211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (VIII) – Switching Focus

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The Summer of 2021 was a time when many nations of the world forgot about the World Cup for a while so they could instead dedicate themselves to the pursuit of continental glory. UEFA, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF all played their more localised tournaments within a short enough time span, giving those starved of competitive football more than enough to whet the appetite ahead of the resumption of World Cup qualifiers in September. When that time came, it was a moment for a switch of focus: to leave aside what had occurred in Wembley, the Maracana or the Allegiant Stadium and begin thinking once more of Qatar and a place among the 32.

Part Eight: Switching Focus

68. Selling Out: Lebanon

69. The Sick Man: CAF

70. FUDELA: Ecuador

71. “France, France, France”: Jamaica

72. Application: Gibraltar

73. “I Believe That We Will Win”: USA

74. Naivety: DR Congo

75. Anti-Football: UAE

76. Twisted Vision: Saudi Arabia

77. Sliding Doors: Colombia/Chile

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68. Selling Out: Lebanon

(01/07/2021)

The Cedars look forward to another bright new dawn, but recent scars remain.

The entire process that will eventually culminate in the crowning of a World Cup winner began with a draw in the AFC, with its 12 weakest nations paired off so they could be whittled down to six deemed capable of joining the others. Today it’s another 12 in the frame, but now it is the continents strongest. The sides that have made it through the unexpectedly laborious process of the AFC’s Second Round group stage now get divided into two groups of six, with the top two in each booking their trip to the Middle East next winter and the third place teams left to contemplate play-off’s for that prize. To a large degree those participants do not constitute much of a surprise, with Uzbekistan the highest ranked team not to make it this far. One of the teams that benefited from that under-performance is the lowest-ranked side still in contention in Asia: Lebanon. The Cedars have enjoyed a degree of luck to be in the position they are in, something that would have seemed unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Lebanon’s footballing history contains little to get truly excited about. The country joined FIFA in the 1930’s and then struggled for years, at one point essentially ceasing to exist owing to the Lebanese Civil War, and withdrawing from competitions around the 2006 violence. The side attempted their first World Cup qualification as late as the campaign for USA 1994, and consistently failed for many years to make a significant impact in such competitions, or in the Asian Cup. It has been difficult to create any kind of footballing legacy in the country, so often torn apart by war, with players as likely to become victims as anyone and stadiums occasionally wrecked. For many years Lebanon also limited themselves to an internal search for players, thus limiting the pool. It is no surprise then that the Cedars have found themselves in the position they were, essentially an also-ran, happy to be considered lower mid-tier and nothing more.

This began to change around 2011, with the appointment of Theo Bücker, a one time Borussia Dortmund midfielder turned Middle-Eastern journeyman manager, actually for his second tenure as head coach of the side. Under him Lebanon began to play better football, and perhaps more importantly began a greater effort to recruit players from the not unsubstantial Lebanese diaspora. Greater, if far from total, political stability at home didn’t hurt either. Fans began to be let back into home stadiums after previous bans for crowd violence and other undesirable activities, and the players that Bücker was able to draw in from different parts of the globe gave them something to cheer for. Lebanon’s stock began to rise, right around the time for the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup.

Lebanon were flying in that moment, and showed it. In the opening game of the Second Round they had been annihilated by South Korea 6-0, but turned around to beat the same opposition 2-1 just two months later, on the way to securing progression over the UAE and Kuwait. A spot in the AFC’s final 12 for the very first time was the reward and while the prospect was daunting – the likes of Iran, South Korea again and Uzbekistan were the opposition this time – Lebanon had proved themselves capable. Just a point gained in their first three matches indicated they may have been out of their depth, before a famous 1-0 home victory achieved against Iran, the only goal, a Roda Antar header, scored just after the half-hour mark. Lebanon were criticised by some, including Iranian boss Carlos Queiroz, for a cynical play style that included copious amounts of time-wasting and minutes spent on the ground, but the results were all that mattered to Beirut.

That result left things still in Lebanon’s hands with plenty of games to play but a month later it all began to fall apart. A 1-0 home loss earlier in the campaign to Qatar was not all that unusual on paper, but the manner of the only goal certainly was. Defender Ramez Dayoub had played what appeared to be a lazy backpass to his goalkeeper that ended in the path of Qatari striker Sebastian Soria, who duly converted. By the time of the Iranian game talk was becoming widespread that Dayoub had performed the pass deliberately to throw the game, to the extent that the coach was happy to openly discuss the matter in press conferences. His frustration at what had allegedly happened was palpable, but it was just the tip of the iceberg.

Such things occurred at a time when growing suspicion of malfeasance in Lebanese football – both in the internal league and with Lebanese players plying their trade abroad – had reached a fever pitch. Dayoub’s actions may not have opened the floodgates, but they did help to provoke a more through investigation of the matter, and the results were appalling. The Lebanese Football Association found 24 individuals guilty of some form of match-fixing, mostly in the form of deliberately attempting to manipulate the result of a match in progress through under-handed means; such as, for example, playing an obvious backpass that you know an attacker will get on the end of.

Numerous players at lower levels received fines and temporary bans, but the harshest penalty was reserved for those at the very top. Dayoub was one, but striker Mahmoud El Ali was another, both determined to be guilty of attempting to throw games for the international side, most notably that Qatar contest. Dayoub protested his innocence of the charges, but has not been quick to challenge them legally: both have received bans for life from the Lebanese Football Association. Lebanon’s fairytale campaign largely collapsed in the aftermath, with them gaining just one more point in their final three games and finishing bottom of the six-team group. Bücker was relieved of his position after more poor results later in the year, and for many it seemed as if the Cedars were back to square one.

A major reset was required, and in fairness the LFA proved itself up to the task. Taking inspiration from the Belgium side that was ascending to the pinnacle of world football at the time, a new model was set in place for the national side, with an even larger emphasis on the diaspora and decent, attacking football. The results, after a stumbling early exit from Russia 2018 qualification, were clear, with Lebanon reaching their first Asian Cup of their own accord in 2019, and then being a hairs breath from the last 16. The coaching situation has fluctuated in that time with several appointments that lasted little more than a campaign, but the relative stability in Lebanon’s standing is undeniable. With nearly half of many matchday squads now based outside of the country, Lebanon has more fully embraced differing methods of training, tactics and in-match execution, with positive results.

As stated before, Lebanon did enjoy a degree of luck in the 2022 campaign’s earlier rounds, with the withdrawal of North Korea giving them an enormous advantage in the closing stages of their Second Round group. This factor more than any other probably resulted in their progression really, with a number of slipshod results their only achievement before Pyongyang pulled the plug and changed the whole dynamic of the group in an instant. Really it should be Turkmenistan in Lebanon’s place, but a 3-2 Cedar win over Sri Lanka late on proved the final difference. Now Lebanon have the chance to show that their runner-up finish was not just some fluke occurrence.

It comes at a time of significant crisis at home, with Lebanon’s finances and politics in a tailspin and the country experiencing something of a collapse in their social cohesion: real-world realities may yet have a part to play in the on-field performance of the national team. In many ways the pressure on them to excel and provide a positive example of Lebanese nationhood to the people at home has only increased. For once at least, Lebanon might have a team that is capable of thriving instead of wilting under such pressure.

Today, back in the final round for only the second time in their history, Lebanon look forward to yet another difficult, but not entirely impossible, task. When the drawing was done the Cedars were placed in Group A with Iran, South Korea, the UAE, Iraq and Syria, with the UAE first up on the 2nd September. In truth the entire affair is sort of a free shot for the Lebanese, fully expected to be holding up the group when it is finished, and with anything else to be considered a victory in itself. 2023 Asian Cup participation is on the horizon, the team continues to improve and may yet be able to penetrate into the top tier of AFC’s members. The days of players selling out perhaps only heralded the potential of a shining new dawn.

69. The Sick Man: CAF

(01/09/2021)

Patrice Motsepe is a man who rubs shoulders with rare company, but it remains to be seen if this makes him the person who can fix African football.

Today, after a break of nearly two full years, World Cup qualification recommences in the continent of Africa. The best of the lower-ranked sides from the First Round have joined the mid-tier and the traditional heavy-hitters in ten groups of four. The top-ranked side in each group advances to the next, final, round. The rest are eliminated. Expectation will be high among the qualifier favourites, hopes will remain for the rest of the kind of surprises that the African qualifiers have a tendency to throw up. But it all comes in the shadow of a confederation in crisis, with its leadership undergoing badly needed change, associations struggling to fulfill their international commitments and a perception that the whole organisation requires widescale reform. Described on several occasions as a confederation that is fundamentally broken, CAF has too often been the sick man of international football, that now hopes a new President will provide healing.

The confederation itself and many of its member states have been struggling financially for what seems like an eternity, with difficulties in courting sponsorship deals at every level. CAF’s ability to improve the infrastructure of the game in the continent has been called into question repeatedly, with only a handful of nations under its remit able to claim to offer top tier stadiums, pitches, training and other footballing necessities for its senior and up-and-coming players. Corruption abounds from one end of the spectrum to the other, with numerous officials throughout the continent accused of various abuses of power and financial misdealing. Some FA’s have been unable to carry on and have received full or partial suspensions, Chad being the most recent. CAF itself has been filled with rancour and in-fighting for years, and things grew so dysfunctional in 2019 that FIFA felt obliged to step in and take temporary control of the confederations’ affairs. Since then things have been largely on auto-pilot, but the game is undoubtedly suffering hugely in the continent, even as AFCON qualifiers continue and teams ramp up for the start of the Second Round of World Cup selection.

