211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (VII) The Marathon

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

Part Six: March Madness

At the end of May 2021 three confederations played games for over two football-packed weeks, with 101 games played between Asia, South American and North America. For two of those we finally reached the conclusion of critical rounds, with only a small elite progressing and many others falling at the wayside. No other period of qualifying thus far has made the point more that the process is a marathon for the teams involved: only a chosen few would get to graduate to the final stretch.

Part Seven: The Marathon

52. “I Only Want Trophies”: Myanmar

53. Looking Back, Looking Forward: Guam/China PR

54. Withdrawn: Saint Lucia

55. The Peter Principle: Thailand

56. Swapping Horses: Chile

57. Unity: Yemen

58. “As If Your Child Has Been Taken Away”: Curaçao

59. Problematic: Indonesia

60. The Inheritors: Peru

61. El Gol Fantasma: Panama

62. “Harry Potter”: Turkmenistan

63. Wishing Upon A Golden Star: Vietnam

64. Shining Light: St Kitts and Nevis

65. Best Loser: The AFC Runners-Up

66. The Football War: El Salvador

67. Insistence On Destruction: Palestine

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52. “I Only Want Trophies”: Myanmar

(29/05/2021)

In Burma, football has joined the protest movement that is risking life and limb against a military coup.

The dispute over the name of the country known variously as “Myanmar” or “Burma” is ongoing. For the purposes of the below, I will use the accepted FIFA designation when referring to the footballing team, and a combination when referring to the nation.

Last night, the football team of Myanmar took to the field against Japan knowing that, even with an expected loss, most of their World Cup destiny was still in their own hands. After a disastrous opening to their time in Group F, with losses to inevitable wooden spoon Mongolia, Japan and then a trouncing from Kyrgyzstan, the Lions re-hired German manager Antone Wey after a previous stint ended a few years ago. He had been able to help Myanmar claw themselves back into contention, with a dramatic seven-goal thriller against Tajikistan and revenge against Mongolia in November 2019, the last World Cup qualification games the team played before last nights contest. Wins against Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in their final two games would, more than likely, elevate Myanmar into second place in the group. It would be a tall order for any team of Myanmar’s apparent level, but real-life events in the country this year have threatened to end any pretensions of pulling off such a minor miracle before it could even get started.

Burma has been beset by political instability and internal conflict since its independence from Britain in 1948: the military has ruled the country for most of the last seventy years, and the various secessionist movements, many based on ethnic lines, combating the various militant regimes in Naypyitaw have resulted in the country having the worlds longest ongoing state of civil war. Such things have severely hampered the ability of democracy to become in any way ingrained, and the latest blow to efforts to move Myanmar out of the spectre of dictatorship occurred in February, when the military ousted recently elected Aung San Suu Kyi in favour of a government of their own. Her landslide victory in a poll back in November 2020 – that the military claim was riven with electoral fraud, seemingly without hard evidence – was just the latest sign that Burma’s people are long past the point of supporting the likes of Min Aung Hlaing, head of the latest coup, and predictable opposition to the move has been a staple of Myanma life since. Nearly 800 people have been recorded as being killed by the military since the coup started, and internal protests are ongoing.

In footballing terms, all of this has been occurring as the Myanmar side undergo the longest wait between competitive matches in their history, thanks to COVID. The official line coming from the the Asian Football Confederation regards Myanmar’s authority, the MFF, is that everything is “business as usual”. However, this overly optimistic appraisal may be due more just to a lack of communication than anything else. The AFC itself is not in a position to suddenly jump in and start interfering with how Myanmar’s football conducts its business: FIFA is littered with dictatorships and failed states that do not have continental organisations running things, and there has been no indication of overt political/military interference in Burma’s football, or of accounts being frozen, or of the MFF being unable to function. The Myanmar National League, due to begin its 2021 season in April, has been repeatedly delayed again since, and while it would be naive to say that the political situation has had no impact on those decisions, it as as much or more to do with the virus: the internal unrest means that test-and-trace has largely collapsed in the country, so the full extent of COVID’s impact in Myanmar cannot be currently known.

What we do know is that there are stakeholders in Myanmar football who are certainly not operating on the basis of “business as usual”. Partly owing to the difficulties of operating under COVID, partly because of the chaos being caused by the coup and the reaction to it, last years league champions, Shan United, have withdrawn from the AFC Champions League, before they could play their qualifying round game against Melbourne United. 2020 runners-up Hantharwady United, Burma’s entrant to the secondary AFC Cup, followed suit a short time later: the captain of their U-21 squad, Chit Bo Nyein, is among those killed by the military. Arranging all of the necessaries in the time of the virus is hard enough, but doing it at a time when the government is at best a nebulous mess, and at worst murderous, is almost impossible. In line with the non-functioning national league – currently scheduled to resume in July, but who knows if that will actually happen – this paints a bleak picture of internal football within Myanmar, already reeling from the global crisis, and now knocked out entirely by the second strike of the coup.

Much more importantly, elements of the national side have been taking a stand against the state of the country and its would-be military leaders. As reported back in February, several members of the team publicly stated they would refuse to play for Myanmar as long as the military regime was in place, not wanting to serve as an outward sign of Burmese sovereignty while such a state of affairs held in the higher echelons. They include among their number veteran goalkeeper Kyaw Zin Htet, who has been playing for the national side since the age of 17. He declared that he and his fellow players want “true democracy”, and criticised the junta as an aspect of the past when the country should be moving forward. In Malaysia, Burmese winger Hein Htet Aung, a mainstay for the underage national sides, was suspended by the league after making the three finger salute, a unified sign of protest in the Myanmar. Htet and his fellow refusers do not constitute the entirety of the national side, but their absence makes the task of gaining an unlikely progression to the next round all the more difficult to conclude successfully: they insist they will only be playing football on the street for the time being.

The same players have also joined in protests against the regime of a footballing bent. 700 football fans – most of them wearing the jersies of English Premier League sides, reflecting the largely outward looking football fanaticism of the country’s population – marched in the streets of Yangon after the coup, with several national team veterans among them. They went under banners and flashed the three-finger salute. Among the placards that were waved that day was one from a Manchester United fan that read “I don’t want dictatorship, I only want trophies.” Such glib drawing of lines from Manchester’s red team to political protests in south-east Asia might surprise some, but there was a method to the madness: this particular protest marched directly to the British embassy with the fans hoping to grab the attention of both the clubs they support – who, through things like the recent BLM actions or waving of Palestinian flags, have demonstrated an ability to advocate that is not unpowerful – and the governments of the worlds key powers. So far, those clubs and those powers have been either silent on the matter or have limited themselves to empty-sounding condemnations of what has occurred. Nearly four months after that protest, Myanmar remains under military rule.

Last night was largely a throwaway encounter in many ways. Myanmar were beaten 2-0 in the other fixture against Japan nearly 20 months ago, and few would have reasonably expected much different: it is the other two games, against Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, that are the really important ones. What was more interesting was seeing who, if any, was not present for the Myanmar team, and there were many: aside from the more vocal Htet, the absentees included veteran defender Zaw Min Tin, forward Aung Thau and most importantly perhaps Kyaw Ko Ko, one of the country’s top scorer’s and Myanmar’s main goal threat. It was a cobbled together, with several debutantes, side that took to the field, and the result was fairly inevitable: Myanmar were smashed, conceding ten goals to no reply, half of them from the boot of Werder Bremen forward Yuya Osako. This constitutes the biggest defeat in the sides history.

Wey, dealing with a task far more difficult than he could have imagined when he took the job, has vowed to forge on, but things look bleak. Myanmar must now, in footballing terms, soldier on and get ready for the really important clashes in the next week, when their World Cup, and Asian Cup, qualification destiny will be decided. They are contests the side enter into with far less hope than they would have done if the games had gone ahead as scheduled. The virus and the coup have had their impact, and between the lack of an internal league and the politicisation of caps, they are a squad that does not show much sign of progression relative to the last few years. That is likely to continue for as long as democracy struggles to find a footing.

53. Looking Back, Looking Forward: Guam/China PR

(31/05/2021)

Two very different countries resume the road to Qatar, one soon to fall off and the other hoping to go all the way.

It was a game with teams looking in two very different directions. For one of them, the World Cup qualification campaign was already over, all that was left to play for amounting to rankings points and an outside chance of a more favourable position in future Asian Cup qualification. For the other, the campaign continues, just another small step in a road where the expectation is qualification, ahead of potential future hosting, and potential future winning of the whole thing. In just about every criteria the first side, the tiny island nation of Guam, was dwarfed by the second, the behemoth of the People’s Republic of China, but in looking at the experience of both teams so far we can get a sense of what life is like for international sides of the AFC, so often mismatched by the geographical reality of the continent, but still holding the same dreams.

For Guam, the side that so wanted to make up for the disappointment of the prematurely curtailed 2018 campaign, the road to Qatar has been an underwhelming one since they smashed Bhutan in June of 2019. The most likely chance of success for Karl Dodd and his charges was the very first game, at home to similar island minnows the Maldives, but the only goal came for the visitors just before the half-hour mark, the same scoring touch that had seen the Matao hit five goals in their First Round tie seemingly absent. The result was all the worse for the opposition missing several key players after being unable to secure visas. It was a missed opportunity, a lost cup final.

Much worse was to come, with Guam starting slow to go 2-0 down to the Philippines a few days after the opening game, getting back into it with a Marcus Lopez strike with 25 minutes to play, before letting the opposition score twice more. They had been able to make plenty of chances around the time of their lone goal, and the taking of any of them could have been a major game-changer, but the needed breakthrough would not come. The following month Guam went on the road for the first time, to Guangzhau, where they were well-and-truly pasted by the PRC, with Shanghai Shenhua striker Yang Xu scoring a 31 minute quadruple of goals in the first half, on the way to securing a 7-0 result. There was a sense of haplessness to Guam: able to string good bits of play together and apply pressure in the final third, but only in a manic fashion and without the required direction. Guam seemed a team dramatically out of their depth at this level, even if they played exciting football at times.

AFC qualifying top scorer Osama Al-Somah got three of his seven goals goals to date in the next tie, with Syria running out 4-0 winners over Guam in mid-October. The Matao made the lengthy trip to the Maldives a month later, desperate for any kind of points to justify their First Round efforts and prove they belonged on this middle stage of AFC qualification. Instead they took the long trip home on the back of a fifth consecutive defeat, 3-1, with Malaysian based forward John Matkin scoring their only goal in another display that could only be viewed as a major disappointment. The same team that so decisively put Bhutan to the sword had apparently vanished, replaced by a side that better exemplified Guam’s perceived status as a nowhere minnow. The departure at that point of the well respected Dodd, owing to family matters, was ill-timed, as he has probably done more than anyone to lift Guam’s fortunes in the not-too-distant past. It leaves newly appointed Suh Dong Won having to work hard just to get back to zero, before the reality of COVID-related absentees from the squad makes things worse.

For their opponents, the campaign thus far has been a disappointment in a very different way. It started in the expected fashion with the PRC, new naturalised players in tow, putting up 12 goals without reply in their first two games against the Maldives and Guam. Expectations of topping the group and getting automatic progression to the next stage were high, despite the managerial drama that had surrounded the team in the lead-up of the campaign, with Marcelo Lippi leaving in 2019, his replacement Fabio Cannavaro lasting just two games, before Lippi was put in place again. Things rapidly came unstuck in mid-October however, with the side drawing a blank away to the Philippines before a disastrous reverse against top seeds Syria, China undone by a farcical own goal late on after matching the Syrians blow-for-blow and goal-for-goal before then.

The setbacks mark a period of seeming decline for Chinese football, with clubs dropping out of its professional leagues in droves over the last two years and more scrutiny than ever on both the sports governance and the recruitment policies at club and country level. That Syrian result saw the departure of Lippi, again, with his assistant Li Tie appointed as his permanent replacement shortly after. If the pressure on him wasn’t already bad enough, the lengthy wait between matches would only have made it worse. Few could have imagined that the Syrian disappointment would be the last World Cup qualifier that China would play before last night, but the country had much more important things on its mind for the last 18 months.

Only now, so long past the let down of the last two games that they would already be becoming a distant memory in normal circumstances, do China have a chance to right the ship, with a side that may struggle to gel in the circumstances. With an undefeated Syria out of sight at the top of the Group A standings, the PRC now turns its attention to getting as good a second place position as possible, to assure progression as one of the best runner-ups. Li does so absent several key personnel, with CFA President Chen Xuyuan on record as essentially begging CSL sides to better protect national players from injury only a short time ago. Naturalised call-ups have reached a record level in the squad, with all of the associated raising of eyebrows and shaking of heads one would expect of such a development.

The fixture last night followed the predicted path. Guam did well to keep the scoreline respectable for a half, down 2-0 at the break, before the floodgates opened and the Chinese steamed clear. Wu Lei and Brazilian-born debutante Alan Carvalho both scored twice on the way to securing an emphatic 7-0 final scoreline, replicating that from nearly two years ago. It should really have been more, with the side registering an astonishing 40 efforts on goal with nearly 90% of possession. Guam, who would generally count being somewhat competitive as a success in such a fixture in the best of circumstances, were left to enact little more than damage control, getting forward rarely and not troubling Yan Junling in the Chinese goal even once. Both teams now move on.

For Guam, two games remain. The tie against the Philippines in a few days is the last realistic chance for points, but that is likely beyond Guam’s abilities at the present time. They finish up on the 11th June against Syria, after which the focus will turn to Asian Cup qualification and getting past the initial play-off round, due to be played in September. Beyond that, it remains a perennially uphill struggle for nations like Guam, who are doing well to be in a financial position to take part in AFC qualification to the fullest extent. It is hard to be competitive with nations with the relative footballing tradition of Syria or the endless resources in every respect like China. Working on the quality of play in the squad, attracting members of the Guamanian diaspora, taking the victories when and if they come, these are the tasks of the stakeholders in the Guam FA. Getting back to this stage of qualification for the 2026 campaign will remain the very limit of Guam’s World Cup goals, with the island unlikely to ever make an appearance in the later stages of AFC qualifying, let alone an actual World Cup. That is a depressing thought in many respects, but not an unreasonable one.

For China, it’s a matter of staying the course and getting the points they need. The Maldives, next up, should be easy fodder, and then there will be the matter of getting some revenge on the obstinate Philippines. Last will be Syria, and while a win may not be required, it will certainly be something that the Chinese will be very keen on achieving, as a demonstration that the PRC is on the right track under their new manager. Hopes will remain that China can be good enough to get to Qatar, though that may yet be a step too far (not that this reality may save Li Tie if he fails to get to the team to the last 32). More long term the Chinese system, with enormous amounts of money at every level and ambitions of being one of the game’s top international sides, will keep on rolling regardless.

The two teams could probably not be more different in so many ways, but sport can strip those imbalances away to a certain extent. Guam and China are representative of that often endearing, sometimes infuriating, but always fascinating reality of competition at this level, when political entities become sporting representations, pared down to that level of equality in being eleven-on-eleven. From there the comparisons largely cease, but whether they are looking back or looking forward, there is that one bit of evenness between them.

54. Withdrawn: Saint Lucia

(02/06/2021)

Saint Lucia might be out of the World Cup without a ball being kicked, but their players haven’t gone quietly.

