificial variety, the Faroese play, and play all the time. The local league is well-supported, with ten clubs scattered throughout the islands, and three tiers operating below them. My own country, one of nearly 5 million people, supports only two.

Their footballing history reflects the obsession in many ways. Where other minnows that the Islands are often classed with, like Andorra, Liechtenstein or San Marino, regularly go through World Cup qualifying groups without scoring a single point, the Faroese have never failed to. That 1-0 victory over Austria is etched in the memory, a very important go-to example of national pride, famous for a thundering speech delivered pre-game by coach Páll Guðlaugsson, who railed against the “arrogant Austrians” and encouraged his team to throw themselves into tackles on behalf of their childhood home. Some very notable results have followed over the last thirty years: draws with Scotland, Slovenia, and Cyprus, near things against Germany and Italy, wins against Estonia, Lithuania and Greece. They have never gotten close to qualification to either a World Cup or a EURO’s, and have shipped plenty of losses, so they are consistently in the lower 100’s of FIFA rankings. But the time has never really come when a game against them is considered a gimme. Under a number of committed coaches – Henrik Larsen and Brian Kerr probably the most notable – successive crops of players, the vast majority homegrown, have been groomed, overachieved relative to their country’s level and then helped the next generation do the same.

All of this led up to that aforementioned Russia 2018 campaign. Under Dane Lars Olsen the Faroese had been coming on in leaps and bounds since 2011, scoring more and registering those stunning back-to-back wins over Greece in qualifying for EURO 2016. More and more of the team was finding a place in clubs outside of the islands, in various Scandinavian leagues and even the Bundesliga in the case of striker Joan Edmundsson. Heavy defeats to Portugal and less heavy defeats to Switzerland were the low points of an otherwise spectacular campaign, with wins against Latvia and Andorra matched with three draws seeing the Faroe Islands hit 4th in a six team group, and by only a goal scored or conceded in games against Hungary tantalisingly close to third. In line with an impressive performance in the Nations League, where they moved from the “D” tier to “C” last year, and the decent Europa League run of last seasons league champions KI, it is clear that the Faroese are more than just dismissable whipping boys.

But what is it all for, in international terms? The Nations League opens up a potential path into future EURO’s that would have been all but impossible beforehand, and Faroese eyes will presumably be very focused on that, more achievable, goal, instead of the World Cup. Even when that tournament expands to 48 teams, getting high enough in the perpetually tough UEFA qualification system would seem like a long shot, regardless of pluck and never-say-die attitudes. Nations like Iceland provide the template for possible success though: perhaps with the same commitment to youth development, infrastructural advancement and, most importantly, patience in abundance, the Faroese could one day legitimately dream of reaching that height. In some ways that is their biggest contribution to the international game: for the other perennial fifth and sixth seeds, the Faroe Islands demonstrate that it is possible to compete, to win and not be laughed out the door when talk turns to the idea of tournament qualification.

Trying to match or better that 2018 campaign in the current one is a big enough task to be facing at the present time however. In the first match they got a point: the Faroese will hope to pick up a win in the return fixture, and then target additional successes against a perennially struggling Israeli side and maybe even the Scots, against whom that have been capable of stealing points before. But before any of that, last nights game brought back a familiar foe: Austria in Vienna. Since that famous 1990 victory, the Faroese have faced the Austrian five times, drawing one and losing four.

They were not fancied to come full circle since 30 years ago, but had the script re-written a tad by getting the first goal, a Sonni Nattestad header from a corner. This time it was the jolt Austria needed, and they scored the next three to run out comfortable winners, but the Faroe Islands and proved their worth, competitiveness and gumption yet again. If they were to snatch a draw, or even a win, in the return fixture it might be a surprise, though we could not call it the shock of the World Cup. Not anymore. For the Faroese and their 15%, the game is just another opportunity to show the rest of us just who they are and what they are made of.