Much of the blame for the current state of CAF has been laid at the feet of former President Ahmad Ahmad. A one time leader of the Madagascar Football Federation, and a holder of numerous political offices, Ahmad was elevated to the height of CAF in March 2017, elected on a platform of seeking reform at all levels of African football. He had some successes: he reached agreement on the expansion of the AFCON, womens football on the continent received more support, and for a time it seemed as if he could mastermind a general increase of revenue. But the initial optimism was quashed soon enough however, as Ahmad became bogged down dealing with a number of charges related to ethics in office, with the man soon becoming an unwilling posterboy for everything that is wrong in African football.

It began in March 2019 with CAF’s secretary general Amr Fahmy providing evidence to FIFA of Ahmad’s financial impropriety, which included being ordered by Ahmad to pay money to the amount of $20’000 dollars into the accounts of several national FA Presidents for the purpose of bribery; wasting CAF funds by spending them on unneeded equipment provided by an intermediary company; enriching himself by buying cars at CAF’s expense; and alleged instances of sexual harassment of female CAF staff. Fahmy, later revealed to be terminally ill with cancer – he would die before the end of 2020, aged only 36 – was promptly sacked by Ahmad for his trouble. It got worse for Ahmad soon after, as he was arrested in June 2019 in France, on suspicion of corruption related to an apparel contract. Ahmad walked free without being charged, but as it tends to go in such cases, the genie could not be put back in the bottle. By the end of 2019 FIFA was looking into the apparel contract in greater detail, as well as the financing of a pilgrimage trip for a number of CAF officials to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

FIFA’s temporary running of CAF, a situation made possible with Ahmad’s assent and the help of his longtime ally Gianni Infantino, only made him look worse. When a FIFA report revealed widespread corruption at all levels of African national football, the writing was on the wall. Despite publicly announcing his intention to run for another term in 2021, Ahmad’s football career was essentially over at the end of 2020, as FIFA banned him from being part of the game’s administration at any level for five years and fined him the equivalent of $220’000. He remains on the hook for other charges, that could yet bring additional punishments. His temporary successor, Senior Vice President Constant Omari of DR Congo, didn’t exactly inspire confidence, being investigated himself for his role in negotiating a lop-sided TV deal for the continent, that appears to have enriched CAF’s official broadcasting partners to an alarming degree.

Step forward Patrice Motsepe, the latest hope for African football. You may not have heard the name, but those living in Africa sure have. The son of a Tswani chief, he has come from a relatively unassuming background – his father ran a convenience store outside of Pretoria – but several degrees, a law firm partnership and some advantageous investments later, he is the ninth richest man on the continent, and perhaps the first black billionaire. Having made his fortune in gold mining from the mid-90’s before expanding out to other mineral interests, Motsepe has become a symbol of wealth and success for black people in a continent, and a nation in his native South Africa, where such opportunities have been denied to them as matter of course for a very long time. His name is in the local parlance, with parents trying to placate children who want things they can’t afford sometimes heard to say “I am not Motsepe”. A noted philanthropist who has signed Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, he has predictably also been the subject of controversy for numerous things. The most public was probably his fawning words to Donald Trump when the then US President made a trip to Africa, that he later backtracked on, but the more serious are accusations that his connections to the highest South African political circles – he includes among his brothers-in-law the nations current President – have given him unearned advantage in the business world.

How does such a man go from mineral exploitation to the head of football in the continent? Motsepe has always been a football fan, and as soon as he was in a position to do so took that interest to the next level. In 2004 he bought a majority stake in Pretoria’s Mamelodi Sundowns, and under his leadership they have been the most successful team of the modern era in South Africa, and 2016 CAF Champions League winners, only the second South African side to achieve the feat. Aside from fulfilling his own fandom desires, Motsepe’s part in bankrolling the Sundowns mark him out as a “football man”, and have helped to propel him into the larger sporting spotlight in Africa.

Motsepe’s ascension, unchallenged, to the Presidency of the CAF makes him the man on the spot at this most tumultuous time for the confederation. With his campaign backed by FIFA and with Ahmad barred from running, his election was essentially a formality. There would appear, on the surface, a lot to recommend Motsepe even without the need for an actual vote: being independently wealthy he is deemed unlikely to to be a serious risk in terms of taking bribes or seeking to turn the federation into his own personal piggy bank; he has an established, and successful, background in the game, unlike many of his predecessors; he has the ear of the leadership of FIFA; and as one of the continents most successful men, it’s hoped he will have the savvy and profile to attract greater sponsorship and investment.

At the press conference that began his Presidency Motsepe outlined a ten point plan for the confederation that, in truth, wasn’t anything too special, just some vague intentions – increase revenues, improve infrastructure, back the womens game – that really anyone could have written. Perhaps more concrete were his ideas that all 54 of CAF’s member states should be self-financing within a short enough timeframe. Given the current state of some of those associations it’s an extremely ambitious goal, yet not entirely impossible. One thinks of JFK telling Congress in 1961 that they should aim to put a man on the moon before the decade was out: it’s no exaggeration to say that Motsepe’s aim is similarly difficult, if it is to be accomplished in his four year term or even by the end of a second.

Pretty early on, Motsepe made a fairly definitive statement when CAF announced that a quarter of the 40 African teams left competing for Qatar places were banned from using their normal stadiums, owing to dilapidation and damage, leading to a rapid scramble for stadia elsewhere. More countries were forced to move to other, smaller, stadiums within their borders. It was a repeat of a similar ban handed down for the last round of AFCON qualifiers in early 2021, but that one was rescinded at the last moment: this one stuck. It is a sign, perhaps, of the harder line Motsepe plans to take.

There is so much else that the man has to do: try and stall the continuing meltdown in the finances of CAF and its member states; to clean up the rotten structures of CAF and change the perception of it as a corrupt organisation; to reform African competitions at a club and international level; to work to decrease the amount of political interference in African football; to sort out the endlessly thorny mess that is broadcasting rights situation; and, perhaps most importantly, to avoid being part of the same kind of scandals that have felled his predecessors. As the best of the continent prepare to duke it out today to claim places in Qatar, they do so as the heralds of this new era, but it remains to be seen if Motsepe’s Presidency is truly the beginning of a badly needed renaissance, or just more of the same. The sick man of football needs a Doctor. It has Patrice Motsepe. Let us hope that he has the healing touch.

70. FUDELA: Ecuador

(02/09/2021)

Ecuadorians are passionate about their football, but the sport is much more than a game in many different ways.

As of tonight’s game Ecuador are standing on the edge of the knife in World Cup qualifying with three wins and three defeats in their six contests so far. The nine points accumulated has them sitting third, but nowhere near comfortable. Efforts to maintain that position, and make it to their fourth World Cup, rest on the shoulders of men like Enner Valencia, Christian Noboa and Renato Ibarra, hungry for another shot at the very highest stage, but the future of the country and its population is in different hands. In Ecuador, a nation that has faced its issues with crime, discrimination and gang-based violence, before COVID only added to the pressure, much of the nation’s footballing hopes and national aspirations, rest on unlikely projects that aim to beat back the tide of negative forces.

The Fundación de las Américas – Foundation of the Americas – better known as FUDELA, is an Ecuadoran based non-profit organisation, with a particular focus on working with disadvantaged youth to build them up and craft a brighter, more sustainable future for them and the country. The group do a lot of good work in a variety of ways throughout Ecuador, with the number of recipients of their programmes and training going above 15’000 recently, but one of the most notable examples of recent times is a partnership with the FIFA Foundation, through which they aim to use football as a means of accomplishing their goals. Lots of similar organisations use sports for humanitarian purposes of course, but what FUDELA is doing recently ties into efforts to both help young people through athletics and to do so in a way that undercuts the impact of the virus.

Much of FUDELA’s work in that regard occurs at the Ecuadorian Football Centre, a base of operations for the Ecuadorian Football Federation located in the north of capital city Quito. Typically used as a facility to help forward the aspirations of the association to create a strong national team, on those days where FUDELA is there it is instead an arena where life lessons can be imparted to a cavalcade of under-privileged youth, drawn to that point from all around the country. In Quito, they learn how to play football, drawing on the experience of hundreds of coaches provided by FUDELA. In the process they learn about teamwork, determination, physical health and thinking, to use a tired phrase, outside the box.

The arrival of COVID into the common experience of humanity altered things to a large degree, as for a time such projects became impossible in the battle to halt the virus’ spread. But the longevity of the current crisis means that things like FUDELA’s work with football cannot be halted for too long. Using new methods developed over the last 18 months, in line with a partnership with the German government, FUDELA has recently returned to the football pitch, with training tied to social distancing protocols and other biosafety compliance. This means that the work in helping the under-privileged can continue, in a form similar, if not exact, to before. Living with COVID as a concept has never been more apt.

With newly constructed pitches, resorting to technology as a means of tutoring and trying to get young people to find a productive use for their free time – which has only increased in the current circumstances – FUDELA has been able to continue its work, and has even managed to expand its focus to assist refugees from across the border. Hundreds of Venezuelans and Colombians seeking better lives in Ecuador have found themselves coming under the FUDELA remit, with the institution helping them to integrate into a new society and find a way to be productive: in some instances sport, and football more particularly, are key parts of that.