Today the First Round of CONCACAF qualification for Qatar 2022 continues, with this stage of the process due to finish up within a week. Some teams are on the cusp of progression to the next round already, others have already been eliminated from contention. As the various Caribbean and Central American sides jostle it out for position there is one nation, and one team, that is already completely finished, months ahead of schedule. On the day that they were supposed to be stepping onto the field to take on the Turks and Caicos Islands in their third qualifying match, the players of Saint Lucia are instead at home, contemplating the fact that they were the first side to officially withdraw from World Cup qualification. How they ended up in this position is a grim example of the perils of modern day international football for small associations, but may also expose deeper problems in the small island nation.

On the 26th of March, one day ahead of their scheduled opening game against Nicaragua, Saint Lucia’s authority, the SLFA, made the startling and unexpected announcement that the national side would not be fulfilling its fixtures for the coming World Cup qualification campaign. I say “announced” but there was no announcement: nothing on the association’s long disused website, nothing on any social media feed, no summation and no official written declaration to press or supporters. It was left to other footballing sites and accounts, and the FA’s of some of Saint Lucia’s scheduled opponents, to make the announcement that the games were not going ahead. Such recalcitrance only fed the rumour mill when it came to determining why, with many news sites and figures on social media speculating that the COVID situation was to blame, and claiming that the SLFA had been denied permission to be exempted from certain quarantine rules in preparation for the World Cup games.

The reaction, nearly all of it negative, was swift to come in from multiple quarters. The national teams players claimed not to have been consulted or informed before the announcement, and were infuriated by the sudden denial of their right to contest qualification for FIFA’s flagship competition. Some of these, those locally based on the island itself, organised a rapid protest outside of the headquarters of the SLFA, where, wearing masks, they carried placards calling for SLFA President Lyndon Cooper to resign from his position. Some claimed that Cooper had been hinting for over a year that he did not want the national team to play the games, and decried a policy where too much of the squad is picked from places outside of the island, with no efforts to fill the gaps locally when travel restrictions prevented those players from getting to the Caribbean. Police were eventually brought in to break up the protest.

Worse than that maybe was the reaction of the Saint Lucian government, none too pleased at the way the rumour mill had dragged their name into the growing controversy. A few days after Saint Lucia’s withdrawal, the government of Prime Minister Allen Chastanet released their own statement. In it they expressed their disappointment and concern with the situation, and then emphatically denied any claim they had refused to allow the national team to train because of COVID, insisting they had received no such request. After pointing out that they had been pliant on restrictions when it came to a local club side – 2019 Champions Platinum FC, due to play in the Caribbean Club Championship – they closed by seeking a clarification from the SLFA. Chastanet would later say that he “would have moved mountains and earth” to ensure qualification would have happened if his administration had been asked. For the government of the country to feel the need to wade into the controversy was notable, and speaks to the poor communication of Cooper and the SLFA.

The President had no choice but to make a clarifying addendum to the initial announcement, which took the form of an hour long press conference, streamed on Facebook. It was another ramshackle affair, with the camera having to be adjusted at the start owing to being set-up horizontally. Said explanation was detailed, but in many ways only created more questions. Cooper’s argument was that the SLFA was in dire financial straights after competing in the various stages of the CONCACAF Nations League over the previous few years which, when combined with the expense of getting players to the island from their clubs in the States, Britain or elsewhere, made the possibility of contesting World Cup qualifying essentially impossible from a financial perspective.

He went further. Making do with locally-based players was difficult, he said, owing to lack of time to get them registered properly. The usual ground that Saint Lucia used was no longer available, and suggested back-ups were not up to FIFA’s code for the level for games they were being asked to host. Cooper went on to state that he and the SLFA had never consented to playing qualifiers in March of 2021, and had been in discussions with FIFA about potentially withdrawing since February. He would also double-down on the claim that COVID exemptions were sought from the government, but has yet to provide proof of this, and also insisted that, while the larger squad only found out on the day, some players had been informed beforehand. Cooper was clearly somewhat agitated in delivering these explanations, and would later claim that he had received death threats since the withdrawal, before adding that he did not consider the situation a withdrawal at all, as Saint Lucia had never “consented” to play the games in the first place.

That last bit of semantics aside, were these excuses credible? Well, yes and no. From the financial side of things, it has undoubtedly been a difficult period for nations like Saint Lucia, and the costs of travelling for international football are never low. But all other CONCACAF nations involved at this stage of qualification have proved capable of bearing that cost, including some that are smaller than Saint Lucia. In regards the apparent impossibility of using local players to make up for the unavailability of those based abroad, this seems more a case of the SLFA not being ready for the eventuality as opposed to a problem not of their own making. The ground situation is cause for concern of course, but makes no sense as a reason to not take part in qualifying owing to the plethora of other options in the region: only a handful of the First Round participants are actually playing in their own grounds owing to COVID, and with adequate notice alternative grounds could have been sourced.

It seems more likely that Copper decided some time ago that Saint Lucia was not going to contest qualification, which would explain why no efforts were made to register local players or to arrange alternative locations. The key thing then is the finances. As stated, other small Caribbean islands, including Saint Lucia’s neighbours like Martinique, Barbados and Saint Vincente and the Grenadines, are taking part. So why is Saint Lucia such an apparent basket-case economically? There appears to be no clear answer, and part of the players protest that took place on the week of the announcement revolved around a perceived shadiness in SLFA accounts, which, it is claimed, have not been adequately audited in some time.

Regardless of the reasons or their credibility, Saint Lucia are out of the World Cup, and there is no recourse to that withdrawal for the players or supporters. The level of mistrust between footballing stakeholders on the island seems enormous now, and it looks doubtful that Cooper’s Presidency will ever be able to recover in terms of its popular perception, eve as he vows to see out his term against calls for his resignation. For now he remains in place but whatever legacy he was hoping to build for himself seems fatally undermined. CONCACAF qualifying moves on without him or Saint Lucia, who face a long wait for the next opportunity at the highest stage.

55. The Peter Principle: Thailand

(03/06/2021)

After unexpected success in 2019, Thailand look to take one more step.

The “Peter Principle” is a concept in management that an organisations employees tend to be promoted upon proof of success to a point where they are no longer competent, whereupon they tend to struggle and flame out. You can see examples of this in many spheres of life, of people or groups who climb a ladder on the back of of their achievements but then suddenly climb too high. Football is no different. And if there is a Peter Principle in international football specifically, you wouldn’t find many better examples of it than that of Thailand.

Thailand is a country that has never been able to firmly establish a really noticeable footballing pedigree at the international level, while never really being counted among the lower tier of AFC’s contingent either. They are very much the moderate of the ASEAN region, winners of numerous AFF Championships, but lacking punch at the highest levels. AFC Cup qualification has come numerous times in the last twenty years, but Thailand have never come anywhere close to being considered a serious contender, with many trips home after just three games. And when it comes to World Cup qualification the team are routinely able to make it beyond preliminary rounds, but always come unstuck before the end. Their advantages are plain: Thailand has been able to field plenty of talented footballers over the years, helped by a reasonably successful national league system that is ranked high by the AFC, above even Australia in recently; they have been willing to look abroad for coaches plenty of times with Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Winfried Schäfer among the names that have held the reins over the last ten years; and they have a fairly raucous home support, even if the average Thai fan is probably looking more to Europe on a club level. But despite all this, Thailand routinely hits the ceiling of their ability and finds themselves unable to go any further, and indeed subject to the results better suited to a true minnow.

The campaign for the 2018 World Cup demonstrates the point acutely. In the Second Round group stage Thailand coasted to a relatively easy top-spot in a pool that contained Iraq, Vietnam and Chinese Taipei. The Thai squad recorded some impressive results in going unbeaten, including a 3-0 away victory in Hanoi in what some dub south-east Asia’s “El Clasico”. But progression to the final round of qualification saw Thailand slamming up against that higher ceiling of their ambitions once again: in a group with true continental heavyweights like Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia they were humbled, picking up only two points in ten games and conceding 24 goals in the process. The worst result was undoubtedly a stunning 4-0 reverse against an Iraq team they had drawn twice with in the previous round. Once again, Thailand had shown themselves as too good for the mid tier, but not good enough for the top tier.

That same campaign got Thailand to the 2019 Asian Cup. It was, initially at least, one of the lowest moments of Thai football, and one of the strangest. Rare are the times when a national FA will sack a manager in the middle of an international tournament, but that was exactly what the FAT did then. Milovan Rajevac had been installed as Thai head coach in 2017, and had gotten the team to the continental finals in the UAE, but failures at the regional level, rumours of team discontent and an unattractive, defensive style of football all combined to ensure that he was walking a tightrope before a ball was kicked. When Thailand were humiliated by relative underdogs India in their opening game, torn apart in a blistering 4-1 defeat, Rajevac was relieved.

You would think that Thailand, suddenly under the direction of assistant coach Sirisak Yodyardthai, would falter and be gone after two more games, but to the astonishment of many the team suddenly clicked. A win and a draw in their remaining games got them a Second Round tie for the first time in the competition, and though they were beaten by China PR, it was a game where Thailand could safely claim to have given a good account of themselves. Moreover, it was a sign that they could rise above the constraints of the Peter Principle in action: with the right circumstances, right motivations and, most importantly, right manager, they could get to a higher station and look like they belonged there.

The man currently leading them knows all about sudden elevation to top management positions. Akira Nishino was the Japanese technical director when, a few months before the World Cup in Russia began, he was suddenly called upon to coach the national side after the rancorous dismissal of the much maligned Vahid Halilhodžić. Nishino succeeded admirably then, taking his native country to the Second Round and remarkably close to the last eight, but it was never meant to be a permanent appointment. Less than a year later, perhaps bitten by the international management bug, he accepted the dual role of coaching Thailand’s senior and U-23 teams, and with them he has tried to institute a similar bedrock of open, attractive, attacking football, where his side are not afraid to come out of their box and play against any opposition.

On-field stuff is just one part of the job however. As the nature of the dual job might indicate, Nishino’s task is one of re-building the side and blooding in new players. To that end there has been a huge commitment to bring in uncapped youth, with his squads tending to run close to 50 players before the cuts. The most recent team includes a host of names that even the most fanatical of Thai fans might struggle to know about, with Leicester City’s 21-year-old Thanawat Suengchitthawon, who has never started a game for that club, probably the most notable. So the team is not lacking in heart or athleticism, but just experience: names like Teerasil Dagda, easily Thailand’s best player of recent times, are more vital than ever in terms of giving the side a backbone of mental acumen to go with the fresher legs. But such veterans are also on the way out, perhaps facing into their last campaign with the War Elephants.

The current campaign, one of the longest that Thailand has ever been asked to play, has been closely fought and sees little between the sides. A scoreless draw at home to Vietnam wasn’t a bad start, indicating that the War Elephants were up to the challenge, before a more complete performance in putting Indonesia to the sword a few days later. The following month a hard-fought win over the UAE really gave Thailand some momentum, before they come unstuck against another regional rival, Malaysia, taking the lead before losing 2-1. In November of 2019 Nishino’s men repeated their scoreless draw against Vietnam, and 18 months later they now have the chance to complete the job. Thailand have shown aggression, grit and an ability to take their chances when it counts. Their reward is the veritable trio of cup finals they face over the next week.

Tonight, the Elephants face their latest chance to grow beyond their perceived level once more. In Dubai’s Al Maktoum’s stadium they play regional rivals Indonesia, already eliminated and unlikely to be an enormous obstacle, with a chance to move into second place in the group. Next comes the UAE, and then the potential winner-takes-all final game with Malaysia. Nishino has to deal with COVID-related absentees and the pressure that comes with being a perennial “almost there”, but in just three games of football, he and Thailand could elevate themselves hugely, and get the opportunity to prove that they are worthy of challenging for a place at the top table of Asian football once again. Leaving that Peter Principal-esque existence behind would almost be as great as a achievement as making to Qatar, and may actually be easier to achieve.

56. Swapping Horses: Chile

(04/06/2021)

Martin Lasarte is the latest man tasked with leading Chile, only he has been appointed in the middle of a painful transition.

Four games into World Cup qualification in South America and Chile lay 6th of ten, outside of the qualification spots. For a team that has become used to being called one of the best in CONMEBOL, and a steady World Cup qualifier, it has been a decidedly iffy campaign thus far, marked by a paucity of goals from a usually dependable frontline and a leakiness at the other end. A crucial consistency has been lacking, and Chile found themselves, in last night’s away tie in Argentina, seeking to make a firm stamp of their authority. Looking into Chile’s run in qualification thus far paints a picture of a team with problems: at the heart of this is a sudden coaching change, and a nation looking too much to the past instead of the future.

Following the disappointment of failing to reach Russia 2018 by the slimmest of margins, there was at least somewhat of an appetite for change in Chilean football. The “golden generation” was seen by many as an aging lot who could not be fully relied upon anymore, their glories achieved. New blood needed to be brought into the team, and the old faithfuls gradually phased out. Upon Juan Pizzi’s resignation, the FFCh sought out Reinaldo Rueda as the man to undertake this transition.

Rueda was an interesting appointment. His managerial career had been a solid, if not especially spectacular, affair for the level he had ensconced himself at. After a few club jobs in the late 90s/early 00’s, he was appointed to the underage system of his native Colombia, managing at several different levels to some success. Rueda’s proficiency with those teams led him to be given an emergency call-up to the senior side when their Germany 06 campaign was floundering, and while he was able to make them more competitive, the fairy tale appointment lasted only a few years. A trip to South Africa 2010 with Honduras was a highlight in terms of getting there, but not in terms of their performance at the Finals, which got Rueda sacked. A spell with Ecuador ended in similar fashion, before a virtuoso few years with Medellin’s Athletico Nacional, including a Copa Libertadores triumph in 2016, put him back in the crosshairs of various national FA’s. Chile, desperate to right the ship that some perceived as past the tipping point, saw his World Cup qualifications and experience with underage sides, appointed him their coach in 2018.

It’s been a rocky road to say the least. Rueda’s somewhat more conservative playing style than what Chilean fans are used to saw plenty of rather early calls for his head, as poor friendly results racked up. The introduction of new players to the squad, with the inevitable cutting of popular veterans like goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, could sometimes generate similar reactions: some of the team announcements were booed by supporters during Rueda’s time in charge. COVID undercut much of what he was trying to accomplish, and even with a mandate to bring a new generation to the fore too often Rueda has found himself having to rely on those aging veterans, who have been forced to adapt to a new way of playing as they get older. A common through-line of Rueda’s time has been a slowness to get started in Chile, getting over-run in midfield, and more direct longball style than the bulk of the team, and its fans, like to see.

There have been positives and negatives. In 2019 Chile defied expectations by getting to the semi-finals of the Copa America, an achievement for which Rueda gained praise from the international media. But there was grumbling from people at home mortified by the manner of the team’s exit, a 3-0 defeat to eventual runners-up Peru. More recently Chile got off to a rough start in World Cup qualifying, losing to Uruguay late, drawing to Colombia late, and losing their last game of 2020 to a Venezuelan side that were without points beforehand. Only a win against Peru has kept Chile within touching distance of the qualifying places at this still early stage. Unhappiness and discord resonated as Rueda tried to make do with what he had: a difficult mixture of aging players whose speed and talent is waning, kids who need time to get to the level required and absences through injury and the virus.

In the end, it all proved a bit too much. Colombia, after one of their worst qualifying starts in years, sacked Carlos Queiroz at the beginning of December. A few days later, Rueda left Chile and walked into his old job. The temptation of returning to manage the nation of his birth, combined with the intense pressure of the Chilean job – a Gordian Knot if ever there was one – seem to have combined to form an irresistible temptation to cut his losses with Chile and move on now. The decision resulted in a mixed response: plenty in Chile were happy to see the back of a man they saw as contributing to Chile’s more recent regression, others decried the necessity to now start a rebuild over with a new manager, with the last two years of work thrown away in an instant.

