211 To One: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (IX) – The First Qualifiers

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Qatar were down as being the first participants in the 2022 World Cup the moment that they were announced as hosts, but it took until October 2021 for the first teams to qualify on sporting merit to be decided. They came from Europe, but qualification continued all across the world: many teams were getting tantalising close to being one of the 32, others saw the prize slip away from their fingers. One thing was for sure: with just over a year to go, time was running out.

Part Nine: The First Qualifiers

78. The Coup: Guinea

79. “Quinto Partido”: Mexico

80. No Fear: Oman

81. Löw Point: Germany

82. Unfinished: Uganda

83. 1930: Argentina/Uruguay

84. 109: Iran

85. The Hero Twins: Honduras

86. The View From One Year Out: The Confederations

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78. The Coup: Guinea

(06/10/2021)

Sometimes, the cessation of football comes with the sounds of bullets.

There are times when the chance to play a game of football, or just watch a game of football, is very, very important. Football is an entertainment, a thrill, sometimes a bore, and a distraction. It’s a method whereby a people with reasons to not feel very proud of their community or nation can find a reason for pride. For Guinea, when they step out onto the field today to take on Sudan, they were all of those things: a distraction from political events at home, and a means whereby fans of the Syli Nationale can voice a more positive form of national love than in any other avenue currently open to them. But the distraction can only go so far really, and there was little distraction to be had last September, when the world of Guinean football and Guinean politics collided in a bizarre and dangerous manner.

On the 6th September, Guinea were meant to play Morocco in their second qualifier of CAF’s Second Round group stage. The group had gotten off to a not especially great start following a 1-1 draw away at neighbours Guinea-Bissau, when Francois Kamono’s cool 7th minute opener for the visitors was cancelled out by Joseph Mendes’ 51st minute equaliser, the Ligue 2 striker somehow managing to make it through three lackadaisical Guinean defenders to bundle the ball home. Though they have never qualified for a World Cup, decent performances in the 2015 and 2019 AFCON’s, and the 2020 ANC, have raised expectations that Guinea could be on the verge of a serious advancement, one backed by talented players like Kamano, Naby Keita and Seydouba Soumah. Ranked 29 places above Guinea-Bissau, the dropped points could only be viewed as a disappointment for a team that contains so many players plying their trade in top European leagues. In a stage where there are only six games and only one spot for progression, any team that has serious pretensions of qualification will rue such setbacks.

As such, the first home game of the qualification campaign, already a tough test against the 5th ranked side in Africa, had extra pressure applied. It really could have been called a do-or-die moment for Guinea: a loss could all but put paid to their Final ambitions with four games to play, but a win would have been an enormous statement of intent, even if it was achieved in front of a COVID-mandated zero fans at the Stade du 28 Septembre in Conakry. That stadium takes its name from the 28th September 1958 referendum that set Guinea on the path to independence from France, but it resonates more powerfully in modern times for the 28th September 2009 massacre at the stadium, when scores of people were killed by Guinean security forces as they staged a protest against then military dictator Moussa Dadis Camara. In so many ways it was a suitable location for a game that never took place, as both Guinea and their opponents became caught up in another bout of Guinean political instability.

Alpha Conde, elected in 2010, was Guinea’s first democratically elected President after decades of authoritarian rule marked by repeated military coups. His time in office has not always been the shining new dawn that some hoped it would be, with Guinea’s rich natural resources exploited to help the internal economy to some degree, but with wide-scale poverty still being the norm for too many. Conde’s controversial 2020 referendum allowed him to exceed previously set term limits, and spurred on a series of protests against his rule through to this year. Conde cracked down on the protests and imprisoned opposition figures, some of whom have died in confinement: rising inflation, tax hikes and a proposed de-funding of the police and the military increased resulting tensions acutely.