Outside of this specific arena, the sport of football has its uses in other ways. FUDELA uses games to advertise it’s larger charitable campaigns. Their “Nos Jugamos el Futuro” – “We’re Playing For The Future” – campaign has raised funds and a stockpile of cleaning products for thousands of Ecuadorian families in a worse off state than ever in the pandemic. Here in the “west” we may take for granted the ability to obtain hand sanistiser, maintain social distance to the required degree and access to jabs to make one immune – as much as possible anyway – from the effects of COVID, but not everywhere is so lucky. FUDELA is one of a number of organisations across the world aiming to reverse this trend.

What is the point I am trying to make with this discussion? I suppose it is little more than a profession of admiration. It has been a difficult 18 months at time of writing, a time that should have united humanity in a shared crisis but which too often has left us with the same old rancorous divides, a fight to stop an apolitical virus turned into just another part of an ideological and cultural battle. We encounter thoughtlessness and stupidity in that fight every day, where the privileged interests of a minority battle to sway a frustrated and tired majority. So in that sense, you need to grasp the good news stories where you can find them, and hold them tight: FUDELA, and the work that they are doing in Ecuador, is one of those stories, an effort to keep going and to help people who need assistance even if something as distinctly human as a handshake is not advised. And to do so through the medium of football brings tightener that wonderful confluence of sporting aspiration and humanitarian concern.

Two losses in the two games since the return in June, combined with their winless run during this summer’s Copa America, indicates a team that is in the middle of slump, that they must now arrest rapidly. Ecuador have some work to do, but have the ability to get to Qatar still firmly in their own hands. It’s Paraguay at home tonight, a game they are more than capable of taking three points from. The CONMEBOL battle continues, alongside the larger conflict against poverty, disadvantage and infection. Both can still be won.

71. “France, France, France: Jamaica

(03/09/2021)

All nations dream of that shining moment, but there can be a cost.

Having eliminated the vast majority of the confederation in just six matchdays, CONCACAF entered the business end of its qualification last night. The best five nations of North America, Central America and the Caribbean were joined by the three sides that made it through the Second Round, and now embark on a eight-team round robin group, where the top three go to Qatar, and fourth gets their shot in the intercontinentals. The giants of the region are here and so are smaller nations hoping to maintain an upward swing of recent years. There too are some newer additions to the top table, among them a team closer to a Finals today than they have been at any point in the last 23 years: Jamaica. That last qualification was a testament to the opportunities of the World Cup to unlikely qualifiers, and deserves a rewind.

I have a bit of a personal fondness for the Jamaican football team, even if my chances to watch them play have been pretty limited down the years. That fondness is a result largely of their appearance at France 98, the first World Cup I was old enough to properly appreciate. Every World Cup needs its eye-catching underdogs, and Jamaica were that in the summer of Zidane and co, a team playing out of their skins to get to that point and seeming to exude the kind of up-tempo positivity in their football once they arrived that the World Cup stage was built for. Combine this with the party-atmosphere that their fans brought, and their lack of progression at the tournament became less important than what they brought to the group stage: the idea that football comes from everywhere, and any team can bring something worth seeing to the dance. But there is a side to Jamaica’s World Cup experience, one of squad divisions and rancour born of success, that many are not aware of.

Before 1998 it could not be really said that Jamaica had done a lot to merit much attention in footballing terms. The sport competed with, and frequently lagged behind, cricket on the island, and on most levels existed in a ramshackle state throughout the 20th century. The Jamaican Football Federation struggled to merely exist, unable to get anything close to a professional league structure operating and on several occasions having to withdraw from World Cup qualifying campaigns owing to a lack of funds. Football in Jamaica was often a very dicey affair: common stories paint a picture of a system perpetually on the brink of collapse, with referee’s doing their job armed on account of crowd violence, one prominent international having once seen a sibling gunned down in front of him as a result of gang warfare and many of the most promising young players leaving the country to live, work and play elsewhere.

The early 1990’s were a pivotal turning point. In 1992 P.J Patterson began a 14 year run as Prime Minister, on the back of platform promises to combat against rampant crime and anti-social behavior, and to turn the tide against economic stagnation and social poverty. At the time a little-noticed aspect of this was efforts to turn Jamaican sporting life into a more productive avenue for the island’s citizens, and there was little of more value to that kind of campaign then getting the senior football side to a World Cup.

The man picked to do that, taking charge of the JFF in 1993, was Horace Burrell. A retired military officer turned successful businessman, he saw his job as JFF President as having the sole goal of World Cup qualification, and wasn’t satisfied with any plan that involved only long-term returns: the Reggae Boyz had been somewhat competitive in trying to get to USA 94 after all, going toe-to-toe with mid-ranked sides like Canada and El Salvador, gaining points or losing narrowly. The spine of a decent side was already there, in players like Walter Boyd Theodore Whitmore and Paul Davis, they just needed the right person to lead them.

That person, the third part of the leadership trinity if you want to be dramatic, was Brazilian coach René Simões. Like everyone else at the time in the footballing world, Burrell was intoxicated with the Brazilian side that romped to their fourth World Cup victory in 1994, and seemed poised to make it five in 1998, and he wanted someone from that country to lead his team. Simões, a journeyman coach who had gone through 16 jobs in 17 years, was not exactly the most high-profile appointment, but he brought an ethos of attractive attacking football on the pitch, and an expansive recruitment policy off of it.

The latter was critical for what Burrell and Simões – and Patterson, watching on from the very top – were trying to do. For too long Jamaica had watched its best footballers leave the county and never come back, but now scouts went out to the diaspora to try and find those willing to take the trip across the Atlantic to represent their ancestral homeland. They found plenty of takers, most obviously in the United Kingdom: players like Derby County striker Deon Burton and Wimbledon “Crazy Gang” veteran Robbie Earle were all convinced to pull on the green and yellow jersey. For some it was a real jump into the unknown: Earle is on record as wondering at the time if he could expect a broken leg sustained in Kingston to be strapped up with a stalk of bamboo.

Merging the two aspects of the team – the internal and the external – proved easier than expected, and Simões soon had the team playing some good football. This was reflected in results ahead of the 1998 qualification campaign, with the side declared as FIFA’s “Best Mover” in the overall ranking places of 1995. The road to France began in the Spring of 1996, with a 2-0 aggregate win over Suriname: a result that might have increased nerves of over-ambition in the footballing experiment, with Jamaica not exactly easing past one of the confederations minnows. A more assured progression followed against Barbados in the next round, before Jamaica really made the world stand up and take a bit of notice in the Third Round group stage. Paired with Mexico, Honduras and St Vincente and the Grenadines, Jamaica were naturally expected to perhaps put the Central Americans under a bit of pressure on the way to a 3rd place finish and elimination but an opening 3-0 victory over the Hondurans set the tone. A 1-0 final day victory against Mexico – who had won the Gold Cup earlier that year – was the real stand-out moment, as the Reggae Boyz secured top spot in a group they dropped only four points in.

France was very much in the eyeline, as expectations rose at home and the national team began to attract a much larger, more raucous, following than they were used to, a result perhaps of a country with many internal problems seeking some outlet for national pride: the exact thing Patterson wanted the team to be. His government was playing their part, with promises of bonus payments to players should qualification be achieved. The marathon that was CONCACAF qualification now moved to the “Hex”, where Jamaica had less of a victorious ride. Key results were draws home and away to the United States and a home win against Canada, that came amid less credible outcomes, such as a 6-0 trouncing at the hands of the now more resurgent Mexicans. On the final day of qualification Jamaica occupied the last progressing spot, ahead of El Salvador; they needed at least a point at home to Mexico to make a place in France secure, as the Salvadoreans faced the US in Foxbourough.

35’000 people crammed into Kingston’s National Stadium to experience the unfolding drama, though many were more focused on news carried by portable radios on what was occurring Stateside. A party atmosphere rapidly became the order of the day as the US surged into a 3-0 lead before the hour mark, and though El Salvador got a few goals themselves to make things respectable, Jamaica were celebrating their qualification long before their own team secured a scoreless draw. The chant of the day was “France, France, France”. At full-time the pitch was invaded, commentators burst into tears and Patterson declared a national holiday for “the greatest day in our sporting history”

It’s from there that things began to unravel for Jamaica. The success that the team had won for themselves made them national icons overnight, with all of the associated pressures and spotlight, and an impressive 4th place showing in the 98 Gold Cup – where they managed a scoreless draw with Brazil along the way – only added to it. A huge number of pre-tournament friendlies were played by the side, all around the globe, with the team doing ads for Jamaican tourism boards in-between. As Kingston descended into a footballing mania, Simões’ charges found themselves in the highest of demands, for personal appearances, for sponsorship and to be mobbed by an adoring public.

Heroes only sell so many papers, and the relationship between the team and the media quickly began to deteriorate in the run-up to the Finals as more inquisitive eyes settled aspects of the JFF’s affairs. The teams’ fees for the tournament became a matter of public criticism, and Simões was left furious when details of his substantial wage packet – which put him in the top 1% of earners in the country – were published in a national newspaper. The coach was under enough stress as it was, being on the receiving end of death threats over his contentious relationship with popular local striker Walter Boyd. He once quit the squad because of what he described as Simões continuous efforts to “play God” with his players lives, a reference to Simões’ intense religious faith (the coach would sign autographs with the words “Jesus loves you” and employed a Reverend as a repeat motivational speaker). Boyd would end up on the plane to France, but his unhappiness was a sign that all was not well with the Jamaican side.