The new Chilean coach, installed in February, is Martin Lasarte. He is an interesting appointment of his own accord, a Uruguayan manager taking his first international job, after a not especially spectacular career managing clubs in Spain, Egypt and Chile. Known for a pragmatic, defensive style in his teams, he seems an odd choice after what happened with Rueda, but his time in the Chilean league has clearly endeared him to the FFCh. He has indicated a greater willingness to work with the veterans of the squad right from the off, but COVID has pushed him to look internally in Chile – Arturo Vidal is a high-profile absentee afrter contracting the virus – and as far as the borders of the continent only, with mainstays of the squad stranded in Europe. Thus, Rueda’s task may continue despite the unhappiness of Chilean fans.

Last night, the effort to revive Chile’s fortunes brought them face-to-face with Argentina, another side also going through something of a transition. On a night made more emotional owing to it being the first Argentinian gave played since the passing of Diego Maradona, the hosts took the lead through a well-dispatcher Lionel Messi penalty in the 24th minute, spiking fears that Chile were about to add another loss to their uninspiring record in the competition thus far. But the team, one that has few new players and is one of the oldest of this series of matchdays, rallied back, with Alexis Sanchez equalising before half-time, converting from close range after Gary Medel cutback. Argentina had the better of what was left of the game, with Messi hitting the bar late, but it ended honours even. Another veteran spared Chile’s blushes then, but were not enough to truly show Chile are still on the top level of CONMEBOL.

Hopes remain that Chile can push on and secure a place in Qatar, temporarily banishing fears that the golden generation is spent. The keyword there is “temporarily”: time remains undefeated, and men like Vidal and Sanchez cannot keep the wolf from the door forever. Chile may yet have cause to regret the treatment of Rueda and the aborted nature of his rebuilding project, a situation that could prove to the benefit of one of their continental adversaries. They will come face-to-face again in September when Chile visit Colombia, a footballing sliding doors if ever there was one. But there is plenty of football between then and now, and much to decide for the fates of both countries and their World Cup hopes.

57. Unity: Yemen

(05/06/2021)

The children of Yemen are a generation being defined by war, but through the national football team they may have a more positive influence in their lives.

Today, AFC qualifying continues. Most teams will play their first World Cup qualifying matches in well over a year-and-a-half, and one of those ties carries with it a great deal of weight, both in terms of on-field competition and in its reflection of frequently dire real world events. More than 18 months after the corresponding fixture earlier in Group C, Yemen travel to Saudi Arabia seeking to keep their hopes of an unlikely progression alive, even as, in the real world, Saudi involvement continues to be a daily part of the ongoing civil war that has torn Yemen apart.

Football has been at the heart of Yemeni politics since before the beginning of the current country’s existence, after the reunification of north and south in 1990. Unity was sometimes not an easy sell, being as it was less about genuine political rapprochement and more in the hope that a combination of the two countries could greater exploit the region’s natural oil supply. Special football matches between sides representative of either entity were used to promote the idea of unification beforehand, and special efforts was made afterwards to make sure a unified Yemeni league had an equal number of teams from either side of the former border (the first edition of the new league was thus forced to have an astonishing 32 teams involved). The national side had a mandated equality, in players, coaches, caps and the captaincy, the last of which had to be passed back and forth, game to game, to a player from either side of the no longer existent boundary. These efforts to make a combination of north and south an ingrained part of the national consciousness in sport were not enough though, with Yemen, never able to shake its history of political instability, devolving into a destructive civil war in 1994, where the north was victorious against southern secessionists.

In the years afterward political interference in the country’s sporting affairs, and especially football, grew and grew, to the point of the Yemeni FA getting a brief FIFA suspension in 2005. Certain football clubs, especially in the capital of Sana’a, received disproportionate political patronage, and when Yemen hosted the Gulf Cup in 2010 a truly enormous amount of money was spent modernising stadiums and temporarily improving infrastructure all over the country: it was the only way that a large number of Yemeni were ever going to get access to running water, or electricity. Bombings at football clubs in the lead-up to the tournament were very deliberate events, as separatist movements attempted to use the sport in the most negative way possible to advance their aims. Football was no longer a tool used in pursuit of unification, but was instead a target for those opposing it. In effect, things had done a 180 degree turn from the pre-1990 days.

That must all seem like a very, very long time ago for the stakeholders of Yemeni football. In 2014 the long-standing grievances bubbling under the surface of the country’s society could no longer be ignored, dismissed or repressed, and the Houthis, an armed Islamist movement originating in the north, began what would eventually transform into a full scale battle for the country against the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Houthi advances resulted in the fall of Sana’a in 2014, but since then the situation has become rigid, with a military stalemate and a continued escalation of the humanitarian tragedy. Only COVID has been able to have an impact on the conflict in terms of temporarily stopping it.

The full-on outbreak of civil war, again, has changed the footballing landscape of Yemen as much as it has anything else. There’s no league to play because it is simply impractical to do so: locally organised competitions have often been undertaken with explosives going off not far away. Nearly every pitch and stadium has been hit with some form of damage from artillery, rockets or air strikes. Getting players assembled for training camps is all but impossible owing to the lack of transport options and sufficient security, with some of the players themselves either dead from the war or actively fighting it. And there is absolutely no hope of any “home” qualifiers, with the national team heading most often to Doha in Qatar to play their games. They have sometimes been forced to travel by boat to do so, it being difficult to get any kind of aircraft service that could be called safe.

The teams qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup was all the more remarkable for that, a Syria-esque story of on-field success contrasted with off-field tragedy. In that run, and that tournament showing, there was unity: people on both sides of the civil war cheered for the side, that has done its best to not present as being representative of Houthi or Hadi. The squad, a disparate mix of youth and veterans, contains players from every region and from every political persuasion, who put aside their differences to represent a country that, in many respects, no longer exists. Under Ethiopian Ashenafi Bekele and then Slovakian Ján Kocian Yemen had finished bottom of the the first qualifying group, that doubled as Russia 2018 qualifying, meaning they were faced with a play-off, then a difficult group stage, to make it to the UAE. Somehow, they pulled it off, beating the Maldives, Tajikistan and Nepal to book their place, their first appearance at the continental tournament. The experience in the UAE was not a happy one, with the Red Devils shipping losses to Iran, Iraq and Vietnam en route to a speedy exit, but it was an immense achievement just to make it that far, and a sign, albeit brief, that there was more to Yemen than the conflict that has become the intrinsic aspect of of their popular perception.

The occasional glimpses of quality in the current campaign are reflective of that unlikely surge in performance that got Yemen that far. Paired in a tough group with heavy hitters Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia, along with Singapore and Palestine, few would have expected much from Yemen, but with three games to play they remain in contention. A hard-fought home draw against the Saudis in September 2019, where Yemen led twice before settling for a 2-2 stalemate, is probably the highlight of a better than average campaign, bolstered by an impressive win against Palestine and a draw away in Singapore. A disappointing loss to the same opposition in Doha and a drubbing from Uzbekistan has been the Yemeni lot, but it still, remarkably, leaves them with a fair amount of their destiny in their own hands. The death of head coach Sami Hasan Al Nash in May as a result of COVID is an added tragedy on top of everything else, but Yemen have had no shortage of this to spur them on. If they could get a point in tonight’s game, try and get something against the Uzbeks and complete a double over the Palestinians, Yemen would certainly be in the running for a second place finish in the group.

More than that, tonight’s game renews a rivalry with Saudi Arabia that has rather deep implications. Hadi and his faction have some of their most important allies in the Saudis, whose air strikes over the last number of years have been a critical element in making the civil war the lasting stalemate that it is today. Football has not been immune from this unusual relationship, with the Saudi government stopping a Yemeni training camp in Qatar ahead of the Asian Cup, owing to their blockade of the hosts, sending them to Malaysia instead. One can well imagine that the Yemeni players taking to the field may have some mixed feelings towards the nation that their opponents represent: the bombing may have been wound down considerably in the face of escalating costs and international outrage, but it remains the case that Saudi Arabia has been responsible for a great deal of death and destruction in Yemen, and have ensured the continuation of the conflict for a much longer period than might have been the case. Those anti-Hadi forces have not forgotten: only a few months ago, it was claimed that Houthi forces had fired missiles and drones towards Riyadh on the occasion of a Formula E race weekend, sport again a target. It is a layer of background that everybody, be they, players, management, fans or neutrals, could do without.

It will all come out on the pitch, when Yemen’s dreams will either be one more unlikely step towards fruition, or essentially dashed before the side could ever get used to them. Either way, it is good to see international football back in play in the world’s largest continent. Saudi Arabia and Yemen are unlikely teams to be competing in the contest to mark that return, and it’s even more unlikely that the match has, at this stage in qualifying, serious consequences for both sides. Amid the shadow of war and the shadow of the virus, Yemen once again go into a fight for international relevancy, seeking to overturn the odds. The same unity that the team represented thirty years ago remains, and keeping the Qatar 2022 dream alive just a little bit longer will surely help with keeping that unity in sight.

58. “As If Your Child Has Been Taken Away”: Curaçao

(06/06/2021)

One of the most unlikely, and little known, managerial dramas in international football recently revolves around ReMko Bicentini and one of the true up-and-comers of CONCACAF.

Last night the tiny island nation of Curaçao, a place few would ever have heard of or, if they had, know much about, faced the British Virgin Islands. It was a game that, looking at it from a distance, would have seemed like a very inconsequential part of the footballing landscape, probably just two Caribbean nowhere teams dukeing it out for some ranking points. But not for Curaçao. In the middle of something of a revolution when it comes to their football, victory was critical if they were to go into their final match in a few days with the advantage. But even as the islanders have accelerated their development rapidly in the last few years, recent events at a managerial level have left a bit of a pall on the side, and may yet present the Curaçao Football Federation with awkward questions to answer.

Curaçao itself is a small island off the coast of Venezuela, home to just over 160’000 people. A “constituent country” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the place, politically, is largely a by-product of Dutch interests in the Caribbean, and was part of the Netherlands Antilles up to the dissolution of that entity just over a decade ago. The Dutch, along with their language, culture and monarchy, brought football to the island and Curaçao are considered the official successor of the Dutch Antilles side that played from the mid-fifties to 2010. Not that this means a whole lot, with the best achievements of that team being third place finishes in the CONCACAF Cup in the 60’s. The Dutch connection meant that the Antilles had some access to European players and a footballing tradition that other islands in the Caribbean lacked, but that only got them so far. Curaçao, as constituted after the break-up of the Antilles, played its first official game in 2011 and for most of the intervening time have counted themselves lucky to pick up a few wins here and there against some of the other minnows of the region.

All of that changed from 2016 on, when Dutch born Curaçaoan Remko Bicentini took charge of the national side, having had a brief stint as coach of the Antilles in 2009-10. Bicentini, well-versed in Curaçaoan football and continuing the good work begun by previous manager Patrick Kluivert, instituted that revolution in the national side, turning them from just another dismissable small fish in a big pond, to something approaching a Caribbean powerhouse. Recruitment was key: using connections in the Netherlands made during a brief professional playing career and a longer coaching career at various levels, Bicentini was a vital part of a new expanded effort to get players with Curaçaoan roots in Europe to make the trek across the Atlantic ocean a few times a year.

These include goalkeeper Eloy Room, now playing with Columbus Crew in the MLS, midfielder Leandro Bacuna of Swansea and his brother Juninho of Huddersfield Town. The new emphasis on these imports makes Curaçao a young, dynamic team. Dangling the carrot of international caps is never really enough in such circumstances however, and Bicentini strived to make Curaçao an attractive place for players to come, through the institution of a possession and attack-focused philosophy on the pitch – many of the teams new breed of players have extensive academy experience in the Netherlands, so this is easier to implement than you might think – and the instilling of a camaraderie off it.

Under him there was an emphasis on imparting pride in the representation of a country of one’s ancestors, and in starting a new footballing tradition for a team barely a decade old. It’s easy for outsiders to dismiss such teams as made-up of ringers, but those countries that have such a diaspora – of which I can count myself – understand that it is more than just mercenary desire to play internationally, or at least it should be if you want to get on the team. That pride is important, and is obvious in the case of this team. There have been more noticeable things too, alongside the intangible: Bicentini insisted that the team use a somewhat battered school bus that had been converted for the purpose of footballing transportation, that became an unusual sight on the streets of capital Willemstad, typically observed blasting reggae music out its windows. The team was offered a more modern, air-conditioned, coach by the CFF, but chose to stick with the school bus.

The results were undeniable, and remarkable. Under Kluivert and then Bicentini, the team started winnings games and getting places. Three consecutive qualifications for the CONCACAF Gold Cup is proof enough of Curaçao’s advancement since 2014. In the 2019 edition they made it to the Quarter-Finals, out-possessing and out-shooting the United States in a narrow 1-0 defeat. They won the 2017 Caribbean Cup, finished fourth of 34 nations in the CONCACAF Nations League qualifying competition and were a hairs breath from making it to the Nations League Finals. Even in the one run at World Cup qualification during this time, for Russia 2018, Bicentini led his side to the Third Round of the process, before coming undone against El Salvador. The team were well placed to make an impression in the qualification for Qatar, with Bicentini continuing his work at coaxing Dutch players to put on the blue jersey all the way up to the final months of last year.

Around that time, Bicentini claims he was having discussions with legendary Dutch manager Guus Hiddink. Hiddink had been jobless since the end of his time with the Chinese Under-21’s in 2019, and Bicentini’s expectation was that the European Cup winner, and three-times manager of teams at a World Cup, could possibly fulfill the role of an advisor to the CFF and to himself, as he looked to grow both the team and his own acumen as a manager. Bicentini says this discussions were cordial but had no immediate result, and the Curaçao coach put the idea to one side as he continued prep for the World Cup qualifiers.

On the morning of the 21st of August 2020, while undertaking a cycling tour of Gelderland, Bicentini took a phone call from his daughter, who asked him if he has seen the news. Guus Hiddink had just been announced as the new manager of the Curaçao national side. It wasn’t for another several hours that Bicentini received any communication from the CFF, that amounted to an e-mailed confirmation of his termination, citing vague issues between staff and players, issues Bicentini insists are non-existent (the CFF would later claim the news was leaked to the Dutch press before they could properly dismiss Bicentini). The man who had done more than anyone to put Curaçao on the footballing map was left out in the cold. Bicentini, who discovered the CFF had been in discussions with Hiddink from before his own contact, would later describe the feeling by saying it was “as if your child has been taken away”.

Why was Hiddink given the nod, and in this seemingly unprofessional manner? His experience and acumen in the footballing management world are undeniable, even if one were to look at his three successful qualifications to the World Cup alone. From a recruitment perspective, certainly having a coach of his stature in the role would only increase the appeal of Curaçao to eligible players in the Netherlands: they are perhaps more likely to sign up to play under a name like Guus Hiddink than Remko Bicentini. Hiddink brings others with him too, in terms of assistant coaches, statisticians and other backroom additions, who could be vital parts of a set-up seeking to put Curaçao firmly onto the next level. There is also a larger reality: the CFF is led by Shaheen Elhage, a pharmacist by trade who has also dipped his toe into Curaçaoan politics recently, who was appointed in late 2019. As so many do after appointment, he may wish to stamp his own authority on Curaçaoan football by installing his own people in the key positions.