On the 5th September, a group of military led by a Mamady Doumbouya, the commander of Guinea’s Special Forces Group, cordoned off the government district of the capital and surrounded the Presidential Palace. A brief series of gun fights between backers of Doumbouya’s faction and pro-government soldiers erupted throughout the city, but quickly resulted in the instigators being victorious. Conde was captured and is apparently being held in military detention as of this date: Doumbouya has announced the suspension of the constitution and the government, with the military to govern the country for an 18 month “transition period”. Though widely condemned by the international community, the coup is seemingly supported by a significant proportion of the Guinean population, who have yet to experience the benefits of democracy that are a requirement for the concept to become a lasting success.

All of this was going on with the squads and backroom teams of both Guinea and Morocco in the capital, preparing for the game between the two that was due to take place the following day. The Moroccan team spent a tense 24 hours inside their Conakry hotel, listening to the gunfire and wondering less about the game and more about how they were going to get out of the country. Quickly it became clear that the match was not going to go ahead, and from there it was a matter of how the visiting team would tackle the 45 minute trip to the airport, where a plane was waiting to take them back north. Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodžić took the events in his stride, later comparing it to his experiences during the Yugoslavian Wars, but his team was less sanguine. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of the Moroccan embassy and an apparent intervention from the Moroccan monarchy, the side were given some manner of escort to the airport and permitted an exception to the military-imposed closing of borders, departing Guinea on the day they were supposed to be playing the game. The team launched into a hearty rendition of the Moroccan national anthem as soon as they were airborne, glad to be escaping from the morass.

For Guinea’s players, things were a bit more complicated. They too were holed up in the midst of the coup, with little understanding of what was going on and with serious question marks about their ability to get out of the capital and the country safely. After all, it would not be the first time that a military dictatorship in Africa decided on a policy whereby its sporting citizens were not permitted to leave the country. Based only ten minutes from the airport, those players employed in Europe were in limbo, unclear on when they would be allowed to depart. After a day of tense waiting and desperate efforts by those clubs to ascertain the status of their players, those members of the Guinean team who play their club football outside of the country – the vast majority of them – were permitted to depart. Whatever about the chaos the coup had created, its architects seemingly did not wish to court the kind of negative international opinion that would have come with such high profile individuals being left trapped in the country. Maybe they never cared at all. It is the confusion of such unanswered questions that makes the situation all the more terrible to contemplate. We should make no mistake about such things: when gunmen take to the streets and no one is sure just what is happening, just about anything is possible. Thankfully, both teams were extracted from the crisis, on this occasion.

The chaos that has engulfed the country means that the hosting of games is no loner tenable, with Guinea stripped of their right to hold matches shortly after the coup. In a unique twist of fate, their two games this month are also against a side unable to hold a home game, though in Sudan’s case it is due to infrastructural issues. The final irony is the new location for the game to be held today and the next on the 9th: Morocco, which is also holding both of the other games in the group on the same dates. It must be considered unlikely that the events at home can be dismissed as a factor, and if Guinea’s ambitions were far away before they may well be unreachable now. To make it out of this group before a ball was kicked would have been a shock; to do it in in these circumstances would be a truly exceptional thing.

Now that would be something that would make Guinea worthy of a very different kind of headline than the ones they have gotten recently. That remains the dream, and perhaps the best way that Guinean’s have to showcase what pride they have for their country nowadays. Getting to the Third Round, or at least making it hard for Morocco, would presumably bring some temporary balm to the soul of a nation that now looks likely to return to the uncertain days of military rule. Either way, one hopes that we will not have a repeat of this vision of football players left waiting in limbo to escape a warzone not of their making.

79. “Quinto Partido”: Mexico

(07/10/2021)

Mexican fans are used to grimaces, and it will take a psychological masterstroke to reverse that it seems.

For Mexico, the phrase “Second Round” or “Last 16” must surely fill them with a certain kind of dread at this point. As they prepare to face Canada in their fourth match of CONCACAF’s Third Round of qualifying, on the back of seven points gained already, the haunting reality remains latched onto them: despite their football mad populace, despite their array of talent down the years, despite lengthy periods of continental domination and despite some notable results at a World Cup Finals, the team have gotten to the Second Round on seven consecutive occasions now, and each and every time they have gone no further. El Tri have made a specialty out of navigating group stages and then coming a cropper, and the history of this sequence of disasters is at the heart of modern-day Mexican football.