49. The Forbidden Door: Japan

(30/03/2021)

Knock knock

Tonight, Japan face Mongolia in a match they are widely expected to win. In the reverse fixture almost a year-and-a-half ago, the Blue Samurai stuck six goals into the same oppositions net, and with six different scorers to boot. They are one of only three sides to have maintained a 100% record at this stage of AFC qualification, and victory in this match, nominally a Mongolian home affair but actually being played in Japan due to COVID, will make their advancement to the final round of qualifying a near mathematical certainty. For Japan, this part of the international footballing calendar has become as routine as it can possibly be. It’s just everything afterwards that is the problem.

Japan, despite their position at the head of the AFC table, despite their imminently successful national league and despite the pool of talented players to put on the blue jersey, have found themselves consistently unable to get beyond the last 16 of the World Cup. It is a forbidden door that many in the AFC have been unable to get past, but for which Japan have less excuses than most, with all of their apparent advantages. Figuring out just why is at the heart of national football in the islands.

The Japanese performance at the most recent World Cup in Russia makes the point. Qualification, despite topping both group stages in the AFC, was a closer run thing than they would have liked, the performances poor enough that Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodžić was sacked less than three months before the Finals, replaced by Technical Director Akira Nashino. Few expected much, but Nashino’s philosophy of attack-minded, flowing football was able to catch a lot of people on the hop, albeit with a bit of luck. Carlos Sanchez’ red card flipped the expected narrative of the opening game against Columbia on its head, even if Japan still looked somewhat out of their depth in squeezing out a 2-1 victory against a team playing with ten men for 87 minutes. Coming from behind twice to draw with Senegal was arguably a more creditable performance in the second game before losing the last 1-0 to Poland, a match marked by the lackadaisical approach to the final few minutes, with Japan advancing to the knock-outs on fair play points and unwilling to risk any yellow cards. Such things drew criticism, but Japan were breaking no rules. Moreover, they had gazumped the predictions and gotten to their high water mark yet again.

Few would have expected any more of Japan, going up against one of the tournament favourites in the Second Round, but the world was alight on 68 minutes with Belgium two goals behind and staring elimination in the face. A potent, open and attacking tactical set-up had allowed Japan to take advantage of Belgian underestimation and nerves to score twice in the second half, before the forbidden door to further progression closed again: the same open tactics allowed Belgium to score three in the last 25 minutes of play. The third was particularly cruel: a Japanese corner where the Asian side committed men forward looking for a winner, only to get caught on a blistering counter-attack. They may have wowed the neutrals, but it was the same old story in terms of results.

For Japan, it was just the latest example of coming up against that forbidden door, the third time they have reached the last 16, the third time they have been unable to go any further and the third time they have had to watch their conquerors march on to further glory. Having been in the international wilderness before the 1990’s, a consequence of a largely amateur club set-up before then, Japan have been one of the most dominant sides continentally for the last thirty years, but their World Cup appearances have had little to talk about. It has been three matches, three defeats in France, a Second Round exit to Turkey in the tournament they co-hosted, one point in Germany, a Second Round exit to Paraguay on penalties in South Africa, one point in Brazil and then the heartbreaking loss to Belgium in Russia. Even while they have wracked up an impressive number of triumphs in the Asian Cup – winning four of the last eight tournaments – and made sure of an appearance at every World Cup for the last 22 years, Japan have never been able to make the impact that they want to make at that level. They have become endemic of a perceived deficiency in Asian international football, whose nations have only made it to the final eight of a World Cup twice (both times being a Korea, North in 1966 and South in 2002). Only Oceania has a worse record: if Japan, probably the most consistently talented Asian team of recent times, can’t do, then who can?

And it certainly isn’t for lack of trying, or for lack of appreciation from fans, both Japanese and neutral. Japan continue to play with an open attacking mindset, displaying a confidence in their abilities that some outside of the continent might find surprising. Part of this comes from being a big fish in a small pond most of the time, part of it comes from a squad full of European veterans, well-versed in attacking and counter-attacking styles. And part of it comes from Hajime Moriyasu, who took over the national side after the Russian World Cup. A 35 cap veteran of the team in much leaner times, he encourages individuality and places an emphasis on speed: the result is an fluid, forward thinking side, an extension of the team that scared the life out of Belgium, that sometimes plays in a full-on 4-4-2, pragmatism be damned. Predictably, the joys of such a philosophy can be weighed against the despair: a 3-0 victory over fellow Asian heavyweights Iran in the 2019 Asian Cup was hugely impressive but not so much was a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Chile in the 2019 Copa.