On the eve of their first tournament game against Croatia, the squad gathered together in their hotel to watch Reggae Boyz, a Channel 4 documentary from Rupert Harris. What was hoped to be a positive look at a team making it to the big time ended up having more than a few unconformable details. Chief among them was a perceived difference between the local and British based players, with the latter exulting in a celebrity lifestyle of fast cars and womanising – Portsmouth midfielder Fitzroy Simpson told Harris it was “fine to have 10 girlfriends” in the country – that the former, some of whom weren’t even fully professional, were unable to match. Simões, speaking much later, would admit that the documentary watch party “destroyed” squad morale.

For one half, Jamaica more than held their own against a Croatian side that would go on to stun the world by finishing 3rd, with Earle heading in an equaliser late in the first 45 after Mario Stanic has put away a rebound earlier. But then the reality asserted itself, with Croatia adding two more goals and a defensively minded Jamaica unable to get themselves back into the contest. The days between games one and two were marked by an obvious schism in the camp, as local and foreign-born players largely separated into two factions. In the second game, an extremely tall order in the best of circumstances in the form of Argentina, Jamaican cohesion fell apart, with Simões later claiming that some players refused to cover others. Batistuta scored a hat-trick on the way to a facile 5-0 victory, and Jamaica’s hopes of progression were finished.

One game remained. A bonding trip to Disneyland Paris the day before appears to have managed to sew up some manner of team spirit into the squad ahead of the clash with Japan, and two Theodore Whitmore goals secured a famous 2-1 victory, allowing Jamaica to leave the tournament as more than a whipping boy and with their heads held somewhat high. Placing 24th in the World Rankings after the tournament, they returned to Kingston as heroes regardless of the first two games, but it would be a lie to claim that many were not wondering at what might have been.

The period was undoubtedly the Regga Boyz’ high point, and they have never been able to replicate the form or the ability to get results that Simões’ regime did at the time. He left Jamaica just two years later, and a second stint in 2008 lasted just seven months. Burrell, whose administration of JFF had helped to create the conditions for that glorious high point, also served as head of the federation on two separate occasions, before being caught up in the Jack Warner corruption scandal in 2011. Throughout the 21st century Jamaica have largely stagnated, struggling in the Gold Cup, and limited only to occasional success in the Caribbean Cup. World Cup qualification has never been anywhere near as close as it was back in the mid-90’s.

In the last few years however, Jamaica have experienced a bit of a bounce back. Under German Winfried Schäfer and then Theodore Whitmore – the same Whitmore who scored their two goals against Japan – they have clawed their way back up the CONCACAF rankings, with Caribbean Cup victories and two consecutive Gold Cup Final appearances. Such things have allowed Jamaica to get their heads out of the morass that is the preliminary stages of CONCACAF qualification, with their 2022 World Cup campaign beginning only this month. Last night they faced a hell of a first test, Mexico in the Azteca, but more than held their own. Charleroi’s Shamar Nicholson fired home a fine left-footed volley after Alexis Vega’s opener, and Jamaica were probably deserving of a least a point. This was denied to them in heartbreaking fashion, with Henry Martin’s 89th minute winner, a powerful half-volley that the Jamaican keeper could only tip into his own net.

It is not the start that the modern Jamaica would have wanted, but 13 games remain. Their first home game of this campaign, against Panama, comes in a few days, a chance to reset and show that they are deserving of a place in CONCACAF’s top eight. This side can look back at the example of the 1998 team for inspiration, a time when Jamaica proved itself to be more than the sum of its parts, and they can look at them as a warning too: to not allow outside factors to ruin a good thing. 2022 could be the year when Jamica get the opportunity to prove that they have learned those lessons, if the chant becomes “Qatar, Qatar, Qatar”.

72. Application: Gibraltar

(04/09/2021)

What it’s all about: flying your flag, and the flag of those entities you have become part of.

The Gibraltar team that will take to the field to play Turkey in their fifth World Cup qualifier tonight knows that they have almost no chance of making it to Qatar, the possibility of which now depends on something we could describe as unlikely on a quantum level. They have lost their first four games in the group, have conceded 17 goals in the process, and scored two, both penalties, in return. The Turks are not likely to allow much bucking of that trend. But the question that we have to ask, is how much does it matter? Gibraltar being able to field their own international football team has been a topic of controversy from the time the idea was first mooted all the way up to the present day: six years after accession to FIFA membership, it remains a question to ponder, in an entity that seems, on the surface, to be defined by contradictory opinions on nationality.

Football on the Rock has been in place since the latter 19th century, introduced by the British Army garrison. Like many other places with the kind of high-density population that you would think would preclude adequate footballing development, the game stuck its roots into Gibraltar and never left. A league that was established in 1906 at one point had enough teams to justify four full divisions, a remarkable accomplishment in a place of only 34’000 people and less than seven square km’s. At times Gibraltar was able to attract big names, not least Real and Atletico Madrid, for contests against local sides, and it is rare that such big-name clubs would ever lower themselves to taking on what were, for the most part, amateurs. A crackdown on such contests by the Franco regime after the 1950’s, part of a more belligerent line generally taken by the Spanish state to the colonial remnant on its southern border, left Gibraltan football in something of a doldrum state however: lacking opposition from just over the border and with no recourse to continental competitions be it on a club or national level, Gibraltar and its footballers were left to play internally and to stagnate.

The battle for international recognition became tied to that dispute between Britain and Spain over the Rock soon enough. When Gibraltar, desperate to escape from a dark age for their football, first applied for UEFA membership in 1999 the Spanish FA objected on the grounds that the entire territory was disputed ground, with many believing such objections covered both Spanish claims on the peninsula and efforts to avoid any kind of footballing breakaway for Catalonia or the Basque Country. UEFA initially appeared to side rather decisively with the Spanish, and in 2002 passed a new edict that permitted new memberships to be granted only to nations recognised as independent by the UN. But such things could not be retroactively applied, something Gibraltar argued in a successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That meant things got to the point of a vote of member states in 2006, but Spanish lobbying did the trick in terms of putting paid to Gibraltan prospects then, the membership bid defeated by 45 votes to 3.

Different alternatives were posited in terms of getting Gibraltar on the international scene, not least a proposal that they should instead apply to join CAF. Instead Gibraltar, backed by repeated CAS rulings in their favour, pressed on with UEFA, and were rewarded with a legally mandated provisional membership in 2011 that progressed to permanent in 2013, this time with only Spain and Belarus, strange bedfellows, opposed. The crux of the argument was simply that there was no reason to deny Gibraltar: they had the facilities (or rather had the potential for them, with the proper backing), they had a status of nationhood comparable to other member states, they had the footballing tradition. The denial of acceptance could only be forestalled by nakedly political objections for so long.

Membership of UEFA got Gibraltar access to EURO qualification, among other things, but the bigger prize was FIFA and the World Cup. There were similar legal delays here, with Sepp Blatter’s administration again pointing to Gibraltar’s lack of standing as an independent nation as recognised by the UN: a status that nearly two dozen other members of FIFA share. After another round of CAS-approved appeals, Gibraltar’s application for membership was put to the FIFA Congress in 2016, the GFA rushing the whole process in a bid to be part of the 2018 World Cup qualification process. Just a short time after Kosovo’s bid for membership was approved, Gibraltar too were admitted, by a vote of 172-12. As such Gibraltar still officially constitute the latest and last member of FIFA, #211 of 211. Now fully constituted as a footballing nation, Gibraltar has taken active participation in all international tournaments open to them, as well as continental club competitions.

Because that is rather the point. Gibraltan nationality is a strange thing, with most of its denizens happy to identify as much as British as Gibraltan, even if they also overwhelmingly voted against Brexit. Other entities of a similar status to Gibraltar use sporting memberships like this as an outward display of sovereignty and identity, but Gibraltar has twice voted, with huge majorities, to remain as a Oversees Territory of the UK, satisfied with the self-government permitted by London. There are many other, less idealistic and more practical, reasons for what the GFA has successfully accomplished over the last decade.

Membership of UEFA and FIFA carries with it more than just the ability to take to the field as a nation, it gives Gibraltar’s clubs the opportunity to make huge money, relatively speaking, in the Champions League, Europe League and new Conference League, which are themselves really only the tip of the iceberg: Gibraltar and its clubs now also have the opportunity to apply for grants for stadiums, coaching and other developments that would have been unthinkable before 2013. The proof is manifest in Victoria Stadium, given a substantial overhaul between in 2017 and 2018 on the back of UEFA and FIFA grants, now one of the most striking international stadiums in the world with the Rock towering over it to the south-east. Is it cynical of me to suggest that these perks were the primary reason for Gibraltar’s applications? Perhaps. But it would be naive to think that they were a tertiary concern for a territory that has no tangible desire for greater independence as such displays like that of the Gibraltan national teams would typically be connected to.