Regardless Bicentini was out, though he did not go quietly, only leaving the Curaçao stage after a lengthy legal proceeding over the premature termination of his contract, that concluded in the Spring: the final agreement is not public but may include a substantial payment to be made to Bicentini if his former side make it to Qatar, something he had demanded in negotiations. Now a coach with Canada, he has been left to watch the side he helped to mold enter into World Cup qualification for Qatar under a new manager who has already stamped his own authority over the team, adding new players and setting the team up differently. Hiddink represents an enormous gamble for the CFF, and many have been watching keenly to see if it would pay off: if it did not, the recriminations would have been lengthy and loud.

But, so far anyway, it has paid off though additional managerial drama has been forced by COVID: with Hiddink recovering from a recent positive diagnosis, Patrick Kluivert stepped int to take up the reins again. Curaçao opened their campaign by smashing Saint Vincent and the Grenadines with five goals without reply, an expected victory against limited opposition. The more serious test was the second game, a more hard-fought win a few days later against Cuba, Hiddink’s team on the right side of three first-half goals. Last night, Curaçao made it three from three by dispatching the British Virgin Islands in emphatic fashion, putting eight past the minnows without reply. The manager’s squads have included a number of first-time players from the Netherlands, and displayed an attacking attitude common to that instilled by Bicentini, albeit with a new formation: it is not an illogical argument to say that similar results might well have been achieved if the former manager was still in charge. But, regardless of any of that, Curaçao have nine points from nine.

This means that they face into a do-or-die match with Guatemala in a few days, ahead of the Central Americans by virtue of goal difference only. A winner will progress, a loser will be eliminated, a draw favours Curaçao. The potential in terms of further advancement and prestige are huge if Curaçao can pull it off, with the dreams of being one of the those few CONCACAF qualifiers to Qatar one more tantalising step progressed. But just getting to the Second Round will be a justification for the CFF to trumpet in regards the coaching switch, even if the manner in which it was done continues to raise questions. One thing is for sure: Curaçao’s success is not just Hiddink’s.

59. Problematic: Indonesia

(07/06/2021)

82 years on, Indonesia have little to look back on fondly about their first and only visit to a World Cup.

The 1938 World Cup, held in France, is known today mostly for the German side capitulating early thanks to the lack of teamwork between its German and Austrian contingents a few months after the Anschluss, the second consecutive triumph for Italy and for being the last World Cup held for 12 years on account of the Second World War. But there are a few other things worth noting about the tournament, not least the presence of the Dutch East Indies. In those distant days European and South American domination of the sport was so acute that there was no room for any sides from Africa and just one each from North America and Asia. In the latter only two nations, the Indies and Japan, even registered to compete for that one spot. The ongoing Sino-Japanese War led to Japan’s withdrawal before a ball was kicked, and so the Indies were able to book their tickets. They played a single game in the knock-out format, against eventual finalists Hungary, and got thrashed by six goals to nil. Though they headed home in record time, the Indies had the accomplishment of being the first Asian side to ever play in a World Cup Finals, an accomplishment now recognised as belonging to their successor state, Indonesia.

Of course, we must acknowledge the reality of 1938: that the Indies team represented a colonial nation that still segregated its football players into “local” and Dutch-born leagues; that many of the native players refused to tog out for what was seen as a side representative of colonial oppression; and that the Indies team was so synonymous with that colonial power that they played in all orange. Thus any use that can be made out of the “DEI” team as a popular sporting memory and inspiration for the modern Indonesia is one that can, at the risk of understating the case, be dubbed problematic. But of course “problematic” is a descriptor that can be used for a wide variety of things when it comes to Indonesian football.

By most metrics that you can name, Indonesia really should be a powerhouse in football, at least within their own continent. The 4th largest country in the world by population, nearly 250 million people call Indonesia home: a large proportion of that quarter billion are football mad, regularly packing stadiums to see the national side, and playing in huge numbers on a recreational level. The only things that come close are badminton and e-sports, with Indonesia unique in the world in the first instance and a major hub in the second, but football remains the biggest team/field sport going in the country. Millions will go to games, and more will watch the sport on television. Take a stroll through Jakarta, and you’re bound to see at least every second kid in a football jersey of some description. While 10% of the country lives below the poverty line, as a whole Indonesia can be considered reasonably prosperous given its location and demographics. So what gives? Why is the Indonesian national team among the lowest ranked in the AFC, out of 2022 World Cup contention with several games to play? And why is this a surprise to very few?

Like so many south-east Asian nations, football in Indonesia is simultaneously in a position of great power owing to its popularity, but in perpetual crisis owing to other factors. That football watching public is, to a very large extent, more obsessed with European club football than anything within Indonesia itself, with the various league systems (more on that in a moment) comparatively under-watched. Take it from someone hailing from a country with a similar problem: local clubs need support, and if they don’t get it the domino effect is inevitable, and ends with an uncompetitive national side. There’s a lack of proper facilities in different parts, meaning that the most football many Indonesians will play is the street variety. The strung-out nature of the country, that consists of thousands of islands, means that a national league can be hard to organise. The prevailing ethos of training underage players has been criticised, with a perceived priority placed on physical conditioning over actual skill with the ball, not conducive to creating senior players who could conceivably take on the world. Indonesian players rarely play, or excel, abroad. The governing body has all too frequently been wracked with corruption, with FIFA stepping in to suspend the organisation for a time in 2015. 

One of the most eye-catching issues within Indonesian football recently was the bizarre state of affairs that emerged when the country found itself with two separate national leagues. The Indonesian Premier League, or IPL, was a split-off from the Indonesian Super League, or ISL, created by clubs and other interests tired of the perceived mismanagement of the Indonesian league system by the governing body, the PSSI. Particular vitriol was reserved for PSSI’s President, Nurdin Halid, who had run the association for a time behind bars, owing to a conviction for smuggling sugar. FIFA recognised only the ISL, and IPL players were ineligible for selection to the national side. This didn’t prove to be too much of a dent to the existence of the IPL, though it never really took off to the extent that its membership presumably hoped. 

This situation went on for a few years with the Indonesian government skirting the bounds of what was acceptable in terms of trying to force a resolution, and the PSSI unwisely trying to stop FIFA from getting involved, before eventually the two leagues came to an uneasy co-existence, and then unification into the current Liga 1. A few years later new disputes over league make-up meant that club football was stopped in the country when the PSSI couldn’t come to an agreement with the Indonesian government, and a FIFA suspension of the association could not be avoided. Though it was relatively short, it resulted in Indonesia’s disqualification from any efforts to make it to Russia 2018.

The entire affair painted an extremely sorry picture of Indonesian football, though it is important to recognise the progress that has been made in recent years also. The PSSI has managed to avoid major corruption/government interference scandals more recently. There’s been more funding and emphasis on the under-age level since 2016, with several teenage and early twenties Indonesian teams performing well in continental tournaments: Indonesia will host the next U-20 World Cup as well. Indonesia remain reasonably competitive in regional ASEAN competitions though they have been prone to underperformance at times.

A key example of that underperformance has been the current campaign. Group G of the AFC’s Second Round was a local affair, with Indonesia drawn with fellow ASEAN sides Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, along with the United Arab Emirates. The Red and White may not have held credible aspirations of advancement, but they would have hoped, given their familiarity with most of the opposition, that they would be competitive. That feeling may have been boosted by recently installed coach Simon McMenemy, who had previously helmed an upturn in fortunes for the Philippines. But an opening loss at home to Malaysia, Indonesia sunk by a 96th minute winner, set the ball rolling on what has been a disastrous series of games. Indonesia have been outplayed every time they have taken to the field: 3-0 at home to Thailand, 5-0 away to the UAE, 3-1 in Vietnam, 2-0 in Malaysia. Before the end of 2019, McMenemy was gone, and now South Korea’s Sin Tae-yong has taken charge. His is an unenviable task: Indonesia can still get something from the group, but dreams of somehow making it to the next round of qualifying, let alone Qatar, have been well and truly quashed.

Four days ago Indonesia upset the odds a bit to gain their first point of the campaign, coming from behind twice to take a point from Thailand. Starting with the UAE tonight, Indonesia have two more games in which to try and get more, and retain at least a mathematical chance of attaining a better position for future AFC Cup qualification. But unless Sin can work a minor miracle, there is little real expectation that he can achieve this, his preparations affected hugely by the COVID pandemic and the senior team not exactly overflowing with talent. Until the issues with Indonesia’s governing body are sorted, until the problems with the league and its lack of support are brought to a positive conclusion, until the team are able to make hay out the country’s many apparent advantages, then Indonesia will continue to struggle, and continue to find it hard to make positive memories. Even 1938 is soiled by its problematic association with European colonialism. But the possibilities are there, if Indonesia works to grasp at them. It just won’t be 2022.

60. The Inheritors: Peru

(08/06/2021)

Over a half a century ago, Peru were one game from approaching true greatness, a situation born from a history of tragedy.

On the 14th June 1970, the most colourful World Cup to date hosted, perhaps, its most colourful tie, the Quarter-Final clash of Brazil with their CONMEBOL counterparts Peru. Leaving aside only the Final, it is a game that has gone down in the popular imagination as one of the best every played at that highest level, a brilliant display of coordinated skill and attacking abandon, every bit the perfect advertisement for the sport that the larger tournament that year has long been known as. On the same day as Uruguay’s scraping over the line against the Soviet Union, Italy’s destruction of the hosts and West Germany’s come-from-behind revenge against England, the Brazil/Peru tie provided for posterity a real sliding doors moment: one side desperately trying to re-establish themselves as the worlds best and another playing firmly in the belief they could be the inheritors of that title. But only one of them would move on, and get a chance to claim it.

Peru in the late 60s and early 70s was entering a new era in a lot of ways, and not all of them were positive. General Juan Francisco Velasco’s bloodless coup in 1968 had established a new government, and the subsequent nationalisation of the oil industry, banning of foreign companies and restriction on foreign imports marked Peru out almost immediately among their neighbours. This new ethos of self-sufficiency extended to the footballing world, with foreign players and coaches soon finding themselves with difficulties in getting or staying in Peru. This stunted the growth of Peruvian football long-term, but at the time a golden generation of players was capable of rising above the oft-seen chaos at home, be it political or sporting.

The team had more than enough tragedy and disappointment to deal with at the time of Mexico 70. In the 1936 Olympic Quarter-Final, they had seen a highly controversial win against Austria chalked off owing to a violent pitch invasion, after which an insulted Peruvian side refused to play an ordered re-match. An opportunity to compete at, and potentially win, a World Cup Finals in 1942, at a time when they were the reigning champions of South America, was dashed by World War Two. And in 1964 the country was the site of one of the worst stadium disasters in the sports history, after a pitch invasion at the Estadio Nacional in Lima ended with 328 people dead when authorities caused a stampede by firing tear gas into the crowd.

Such things, an inheritance of woe, only added to the psychological pressure on the Peruvian team, desperate to break one of the most heartbreaking streaks in football history and make it to the highest stage again, having been one of the 13 original sides to play in 1930. Certainly, there were few teams of more consistent talent in that period who never got to make it to a Finals, and the side that had been formed for a run at qualification for Mexico was arguably the best ever produced by Peru. Coached by former Brazilian midfielder Didi, twice a World Cup winner, they were a team of attacking intent and individual expression of creativity, and more than worthy of a place at that most fondly remembered of tournaments.

There was iconic captain Hector Chumpitaz, frequently regarded as one of the greatest defenders in South American history, who had been in the Estadio Nacional in 1964 and carried those memories for the rest of his life. There was midfield engine Roberto Challe, so often the difference between success and failure in those years. There was Hugo Sotil, a larger than life figure famous for his dribbling on the pitch, and his superstar lifestyle off of it. But they all paled behind Teofilo Cubillas, probably the most beloved footballer in Peruvian history. El Nene – “the Kid” – had been playing professionally since the age of 16, and by the time 1970 came, only four years later, he had become a sensation in the Peruvian league, renowned for his pace, accuracy and deadball skill. At the time he was still a relative unknown internationally, but that was going to change. The four men provided the spine of that Peru side, with Challe, Sotil and Cubillas an attacking trio few other countries could compete with.

Getting to Mexico was an epic in itself, thanks largely to Peru’s grouping in qualifying with an Argentinian side that wanted to get to Mexico by any means necessary. They had lost their first two of four games in the three team group, and needed Peru to lose away to Bolivia to keep their suddenly faint hopes alive. Bolivia won that game 2-1, with some hotly disputed decisions leaving a bitter taste in Peruvian mouths. A seemingly legal equaliser was chalked off by Yugoslavian referee Sergio Chechelev, before he sent the wrong man off after receiving a headbutt from a furious Peruvian player. Years later Chechelev would admit that he had been bribed by Argentinian officials to make sure Peru lost, a disgrace that would, perhaps, resonate more if later events had gone in La Albiceleste‘s favour. The Bolivian loss set things up for a decisive clash with Argentina in Buenos Aires on the last day of August 1969. Again, contentious refereeing decisions were the order of the day, with Peru reduced to ten men and Argentina scoring a dodgy penalty, but with an inspired performance from Challe in the back line, Peru withstood both a siege of their goal and a hostile crowd in La Bombanera to come out of the game with a 2-2 draw and a place in Mexico.

The joy of making to the highest level and getting the chance to demonstrate to the world that golden generation was unconfined, but before a Peruvian player was able to take to the field in Mexico the nations marriage of football and tragedy struck again. On the same day that the tourney opened with a forgettable scoreless draw between the hosts and the Soviet Union, a massive earthquake hit Peru in the coastal region of Chimbote. The tremors and resulting landslides killed an estimated 70’000 people, with the shockwaves registering as far away in Brazil. In those days and in that part of the world, communication lines were largely severed, so members of the squad preparing for their first game had no idea of the safety of friends or family.

Peru went ahead with their participation after some soul-searching, but now with the additional pressure of having to boost national morale after such a terrible tragedy. The result in the first half of their opening game, against Bulgaria, was achingly predictable, as an uncharacteristically sluggish Peruvian side found themselves 2-0 down approaching the hour mark. But the second Bulgarian goal was the spark Peru needed, and the following 25 or so minutes was an electric demonstration of what the South Americans could do. Level within six minutes, Cubillas applied the winner, a wonderful individual goal on 73 minutes where an oncoming El Nene tormented the Bulgarian defence before finishing coolly into the bottom corner, to complete an astonishing comeback. Peru were on the board, and getting noticed.

Four days later they put away Morocco, again with a more spirited second-half performance than in the first, to book their places in the knock-out stages, Cubillas scoring twice and Challe adding another. This came ahead of a 3-1 loss to West Germany in the final group game, where the limitations of the team were laid bare to some extent, Peru unable to handle the genius of Gerd Muller, who scored a hat-trick inside 40 minutes of play. That result set-up the mouth-watering all-CONMEBOL clash with Brazil in Guadalajara, with a place in the final four at stake.

Brazil, coming off of their dire showing in 1966, were attempting to rehabilitate their own footballing image under the iconic Pele, as well as trying to deal with the pressures of both their own fans and the military dictatorship back at home, neither of which was willing to tolerate failure: Peru’s mission to bolster the national mood after the earthquake was thus meeting a side with, if not a similar motivation, one that was at least something in the same general ballpark. Both sides were probably the most attacking and flair-filled of the 16 that had made it to Mexico, and the game showcased that offensive abandon almost straight from the off.