Such peaks and valleys are being driven by a team that is head and shoulders above most of the other squads they might have cause to face in Asia, especially in the Second Round of World Cup qualifying. There’s Shinji Okazaki who bangs them in upfront for country and club, Huesca, in La Liga. Southampton’s pacy left-winger Takumi Minamino provides much of the impetus going forward, and is capable of taking the chances that fall his way. Tough centre back Maya Yoshida captains the side from defence, and is one of the squads most consistent presences. And Eiji Kawashima, having gone from Belgium to Scotland to France, remains a reliable last line between the sticks.

So, why is it then that the Quarter-Finals have been out of reach? It is, as it always is, a combination of factors really. The dominance in Asia is a curse as a much as a blessing, with Japan lacking the kind of tough opposition, in so many of their local games, as is required for any team seeking to be among the best of the best: banging in goals against Mongolia is all well and good, but the Turkeys, Belgiums and Paraguays of this world are having their mettle tested throughout World Cup qualifying. For all of their footballers emerging from the strong home league to play abroad, they are too often squad players at best, and the treks back and forth to play internationals can be gruelling. Moreover, there remains a hesitance in some managers to employ the best of Japanese football at club level, owing to those international commitments. And, at the end of the day, the psychological dimension cannot be discounted either: consistent failure at that highest of levels, at that critical test, can breed in sides a mental block as much as anything, a subconscious feeling of inferiority that can be as hard to get beyond as any imbalance in physical characteristics or skill. But Japan were good enough to get beyond Senegal and Poland, and are good enough to break beyond their high water mark. They just have to go out and do it.

The match against Mongolia is largely an academic exercise before a ball has been kicked. They were put to the sword in emphatic fashion in the other fixture, and have generally underwhelmed in this phase of AFC qualification: all being as it is, they should prove little match for Japan. Victory here will essentially confirm the top seeds as having one of the first berths in the real business end of Asian qualifying, and the start, for them at least, of the serious battles, against the better sides of the AFC. In between there is the Tokyo Olympics where a mostly U-23 squad, still packed full of senior caps and would-be hopefuls, will vie to impress Moriyasu. But at the end of the road, should it lead to Qatar, will still lie the test that faces so many nearly-men: of getting beyond the group stage, getting beyond the last 16, and proving that Japan is worthy of being called the greatest team on the largest continent. The forbidden door still awaits.

50. Expressions Of Nationhood: British/U.S. Virgin Islands

(31/03/2021)

They may just be dots in the ocean, but the two sets of Virgin Islands have the same chance at World Cup glory as many others.

The First Round of CONCACAF qualification continued last night, where the very best teams of the Caribbean region rise above the chaff, and seek to progress into the more serious business of the later stages. As I hope has already been made clear by earlier entries, there are still plenty of fascinating footballing tidbits to be discovered in this early segment of qualification if one is to go looking for them, confluences of football with land-grabbing history, ecological wonders or unlikely escapes from the impact of COVID. Some teams have already been eliminated from contention, others have withdrawn before they even got started. Yesterday two sets of islands from this region, emblazoned with the names of much larger powers, took to the field once again to demonstrate their identity and sovereignty in the sporting arena. They did so with little expectation of progression, but there are more important reasons for such representations sometimes. The British and U.S. Virgin Islands are two territories that know this better than some.

The history of the Virgin Islands as we know it is largely a history of colonialism. Larger parties greedily carved up the Caribbean between them when it was realised the bountiful resources that they held and the Virgins were no exception, a source for sugar and tobacco, the desire for which was slacked by the employment of slaves carried away from Africa. The Spanish, Dutch, Danes, French, Prussians even the Knights Hospitaller have all had their turn with some or all of the islands, that have swapped hands with regularity. Today, a small number of them, the Spanish, are attached to the larger territory of Puerto Rico, and the rest are divided between being an unincorporated territory of Uncle Sam and an overseas territory of the Queen, self-governing to an extent but still largely under the aegis of their long-term political overlords. And a special relationship exists between the two, to match and exceed the one between the larger constructs.