It began in 1994. That was meant to be a major year for Mexican football, back at the highest stage after the Cachirules scandal led to their ban for the 1990 edition. Miguel Baron’s team contained veterans like midfielder Alberto Garcia Aspe and accomplished striker Carlos Hermosillo, hungry for another shot at the top table. Mexico topped one of the tightest groups in World Cup history – all four teams finished on four points – after a bad tempered win over Ireland and a draw with eventual runners up Italy, and their reward was a Second Round tie with Bulgaria. The Mexicans were unfortunate to come up against probably the greatest iteration of that team with Hristo Stoichkov, on his way to a Golden Boot, giving the Bulgarians a 6th minute lead with a powerful left-footed effort into the roof of the Mexican net. A confident penalty from veteran Garcia Ashe 12 minutes later leveled things up, but no matter how hard they tried Mexico were unable to hit the front afterwards. With two hours played it went to penalties, where Mexico had a shocker, missing their first three to head home on a 3-1 scoreline, with Garcia Aspe among the ones to fail to beat Mikhailov. Bulgaria went on to finish fourth. Miguel Baron’s tenure would come to a conclusion the next year, as thoughts turned to France. The team had little clue they had begun a trend of questing endlessly for the “Quinto Partido”: the fifth game.

In France, Mexico overcame South Korea and shared points with Belgium and the Netherlands – coming from two down in the 94th minute with the latter – to face Germany in the last 16. Confidence was high, with the opposition labouring in an unconvincing fashion in their group stage matches, scoring late to retrieve a draw against Yugoslavia and looking pedestrian against the United States and Iran. The Second Round match followed that script, with Mexico taking the lead just after half-time thanks to a Luiz “El Matador” Hernandez strike, the legendary forward scoring a peach of a goal after skipping past two defenders and dinking the ball past Oliver Kahn. Germany were roused sufficiently to play what might have been their hardest graft of the tournament after though, with Jurgen Klinsmann equalising with a scrappy effort, capitalising on a loose ball that defender Raul Lara failed to clear. It was left to Oliver Bierhoff to secure the winner four minutes from time, with a fine looping header. Germany went on to infamously crash out to Croatia in their next game, while Mexico were left to rue missed opportunities.

In 2002 Mexico seemed to have only grown stronger, topping a group that contained Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, on the back of performances from deep-lying forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the distinctively bushy haired Gerardo Terrado and the “Desert Fox” Jared Borgetti. Better still, the Second Round match produced a side they were probably the most familiar with: the United States, whom Mexico had beaten 2-0 as recently as a year before during qualification. But familiarity went both ways – the US had beaten Mexico in qualification for South Korea/Japan as well, earlier on – and when the teams took to the field of South Korea’s Jeanju Stadium the group form went out the window. The match was a disaster for the Mexicans, in performance if not quite in score: when Brian McBride put the US in front early on with a confident strike from a right-wing pullback, the confidence seemed to seep out of the Mexicans. When Landon Donovan made it 2-0 just after the hour with a well-placed header, there was no way back. Captain Rafael “El Kaizer” Marquez’ late dismissal for a ridiculous mid-air challenge capped an ill-disciplined Mexican display as their best chance in years at the last eight slipped away from them. What started as bad luck, then transformed into coincidence, had now become a pattern. The US fans wouldn’t let Mexico forget it either, with “Dos e Cero” chants a staple of meetings between the two sides for years afterwards, a reminder that no matter how many Gold Cups the Mexicans could hold over the Americans, the Stars and Stripes had come out on top of their only meeting at a World Cup.