Predictably, Gibraltar have not been able to make an enormous impact at the senior level. They have become the posterboy for many people who argue that UEFA should follow the lead of other confederations and institute some form of preliminary qualification for lower ranked nations. At times they have been able to be competitive within the confines of 90 minutes, especially when playing in the oft windswept Victoria Stadium, a place where ball control is difficult for visiting teams and Gibraltan familiarity has helped reduce gaps in quality. But general competitiveness is about as much as Gibraltar have been able to muster. In 14 World Cup qualifying games played to date they have won none, drawn none and lost 14, and one suspects that it will be a cold day in Hell if they were to ever grace a Finals. Thanks to things like the Nations League, a trip to a EURO Finals would be more achievable, albeit still unlikely. Such things aren’t the point. The true motivations of the GFA, the extent of Gibraltan national spirit and the legalities of what defines an entity worthy of inclusion in such sporting surrounds are if nothing else, worth continuing a conversation about in these critical contexts.

73. “I Believe That We Will Win”: USA

(05/09/2021)

Few fans can claim to be more patriotic, but patriotism alone isn’t going to get the job done for the Americans.

For the United States of America, tonight is just the second step in an effort at recovery that the stakeholders of the sport have long been waiting for. After a disappointing scoreless draw with El Salvador last Thursday, the Americans will take to the field for their first home World Cup qualifier in the current cycle, in Nashville against northern neighbours Canada, conscious that they have a lot to make up for after the horror show that was 2018 qualification. Those of us on the outside continue to look at American “soccer” with curiosity, probably the largest physical space on the planet where the sport is not the biggest thing going, when we aren’t looking on with some kind of mix of annoyance and schadenfreude.

The dislike that so much of the world has for aspects of the American character, its society and its politics translates all too easily onto the football field. If a nation’s football team can be said to be a reflection of the nation, then one could look at the US’ frequent preference for attack-minded philosophies to the detriment of defensive responsibilities, and declare themselves satisfied with the frequently insubstantial end result. The United States is a footballing power in the making for sure, but have consistently contrived to make a meal of things (and of course I’m talking solely about the men’s team, and not the all-conquering womens side). Golden generations have come, gone and come again with mostly just the odd victory against Mexico to point to in terms of genuine achievement.

But it’s not the on-pitch nature or the underachievement or the myriad of problems with the franchise model of MLS. It’s not even the packaged aspect of American football fandom that comes up with things like the awful “I believe that we will win” chant that infected stands in 2014. It’s that undeniable feeling one gets when they observe “soccer” from afar. Call it entitlement, call it arrogance, call it obnoxiousness, but it’s there, and there in spades. It’s there in the fans who bandwagon to their hearts content during American involvement in Finals and then vanish afterwards. It’s there in the idea that America is a genuine World Cup contender, that so many American personalities embrace as an idea despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s there in every over exaggeration of American performance in narrow wins and draws, and in the dismissal of defeats. It’s there in the way that the womens team has their much grander achievements rewarded with substandard pay. It’s there in the way how, for a long time, the team treated qualification as just a formality, where second string teams could be played and a place in the Finals planned for long before it was obtained.

Which is where the schadenfreude comes into it, namely in regards the 2018 qualification campaign. Back under Bruce Arena, who got the side to the last eight in 2002, the US stumbled from subpar performance to subpar performance and even though they still had things in their hands heading into the last day, conspired to throw it all way in an infamous defeat to Trinidad and Tobago. The result produced shock, dismay and anger in equal measures, an embarrassing low point for a senior international team and the association around it that met emphatic nemesis after decades of hubris. And there were plenty around the world, myself included, who could pronounce themselves nonplussed with the outcome, after years of witnessing that undeserved sense of superiority that is part-and-parcel of “soccer”. The global game engenders that kind of defensiveness I suppose, on those few occasions when its supporters find themselves dealing with a place where it is, somehow, the fifth sport.

If parts of the world were smiling, football in America was shell-shocked, and this low-point of the mens game was only compounded by another World Cup triumph for the women in 2019. A root-and-branch reform of how the country was doing things was called for, and there was a lot that could have been rooted out with the right sweep of administrative reforms: a reevaluation of “pay to play” structures at the underage levels; a new development philosophy that took the focus away from physical attributes and placed them more on skill; a commitment to improving the structures of the American league system, that remains wedded to the stagnant franchise model of other sports in the country. The anger that came after the Trinidad and Tobago humiliation should have been inspiration enough, but it remains to be seen if what work has been done since then has been enough. Rooted interests are always difficult to change, and to the outside eye it certainly does not appear as if enough has been done on many of those counts. “Pay to play” remains in place, the MLS has done little to improve itself and the sense that 2017 should be treated like some kind of aberration, and not a prelude, remains very strong. But the truth will always come out on the pitch eventually.

And God knows the States want to be up and beyond their previous level very quickly, as they struggle to become the kind of world beaters they have long thought themselves to be in time for their own co-hosting of the highest stage in 2026. Getting a Finals back in the country has been a goal of the people in charge of the sport in the States for a long time now, enough that their howls of outrage over the 2018/2022 hosting decisions were almost louder even than England’s. That sense of entitlement was in that too, but an entitlement that married well with a recognition of FIFA’s dirty dealings. The fall of Blatter paved the way for the 2026 decision, and 32 years after they burst into the international footballing mainstream by getting the 1994 tournament, the US will now want to be considered legitimate contenders to win what is down to be the first 48-team tournament, and not just be scrambling to get to the Second Round. That ever decreasing amount of time is what is at the forefront of the senior side and MLS’ minds, desperate to improve standards and avoid what would be an extremely unwelcome humiliation for the sport were a repeat of the 2017 form occur again.

Positive steps on-field have already been demonstrated this year, with America’s triumph this summer in the Gold Cup. Critics will, not unreasonably, question the true enormity of that achievement given the resources the US has, and I think it is not outrageous to state that minimum expectations of reaching the Final point to a larger problem in the confederation. Tonight the journey to prevent a repeat of the 2018 humiliation, and to re-ascend to at least the mid-tier of international nations, continues with that first tie against Canada. The United States, regardless of what I and so many others think, certainly believes that they will win. They believe they will qualify for the World Cup Finals, and they are probably right. But they will need a lot more than mere belief to become the kind of footballing side they think they are.

74. Naivety: DR Congo

(06/09/2021)

Nearly half a century on, football in the Congo remains defined by one widely misunderstood moment.

If asked to comment on the one time that Zaire made it to the World Cup Finals, your thoughts would probably go to Mwepa Ilunga. In 1974, at the West Germany Finals, he made the wrong kind of history: playing in defence for Zaire during a 3-0 defeat, he booted a Brazilian free kick down the field and was booked for his trouble. The incident prompted a derisory response from various commentators, with more than one dubbing it an example of “naivety” in African football. Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, re-named in 1997, continue their World Cup qualifying campaign, away to Benin. For the first time in a while, the sub-Saharan nation has genuine expectations of making to a World Cup, top-seeded and in a navigable Second Round group. If they were to do so, they might play still with the shadow of that moment on them, a source of ridicule from those not willing to do a little bit of digging into what may very well have been a matter of life-or-death.

The dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko had been in power, in some form or another, for over a decade in Zaire when 1974 came around. The name came from a process of reinforced Africanisation, a counter to the perceived influence of western ideologies and culture that Mobutu, a rigid authoritarian even by the standards of the time and place, dubbed “national authenticity”. Part of the process of demonstrating this authenticity, and Zairean sovereignty, to the rest of the world was in the sporting arena. Mobutu went about using his power and largess to build a footballing side that would be the best in Africa, and capable of both challenging the world and uniting an often fractured country.

To that end he poured finances into football, invested heavily in footballing infrastructure and used his influence to convince some of those playing abroad to come back to represent the country, with such pleas sometimes perceived as threats. On the flip side, players already plying their trade internally were barred from being transferred abroad, deemed as assets that could not be spared in the pursuit of the sportswashing project. Blagoje Vidinić, a Yugoslavian coach who had managed Morocco to the 1970 World Cup, was brought in to ensure Zaire had the best possible leadership. The results continentally were undeniable, with Zaire winning the 1968 and 1974 AFCON’s on the back of players like powerful midfielder Ndaye Mulamba – who scored nine of Zaire’s 14 goals in the ’74 AFCON – hard-playing Bwanga Tshimen who French journalists would dub the “Black Beckenbauer” and effective playmaker Mavuba Mafuila. There’s was what was described as a “hybrid” style of play, with changeable formations, unpredictability in short passes and an over-reliance on a few truly stand-out players, like Mulamba. As long as they were winning, no one cared. Mobutu lavished the team handsomely for their achievements, in cash, cars and property, but it was the world stage that he had his eye on the most when it came to football.

Getting there was hard enough. In 1974 FIFA only had room for one African nation at the top stage, and there had never been one from the sub-Saharan region. In the qualification campaign Zaire dispatched Togo, Cameroon, Ghana and Zambia with relative ease before facing do-or-die home and away games with a highly fancied Morocco. The first, in a roaring Stade Tate Raphael in Kinshasa, saw Zaire power to a 3-0 victory in a game marked by fouling so persistent and violent that Morocco lodged a protest. Their pleas ignored, they refused to play the return tie. With that, Zaire were on their way to West Germany, with half a million in prize money meant to be shared around the squad along with whatever other bonuses Mobuto was willing to dole out.