Four minutes in, Brazil’s Jairzinho hit the post from a breakaway before Tostao blasted the rebound wide. A few minutes later Rivelinho shot narrowly wide from a dummied free-kick. It was all Brazil, buzzing around the Peruvian defence like hornets, and once again La Blanquirroja were starting slowly. 11 minutes in they were punished: Eloy Campos mis-controlled a wayward cross into the Peruvian box, allowing Tostao to line the ball up for an onrushing Rivelinho, coming from the left. The angle meant he had no right to score, but his rifled shot beat Rubinos in the Peruvian goal, with the aid of the post. 1-0 Brazil.

The Selecao smelt blood and kept coming. Pele went close from a free, and then should have had a penalty after getting barged over by two defenders with the Peruvian goal at his mercy: VAR would undoubtedly have given it. Peru were at sea, and five minutes after conceding the first they were down another. From a corner Rivelinho cheekily played in Tostao down the by-line, and the forward fooled Rubinos with the resulting shot. The keeper, clearly expecting Tostao to play it square, was caught flat-footed and was unable to get his hands back to stop the ball beating him at his near-post, a howler of a goal. 2-0 Brazil.

One could have been forgiven for thinking the architects of samba soccer were about to run riot on an out-of-their-depth neighbour. A Pele free kick that wound up in the net but was chalked off due to a foul elsewhere, seemed to be the spark that Peru needed, now conscious they were one more goal away from being out of sight of their opponents. Cubillas, played in off a neat 1-2, shot straight at Venerando for Peru’s first real chance as they began to come out and play, which left some gaps at the back: Pele probably should have made it three a few minutes later but his effort to loop the ball over Rubinos only resulted in a goal kick. The Peruvian response, coming just before the half-hour mark, was a little out of nowhere, but spectacular when it came: Alberto Gallardo collecting a long ball on the left wing, beating Carlos Torres for pace, and then putting a blistering shot past Venerando at his near post. 2-1, and Peru were back in the game.

Things got a little stretched for the remainder of the half, as both sides attempted very speculative efforts, as if the point was not just to score, but to score spectacular goals. However the nearest either side got were more freak occurrences: Pele hit the post when Rubinos fumbled an otherwise tame effort, and Cubillas tried to float an indirect free-kick from inside the box into the corner, only for a Brazilian head to deny him at the last moment. Rubinos redeemed himself with a double save in injury time, first from a Rivelinho rasper, then in preventing the loose ball getting knocked into the goal by one of his own defenders. At half-time, things were finely balanced.

Brazil started the second half as strongly as they started the first, with Pele testing the keeper from a free, Hercules Ruas shooting narrowly wide and Torres going close in the first five minutes. It seemed like every time the two time champions got the ball they were making chances, and so it wasn’t too surprising when the third goal came on 52 minutes. Pele played in Torres, whose deft attempt to chip the ball square for Tostao was deflected past the despairing Rubinos, for Tostao to volley home from point blank. 3-1 Brazil.

Lesser teams would have given up then and there, but Peru were made of sterner stuff. They managed to re-assert themselves a bit and string some moves together, though chances were at a premium. Cubillas tested the keeper twice from frees, but it was still Brazil looking the more likely to score, with Torres a major threat with his probing runs down the left. He would shoot narrowly wide with just over 25 minutes left, as the gaps in Peru’s defence became larger with they seeking for a way back into the contest. With twenty minutes to play the moment came on a breakaway: Hector Gonzalez’ pass forward from midfield was sprung into the air from a muddle of Brazilian defenders and Peruvian attackers, and fell perfectly for the lurking Cubillas to volley home from the edge of the area. 3-2, and game on.

The fairytale was coming to an end though. Brazil could have panicked and allowed Peru a way to equalise the game, but instead they held firm, reset and pushed forward, seeking to kill the contest off. Five minutes after Cubillas gave Peru hope, it was Jairzinho who removed it, taking down a perfectly waited pass from Rivelinho, rounding Rubinos and side-footing home from a narrow angle. 4-2 Brazil.

Peru didn’t give up the ghost and made a few more chances as the game wound down, but a heroic last 10 minutes from Venerando kept the attacking trio out, as Brazil themselves wasted a host of chances at the other end to really put things beyond doubt. Exhausted looking players continued to drive on in both the yellow and the red and white. It was ragged, it was desperate but it was breathtaking at the same time: right down to the final seconds, both teams pressed for more goals, the epitome of everything that international football should be.

No more were scored though, and Brazil went on to meet, and beat, Uruguay in the Semi-Finals, before that iconic demolition of Italy at the end of the road. Peru, bowed, bent but very much unbroken, went home. Five years later they would win the South American Championship. Three years after that they would be back at the World Cup, where Cubillas would score five goals, among them that famous toe-poked free kick against Scotland. But the team would not inherit the mantle of the world’s best side, the chance lost that fateful summer day in Guadalajara.

But a new side has now inherited the legacy of that team. Peru ended a 36 year wait to get back to a World Cup Finals in Russia, with a new attacking look driven by Paulo Guerrero, Andre Carrillo and Christian Cueva. Breaking that hoodoo, that has come with a dearth of continental success also, was an important moment. Now, Peru face another do-or-die moment. Six games into qualification for Qatar, they lie rock-bottom in the CONMEBOL table, with only a point to their name. Thursdays game with Columbia was a disaster, the team stumbling to a facile 3-0 defeat at home, making their efforts to get back to the highest stage harder than ever. Tonight, they face Ecuador. The memory of that great seventies side remains, and may provide inspiration. Their heirs may yet create a new legacy.

61. El Gol Fantasma: Panama

(09/06/2021)

With the memory of that is their greatest, and yet most controversial, footballing moment not too far behind, Panama take another shot at the big time.

It is the 10th October 2017. Panama host Costa Rica in the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, in the final match of CONCACAF qualifying for the Russian World Cup the following year. If they want to achieve their first ever Finals appearance, the hosts need a win and for other teams to do them a favour elsewhere. Trinidad and Tobago are providing the favour, a goal up and holding on against a United States team that has had a dreadful campaign. But Panama are losing, to a 36th minute Johan Venegas strike. In a cauldron of noise, the home team wins a corner to the right of Patrick Pemberton’s goal. Anibal Godoy swings it in with his left boot and, not for the first or last time that night, an entire nation holds its breath.

That game was just the culminating point of a long journey, stretching back decades. Owing to the realities of geography and the realities of how the eponymous Canal was built and then manned, Panama is a country that has always been heavily influenced by the USA in terms of culture, society and sporting life. Baseball and basketball are among the most popular sports, and football, while not unpopular, has often been seen as an unloved second child at best, and dukeing it out with boxing in the shallow end of the pool at worst. Panamanian footballers who wanted to advance their careers routinely went south to Colombia and never came back. The country did not have a professional football league until 1988 with the association, FEPAFUT, not exactly renowned for its long-term planning. But the Panama that emerged from the economic chaos of the Noriega years was able to put a bit more effort into its footballing base, thanks largely to the work of men like Gary Stempel. An English coach who helped found academies in Panama and managed its underage sides to relative success, his work has led to a number of milestones, most notably an U-20 World Cup appearance in 2019.

Panamanian players had strength, endurance, pace, all of the physical attributes, but they needed that instruction in how to play the game at a high level to really get anywhere. The dominoes fell bit by bit. Academies resulted in underage advancement which resulted in a better internal league and which led, in time, to senior sides punching above their weight, with Panama finishing Gold Cup runners-up in 2005 and 2013. The next domino was Panamanian players regularly graduating to play abroad, and it was a swath of these who made up the core of the side that took a tilt at the finding the Holy Grail, by getting to Russia in 2018. They included Raman Torres of the Seattle Sounders upfront, South American journeyman Luiz Tejada and pacy midfielder Gabriel Gomez.

In terms of World Cup qualifying, the team was improving bit-by-bit, and the side that got dumped out early by El Salvador for South Africa 2010 made it to the final Hexagonal competition for Brazil 2014, finishing three points off progression. The team aiming for Russia was headed by Hernán Darío Gómez, a man famed for his role in the great what-if of South American football, the Colombian side of the early 90’s, who had also made it to a World Cup managing Ecuador in 2002. The Panamanian job, that started with a 3rd place showing in the 2015 Gold Cup, was something of a redemptive effort by Gomez, after an assault he perpetrated on an unidentified woman outside a Bogata bar resulted in his second stint with Colombia being unceremoniously cut short.

The campaign was a rollercoaster. Given a bye into the penultimate round, Panama laboured a little in losing twice to Costa Rica and drawing with Haiti, but got through to “the Hex” with six points to spare. What followed was an epic contest for the limited qualification spots. Mexico pulled away early, leaving Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, the United States and Trinidad and Tobago to divvy up the remaining two automatic qualification spots and the Intercontinental Play-Off berth. 

The whole thing was turned on its head by the disastrous performance of the Americans under Bruce Arena, who seemed to vacillate between the form you would expect of perennial World Cup qualifiers and playing like one of the minnows of the confederation. A remarkable evenness resulted, with Panama, Honduras and the US matching wins with losses, and plenty of draws occurring. For Panama two of those, away in Mexico and at home to States, were among the most crucial results, helping to make up for less creditable defeats to Trinidad and Tobago, and a 4-0 pasting suffered in Orlando late on. Goals were hard to come by, with Panama only scoring seven in nine games. Going into the last day Mexico and Costa Rica had sown up their places, the US provisionally held the last automatic spot on 12 points, while Panama and Honduras were locked together on 10, with Panama up on GD. Honduras took on Mexico needing a win, the US travelled to Couva to take on the Caribbean wooden spoon, and Panama entertained Costa Rica.

Back to minute 53 in the Estadio Rommel Fernandez. Honduras have just levelled things at 2-2 against Mexico, the US have cut a two goal deficit to one just after half-time against Trinidad and Tobago. With Panama down, as things stand the Americans are going to Qatar and Honduras are going to the Intercontinentals. Then comes the corner. 

With misplaced confidence Pemeberton comes off his line to claim the ball and misses it completely, put off by the competing heads of Costa Rican defence and Panamanian attack. The ball falls to the feet of forward Gabriel Torres, whose attempted sidefoot is impeded. The ball skitters a few yards towards goal, converged on by two defenders and an attacker, Blaz Perez. Perez goes to ground off a shirt pull from Francisco Calvo, though replays will show he had a fist of jersey himself. In the scramble the ball taps the post, hits Perez’s shoulder, then gets kicked over the end line left of the post off of the Panamanian forward. The ball has most definitely not crossed the goal-line, but to the astonishment of many present, Guatemalan ref Walter Castellanos points to the centre circle. Panama are level.

Perez will later fully admit that the ball never crossed the line, though he also insisted it should have been a penalty regardless, a debatable claim to put it nicely. He also freely admits to pressuring Castellanos to stick to his decision in the melee of claim and counter-claim that followed, dismissing accusations of bad sportsmanship by insisting Panama have suffered more than most at the hands of bad officiating over the years. A place in the World Cup was on the line and it doesn’t matter if you are Thierry Henry or Blaz Perez: getting there is all that matters. Castellanos, his line of sight in the moment somewhat impeded, had no goal line or VAR technology to fall back on. He stuck to his call, claiming later that he put too much faith in a linesmen who insisted the ball had crossed the line.

“El gol fantasma”, the “ghost goal” as it became known, set Panama on their way, but there was still more drama. Five minutes after it happened Honduras took the lead against Mexico, putting them back above Panama in the Hex standings. With an already qualified Mexico not looking likely to try their very hardest to claw back the deficit and with the US laying siege to the Trinidad and Tobago goal, Panama needed a winner. They got it two minutes from time, defender Roman Torres firing home after a brilliant through ball from Yeltsin Tejeda, to send the team, the stadium and the entire country into raptures. In Couva, the Americans couldn’t get it done. When the final whistle went Panama sat pretty in third, Honduras fourth, and the United States in the limbo of fifth. There were tears, parades, President Juan Carlos Varela even declared a national holiday in the aftermath. The ghost goal became legendary in an instant, a Hand of God writ small. It wasn’t clean, but Panama were going to the World Cup.

Panama’s experience in Russia was far less magical. It should have been expected that the only team to make it to the Finals with a negative goal difference in qualifying would struggle, and struggle Panama did. It didn’t help that they were drawn with two eventual semi-finalists. Keeping Belgium scoreless for a half was Panama’s biggest Finals achievement before the floodgates opened, they falling 3-0. A 6-1 walloping from England followed, before Panama let a lead slip to lose to Tunisia 2-1 in a dead rubber finale. Gomez resigned in the aftermath, his job done getting Panama to the tournament, and the Central Americans day in the sun came to a sudden and decisive conclusion.

Since then Panama have regressed a bit, going through a few short-term managerial appointments, getting knocked out of the 2019 Gold Cup by Jamaica and shipping three losses from four games in the CONCACAF Nations League, including a truly embarrassing home reverse to semi-amateur Bermuda. That means the Los Canaleros slipped away from those favoured top six places and were instead placed with the rest of CONCACAF in the First Round of 2022 qualifying, a single round-robin where only group winners advance, so any errors (or officiating mistakes) have extra relevance. Panama went two for two ahead of the the current stretch of qualifying, with wins over Barbados and Dominica, but they were far tighter results than they would have liked. They had no such problems a few nights ago though, when they made a powerful demonstration of why they are still worth a high seeding as they flattened an unfortunate Anguilla 13-0.

Things had been set up for a winner-takes-all finale with the Dominican Republic, which took place last night. Lose, and Panama would be back to darker years of being World Cup also-rans. Win, and they could start dreaming of another Finals and maybe putting in a better account of themselves than they did in Russia. But they did win. They were set on their way less than ten minutes in by a potential goal of World Cup qualifying, a flick-up and volley from over 25 yards out by midfielder Anibal Godoy, that left the opposition stunned and the fans inside the Estadio Nacional – home support must certainly have had an impact – in raptures. Edgar Barcenas largely made sure of progression with a tap-in 23 minutes from time, before Cecelio Waterman completed the surprisingly easy victory in the last five minutes, sidefooting home from the edge of the area.

With the win Panama leave the First Round of CONCACAF qualification behind them, and in a few days look forward to the next do-or-die moment, a two-legged Second Round clash with up-and-comers Curaçao. In many ways that game represents a case of old guard against new in this portion of the world, a side that have been to the biggest stage already against a team desperate to make it for the first time. Only one of them will get the chance. With more momentum on their side than they may have had since the 2018 campaign, Panama will surely be favourites to get there. They hopefully will not need any ghost goals to do it this time.

62. “Harry Potter”: Turkmenistan

(10/06/2021)

Could Turkmenistan become one of the more unlikely contenders for a place in Qatar?

In one of his first media appearances after being appointed as the head coach of the central Asian nation of Turkmenistan, Ante Mise was asked bluntly by one journalist as to what he was willing to promise the Turkmenistan faithful, specifically regards the qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022. His answer was measured, with more than a hint of rehearsal around it: the Croatian insisted that a large degree of hard work was going to be required. He is no, he said, “Harry Potter” with “a magic wand” that can wave away the problems of Turkmen football. And yet, over two years later, you might forgive some Turkmen for thinking that Mise had some manner of supernatural talent, as their side found themselves, with just two games left to play in the Second Round of AFC Qualifying very much with their destiny in their own hands.