Despite being divided by the vagaries of colonial horse-trading, there is more to tie the Virgin Islands together than can be split apart by political designations. The British and U.S. Islands share a common ancestry, a common language, a common culture and common tastes in cuisine, music and art. This extends to the sporting sphere as well, where the geographical closeness of the United States and Puerto Rico means that basketball and baseball are popular on both sets of islands, with cricket gaining an additional foothold in the British Virgins. And football is there too, as it is in every part of the globe, but perhaps more than any other sport allows for that degree of national self-expression.

The British Virgin Islands, as you might well expect, has the older side, the game brought to the Caribbean by the British Royal Navy and expanded by the Royal Engineers. Despite the head start on their American-titled cousins to the north, the British Virgins went decades before even attempting World Cup qualification, and have never won a game in pursuit of such a goal. Like other Caribbean nations they have the opportunity to look to the United Kingdom for players, taking advantage of the grandparent rule: recent squads are littered with men from the lower tiers of the English system, or underage squads of more established clubs. For example Poole Town, who play in the seventh tier in England, have an established relationship with the BVIFA that means they provide nearly a quarter of the current squad. As such, the British Virgin Islands have been able to outsource much of the needed training and learning environment needs when it comes to their footballers. The results, relative to their neighbours, are clear, with the British Virgins consistently ranked above their American counterparts.

Of course, those counterparts have had their not insignificant struggles. The U.S. Virgin Islands only played their first official match in 1998, and their history has been one of a constant search for relevance in the baseball/basketball centric islands, and for a home. Football, or rather soccer in the local parlance, is simply not on the radar to a huge extent, at least until relativity recently, with the national side fielding amateur players, many of whom consider the United States to be their real international team. They have bounced between numerous stadiums in their two decade and change existence, playing on baseball fields frequently, and seeing one of the few dedicated football pitches in the Paul E. Joseph Stadium demolished in 2012, with a new sporting centre built on the site that did not include a football pitch. The team was forced at one point to play on high school facilities before the new Bethlehem Soccer Stadium was opened in St Croix in 2018, providing a more permanent home for the “Dashing Eagles”. The team finds its players from throughout Caribbean leagues, regional competitions in the States and academic athletics: probably their most notable squad member is Lionel Brown, a back-up keeper for Miami FC in the American second tier.

The two sides are no strangers to each other, with some of the most important matches in their history being against the opposing set of islands. The very first game that the U.S. Virgins played as a recognised FIFA entity was against the British Virgins: the U.S. ran out 1-0 winners. It would take them 13 years to win another game, yet when that moment came it was against the same opposition, a 4-1 aggregate victory in the qualification for Brazil 2014. That result came as an enormous shock to the British Virgin Islanders, and an enormous delight for the U.S. equivalents, who jumped 50 ranking places in the process. But that was the end of the fairytale: they would ship an average of six goals a game in the next round. British superiority in the intervening years should not be taken as an indication that they are on a different level entirely: the truth is that both teams, with unpaid players and volunteer coaching, competing with cricket and baseball for attention, must take whatever successes they can get as they come.

But getting to a World Cup isn’t really the point, at least when viewed from the position of recognising that such a goal is so far away that focusing on it is an exercise in futility. The Virgin Islands, British and U.S., will only get so many chances to showcase their identity on an international stage, with such opportunities largely absent in other sports, and with independence movements in both territories very much a minority position. Despite claims that their incorporation into FIFA was as much about increasing a voter base for men like Sepp Blatter, their status as full members of the international governing body allows the islands this vital outlet, a way to demonstrate that their are more than just a forgettable colonial outpost or tax haven. The growth of the game in the British Virgins, the search for a permanent home in the U.S. Virgins, these are signs of how important the sport is, and while that importance might apply to a smaller section of the population than in other places in the Caribbean, it is a good and praise-worthy thing that such work gets its end-result in this sporting expression of nationhood. The Virgin Islands may remain a colonial plaything for some to come, but at least in football they can display the flag, sing their anthem and compete at the same basic level as England or the United States.