2006 was a heartbreaker. The team, led by Uruguayan Ricardo La Volpe, now had the likes of the free-scoring Guadalajara striker Omar Bravo, the naturalised Brazilian midfielder Sinha and Jose Guzman propping up a side that contained plenty of veterans having their last chance at World Cup glory. Despite high expectations they struggled in the group stage, losing to Portugal and dropping points to Angola: Jose Peckerman’s Argentina – a team where an 18-year-old Lionel Messi could be considered among the less impressive forward options – was the unenviable reward of a scraped second place. Rafael Marquez gave Mexico a 6th minute lead with a poachers strike from close range before Hernan Crespo’s pressure leveled it up shortly afterward, with Mexican defenders so focused on stopping him from scoring they unintentionally helped the ball into their own net from a corner. 88 minutes of stalemate later Maxi Rodriguez, in his first World Cup, scored the decisive extra-time goal, and what a goal it was: chesting the ball down at the corner of the box, and then sending it flying into the net with the sweetest of left-footed volleys. It was the goal of the tournament, and Mexico were left ruing missed chances again, as the curse of quinto partido firmly took hold of their national footballing consciousness.

South Africa in 2010 was more controversial. Having electrified a watching public in putting France to the sword in the group stage on their way to a second place finish, a Mexico that now featured the exciting attacking talent of Javier Hernandez once again came into the Second Round to face Argentina. It was always going to be a difficult ask, but was made harder by an atrocious officiating error, with Carlos Tevez heading home before the half-hour mark from a clearly offside position. Mexico never recovered, conceding twice more before Hernandez tacked on a consolation. Sepp Blatter would apologise to the Mexicans over what had happened, and in line with Frank Lampard’s ghost goal for England against Germany in the same round, the incident is often cited as one of the key instigating events for the push for video technology in football. That was of little concern for El Tri though, with five straight last 16 eliminations.

In 2014, with Hernandez now more seasoned and others, like Andres Guardado and Giovani dos Santos, at the peak of their powers, Mexico went toe-to-toe with hosts Brazil in the group stage, grinding out an ugly scoreless draw, alongside wins over Croatia and Cameroon. Such displays provoked confidence that the breaking of the curse seemed imminent against a surprisingly ineffective Dutch team, with dos Santos’ wonderful long-range strike just after half-time seemingly sending El Tri on their way. That goal, and the way Mexico bossed most of the game, was all for nought: after nearly ninety minutes of impotence in orange, Wesley Sneijder slammed home an opportunistic in-box volley to draw level before one of the most controversial moments of the tournament, Arjen Robben’s flopping to the ground deep into injury time under pressure from Rafael Marquez, playing in his fourth of five World Cups. Replays suggested simulation, but referee Pedro Proenca was unmoved by Mexican pleas. Robben converted the resulting penalty with almost the last kick, and the Mexicans were out after four games yet again.

Russia four years later set Mexico up with what seemed to be an enormous challenge, with the World Cup holders first up. El Tri not only met that challenge, they surpassed all expectations by showing Germany up in a famous victory, where the 1-0 scoreline belied the dominance that the CONCACAF side was able to demonstrate. A victory against South Korea in the next game only made the hype grow, but Mexico conspired to throw away top spot in the group, and potentially a more favourable knock-out draw, by slumping to a 3-0 defeat to Sweden in their last group game. The result was Brazil instead of Switzerland. It took a half for the Selecao to really get going, in the midst as they were of another disappointingly flat World Cup showing, but Neymar proved the difference. With Mexico struggling to create anything in the opposing half, it was Brazil’s talisman who created his own opener after 50 minutes by pulling the Mexican defence with him across the face of goal, back-heeling to Willian, and then tapping in from the resulting cross. Half-an-hour later he set-up Robert Firminho’s dagger with his own breakway, tipped into the path of the Liverpool man. Mexico, for the seventh straight tournament, had no answer.