The problems began almost immediately. Mobuto had unrealistic expectations of what Zaire could achieve in the Finals, grouped as they were with very tough opposition: a not-inconsiderable Scotland, a decent Yugoslavia and a still very much world class Brazil. For all their success in Africa, the often amateur game at home was inevitably going to come unstuck against top tier European and South American sides. The lack of playing experience outside of Zaire for much of the squad, combined with a limited engagement of pre-tournament friendlies, meant that the teams limitations were about to be painfully exposed on the pitch. Off it, the sort of corruption and double dealing that was part-and-parcel of Mobuto’s regime would expose Zaire in a different way.

The first game saw the team ship a 2-0 loss to Willie Ormond’s Scotland. Considering it was a side that contained talent like Billy Bremner, Kenny Daglish and Denis Law, the result was nothing to be ashamed off, and plenty of media sources heaped praise on the Zaire side, perceived as new, adventurous and capable of being competitive with sides nominally well outside of their level. It was the days between this game and the second, against Yugoslavia, that the crisis came. The team was sharing a hotel with a Haitian side also enjoying their first experience of a World Cup, and the Zairean squad grew discontent at seeing the Caribbean players spending their bonus money they had earned through qualification, money that Zaire’s players had yet to see. Then the team were called into a meeting with a government official, where they were told the bonus money had been sent back to Zaire.

The team, rallying behind midfield captain Kidumu Mantantu, decided they would not play additional games without their promised bonuses. The discontent reached the ears of Mobutu, who put in a rapid phone call to the team hotel, where he spoke with Kidumu. Mobuto’s exact words were suitably vague, but left the team in no doubt that they, or their families back in Zaire, were in danger if they refused to play. The team gave in, but did not take to the field against Yugoslavia with any kind of belief or satisfaction, their morale completely destroyed.

The result was an annihilation, with Yugoslavia running riot. Three goals down after only 20 minutes, a despairing Vidinić substituted his goalkeeper – probably the earliest tactical goalie substitution in the history of the World Cup – but watched the replacement concede an additional six. It seems likely that some, if not all, of the Zaire players were not giving all that they could give, so incensed as they were at what they saw as a robbery of money that should have been theirs. But if the players were angry, Mobutu was determined to match them. In the aftermath of what could only be seen as a national humiliation – always anathema to political strong men like Mobutu – the team were sequestered in their hotel and told by Presidential guards that Zaire’s dictator was watching closely: if they lost their final group game, against Brazil, by more than three goals, they would not be able to return home safely. Thoughts of the missing bonus were now completely replaced by thoughts of staying alive.

With around 12 minutes remaining in that game, Brazil were 2-0 up, when they won a free just outside the Zairian box. This was the moment for Illunga to, at the moment of the whistle, spring up and boot the ball deep into the Brazilian half. He was immediately booked, the kick was re-taken and, in the end, Brazil would run out 3-0 winners. The moment has often been mis-categorized as a comedic one, the idea being that the “naive” Africans didn’t understand the rules of the game: John Motson’s commentary is well-remembered, as he referred to “African ignorance”. Such thinking betrays remarkably blinkered, if not outright racist, views: this was a team that had won two AFCON’s and were coached by a European. Of course they knew how the game was played.

But just why did Illunga do what he did? There are numerous claims. Some persist with the myth that he didn’t fully know what he was doing. The most obvious assumption was that he was wasting time, letting the clock tick down a few more seconds as Zaire battled to keep the score down, and the physical health of its players intact. Illunga would, much later, claim he was actually trying to get himself sent off, as a form of protest for the larger situation. Whatever it was, it went into World Cup lore. Other players would point to a much more damning inconsistency that day, as Brazil just happened to win by the precise amount of goals they needed in order to squeak past Scotland: several Zaire players have insisted that made a deal, in line with goalkeeper Kazadi Mwamba, to let Brazil score three goals – and only three goals – so that everyone got what they wanted. Said deal may have included money changing hands into the bargain, but we will never know for sure.

In the aftermath, things collapsed for Zairean football. Vidinić never even went back to the country, his tenure essentially ended the moment the full-time whistle went against Brazil. The team, who had been flown back to Zaire in the Presidential jet when they won the ’74 AFCON, went home in much more economic circumstances this time, and upon arriving in Kinshasa were driven directly to Mobutu in an army lorry. They got a rollicking from the dictator for their performance after all of his previous generosity to them, that ended with a threat to imprison the side should they ever “rebel” again.

The team would not get the chance to test the threat. Mobutu had fallen decisively out of love with the game of football, and state investment in the sport rapidly declined after 1974, though players were still barred from transferring abroad. The internal leagues and national team stagnated quickly, and before too long the golden age of Congolese football was a distant memory. For some of the players involved, the following years and decades were a misery: Pierre Mulamba became homeless and was later discovered begging in South Africa. Some worked menial jobs, others attempted to maintain their role in national football, an increasingly futile exercise as time went on. Internationally, Zaire remained largely a footballing joke for many years, the team whose players didn’t even know how free kicks worked. It would not be until after the fall of Mobutu’s regime, in 1997, that greater investigation was possible, and the reality of what happened in West Germany became more clear.

Zaire, and then later “DR Congo” have struggled on in the footballing arena, even as the country continues to struggle two decades on from the departure of Mobutu. An upturn in fortunes in the last ten years or so saw the side grab 3rd spot at the 2015 AFCON, their best performance for a generation, and now they are able to once again consider themselves one of the very best teams on the continent. Today, the dream of making it back to a World Cup continues. If DR Congo were to achieve that dream, Illunga will not get to see it, having passed six years ago. But it would be the best possible way to banish some of those historical demons and prove to the world that sub-Saharan football is more than just its most ridiculed, and most widely misunderstood, moment.

75. Anti-Football: UAE

(07/09/2021)

Seven years after hitting highs and lows most managers can only dream of, the UAE’s coach tries it again.

One of more unlikely sides still involved in Asian qualifying continues their Third Round campaign tonight, intent on being more than a team battling it out to avoid the wooden spoon of their group. The United Arab Emirates are one of those few AFC squads that have made it to a World Cup Finals before, 31 years ago in Italy, but other than that remain one of those nations whose population is as football mad as anywhere else but have seen distressingly little success for their senior team. Like so many before, currently and I’m sure in the future, the effort to reverse this trend has seen the powers that be in the country look outward for leaders, attempting to cut through a perceived stagnation and get European know-how and acumen to make up for other deficiencies. The man in the UAE hotseat currently, who carries the expectations of a Finals starved nation and an expectant squad, is Dutchman Bert van Marwijk.

Van Marwijk was born and raised in Deventer in the 1950’s, and in his 17th year embarked on a playing career as an attacking forward that saw him spend the better part of two decades with four clubs in the Dutch Eredivise. That was an exciting time for Dutch football, dominated as it was by Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and total football, but while van Marwijk proved himself a capable addition to any team that he was a part of, winning a Dutch Cup with AZ in 1978 was the height of his playing success. He was deemed good enough to only secure a single international cap, in half of a friendly win over Yugoslavia in 1975.

Ten years after retiring from playing the game, van Marwijk graduated into managing it. From the outset he proved himself a coach capable of taking a team that was more than the sum of its parts and getting it to over-perform. He took perennial mid-table Fortuna Sittard to a Dutch Cup Final with pre-fame players like Mark van Bommel and Wilfred Bouma in tow, before graduating to the higher levels of Feyenoord in 2000. Van Marwijk stunned the world a bit by taking the usual runners-up of the Dutch League to a UEFA Cup victory in his first season in charge. But he couldn’t get over the hump of the Eredivisie, finishing third three seasons in a row after this. An unsuccessful stint with Borussia Dortmund, the side he had beaten in that UEFA Cup Final, led back into a second run with Feyenoord, where he again hit magic in his first season, becoming one of the few to win a Dutch Cup as a player and a manager. These successes were enough to persuade the KNVB into giving van Marwijk a shot, and he was appointed the Oranje head coach in 2008.

The Dutch were coming off one of the most disappointing tournament results in their history, having annihilated Italy and France in the group stage of EURO 2008 only to get dumped out by Russia in the Quarter-Finals. Marco van Basten left the pressures of trying to guide yet another perceived golden generation for the comparatively less tense surrounds of Ajax. Van Marwijk was seen by some as the man to right the ship and get the Netherlands the glory they so desired. But to many inside the Dutch footballing world and its media, it seemed a strange appointment. The Dutch teams down the years have been known for their attractive, team-focused attacking play, but van Marwijk came from a different school of thought. Employing a 4-2-3-1 that is dependent on a few key players to make things work from attack to defence, his philosophy could be easily characterised as “win at all costs”, and it doesn’t matter how you look as long as you do. The lack of flair and swift counter-attack is obvious, as was van Marwijk’s ability to strangle games and grind results out. Less obvious were the attitudes that gave van Marwijk success off the pitch: his man management, ability to soothe egos, integrate individuals into a team dynamic and the way he can instill the belief in his teams that they can reach the highest levels. These things are vital, but tend to take up less column inches than they deserve.

The journey with the Dutch to the 2010 World Cup Final is indicative of the twin perceptions. On the one hand the Netherlands ground their way to the Final, perhaps only really springing to life in the 3-2 Semi-Final victory over Uruguay. The Dutch media were savage towards what was deemed to be an overly defensive approach from the coach, that at times could devolve into the kind of rough-and-ready football found on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the Cruyff days. A multitude of hard tackles and a degree of simulation marked that Dutch side, but what also marked them was success: from the start of the 2010 qualification campaign to the Final, the Dutch won every competitive game put before them. The attitude was there too, with van Marwijk’s assistant coach Frank de Boer noting the difference in approach between his side and Uruguay ahead of that Semi-Final: “[Uruguay] came on to the pitch with cameras and were filming themselves and the stadium. That showed they were happy just to be there. Our approach was much better and now we have to keep that focus.”