Turkmenistan is another one of those countries that you may well have heard of, but which doesn’t really make much of an impression in the western consciousness. Mostly desert, the Spanish-sized Central Asian nation is sparely populated, with just 12 people per kilometre squared (in comparison, Ireland’s number is 70). A former Soviet Republic, the country spent most of its post-independence existence under the tyrannical rule of President-For-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, has only been mildly liberal in comparison. Turkmenistan remains a country known for its repressive policies on matters of minorities, the press, and the ability of citizens to leave the country: freedom indexes rank it only just ahead of the previously discussed Eritrea.

How does such a country go about forming a successful sporting pedigree? With great difficulty is the answer. Turkmen Olympic teams are small and so far without any success, and they have contributed very little in terms of anything else: the succinct online information on rugby union in the country describes the sport as “embryonic”, and the term could be applied to a lot of things. Horse-riding and falconry remain popular, but could never be used to showcase the country internationally. The best bet for that is football, the only team sport that has been able to ingrain itself fully in Turkmenistan.

Not that this should be taken as an indication that Turkmenistan’s focus on football automatically translates to success. In many places national teams struggle owing to having to compete for resources and attention with other sports, but Turkmenistan is a prime example of the opposite, where despite being the only game in town when it comes to team sport, the nation and its various stakeholders have floundered. The international youth sides have never been able to make an impact, and the women’s side of the game is shallow to the point of practical non-existence. The national league is a small scale two-tier affair, that has become recently dominated by the team of Altyn Asyr, who have won the last seven league titles.

It is that team that provides the best example of Turkmenistan’s potential though, having beaten the odds to reach the final of Asia’s secondary international club competition, the AFC Cup, in 2018. They beat sides from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, India and North Korea to get there, before falling at the last hurdle to Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al Jawiwa, 2-0. Some of the men who got the club to that point, easily the best achievement of a Turkmen club side, are mainstays of the national team: reliable goalkeeper Mammet Orazmuhammedow, pacy corner-back Mekan Separow and attack-focused left-winger Altymyrat Annadurdyyew.

They are some of the key elements of a side that is desperate to leave behind the depths of the near past. For Brazil 2014 qualifying, the Turkmen entered at the Second Round stage, then a two-legged play-off, and were drawn to face Indonesia. It was a poor time for Turkmenistan, hovering near their lowest ever FIFA rankings, and after a 1-1 draw at home left the opposition with the advantage, they watched in horror as Indonesia raced into a 3-0 lead by half-time, eventually running out 4-3 (5-4) winners after a belated Turkmen fightback. Turkmenistan, after sorting out some management issues, recovered for a more respectable showing in the Russia 2018 campaign, and while they failed to get to the last round of qualifying, they were able to get to the 2019 AFC Cup for only the second time in their history. It was not a fairytale return to that level, with two late defeats to Japan and Oman sandwiching a 4-0 thumping from Uzbekistan, but it was a sign that Turkmenistan were improving.

The coach for both of those opposing poles of performance was Ýazguly Hojageldiýew, also coincidentally the manager of Altyn Asyr during their current glory years, but he left the post after the AFC Cup. To replace him, the Turkmen FA looked abroad for the first time in a while, and settled on Mise, best known up to that then for being an assistant coach of his own national side. But they didn’t stop there, with Mise’s compatriot Sandro Tomic called in to assist also. The two are at the forefront of what The Turkmen hope will be a Croatian revolution in their football.

They are far from the only two Croatian’s who have found themselves placed in charge of football teams in unlikely places. Just across the border is the best example, where Dragon Skocic coaches Iran, but Croatians are now managing teams all across Europe, Russia, the Middle-East and beyond, a product of both a rigorous training programme for aspiring Croatian coaches at home and the Croatian national team’s consistent ability to to punch above its relative weight. That astonishing run to the World Cup Final in 2018 put Croatian football, its coaches and its style, very much in the shop window, and clubs and nations around the world liked what they saw.

Turkmenistan hoped that Mise and Tomic could be at the forefront of a renaissance in their football. That meant more investment in youth football. That meant a greater reliance on younger players, both at international and club level. That meant more investment in the internal league. These are long-term projects all, and Mise knew it would take lots of patience and even more time.

It was his job with the national side to buy that time, that could be all too fleeting if the results were bad. But thankfully the results have been better than average. For Second Round AFC qualifying, the Turkmen started with a 2-0 away win at Sri Lanka, marked by a blistering left-footed opener from Wahyt Orazsahedow, before a loss to the same scoreline at home to group favourites South Korea, where the home team was under siege for most of the match. They followed that up with a 2-1 loss away in Lebanon, conceding the winner just two minutes after equalising, the defence still caught up in the euphoria of the moment and allowing the opposition to cut through with ease. They needed to right the ship fast, and Mise pulled that off in the next game, an impressive 3-1 defeat of visitors North Korea, probably the best performance of the Croatian’s reign, where the Turkmen matched their incisiveness going forward with a saved penalty at the other end. Turkmenistan’s last game before the extended COVID break saw them complete the double over Sri Lanka, again 2-0.

As it did elsewhere, COVID intervened to drastically unsettle things in Turkmen football, beginning a series of disasters that Turkmenistan could do nothing about. With the international calendar kaput, the Turkmen FA went about consolidating costs and cutting what needed to be cut: Mise and Stomic’s contracts, up for renewal, were on the chopping block, with Mise moving to manager in the club game of Kuwait. It took over a year for his successor to be announced, with Turkmenistan looking to the past, in the form of previous head coach Röwşen Muhadow. It is he who took charge of the team for those critical final qualifiers, and it is to be hoped that this turn to the head men of yesteryear does not mean that the good work done under Mise is about to be entirely discounted.

But fate intervened to make the task all the more difficult for Turkmenistan in a way they had no control over. They were meant to go into their final games top of the group but the withdrawal of North Korea, ostensibly due to COVID concerns, has seen all results involving that team nullified. This disproportionately effected the Turkmen in the race against their group rivals, as it allowed Lebanon and South Korea to leapfrog them in the standings, with less games to reverse the situation.

A few days ago Lebanon’s victory over Sri Lanka meant the Turkmen had to get at least a draw with South Korea on Saturday. That would be a tall order in the very best of circumstances, but with a new management team and some very obvious rustiness owing to the lack of competitive game time, the Turkmen could not beat the odds, succumbing to a potent Korea attack that had the game pretty much won with two goals before the break, before they added three more after it. The chance for revenge against Lebanon last night, in a topsy turvy game with five goals in the last half hour. The Turkmen went ahead just before the hour mark, Zafar Babnjanow heading home powerfully after a right wing deadball delivery. This was the spur Lebanon needed, the Cedars requiring a win if they were to go into the final day clash with South Korea with a realistic chance of topping the group. Two incredible goals in three minutes – the first a wonderful solo run and finish by Rabih Ataya, the second a 30-yard rasper from Hassan Ali Saad – flipped things around with a quarter of an hour to play, before the Turkmen completed their own astonishing come back, Annaguliyev Guychmyrat equalising with four minutes to play with a close ranger flick and Altymyrat Annadurdyyew applying the winner, a low shot at the near post of the Lebanese keeper, in injury time, either side of a straight red for Lebanon’s Nour Mansoor.

It was a demonstration of what Turkmenistan could so, and in other circumstances they could well have made it to the next round. It’s a disappointing end to their hopes of achieving a historic progression to the last round of AFC qualification, but they can console themselves with at least a more advanced placement in future Asian Cup qualifying. In the end, COVID and the North Korean withdrawal have done more to stump Turkmen aspirations than the Turkmen themselves: a bitter pill to swallow, but no one ever said the sport was entirely just.

Regardless of how this campaign has gone, the work will continue for Turkmen football. The chance for some revenge against Lebenanon comes in a few days Harry Potter can mumble some bastardised Latin and magic away his problems, but Muhadow, seeking to be a worthy successor of Mise, will have to rely on hard work, commitment and the willingness of his charges to be reformed. If these things can be implemented, and stuck to, then magic of a different kind might well happen.

63. Wishing Upon A Golden Star: Vietnam

(11/06/2021)

If Vietnam make it to Qatar, Hanoi is likely to see the biggest street party in its history.

With two matchdays remaining, Group G is among the most finely balanced in the Second Round of AFC qualification for the World Cup. Indonesia were also-rans a while ago, but every other team still has a shot, whether it is to top the group or grab the chance of progression that second place represents. The United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Malaysia all still have things in their own hands, but the team perhaps best placed to make it, and to make good of that progression, is the team whose fans have proven themselves among the most fanatical of recent times. Fully emerged from the shadow of the past and representative of a nation that is continuing a major transformative process, this is a critical sporting moment for Vietnam.

The history of football in Vietnam is one that, like everything else in the country, was marred significantly by the extended period of conflict, first with French colonial occupiers, and then between North and South, and then between Vietnam and its neighbours, that was the defining aspect of the region for much of the 20th century. No national team existed in any recognisable form throughout the 1980’s as a result, and it was not until 1991, under the “Doi Moi” or “Renovation” policies of a new wave of Vietnamese leadership, that the Socialist Republic was able to cobble together a side, this being partly a consequence of a new FA (the VFF) and a new national league. In line with the economic difficulties Vietnam experienced for so long post-war, sporting life frequently struggled to gain needed resources and attention and for many years the Vietnamese footballers limited themselves to the odd victory in regional competitions. They made little impact in Asian or World Cup qualification, and it’s a sign of how bleak things were in the 90’s that one of the major highlights for this period was a 1996 friendly defeat to recent Champions League winners Juventus.

That match garnered a significant degree of interest from the country though, and perhaps helped propel along an eventual change of fortunes for Vietnam, as new players came through that began to make an impact. The team started winning more games in the early 2000’s, and made a big splash as a co-host of the 2007 Asian Cup, getting to the last eight and losing to eventual Champions Iraq. This marked a more concrete resurgence. It was the beginning of what some local fans dub the country’s first “golden generation”, who would win the Vietnam’s first major honour by capturing the regional AFF Championship in 2008, largely on the back of soon-to-be legendary players like pacy right winger Nguyễn Vũ Phong and Lê Công Vinh, a fleet-footed forward of the deep-lying variety. Both men were part of a squad recruited entirely from the Vietnamese League 1, a self-sufficiency that is inevitably limiting but at the time was able to provide a pool of players to match the country’s enormous appreciation for the sport.

Because football is big business in Vietnam, even with the national teams’ struggles. Something like the AFF Championship is a barely heard of event outside of the continent, but Vietnam’s success in it in 2008 created a furore at home. Thousands packed the streets of Hanoi to watch games and celebrate victories, singing nationalist songs and exhibiting a passionate form of patriotism that is sometimes lacking in their south-east Asian neighbours. More recently they have even been known to do the same thing for underage sides when they get big victories. The advent of the current age of mobile communications means that more Vietnamese than ever have the ability to watch live sport, and on such days as the national team is playing crowds of people can be seen gathering around devices on the streets of Hanoi, or outside bars and cafes showing the matches, hopeful that by 90 minutes they will have another reason to have a party.

This would be endearing in any other country, but the displays of people hollering into the night with the Vietnamese golden star painted on their faces raises eyebrows for some, when you consider the nature of the place. Vietnam, whatever about its reforms and embrace of a McDonald’s-driven engagement with the rest of the world, is still a one-party dictatorship where pride and support for the government is less a suggestion and more of a requirement, a requirement driven by state-controlled media, mass rallies and an education system that brooks little in the way of dissenting opinions. The footballing celebrations brush against the line of what is acceptable to authorities – many go on into the early hours, with a party atmosphere that can seem alien to those whose idea of the country is rooted in darker times – but the spontaneous nature of them compared to some of the scheduled government equivalents is something that the leaders of Vietnam probably don’t mind seeing. Seeing the nation go toe-to-toe with their regional rivals, and succeeding, works as a sort of proxy for showcasing Vietnam, and its governments, strength. As long as the crowds are cheering for that, Hanoi will probably not be inclined for a crackdown. Moreover, for those Vietnamese less happy with the current state of the country, the football team provides a way of exhibiting national pride without it being directly tied to the government

Those crowds have had more to cheer for recently. Despite the successes of that 2007/08 generation – the “golden” sobriquet is perhaps a tad misplaced – they were unable to build, and never made it to a World Cup or another Asian Finals. A period of decline followed that infected many different parts of Vietnamese football, with huge numbers of clubs financially mismanaged and the VFF’s head given a 30 year jail sentence for tax evasion in 2014. Things looked rather bleak for Vietnamese football, struggling internally and no longer impressing externally, with early exits in a string of World Cup qualification campaigns.

The decline was arrested in 2014 however, with the appointment of Japanese manager Toshiya Miura. Working extensively with Vietnam’s underage and Olympic squads, Miura helped to fashion a more competitive senior side, though he wasn’t able to garner enough positive results to take the final steps himself. The team that he helped to build, taking advantage especially of the world class Hoang Anh Gia Lai-Arsenal academy located in the country’s central highlands (many of the current senior side are graduates), has managed to become a true golden generation under Korean manager Park Hang-seo, winning another AFF Championship and finishing runner-ups in the U-23 Asian Cup, for which fans filled streets and stadiums all over the country to watch big screen coverage. The most notable achievement of this generation so far was undoubtedly making it to the Quarter-Finals of the senior edition of the same tournament in 2019, where they grasped one of the biggest results of their history in defeating Jordan on penalties in the last 16.

Every one of these events inspired wild, extended celebrations at home, as Vietnam, its fans and its political leaders – happy to make heroes out of senior and underage players representing the flag well – embraced their new status as one of the AFC’s top sides. Park was criticised often early in his tenure, coming as he did from an undistinguished club career in his native country and prone to adopting a somewhat unexciting defensive style (something he is still occasionally criticised for, given the attacking talent he has to hand) but the results have made him into something of an unlikely national icon. And the players that he has to work with, graduates of those youth academies with their best years ahead of them if managed right, look like the kind of young men ready to take the next step.

Four nights ago Vietnam maintained their unbeaten record in Group G by doing a double over Indonesia, 4-0. Tonight is the much bigger test, a veritable six-pointer against Malaysia, five points behind Vietnam. A win or a draw and the Golden Stars will be in the Third Round. Anything less and things will go down to the last match day, where Vietnam face the still in-contention UAE. Between the graduation of the youth of the last decade, a settled managerial team and the zealotry of the faithful at home, Vietnam are well placed to go beyond their previous high-point and be competitive in the search for a place in Qatar, even if that exact goal may still be somewhat beyond them realistically speaking. But then again who knows: make a wish upon that golden star painted on so many cheeks, and know that stranger things have happened.

64. Shining Light: St Kitts and Nevis

(12/06/2021)

Two games from a high water mark, St Kitts and Nevis look to their talismans more than ever tonight.

Tonight is one of the biggest games in the history of St Kitts and Nevis. This is, realistically speaking, the closest that the tiny federation of Caribbean islands has ever been to the business end of World Cup qualification in CONCACAF. Today, they take the field at home to El Salvador in the first leg of their Second Round tie. If they are to make the crucial breakthrough and earn the right to compete at the very highest table of the confederation, they will need every man on the field to play to the very best of their ability. And chief among them will be easily the country’s biggest talent, 29-year-old midfielder Romaine Sawyers.