Which brings us to today, and the larger question about “quinto partido”. What’s going on? Is it a simple matter of Mexico being unlucky, with lapses in concentration leading to defeats at crucial junctures? Is the Second Round just their level, reflective of CONCACAF more generally, a confederation that has seen only two quarter-finalists since Mexico last got there in 1986? Or is it mental, a feeling among El Tri that they are cursed, a psychological issue that translates onto the football pitch? Whether it requires more work on the training ground, more work on the continent or more work with a sports psychologist, it seems that Mexico have a lot to do if they are ever to reach the last eight again.

Of course they have to get back to a Finals first. The campaign so far has mirrored recent concerns that Mexico are too lackadaisical with qualification: though undefeated and top of the octagon, they have been forced to work hard for victories over Jamaica and Costa Rica, and dropped two points to Panama. Tonight they face the test of Canada, a team hungry to eradicate their own curse of continued misfortune, and just make it to a Finals again. Mexico remains a side that have oodles of talent, lots of players with an obvious commitment to the green jersey and a fanbase that can, without hyperbole, be called one of the most passionate in the game. They should get to Qatar. They should get out of the group stage. They should be able to face into a Second Round match confident of claiming a spot among the eight most elite in the competition. But the haunting memories of the last seven tournaments will have to be overcome. That fight is as, or more, important than the qualification campaign. Perhaps tonight’s result will give a sign of how Mexico are faring in their quest to reach quinto partido.

80. No Fear: Oman

(08/10/2021)

The love is there from the stands, but can the men on the pitch prove equal to it?

It could certainly be described as one of the most unlikely results possible at this stage of World Cup qualifying. When Oman’s Issam Al Sabhi guided a right wing cross past Shuichi Gonda in the 88th minute of his country’s opening Third Round match against Japan, he must have realised how momentous the act was. Japan, the highest ranked side in the AFC, who won multiple games by ten goals or more in the Second Round, were vanquished by a team 50 places below them in the rankings. The Omani celebrated the goal, and the final whistle a few minutes later, as if they had gotten to Qatar in the process. They hadn’t of course, and remain rank outsiders for that prize. But, as the underdog tends to do, they have made the world stand up and take some notice of this footballing Sultanate.

Football in Oman is as popular there as it is anywhere in the Middle-East, with the sport comfortably the most watched and played in the country. But this has never meant anything much when it comes to the senior mens side. Since they first took to the field as a sovereign nation in 1965 – a 14-1 pasting at the hands of Libya – they have never made it to a World Cup and have never really impressed in the Asian Cup. Two Gulf Cup victories in the last 50 years, combined with a last 16 appearance in the 2019 Asian Cup, have been the sum total of their major achievements. Like many other countries in the Middle-East, Oman has struggled to convert football’s colloquial popularity into something productive at the highest level. The national league only went fully professional in 2013, the side goes through head coaches with alarming regularity (seven men have held the job in the last decade) and the vast majority of the team are called up internally: in no way an automatic negative, but a sign that the country’s footballers lack the quality to play anywhere else. The end result is a football team that is fundamentally limited.

Limited, and little known. Take the scorer of that already famous goal to beat the Japanese. Go looking for information on 24-year-old Al Sabhi and you’ll run into trouble quick: about the only thing you’ll find reliable records for are his date of birth, current club and limited number of international caps. Even the many news reports happy to cover Oman’s shock win were unable to say much, other than to note his name and the confident manner in which he put the ball into the Japanese net. Al Sabhi is typical of the Omani squad, and Omani football in general: even when they do something amazing, they remain little more than a Wikipedia article or Soccerway entry without a picture. If you don’t speak their native language, you’re down to relying on patchy Google Translate jobs for more information from local news outlets, that are not always reliable.