Getting to the climactic showdown with Spain silenced critics, but the game put them back in full roar again. The Dutch fouled their way through 120 minutes of football, garnering an incredible eight yellow cards and one red, with Nigel de Jong’s first half “tackle” on Xavi Alonso closer to assault than challenge. As such, few were too upset when Spain snatched their late win. Van Marwijk was feted in the aftermath, up to getting the equivalent of a knighthood, but plenty of people were disgusted by what they had seen. Johan Cruyff decried van Marwijk’s teams as guilty of the worst sin imaginable for a Dutch footballer: “anti-football”. In some ways the writing was on the wall even then, and only a tournament success could probably have saved van Marwijk’s job. After a disastrous EURO 2012 when the Oranje entered as near favourites and left with just a point, van Marwijk resigned.

An unsuccessful six month stint with Hamburg forced van Marwijk to turn back to international management, and like so many who have shined brightly for a time in Europe he found offers much further afield. The first port of call was Saudi Arabia in 2015, with the Dutchmen eager to return to the World Cup with a team that had missed out on a place in South Africa and Brazil. It was to be a difficult appointment though: while van Marwijk guided the side to Russia it was only by the skin of his teeth, the team progressing on goal difference after a middling campaign marked by numerous reverses. Van Marwijk was criticised by Saudi media for refusing to reside in the country during his tenure in charge, which prevented him from attending Saudi league games. After a final day win over Japan got Saudi to the Finals, van Marwijk resigned again.

In a strange twist of fate, he soon found himself on the other side of this coin when he was given a short-term appointment as head coach of Australia in January 2018. The Socceroos had already made it to Russia, but the effort had proven too much for the perpetually stressed Ante Milicic, who did not have the desire the lead the country to another World Cup. Van Marwijk stepped in instead, with the understanding he would be replaced in turn after the Finals. He instituted his typical style on the side, with strict tactical inflexibility and a deep-lying approach. It did not work out: with one point in three, creditable performances against Denmark and France were little consolation. It seemed that a team of greater talent was needed to make his system work at that level.

It was back to the Middle East next, with van Marwijk taking on the much more difficult task of dragging the United Arab Emirates up past their usual level from Spring 2019 onwards. It was hoped that the Dutchmen would be the person to progress the team after they reached the Semi-Finals of the Asian Cup they hosted that year, but van Marwijk struggled after some initial friendly victories. Where the UAE authorities had hoped he could do the same thing he had done with Saudi Arabia, they instead got treated to a succession of calamities: arguments with players, a lot of public criticism over team selection, a terrible start to World Cup qualification where the UAE shipped losses to Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand and then an early exit from the Arabian Gulf Cup. The last was the tipping point, and van Marwijk’s project to replenish the UAE and blood new players was ended after just 260 days.

But it was not the end of his time with the UAE. One year later and he was back in the hotseat, with the UAE having burned through three coaches in the year where COVID stopped the World Cup qualifiers. Whatever had changed for the UAE in the 18 months between competitive games, van Marwijk returned to a team on fire, perhaps helped by extensive preparation camps before the final four games of the group that opponents could not match. The UAE went 100%: smashing Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in turn, before dominating Vietnam for 85 minutes in the final group game that constituted a winner takes all affair. Players like striker Ali Mabkhout and attacking midfielder Fabio de Lima ripped opponents apart as the UAE rose from fourth in the group to on the verge of progression. The Sons of Zayed almost let it slip though, conceding twice in the last few minutes of that Vietnam game to scrape a 3-2 victory, which cast a pall on van Marwijk in post-match press conferences: his one-time conservatism seemingly replaced by a do-or-die attitude that demanded domination Still, in four games played in just 12 days, the UAE had scored 15 goals, conceded three and made off with every point on the table. Automatic qualification to the final round was the reward.

The next part of the campaign got off to functional, if uninspiring, start with a scoreless draw at home to Lebanon. Like the last glut of games of the Second Round the UAE demonstrated a decidedly pro-football attitude to comparison to what van Marwijk is usually known for, dominating possession and creating a lot of chances. But more in line with the anti-football criticisms, none of the chances were converted. Harder games are coming, and quickly: Syria in a few days will provide a clear indication of how far along the UAE are. Van Marwijk lies at the crux of a team and a philosophical change that may come to define his status as an international manager even more than what he accomplished – or failed to accomplish – in 2010.

76. Twisted Vision: Saudi Arabia

(08/09/2021)

Sport remains one of the key avenues for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to improve their international image, but it’ll need more than the occasional PR photo to work.

The second match of AFC’s Third Round for Saudi Arabia saw them go head-to-head with neighbours Oman, at the start of a campaign where most expect the Saudi’s to ease to a place in the last 32. It’s a critical time for Saudi sport in a lot of ways right now, with the country garnering a lot of negative attention for a variety of reasons: the continued involvement in the Yemen Civil War, the murder of Jamal, and the lingering issue of the Qatari blockade among them. Speaking strictly in a sporting context the long-standing blockade of Qatar threatened to be a major problem going forward, but that appears to have come to some form of resolution, at least for the time being. That whole affair was another example of what should be a beneficial thing – football in the Middle East, and Saudi presence in the World Cup – turning into a negative. Saudi Arabia is a country that is set on improving its international image through social, entertainment and sporting means, with football being far from exempt as a tool for such things. But how are they planning to do this, and how are they getting on with it?

For all of this, the words “Vision 2030” are the key. Unveiled in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Vision 2030 is an enormous Saudi government project with a seemingly endless series of pathways. Among them is an effort to reduce the Kingdom’s dependency on oil, to diversify the economy and to develop various parts of the public sector. The plan contains other elements, like calls for increased spending on the Saudi military, but this get less publicity. The entire affair can be summed up simply as a large-scale effort to modernise various aspects of Saudi Arabian life and society, as well as making the Kingdom look better in international eyes, as they present the image of a country no longer bound by archaic cultural rules and an addiction to oil.

Sport, and “entertainment” more generally, is an enormous part of Vision 2030, probably the most important in a lot of ways. The “General Authority for Entertainment” has seen over two billion sunk into it over the last number of years, with the results being seen all over the spectrum: in the importation of popular musical artists for concerts, the building of theme parks, the hosting of a much-debated series of WWE PPV’s, new movie theatres to help increase film-watching in the public, new race courses for equines and motorists and just about everything else. Getting more specific, Saudi Arabia is looking to host an annual Formula 1 race to go with its yearly Formula E commitment, and continues to lobby various sporting organisations around the world to host more sporting events in the Kingdom.

In footballing terms, a lot of the focus has been squarely on the year in the title. The 2030 World Cup isn’t supposed to be hosted by a member of AFC owing to FIFA’s stated policy of continental cycles, but it’s an open secret that China will more than likely be allowed to bid, so why not the Saudi’s? The Kingdom has been lobbying on this project for a while, with rumours of some manner of co-hosting, perhaps with Egypt, as a sop to continental concerns. How likely Saudi Arabia is as a World Cup host is more intangible, but if Qatar could pull it off then anything really is possible. The Saudi’s certainly have the money, both to take part in an expensive bidding process and to get the country prepared to host a World Cup should one be awarded to them. Even if they were unsuccessful in a 2030 bid, it’s likely that the ambition would just be deferred, and not defeated forever. And getting to host a World Cup is just the biggest thing. Football is a part of Vision 2030 in other ways as well, with domestic cup games being held outside of the country to attract interest, numerous attempts to purchase clubs abroad by the royal family and the launch of a unique sporting channel for the Kingdom.

But what are the problems behind Vision 2030 and its sporting aspects? It comes down to one word indicative of a modern propaganda war with football at its heart: “sportswashing”. Saudi Arabia are not throwing billions of dollars at various aspects of the country solely to improve quality of life for its many citizens, it’s because the Kingdom is fighting a PR battle against those who wish to shine a light on the more unwholesome aspects of life there. Saudi Arabia, despite any pretensions of presenting a more liberal picture in recent years, is still a country awash with inequality, where women remain second-class citizens, homosexuality is criminalised and where capital punishment via beheading still occurs at a disturbing rate.

The murder of Khashoggi is just the most notable example of the kinds of things the Saudi state has been involved with in recent times, with their air strikes in Yemen amassing a much higher body count. Taken together, it paints a picture of a country that has a lot more to do before it can be fully accepted among the liberal democracies of the world. As such, people take an understandably dim view of Saudi’s footballing pretensions: we have spent the last number of years examining and criticising the manner in which Qatar obtained the right to host a World Cup, and the idea of one of their larger neighbours doing the same, against the established rules of FIFA, is hardly one likely to get anything other than a groan from the international footballing community.

The accomplishments of Vision 2030 to date have been decidedly mixed, especially in a footballing context. The 2030 World Cup bid remains something of a pipe dream, the efforts to take over Newcastle United were thwarted and even getting TV rights for the UEFA Champions League has been unexpectedly difficult: Saudi Arabia’s status as a hotbed of pirate broadcasting of football has been a factor in all cases. On the field, the actual senior team has been a little noticed aspect of the plan, content it seems to remain a relatively large fish in the small pond of truly competitive AFC nations: their win over Egypt at the 2018 World Cup was their first in 24 years at that stage, and the side has been floundering in the AFC Cup having last won the competition a quarter of a century ago.