Every new campaign is a new adventure for both sets of islands, and World Cup qualification for Qatar is no exception. Both teams are bottom seeds in their respective groups, arraigned against a host of more capable Caribbean or Central American sides, in what must be deemed a largely hopeless quest to progress to the next round. Opening day losses to Antigua and Barbuda for the U.S. and Guatemala for the British are likely to be repeated results, but nothing is certain until the full-time whistle goes. Today, the U.S. Virgin Islands play Grenada while the British Virgin Islands take on Saint Vincente and the Grenadines. Regardless of the results, the battle for relevancy, for national identity and any scrap of footballing success will go on.

51. Lions And Eagles: England/Poland

(01/04/2021)

One team seeking a long-awaited triumph, another seeking to prove a point about being a one-man side: both trying to gain a stranglehold on qualification.

UEFA World Cup qualifying last night threw up one of the most notable games of of the global process so far, in pitching the teams of England and Poland against each other in Group I. Both sides could be considered some of Europe’s traditional heavy-hitters, both could be considered to have some of the world’s best players in their squads, and both could be considered to have underwhelmed at an international level for years. Expectation lies heavy in England, fears of a generational talent being wasted the same in Poland. But more than that, at the end of a rapid-fire first series of games, it was a contest that neither side could easily afford to lose, even this early in qualification.

For the hosts, it would be simple to feel that the commencement of this campaign is portentous. The performance of the Three Lions in Russia captured the imagination of a country that has always assumed a right to footballing success, not quite justified by their practical achievements since 1966. The semi-final run, equaling the achievement of the 1990 team, was a magnetic affair, carried out by an exciting squad of young potent talents like Raheem Sterling, Deli Alli, John Stones and Harry Kane. Opinions that England only beat the teams you would expect them to beat, and lost to the teams you would expect them to lose to, were largely dismissed with excited commentary that Gareth Southgate’s charges will be the perfect age come 2022. Expectations, always high in the home of football, have sky-rocketed, and may yet be boosted again by what kind of performance England put in this summer at the delayed EURO 2020, where they host the final. In the first match of this campaign minnows San Marino were put to the sword with professionalism in a facile 5-0 walloping before England eased past Albania at the weekend, but last night was the first big test on the road to a desperately desired World Cup glory.

For the visitors, the game had already taken on an additional level of pressure, following a disappointing performance in their opening match away to Hungary last Thursday night. The Eagles had to come from behind twice to share the points and while Hungary are worthy of some respect, the nature of the result will leave plenty wondering if the relatively good days of the last ten years are in danger of coming to an end for Poland. A much easier task was dispatching Andorra at home a few days ago, but having dropped points already and now facing into what is nominally the toughest game of the group, Poland were eager to dig themselves out of a hole that threatened to swallow them before they could properly get going. An over-reliance on their star man, Robert Lewandowski, has consistently led to Poland being labelled a one-man team: it was Lewandowski, on a run of scoring in ten consecutive matches for club and country, who got the last goal in that 3-3 stalemate, after Poland had failed to register a shot in nearly an hour, before he scored two of the three against Andorra. But last night Poland had to make do without him, after a knee injury ruled sustained in the previous tie: a huge challenge, but also an opportunity to prove to the watching world that Poland could get a result with the rest of the squad.

England went into the game with a strong team, bolstered by Mason Mount’s late passing of a fitness test. Ben Chilwell came in for Luke Shaw at left-back, but other than that it was the same side that had defeated San Marino and Albania, lining up in an attack-focused 4-3-3. Harry Kane, Ben Foden and Raheem Sterling were the key men at the front, with Declan Rice tasked with pulling the strings in the centre of midfield in-between Kalvin Phillips and Mount. Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire linked with Chilwell at the back, ahead of Nick Pope in goal, on a run of five consecutive clean sheets. On the other side, to counter-act the major blow that Lewandowski’s absence represented, manager Paulo Sousa was able to call in experienced midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak after his recovery from a COVID diagnosis. Wojciech Szczesny started from the the back, behind Michal Helik, Kamil Glik and Jan Bendarek, with Bartosz Bereszynski and Maciej Ryber providing extension down the wings. Piotr Zielinski, Krychowiak and Jakub Moder were the central midfield trio giving support for Krzysztof Piatek and Karol Swiderski up front, with Moder an optional attacker if the moment called for it. A packed out midfield in a changeable 3-5-2 gave Poland some options but it was undoubtedly a less impressive side without Lewandowski’s name in it. England were clear favourites, though not so clear as to be above worry: Poland may not be consistent qualifiers, but only a fool would consider them pushovers.