The effort to change the perception of Oman as a forgettable footballing backwater is what has brought them to the Third Round of AFC qualification. They tore through most of the Second Round group stage, with only group winners Qatar taking points off of them: Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh were all dispatched home and away, with Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic – appointed mid-campaign after Dutchman Erwin Koeman was dismissed for poor regional performances – easing to automatic progression 11 points clear of the team behind. His Oman play with no fear, and treat any opposition, even the mighty Japan in Osaka, as a collection of jersies and not the luminaries in them. And Ivankovic is more than just a talker with such philosophy, as exemplified by what he pulled against Japan: Al Sabhi was an 80th minute substitute, a forward on for a midfielder as Oman chased the win and not a hard-fought point. Taken in line with the earlier games against Qatar, close affairs where the Omani acquitted themselves well, they could realistically claim to have risen to a spot in the AFC’s mid-tier, even if they remained one of the lower ranked side to make it to the final 12 this year.

The danger that Oman face is the possibility of peaking too early. It would be easy to secure this one famous result at the outside of the campaign and declare themselves satisfied. This would be the hallmarks of many underdog sides, whose road to a World Cup is so stacked against them. Oman’s first opportunity to buck the expected trend came at home to Saudi Arabia on the 7th September. It was a difficult contest, with the visitors limited enough and Oman actually making more chances with less possession. But it was not enough: Saleh Al-Sherai’s 42nd minute strike was the only goal, and it came for the visitors. Next, last night, was the unenviable task of Australia away, with the Socceroo’s on an AFC record ten game winning streak. That streak was extended, with Australia pulling away in the second half after going goal-for-goal with Oman in the first: 3-1 it ended, and already the Japanese result is in danger of becoming a fluke success.

The majority of the campaign is yet to come, yet Oman may already have hit as high as they can go. They shocked Japan, and put the rest of Group B on notice: they are less likely to be under-estimated again in future games. Qualification, or even a play-off spot, seem like far off dreams on the back of two defeats in a row and tough games still to come. But hope remains Oman could grab something off a Chinese side always one bad game away from a crisis or a Vietnamese team unused to these surrounds. It is the Vietnamese who are next, the latest chance for Oman to punch above their weight and prove that a football mad nation like theirs deserves more of a spotlight. The dream isn’t dead yet, and will live on for another 90 minutes at least.

81. Löw Point: Germany

(09/10/2021)

The Germany manager in better days.

It’s practically a formality before a ball is kicked really. Germany, whether as the modern Federal Republic, West Germany or uglier predecessors, have only failed to qualify for a World Cup twice, and never as a result of things on the field: in 1930 when they didn’t have the funds to cross the Atlantic to Uruguay, and in 1950 when they were outright banned from competing. Their form at this stage of senior competition has been downright scary for a long time now: they have lost only three qualification matches in their entire history, out of 101 played. It is the kind of form that marks a true giant of the game, never likely to be very far from the tag of favourites, a place where football is more than a sport. But it is one of those three losses, that came only this year, that is perhaps more in the minds of Die Mannschaft fans recently: a 2-1 home defeat to North Macedonia in late March, it was a result that provided the perfect underline to Joachim Löw’s final days in charge of the side he led to glory.

It can be hard to remember that Löw was not an especially auspicious appointment as Germany boss. An up-and-down career in club management had led to his role as Jurgen Klinsmann’s right-hand-man for the 2006 World Cup, after the two had connected over a love of attacking football at a coaching conference: they helped to transform a somewhat stagnant set-up in the Germany senior team, turning it in time into an express train driven by some of the best analytics the sporting world had ever seen, and a vibrant forward-thinking philosophy on the pitch. Germany’s 3rd place finish in 2006 turned up some noses of the home faithful who thought that the team should have won the tournament, but in retrospect one can see that World Cup more as a foundational base for what was to come.

The larger project meant that Löw was preferred when Klinsmann called it quits, and the attack-minded Germany remained. Indeed, if anything the dynamic aspects of their play only became more acute, with Löw’s Germany dedicated to the idea that every player should be holding onto the ball less and passing more. The results were obvious: an easy qualification for EURO 2008, then a run to the Final of that tournament, one marked by a rare instance of normally unflappable Löw losing control on the sideline, when he was dismissed after an argument with Austria’s Josef Hickersberger. It was unfortunate that Germany came up against their immediate predecessors as the world’s best team in the 2008 Final in the form of Spain, whose 1-0 triumph introduced six years of total footballing domination.