Like many of the key stalwarts of the Caribbean nations, Sawyers comes from the other side of the Atlantic, born and raised in Birmingham, England. He and his two siblings had a difficult upbringing in the circumstances, with his mother Diane raising her family on her own in relative paucity, working numerous jobs to support her children. Sawyers is on record as using the sight of the fancy cars from Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion players based nearby that he would see on occasion as one of the most potent means of inspiration available to him, with it drilled into his head from a very young age that sporting talent was an avenue of escape from the usual perils of a working class upbringing. Dreaming of playing at that top level, by the age of six Sawyers was already turning heads with his skill using a foam ball on the street. His mothers connections at local community clubs, just one part of what seems to have been a infectious spirit of volunteerism, certainly would have helped, and Sawyers was playing in the West Brom academy before he was eight years old. First impressions could probably have been better – he wore an Aston Villa cap on his first day, and was quickly disabused of maintaining that fandom – but he soon demonstrated that he was the real deal.

Playing for fun soon morphed into playing with an eye on development, and his burgeoning skill as an attacking midfielder got him a contract with the club shortly after his 19th birthday. But from there Saywers entered a period of struggle. Knee injuries and a number of unexceptional loan periods seemed to indicate that his footballing career had already hit the upper limit, and he was not offered a renewal of his West Brom status at age 21. For many footballers this is the end of their notoriety, but Sawyers was able to quickly sign up with League One Walsall on the basis of academy recommendations, and soon impressed with a positive attitude and an ability to play effectively off of front men. Sometimes he could appear lazy and shiftless, a perception fuelled by modern-day overemphasis on certain “work-rate” statistics, that do not always take into account really key attributes of midfielders. Over the seasons, Sawyers demonstrated an ability to pick a pass, start a counter-attack, change positions as needed and pick other players up, the kind of things that “Distance Covered” can miss.

By the end of his time at Walsall he was a key element of the Saddlers, described as a “shining light” for a side unused to such sobriquets for its players. Having helped the team become more of a stable presence in the third tier, he departed ahead of their disastrous plummet into League 2. In 2016 he reunited with former manager Dean Smith at Brentford and impressed hugely at the Championship level, with his box-to-box play and assist rate key to making that side competitive. Ifter three season there, despite being given the captaincy, he proved too good for mid-table, and in 2019 he returned to the more upwardly mobile West Brom. He played a hugely important role in the Baggies’ ascent to the Premier League at the end of that season and while that experience in the top tier ended in relegation, it was still the achievement of a long held dream. For that year, it was Sawyers as the player in the nice car, being the kind of motivation for others that he once sought himself.

Sawyers is the kind of footballer that should be held up as a major role model. If he had lucked out and been picked up by the academy of a bigger club, or by the scouts of the same later in his career, he had the scope to become a huge presence. Bred into him by that childhood under a mother who did everything that she could to give back to the community that was tight-knit and supportive, Sawyers works extensively with a range of charities and other community support groups: they include learning sign language with deaf children and leading workshops on racism. Sawyers is perhaps not quite as humble about such things as he should be – he has compared his efforts to craft a legacy of humanitarianism as being the difference between an unforgettable Muhammad Ali and a destined-to-fade Floyd Mayweather – but the work speaks for itself.

More recently Sawyers is one of a number of footballers who, subject to routine racist abuse from the stands and from social media – earlier this year, a perpetrator of such abuse towards Sawyers via Twitter was arrested in Birmingham – have begun to take more of a firm approach to dealing with such hate. Men like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are at the forefront of these efforts, and Sawyers has spoken publically on his belief that such stands are an important part of ensuring that bigotry in the sport be erased. Too many footballers from a non-white background have been the recipients of too much racial abuse, with Twitter just the latest avenue replete with authority figures unwilling to do what is necessary to stop it. Names like Sawyers, who came from very little and have emerged with much more, are less willing than ever to accept the status quo, and he also spoken about about the necessity to eliminate homophobic sentiment from the sport at the same time, more than likely the next great cultural battle for the game.

In another world Sawyers could have represented England, but as far back as 2012 he has instead opted for the more attainable, though no less familial, climes of the Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis. Qualifying to play for the Sugar Boyz through his grandmother, Sawyers has amassed 27 appearances and scored five times for them in the last decade, an indication that his role remains more in the creation of goals than in the taking of them. This is no mere mercenary attachment either, with Sawyers a frequent resident on the islands during the summer, and engaging in his community work as much in his ancestral homeland as he does in his native one: for last season, his graduation into becoming the only Kittian player in the Premier League only increased his celebrity status, that has him routinely mobbed when he plays football with local kids.

In line with some other diaspora recruits, who have been called up from a smattering of lower league sides in England, Sawyers’ time with St Kitts and Nevis has seen the team rise above their usual minnow status somewhat – they rank as the smallest, in terms of population and size, sovereign nation in the western hemisphere, and cricket is a much bigger sport in the islands – to the point that they have now graduated to the Second Round of CONCACAF qualification for Qatar. In the First Round, owing to COVID restrictions and club commitments Sawyers was able to play two of the four games as his country defeated Puerto Rico 1-0 eased past the Bahamas 4-0 and made light work of Guyana 3-0 (with Sawyers scoring the third). Owing to the shock of the round elsewhere, namely Trinidad and Tobago’s failure to beat the Bahamas, St Kitts and Nevis had progressed before meeting the Soca Warriors, a dead rubber they ended up losing 2-0.

That last result is a sign perhaps that St Kitts and Nevis should not get too big for their boots, especially as they now face the daunting task of that home-and-away tie with El Salvador. Lose, and their journey to Qatar comes to an end. Win, and they will take a place in the last eight of CONCACAF qualifying, the kind of opportunity that most Kittians have only ever experienced in their fondest dreams up to this point. Sawyers is at the forefront of the effort to get them there, and to make the islands more of a competitive Caribbean mainstay than they have ever been before. But, win-or-lose, he is likely to continue his work to become a Kittian sporting icon, as much as a shining light for causes in England.

65. Best Losers: The AFC Runners-Up

(13/06/2021)

One last push, with everything hanging in the balance for some teams.

Today constitutes the penultimate date of matches for the Second Round of AFC qualifying, with South Korea hosting Lebanon in Goyang ahead of the last games in two days time. Some groups have been decided, for others everything is still on a knife-edge. Much attention now goes to the second placed teams, with initially four of those eight eligible to progress to the next round, competing for the role of what is sometimes called, rather harshly, a “Best Loser”. The status of group winners Qatar and the premature departure of North Korea have messed things around decisively in this regard: in the first instance it means an additional fifth runner-up can get through, in the second results against the bottom side in the groups are not counted for this final tabulation. Things are achingly tight, just a point or a goal between some teams, and such things can easily prove the difference between an historic ascent to the AFC’s top table, or a disastrous crashing out one round early. In those second place spots, or just below them, are plenty of sides with stories to capture the imagination.

In Group A, Syria are the runaway winners, with a perfect record thus far, and are already considering how best to achieve the extra step of Finals qualification in the next round. China PR, having completed a treble of resurrecting victories in the last few days over Guam, the Philippines and the Maldives, are firmly ensconced in second place. The two sides play each other tonight, with China currently second in the runners-up table. But a win against the Syrians would be more than just a necessary step in securing progression. The loss to the same opposition in November 2019 was the last straw ahead of the second removal of Marcelo Lippi, and the CFA would dearly love to trumpet the effectiveness of Li Tie’s new regime with a demonstration that the People’s Republic are up to the level of the AFC’s heavy-hitters, and not just their island minnows. Pressure from home over the selection of naturalised players may also be more effectively dismissed if a win was to be secured. This is not a team that wants to just sneak into the Third Round.

Australia have won Group B, and the runners-up spot is Jordan’s at the moment. They played out a scoreless draw with Kuwait two days ago, and lie three points above them ahead of their final game with the group winners. Jordan are still smarting from an unexpected penalty shoot-out loss to Vietnam at the 2019 Asian Cup, and as such are desperate to re-solidify their status as a side from the higher percentile of the confederation. Coach Vital Borkelmans, an assistant at Belgium for several crucial years that helped to shape the current world #1’s into the side that they are, would certainly prove his hiring justified if he was to guide his charges into the final round. Kuwait could yet catch them, and Jordan lie second-last in the runner-up table: like China, a result against the Socceroos has the double objective of securing a Best Loser tag, and proving something about the nature of the team.

In Group C nothing has been firmly decided as of yet, beyond the fact that two of Iran, Iraq and Bahrain will take the crucial spots (though Bahrain are probably too far behind in GD terms to have an impact). Iran and Iraq meet in two days, where a winner will be sailing smoothly into the next round. As noted before, the matches between the two have been emotional affairs, especially for Iraqi audiences who continue to view Iran as a rival in many spheres outside of the football pitch. Both are likely to make it to the Third Round, but Iran probably have more to prove after that injury time loss to their neighbours and points dropped to Bahrain earlier in the campaign. 16 goals in the last three games paint a picture of how ruthless the Iranians are trying to be, with Iraq comparatively more subdued: much of the momentum thus lies with the Lions.

It’s all Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan in Group D, who play each other to conclude the round. A winner tops the group, and a draw will favour the Saudis. For Uzbekistan, who started the campaign so poorly with that loss to Palestine, the following six games have seen them assert themselves much better. But their hopes of finally getting to a World Cup Finals after so many near-misses now hang by a thread, requiring a result against the team that beat them with a last minute goal nearly 20 months ago. Being in this position is much more natural for the Saudis, and nothing less than progression will be deemed acceptable to them. A draw would probably see both to the next stage, but one suspects that neither side will be willing to take that chance. Both will need to improve if they get to the Third Round, with neither at their very best form throughout the run of Group D, but perhaps this round’s performances will serve as a wake-up call.

For Group E the winners are Qatar and the runners-up will be Oman, with their upcoming game against Bangladesh not likely to factor into the final calculation, the die having pretty much already been cast. Managed by yet another member of the Croatian coaching diaspora in the form of Branko Ivanković, Oman will be hoping that progression to the final stage of qualifying will prove to be more than another false dawn, having gotten desperately close to Brazil for the 2014 tournament. A succession of late goals and a final day loss to Jordan put paid to their chances then, and dropped points to relative minnows Guam and Turkmenistan put them out even earlier for 2018 qualifying. Having become a consistent Asian Cup qualifier and champions of the 2017 Gulf Cup, Oman want this generation to be the one to upend the odds and make it to a Finals. Sitting at the top of the runner-up table as things stand, it will take a unique series of results to seem them ousted.

In Group F it is a bit of a despairing situation, with one of the three #2’s to fail to advance more than likely to come from here, barring a bit of mathematical gymnastics. Kyrgyzstan hold the second spot ahead of their final match with Japan, in front of Tajikistan on goal difference. But their respective point totals are unlikely to be enough to creditably reach into the top five of the runners-up table. Kyrgyzstan have made it this far on the back of a team that has been happy to reach out to a scattered diaspora for players, some found as far away as Germany. As is so often the case competitiveness has increased but still has a ceiling, one that the Falcons slammed against hard in this instance. In truth both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are largely fodder for the all-conquering Japanese, for whom this stage of qualification has been a pedestrian journey for second string squads. Even what would be an historic win against the Blue Samurai would probably not be enough for Kyrgyzstan.

It’s winner-takes-all in Group G when the United Arab Emirates face Vietnam, with a draw favouring the Golden Stars. The UAE are one of the few Middle-Eastern sides not named Saudi Arabia to have made it to a World Cup Finals, in Italia 90. It’s another case of the qualification being more worthy of celebration than the tournament performance: the UAE were roundly trounced by Columbia, West Germany and Yugoslavia at the Finals, conceding 11 goals in three games. Since then they have become much more of a force in Asia, winning regional tournaments and getting close continentally; progression to the Third Round is extremely likely regardless of the result against Vietnam, and the Sons of Zayed will not be happy with just that.

Lastly, there is the one group that will be completed tonight, H, owing to North Korea’s withdrawal. South Korea are all but through with Lebanon needing not only to win, but wallop the Koreans if they were to achieve an unlikely automatic progression. A draw, or even more likely a defeat by as few as possible, are more realistic targets. From there Lebanon will have wait it out to see if results somehow go their way across the rest of the Second Round. The reality is that the Cedars can count themselves fortunate to be in the position that they are in, benefiting disproportionately with the decision to negate all of North Korea’s results thus far. They had lost five points to the DPRK, whereas group rivals Turkmenistan had gained three: if the AFC had let those games stand, it may well have been the Turkmen currently waiting to see if their second place would be enough. But that’s the way that football goes sometimes: on this occasion it’s Lebanon who get the administrative luck, but results elsewhere in the Second Round mean their campaign is more likely to end at this point than not.

Tuesday night will thus be a tense one, as fans and sidelines keep as close an eye on things happening elsewhere as they do on what is happening in front of them. The different timezones and staggered start times mean that those nerves will progress across nearly 13 hours of football: Group F will start and finish first, followed by C, G, E, A, D and finally B, with hearts in mouths and things in the balance from 1130 AM to 2200(ish) PM GMT time. The range of stories, dreams, aspirations, legacies and memories that will be going through the minds of players, manager and fans alike is something to consider, as the AFC ends its qualification middle chapter. Five teams will revel in being “Best Loser”: three others will have to settle for just one of those words.

66. The Football War: El Salvador

(15/06/2021)

Football is rarely, as a the old saying goes, a matter of life or death. That’s for other things.

Four decades has passed very quickly, or very slowly depending on your perspective, since 1982, but that timeframe will be very much in the mind of one of the teams taking the field tonight for the Second Round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. For El Salvador, this game is just the latest in what can only be seen as an exhaustive quest to to get back to the stage they last graced that year. Since then La Selecta have played an incredible number of qualifying games – 104 in nine attempts, with a crazy 20 alone in trying to make it to South Africa 2010 – without success. The workload is one that successive generations of Salvadorean players have taken on with gusto though, and that is no surprise really: football is practically a religion in the tiny Central American nation, with only baseball likely to get a look in otherwise. This is so much the case that the nations history during the 20th century is indelibly tied up with the game in many critical aspects, and there is no better example than the supporter violence in a game with neighbours Honduras, often cited as the motivation for a brief military conflict between the two countries in 1969: the so-called “Football War”. But the truth is a little blurrier.

El Salvador is a small stretch of land on the Pacific Ocean. In the late 60’s the country was under the control of a succession of military regimes with some pretenses at democracy. There was a state of constant crisis owing to its demographics, with over three-and-a-half million people squeezed into narrow boundaries, which resulted in soaring unemployment and poverty. A natural outlet was immigration into neighbouring Honduras, with which El Salvador shares its biggest border. Honduras, which has nearly 40% more territory than El Salvador, had a much smaller population, and Salvadoreans could easily be tempted north-east by the promise of arable land for farming and opportunities for enrichment that were just not possible at home. Under pressure landowners, an elite who did not want to do much sharing with the poorer classes, were happy to encourage such practices, but this exacerbated tensions with Honduras, where a fifth of the population was Salvadorean in origin by 1969.

Larger landowners and fruit conglomerates in Honduras grew concerned at the occupation of land by Salvadorean immigrants, and were able to pressure the government of Oswaldo Arrellano, another General wearing the hat of a President after a coup, to pass land reform laws that stripped property from Salvadoreans and re-distributed it to Hondurans. The law was aided by a concerted campaign to whip up ethnic tensions among the people, with Salvadorean immigrants castigated as thieves and robbers, who should go back to where they came from if they had any decency. The new laws came with rounds of discrimination against, and detention of, Salvadoreans, many of whom were either held in camps or forced back over the border to their native country. Tensions between San Salvador and Tegucigalpa deteriorated rapidly as accusations of prejudice and heavy-handedness were sent back and forth. In the middle of all this came three of the most important football matches in the history of either country.