An empty Wembley was the arena, with the absence of fans continuing to give games that endlessly eerie feeling. After the anthems, kneeling and touching of “Respect” logos, the game began and the pattern was set fairly quickly. England controlled the majority of position and went forward seeking gaps with short passes, pacy off-the-ball movement and pinging crosses. Rice was immediately pivotal, even if things were breaking down quickly inside the final third. The few Polish forays forward were limited and liable to meet the brick-wall of the English defence led by Stones and Maguire that was, for the time being, immovable. Ben Foden headed over around nine minutes in, the first real chance, and a few minutes later was nearly able to get a similar hit on goal again, the Polish defence under Southampton’s Bendarek scrambling to prevent such chances.

Twenty minutes in and you could tell the frustration was starting to build a bit for the English, able to pass the ball around easily in midfield, but denied the incisive pass or throughball to set the forwards free. Poland were dealing with the crosses, and starting to make England look a bit impotent. But then it happened. Raheem Sterling got its first opportunity to burst forward, headed to the byline for a cut back and got stopped in his tracks by Barnsley’s Helik. The replays were somewhat inconclusive, with Sterling perhaps stumbling more than caught, but the contact was enough to convince referee Björn Kuipers. Kane stepped up to become England’s record holder for scoring penalties, with a simple side-footed effort down the centre, and suddenly Poland’s defensive solidity was no longer going to be enough for them.

The visitors had to come out of their shell a bit, but initially had no success making any headway against the opposition. An attempt to finesse the ball through the packed midfield only resulted in a lethally quick English counter, where Sterling should have taken a shot on himself but instead tried to pass to Foden for a tap-in. The selflessness allowed Glik to make a last-ditch clearance, and Poland were able to breathe. England continued to press and continued to go down the left, utilising a great relationship between Mount and Sterling to get to the by-line time and again. Only a few more chances were made though and, bar a Kane shot batted away by Szczesny after a well-worked move, England were unable to find a clear opening. Up the other end, Poland were the team now exposed as impotent, and perhaps hopelessly reliant on their absent figurehead: only a keeping error from Nick Pope, hitting a clearance straight at Stones who was able to control the ball, gave the Poles a sniff of a chance. Half-time perhaps came a bit too early for England, in total control of the game but unable to increase their lead and kill the contest off.

Arkadiusz Milik replaced Swiderski upfront for Poland to begin the second half, with his immediate impact being to get booked for a clumsy foul on Kane. At first the pattern of the game seemed to have just resumed, with Sterling dangerously close to getting on the end of a Kyle Walker cross minutes into the half. But then Poland came back into it, holding more of the ball, getting down the flanks, and testing the English defence with a succession of teasing crosses. The first significant pressure of the game they had to deal with appeared to knock some confidence out of that defence, with Stones playing his keeper into trouble on the 55 minute mark with a careless backpass, Pope able to only just avoid disaster by drawing a foul from an onrushing Piatek.

But the relief would only last three minutes. Stones, dawdling on the ball in a routine moment, found himself caught in possession by Moder on the edge of the area, Milik picked up the resulting loose ball, played Moder in, and the Brighten midfielder was left with an easy finish from close range. It was an absolute gift from the Manchester City defender, and instantly re-ignited concerns that the routinely untested English back line is the serious weakpoint of Southgate’s side. Suddenly the Poles were looking more confident, certainly sounding more vocal, and the hosts were unable to immediately grab back control of the contest.