Last night the national team re-took the focus, playing Oman at Muscat in their second group game of the Third Round. So far it’s been all good for Herve Renard’s side: they came from behind to power past Vietnam at home 3-1 a few days ago and last night they came away with a tight, but deserved, three points. Salah Al-Sheri proved the difference, with his 42nd minute goal – a fine right-footed strike coming off an audacious back heel from Fahad Al-Muwallad – the only score. The result leaves the Saudi’s sharing top spot with the similarly 100% Australians, but with much tougher games to come against Japan and China next month before the Socceroos in November.

It would be nice if we could associate Saudi sporting ambitions just with things like the national team and their exploits, since that team doesn’t seem so bad. But in the real world this is simply not possible. Al Saud ambitions to use some of their enormous largess to better the country in a variety of different ways is to be appreciated, but not at the expense of losing perspective on a regime that can, quite literally, be described as murderous. I feel it will be far easier to cheer on the likes of Al-Sheri and Al-Muwallad than bin Salman, especially when football is involved.

77. Sliding Doors: Colombia/Chile

(09/09/2021)

Halfway through CONMEBOL qualification, and the prayers have only gotten louder.

Last night’s match between Colombia and Chile came at a crucial moment for both sides. In the aftermath of results earlier in this particular matchday calendar, the teams were only three points apart in the mid-table of CONMEBOL standings, with Columbia having the advantage. For Chile, a loss at home to Brazil and a frustrating scoreless draw with Ecuador have marked the September period: Colombia, with two 1-1 draws with Bolivia and Paraguay, could only have been mildly happier. Reaching the midway point of qualification, both teams must have realised that the 90 minutes ahead was absolutely critical: to continue the march for Colombia, to arrest the decline for Chile.

From a more narrow viewpoint, the game was fascinating from the perspective of who is in charge of the teams. As discussed in the last Part, Reinaldo Rueda left his time in charge of Chile to return to his native Colombia in January, in circumstances that could certainly be called a little murky. His replacement in Chile, Martin Lasarte, had taken the side in ten games to this point, with just two wins and as many draws as defeats: hardly inspiring stuff, and already encouraging a wave of dissent at home. The summer months certainly gave Colombia the bragging rights, being just a shoot-out away from the Copa America Final against Argentina, while Chile had to settle for a Quarter-Final exit. Coming up on nine months since Rueda’s swap, this game provided the opportunity for one of those rare, but oh so intriguing, sliding doors moments: could Chile show they were better off without Rueda than with him? Or were Colombia about to demonstrate that their homeborn coach made the right choice in swapping La Roja for Los Cafeteros?

Colombia would come into the game in something approximating a 4-4-2, albeit not as rigidly as the formation is usually used. Rueda was dealing with a number of absentees, and not just because of COVID: usual hands like Andres Andrade and Duvan Zapata missed the game through injury, while the reticence of European clubs prevented Yerry Mina from travelling. Still, Colombia were able to field a team full of attacking intent: Eintracht Frankfurt’s Rafael Borre and Gremio’s Miguel Borja leading the line, ahead of a midfield including names like Juan Quintero and Luiz Dias. Defence would be marshaled by a mix of youth and experience with newcomer Carlos Cuesta at CB, and mainstay Juan Cuadrado on the right. David Ospino remained Mr Reliable in goal. Radamel Falcao, with age making its mark more everyday, was available only from the bench.

For Chile, absent Alexis Sanchez owing to injury, it was a 3-4-3 transitioning into a 5-2-2-1 as required. Claudio Bravo captained the team from goal, with Enzo Roco, Gary Medel and Paulo Diaz completing an aging back three in front of him, and veterans Eugenio Mena and Mauricio Islan assigned to the flanks. Central midfield saw the positioning of Erick Pulgar and Caudia Baeza, while ahead of them came Arturo Vidal and Jean Meneses. The top of the forward three was for the relatively untested Ivan Moreles, playing only his third game for his country. Save for the last player it was a notably old side, and one now being called upon to play its third game in a week.

It took only three minutes for Chile’s fears of struggling to keep up with Colombia to come true. Quintero was allowed to steam forward on the right hand side before cutting inside, and unleashing a powerful left-footed strike from distance. The ball snaked its way irresistibly through a crowd of players, and Bravo was unable to reach it in time. The Estadio Metropolitanio exploded. But VAR saved the day for the away side, as a late touch on the strike was deemed to come from an offside player. It was the correct call, but the length of time it took to make the decision again fans the flames on CONMEBOL’s struggles with the tech.

From there, the pattern of the first half was set, and it was a pattern of Colombian attack and Chilean defensiveness. More chances were inevitable, and when Paulo Diaz took down his namesake Luiz with a clumsy trailing leg inside the box, few could have deemed it an unjust lead when Borja buried the resulting penalty after only 16 minutes. 1-0 Colombia. Chile were floundering, and only three minutes later the ball was in their net again. Borja was able to break away off a distant through ball, and covered thirty yards unopposed before striking with precision past Bravo. 2-0 Colombia, and the stadium, even with only half of its usual attendance, was rocking.

Before the half hour mark it should have been three, as Borre was given two glorious chances to open up Chile again. It was Borja’s chance initially on another through ball breakaway, but he unselfishly teed up Borre to avoid the oncoming Bravo. With an open goal at his mercy, Borre conspired to first hit the post, and then see the rebound clatter off him and go wide. It was undoubtedly one of the misses of qualification so far, and one that would have drawn far more comment if the final result of the game had been different.

Chile ground their way into the game, and managed to find a foothold with one of the scrappiest scores of CONMEBOL so far in the second half. Three times Colombia should have been able to deal with a pedestrian Chilean attack: once when a somewhat aimless cross was only cleared to a Chilean attacker; twice when Morales’ subsequent weak volley from distance could only be palmed away by Ospina instead of being held; and third when Pulgar was able to collect the loose ball and work an opportunity to put it across the face of goal, and a crowd of players, for Meneses to strike home. 2-1 Colombia.

But a Chilean comeback was not to be. Seeking an equaliser, gaps opened up at the back for Chile. The older team, at the end of a grueling spell of games, tired quicker. This allowed Cuadrado to find Diaz in space steaming into the Chilean box from the left, but his tame shot should have been stopped by Isla, situating himself to the left of Bravo as a last-ditch defensive effort. Instead, he mis-kicked the oncoming ball somewhat comically, and it ended up in the back of the net. 3-1 Colombia.

That was how it stayed. Chile were unable to exert themselves properly on the remainder of the game and Colombia, having made up for their own defensive lapse, were not liable to be caught out again. The final result left the Metropolitana in raptures and Colombia fifth in the standings half-way through the process, knocking on the door of automatic progression. Chile languish six points behind them in eighth, one bad result away from propping up the whole confederation. The difference between the two sides for most of the 90 was stark: Colombia looked fresh, alive with attacking purpose and able to cut through their opponents at will. Chile, in contrast, looked fatigued, frequently disorganised and lacking the requisite level of fight to arrest the first half performance.

In October Colombia continue their mission to improve on earlier results with a trip to Montevideo and games at home to Brazil and Bolivia. Four points from the three games will be considered achievable, and necessary. For Chile, one senses that the October games – Peru away, then Paraguay and Venezuela at home – are their last chance to avoid the remainder of their qualification campaign becoming an exercise in damage limitation. In the consideration of sliding door moments, one can certainly make the case that Colombia are playing their football in a better timeline, performing better, making chances easier and most importantly winning: Chile seem to already have more than enough cause for potential regrets over Rueda’s departure. All may change yet by this time next month, and again in November: for now, La Tricolor can claim the better choices made.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, 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, 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

Team Eliminated But With Games To Play

Azerbaijan, San Marino

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.

To view more entries in this series, please click here to go to the index.

Photo Credits

Selling Out: Lebanon’s now banned defender Ramez Dayoub challenges for the ball during a Malaysian Cup game in 2013. Photo by Firdaus Latif, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

The Sick Man: Patrice Motsepe pictured with various VIPs at a conference in Davos in 2020. Photo in the public domain.

FUDELA: Ecuador fans unfurl an enormous national flag ahead of a World Cup qualifier in 2009. Photo by Andres Perez, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

“France, France, France”: The 1998 Jamaican World Cup team. Unknown copyright.

Application: The UEFA flag flying over Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium in 2014. Photo by InfoGibraltar, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

“I Believe That We Will Win”: USA fans watch a game of the 2010 World Cup. Photo by USASoccerFans, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Naivety: A still from the Brazil/Zaire World Cup game in 1974. Photo from the German Federal Archive, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany License.

Anti-Football: Bert van Marwijk just ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Photo by TBWA/Busted, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Twisted Vision: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman attending the opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup. Photo by kremlin.ru, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

Sliding Doors: Miguel Borja of Colombia prays ahead of his sides qualifier with Chile. Copyright Fubo Sports Network.

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4 Responses to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (VIII) – Switching Focus

  1. Pingback: 211 To One: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (IX) – The First Qualifiers | Never Felt Better

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

  3. Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XI) – All Together Now | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 Index | Never Felt Better

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