The 1970 World Cup allowed only a single representative from CONCACAF. Honduras and El Salvador topped their respective First Round Groups, and were drawn to face each other in the Second Round play-offs. In the days before aggregations and goal difference, the two ended up in a stalemate: Honduras won the first game in Tegucigalpa courtesy of a last minute strike from Leonard Wells, before the Salvadoreans struck back with a vengeance in San Salvador, thumping their neighbours 3-0. Both matches were marred by incidences of crowd violence, more so in the second game, with policing authorities struggling to maintain any kind of control. Pictures of fans of either nation engaged in running battles with each other in the stands and in the streets outside the stadiums, combined with the more sporting battle on the pitch, inflamed tensions between the two countries even more.

Within a week-and-a-half of the second game El Salvador would claim that something close to a pogrom of his citizens was taking place in Honduras, with as many as 10’000 Salvadoreans fleeing over the border to escape what their government called a campaign of “murder, oppression, rape, plundering and the mass expulsion”. Red Cross stations near the border were rapidly overwhelmed. The stadium that the first match was held in was requisitioned as an internment facility where Salvadoreans were housed in dreadful open-air conditions ahead of expected deportation. It would be naive to state that these actions were motivated by the results of a football game, but those contests were the perfect metaphorical match to send the powder keg up. More importantly for popular perception, the Salvadorean Interior Minister Francisco Guerrero was quoted by English media as blaming the persecution on the qualifiers.

To sort out the sporting stalemate a deciding match was arranged to take place in Mexico City. Before a ball was kicked national tensions were dominating affairs, with El Salvador breaking off diplomatic relations with Honduras the night before the game took place. Mexican authorities had a better time controlling things in the stands, and a tightly fought contest played in driving rain entered extra-time after a 2-2 draw in the 90. El Salvador’s Mauricio Rodriguez, better known by his nickname “Pipo” (“Pipe” for his slimness), scored the deciding goal nine minutes from time, finishing from close range after a cross from the right. By most accounts the teams treated each other with more respect than their opposing fans – Salvadorean spectators were quoted as chanting “Murderers” at their Honduran counter-parts as thousands of Mexican police stood between them – or some of their own media – a Salvadorean newspaper used the headline “HONDURAS ELIMINATED” instead of focusing on their own team – and left the field on good terms. A few months later El Salvador would complete their qualification task by beating Haiti, again over three games, but by then the achievement had been hugely overshadowed by other events.

Skirmishes were already taking place at the border for some time beforehand, but three-and-a-half weeks after full-time was blown in that play-off the Salvadorean Air Force, in some cases using requisitioned passenger planes with bombs strapped to their sides, attacked targets in Honduras. This came ahead of a ground invasion along the two main roads linking the two countries. The Salvadoreans made rapid progress against a stunned Honduran enemy, whose own air force was momentarily crippled by the opening attacks. The Salvadorean Army got within potential striking distance of Tegucigalpa before being forced to halt, as the Hondurans began to hit back: by the end of the third day of the fighting large swaths of the Salvadorean coast were covered in black smoke, a result of successful strikes against oil facilities. Things settled, with both sides having rapidly expended their stores of ammunition. The Organisation of American States arranged a ceasefire in rapid negotiations, but not until a reported 3’000 people had been killed on both sides and ten times that displaced. Under threat of economic sanctions and with some neighbouring states prepared to assist Honduras should El Salvador maintain their offense, San Salvador relented. The Honduran government made a commitment to greater protect Salvadoreans inside its borders, and a few weeks after they had arrived the Salvadorean military withdrew. It would take a decade for a more formal peace treaty to be signed, and territorial disputes continue to be an aspect of the relationship between the two countries to this day.

The idea that the conflict had its genesis in the footballing trilogy the two countries had just played out took root quickly enough. The day after the Mexico City match headlines had proclaimed El Salvador the victors of the “Soccer War”, and a month later this connection was becoming a popular perception, with the other geo-political factors that caused the conflict moving to the background. Comments from Salvadorean political figures that drew this connection, possibly in an attempt to belittle their opponents – accused of engaging in discrimination over something as tawdry as a football match – didn’t help. A Polish journalist in the area, Ryszard Kapuscinski, would fuel the idea also by reporting on the engagement as the “Soccer War”, turned into the “Football War” in other regions, making much of the existence of Honduran graffiti he had seen that proclaimed “We will avenge 3-0” and a subsequently debunked story of a Salvadorean teenager who killed herself after her beloved side lost the first game (Kapuscinski went as far as claiming the national team had attended the funeral of the girl, who appears to have never existed). More myths emerged, such as that the game in Mexico too place there because authorities were concerned at the tensions, but this contingency had been planned for months.

Over time the complicated nature of land seizures, immigration reform and disputes over off-shore islands faded into the background, and the violence that had taken place in the stands and around the stadiums took centre stage, at least when it came to explaining how the conflict had started. It was a seductive narrative that appealed to mass media throughout the world, equal parts noteworthy and equal parts racist, if we are all being honest: the idea of dismissable banana republics, so crazed and illogical that they would start shooting each other over a game of football. Distracted by the ongoing saga of Apollo 11, that took off on the second day of the conflict, newspapers had little space to give to nuance, and so the Football War it became. By all rights it should be called the “Salvadorean-Honduran War” or perhaps the “100 Hours War”, but the “Football War” is what it has come to be known as, rightly or wrongly. I deem it unlikely that any of the 3’000 people killed in those four days would say that football was high on their list of priorities when it came to their relations with the opposing nation. Many of those involved, be they soldiers, civilians or footballers, have attempted to dispel this popular narrative, without success.

Getting back to a World Cup Finals, and potentially wiping out the stain of their three defeats in 1970 or the catastrophic 10-1 loss to Hungary in 1982 – that remains the World Cup’s record scoreline – is a holy grail generations of El Salvadorean players have striven for, and failed to achieve. This campaign has already had its ups and downs: a routine win over Grenada, a last minute concession leading to two dropped points against Montserrat, a 7-0 blowout over the U.S. Virgin Islands and a critical 3-0 defeat of Antigua and Barbuda got El Salvador progression, but the labouring nature of getting to their current position had many wondering if their top seed status was earned or just an aberration. They perhaps put such thoughts to bed in the first leg of their Second Round tie away to St Kitts and Nevis, obliterating the opposition 4-0, with a relentless first half performance that had the islanders reeling after three goals conceded inside the opening half hour. Tonight’s second leg will, barring a momentous comeback, be a relaxed affair. El Salvador will realistically already be looking beyond.

Much harder games are to come, when El Salvador come against the true top tier of the confederation. Their second match of the Third Round will bring them back into the orbit of Honduras. The two still have their disputes, and unresolved tension that stems from the Football War, or the later Salvadorean Civil War where Honduras supported the Salvadorean military government. That will hopefully be left behind on the football pitch. More importantly for perception of the area, the rest of the world will hopefully cease to associate Central American war with Central American football.

67. Insistence On Destruction: Palestine

(16/06/2021)

Take all the shots you want: you can’t destroy football, even in places that struggle to exist.

Yesterday, the First Round of AFC qualification for Qatar 2022 came to an end. Its been one of the longest rounds of World Cup qualifying ever, having started all the way back in September 2019. 12 sides have made the jump to contest the Third Round, and 28 now wave farewell to their chances, looking forward instead to a shot at Asian Cup qualification. One of the teams in the latter group is a nation that, recently and in a more long-term sense, has often been unable to give as much attention and support for such efforts than it would have wanted. But realities cannot be ignored in such places. For Palestine, so often the most bereft and under pressure country that makes up the 211 World Cup contestants, recent matches have been only a brief distraction from the latest round of blood-letting perpetrated by conflict between themselves and Israel.

Football was introduced to the region during the time of the British Mandate, and took root as quickly as it did anywhere else. Organisational history for the various entities that sprang up to represent Palestine is as complicated as that for the regional more generally, with disputes in early years related to representation of Arab clubs and players relative to those of a more Jewish tradition. For the vast majority of the 20th century the Palestinian Football Association was one unrecognised by FIFA, playing its football in Arab competitions. This changed, after many attempts, in 1998, with FIFA-backed investment in coaching and facilities having obvious benefits a generation on: Palestine has, on the basis of a firm historical tradition, a scattered diaspora and the dominance of the sport on a cultural level, punched above their nominal weight, being reasonably competitive in the AFC. A triumph at the AFC Challenge Cup in 2014 and appearances at the Asian Cup in 2015 and 2019 have been the high water marks, showcasing a side that is firmly ready to make the most out of this plain and obvious avenue for expressing national sovereignty.

I will not take this opportunity to pass too much comment on the longer-term nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is impossible to talk about the state of Palestinian football without talking about the many obstacles placed in its path by the actions of the Israeli government. Owing to travel restrictions the PFA has to recruit much of its national teams from the diaspora, as residents of Gaza or the West Bank often find themselves unable to leave the State. Such things have led to games being cancelled, with no punitive response for the country causing it. Players have been killed or wounded by Israeli military action, or had their homes destroyed by the same.

It continues: players have been arrested or detained on suspicion of being members of terrorist groups, or couriers for the same, using the cover of training camps or away games to carry out such deeds: little hard evidence has ever been produced for such claims. Palestinian footballing grounds and pitches have been damaged by air-strikes, the national side has been forced to play most of their “home” games abroad and players, coaches, referees and other officials are sometimes forced to wait for hours at checkpoints just to train. Worst of all, there are accusations that young Palestinian footballers have had their careers deliberately ended by Israeli military forces, who have purposefully shot them in the feet and knees during encounters near those checkpoints. Such cases have provoked claims that Israel is attempting to actively undercut Palestinian statehood by targeting its sporting ability to represent itself on an even keel with other Asian nations: the somewhat controversial head of the PFA Jibril Rajoub, called this “the occupation’s insistence on destroying Palestinian sport”.

Such things are often lost in the shadow of the larger tragedy of the region, which saw its newest chapter erupt last month. Amid the hundreds of deaths and many more wounded – the vast majority, as it is always be the case, on the Palestinian side – the sporting impact seemed to be noticed primarily in relation to footballing stars around the globe parading the Palestinian flag at games, igniting a frankly tired debate on football’s relation to politics. Football within the State of Palestine, and how it has once again been forced to come to a standstill, has been deemed less worthy of attention. In line with some of the accusations made against Israel in regards its apparent hostility towards Palestinian footballing teams, tear gas was fired into the Faisal Al-Husseini stadium while the national side was training there during the latest violence, forcing the Knights indoors. Players were already struggling to join those preparations owing to the continued violence elsewhere, but this took things to a new level. There was no other military operations being carried out in the vicinity at the time, leading to the obvious conclusion that the act was an effort to disrupt a perfectly normal display of Palestinian nationalism.

That team was preparing for its final qualifying matches, with the chance to progress still in their hands. It’s been a middling campaign: an opening day victory over Uzbekistan shocked and delighted home fans, as did a scoreless draw against Saudi Arabia, but defeats to bottom seed Singapore, Yemen, Uzbekistan in the return match and then a 5-0 mauling in Riyadh put paid to the unpopular regieme of Algerian coach Noureddine Ould Ali, replaced provisionally by Tunisian Makram Dabboub. They were able to stay in contention by smashing Singapore 4-0 last week, but Uzbekistan’s victories elsewhere put paid to their World Cup chances.

Last night the team played their final World Cup qualifying game for this cycle, facing Yemen in Riyadh. Palestine still had advanced position for Asian Cup qualification to play for and achieved that at least, with a comprehensive 3-0 victory. Palestine bossed the game, with 22-year-old striker Oday Dabbagh, recently recovered from a COVID diagnosis in Kuwait, opening the scoring late in the first with a header from a left-wing cross. A deflected shot from the same man doubled the lead early in the second, the goal credited to Spanish-born defender Yaser Hamed, one of the diaspora recruits who is a product of the Athletic Bilbao academy. Dabbagh added a third six minutes from time, another header, as Yemen were able only to perform an exercise in damage control. It was an excellent example of how good Palestine can be, with the politics and military action inherent to the State’s existence stripped away.

It is simply put that, like just about every facet of Palestinian life, there will be no bright shining golden period for football in the country until the State is permitted the opportunity to exist by its perpetually aggressive neighbour: as the now former manager Ould Ali said “Whether it is football or something else, without peace you can’t do anything and there is no peace in Palestine,”. Yes, there is some blame to apportion to entities within Gaza and the West Bank, but I feel it is naive at this point to act as if the primary cause of conflict in the region is something other than the militant and expansionist policies of Israel, which has a right to exist as well, but should recognise that its own security and prosperity is tied to the security and prosperity of its neighbouring state. But the Palestinian football team is not going to die no matter what provocations and hostility it deals with, anymore than the country that it represents. Its destruction is as impossible as the idea of football being eradicated in the region. That continued existence might not assuage the pain of missing out on a spot in the AFC’s final twelve, but it is far from nothing. Football, in Palestine as much as everywhere else, remains a marathon.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, 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, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea (Republic), Kosovo, Latvia, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia*, Rwanda, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tahiti, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Teams Eliminated

Afghanistan, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bhutan, Botswana, British Virgin Islands, Brunei Darussalem, Burundi, Cambodia, Cayman Islands, Chad, Chinese Taipei, Comoros, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Eswatini, Gambia, Grenada, Guam, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Laos, Lesotho, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Macau, Maldives, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Montserrat, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands, Uzbekistan, Yemen

Teams Withdrawn

Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic), Saint Lucia

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

Photo Credits

“I Only Want Trophies”: Protesters against the Myanma military coup in Hpa-An, Kayin State, February 2021. Photo by Ninjastrikers, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Wu Xinghan of China PR competes for the ball against Guam. Photo copyright of France 24.

Withdrawn: Players of the Saint Lucia team protest against the Presidency of SLFA head Lyndon Cooper. Photo copyright of Wired868.

The Peter Principle: The Thai team applaud the crowd after their 2019 Asian Cup match against Bahrain. Photo by Mehdi Zare, reproduced, with some cropping, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Swapping Horses: Martin Lasarte, pictured during his tenure at Universidad de Chile in 2015. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Unity: Yemeni children play football in an Aden street in 2013. Photo by Brian Harrington Spier, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

“As If Your Child Has Been Taken Away”: Remko Bicentini, pictured in January 2021. Photo by RN7, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Problematic: The 1938 Dutch East Indies football team. Photo copyright of the AFC.

The Inheritors: Oswaldo Ramirez scores for Peru against Argentina in a World Cup qualification match for Mexico ’70. Photo in the public domain.

El Gol Fantasma: Panamanian fans watch their side take on Tunisia at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Photo by soccer.ru, reproduced under a Creative Commons-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Harry Potter: The Turkmen team in a World Cup qualifier against Iran in 2015. Photo by Mahmoud Hosseini, reproduced under a Creative Commons-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Wishing Upon A Golden Star: Crowds on the streets of Hanoi during the 2008 AFF Championship. Photo by hathhanh, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

Shining Light: Romaine Sawyers, while playing for Brentford. Photo by My London.

Best Losers: Players of Lebanon and South Korea contest the ball in a World Cup qualifier in November 2019. Photo by Mohammad Moussa, reproduced under a Creative Commons-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The Football War: Salvadorean soldiers patrolling the border area with Honduras during the 100-Hour War, 1969. Photo by Cantinflash reproduced, with some cropping, under a Creative Commons-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Insistence On Destruction: A group of Palestinians play football in the West Bank in 2004. Photo by Justin McIntosh, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

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