Things went somewhat flat for a while past the hour mark, as both sides probed. English mentality to adversity has been questioned at times, and this kind of slow reaction to going behind is only fuel to that fire. However it isn’t like Poland, despite their coming back into the contest, were truly bossing the game either, with Milic having a decent headed chance on 65 minutes but little else being created. Kane’s charging on Szczesny five minutes later to try and claim an unlikely blockdown goal was as good as England could do, before Foden wastefully put a shot straight at the same man on a sudden breakaway.

With less than 15 minutes to play Sousa signaled his satisfaction with the way things stood by sending defensive midfielder Rafal Augustyniak on for Piatek. To the concern of many commentators, Southgate withstood the desire to change things up himself, something that surely would have warranted much criticism if things had stayed the same. But the England manager was to be redeemed for his patience and his faith in the XI on the field. England grabbed control of the game again, pressed forward and were rewarded. Five minutes from time Stones rose at the back to head a corner into the path of Harry Maguire, who hit a scorching effort, truly leathered, into the roof of the Polish net. A vicious dagger to the heart, the assist and the scorer temporarily quashed the concerns about the defence, by showcasing the attacking qualities of the back line. Augustyniak tried one wild shot in injury time but England were not to be denied, seeing the game out with the same ease they had controlled the majority it.

The result leaves them firmly in charge of their qualification destiny, three wins from three and two points clear at the top of the group. A place in Qatar seems like a near certainty for a team that hasn’t missed a Finals since USA ’94, though whether they can truly be called contenders is another matter: defensive frailty and ability to withstand setbacks remain things that Southgate must work on. For Poland, five points adrift of automatic qualification, it is not yet the time to ring the alarm bells: two of their hardest games are now past them and they will have a good chance to gain two wins, against San Marino and Albania, before they play England again in September. By then they will hope Lewandowski will be back in the team and back in the same form as he previously was: if this game showcased anything it is that reliance, now more evident than ever.

Expectation remains in both camps. For England, it is that Southgate and this group of exceptional players could be the ones to break the hoodoo, and put the country that did more than any other to spread the game globally back at the very pinnacle of world football. For Poland the golden generation, if it ever existed, wanes, and it is hoped that Sousa may be able to utilise Lewandowski and the others to the highest extent this summer, and then again in Qatar next year, before time inevitably runs out. Neither manager is really in an enviable position, with similar levels of pressure and similar levels of hopes and dreams to carry on their backs. For the Lions and the Eagles, their managers and their players, what they do from here will be measured against those expectations, as UEFA qualification rounds off its first series of games and now looks to its deferred continental tournament.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, China (People’s Republic),  Colombia, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, 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, 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 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, 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

Anguilla, Aruba, Bahamas, Bangladesh, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominica, Guam, Indonesia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Turks and Caicos Islands

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

Teams Withdrawn

Saint Lucia

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

Photo Credits

In The Eye Of A Hurricane: Fans of the now defunct Puerto Rico Islander take in a game at the Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon in 2009. Photo by Sebastian Perez, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

“We Are Not Bad Either”: A view of Tajikistan’s Pamir Stadium in Dunshanbe, taken in 2019. Photo by Akhemen, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The North Remembers: The 1985 Canadian team celebrates Igor Vrablic’s winning goal against Honduras. Photo by CBC.

Doped: Several major figures in Russian politics and FIFA watch the opening game of the 2017 Confederations Cup. Photo by ww.kremlin.ru, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The Eruption: The Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat, pictured in 2011. Photo by David Stanley, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

15%: The Dungasandi ground of the Faroe Islands’ SÍ club. Photo by Erik Christensen, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

The Forbidden Door: The Japanese team that played Poland at the 2018 World Cup. Photo by Светлана Бекетова, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Expressions Of Nationhood: A 2007 satellite photo of the US Virgin Islands’ St John to the south, and the British Virgin Islands’ Tortola to the north. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory, in the public domain.

Lions And Eagles: Harry Maguire of England celebrates scoring the winning goal against Poland in their World Cup qualifier. Image copyright of Football365.

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1 Response to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (VI) March Madness

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

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