It was Spain who put Germany out of the 2010 World Cup, a tournament where Löw fielded the second youngest team. He was lucky that the DFB had the patience for what must have seemed to some as an already failed project marked by successive tournament mishaps, but those with more of an eye for what was happening on the field could see the shoots starting to grow: Germany were a team being raised for success, a young group that advanced together, learned the same style together and then executed it together. EURO 2012 saw another instance of Germany coming up short, this time to Italy in the Semi-Finals, but they were on the cusp.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Löw’s reputation and job were on the line in the 2014 World Cup, but not too much of a one: the ground had been prepared for over a decade, and that was the year Germany had to make it show. And show they did, in an annihilation of Portugal, a come from behind draw against Ghana, and a ground-out single goal victory over the United States. Algeria were dispatched in the Second Round, in one of the only times where Löw appeared to be second guessing himself: he instructed his team to try a high defensive line that night, a tactic that nearly backfired several times. An assured, if not flashy, 1-0 Quarter-Final victory set-up that most famous of his singular match triumphs: the utter destruction of hosts Brazil, which but for the following game would surely be marked as Low’s most notable achievement.

Finals tend to be scrappy affairs, and even a side as brilliant to watch as that Germany found themselves stymied by the Argentinian opposition and the occasion, but they were still deserving winners: Mario Gotze’s 113th minute volley was the final piece of the puzzle that Klinsmann had set in motion so many years before, and which Löw had been the shepherd of since 2006. He not only won Germany a World Cup, their first since re-unification, but he did it in some style, managing a team that may not have produced footballing poetry in every game, but which were a genuine pleasure to watch: always looking forward, with players in perfect sync with each other, the definition of a team whose whole was far more than the sum of their parts.

Heights are difficult to achieve, and staying there is arguably harder: it was something that Spain managed for a time, but Germany could not. I was one of many who posited that Löw’s Deutschland could be about to enact a similar period of domination as Spain had been able to pull off between 2008 and 2014, but the results, bar a Confederations Cup win in 2017, did not come. Germany regressed after 2014, as if the Löw generation were satisfied with one defining victory: the swift attacking focus began to degrade, the press became ever more toothless and a creeping philosophy of conservatism began to be evident. A last four exit in EURO 2016, the group stage disaster in Russia two years after and then the disappointing performance this year where the old enemy dismissed them without too much trouble have been Germany’s lot post-2014, as Löw’s standing went from heroic to on borrowed time.

A lot of reasons have been posited: a sense of the job being done for international players, an evident divide in the national squad between Bayern Munich contingents and everybody else, coaching disputes, the catch-up of other European nations who have had more than enough time to examine Germany’s style, the list is exhaustive and not all that unique. All great footballing powers reach their apogee eventually. It was a disappointing decline for Löw though, having worked so hard for so long to get Germany to the top of the mountain, only to see them tumbling down again. The writing was on the wall long before the delayed EURO 2020. Löw knew this, and had committed to leaving his post before that North Macedonian defeat, a result that more than anything perhaps pointed to his time being concluded.

The man on the spot now, with the task of once again getting the German side that is synonymous with European football back to the highest point, is Hansi Flick. A successful playing career was brought to an end in the early nineties owing to injury, and since then Flick has slowly come up the ladder of management, plying his trade in the lower divisions of Germany, as a sporting director of Red Bull Salzburg under Giovanni Trapattoni and as an assistant coach under Löw. Up to 2019 it would be natural to have little knowledge of Flick, until fate conspired to put him in charge of his one time playing club Bayern Munich. Replacing Niko Kovac, for whom he was an assistant, Flick has rightfully earned plaudits as one of the most unexpectedly successful managers who started under the status of “interim”, securing the teams second ever treble of league, cup and Champions League within months of his appointment. But for Löw’s fall, Flick would probably still be there: only the lure of the national side would probably have been enough to get him to give up his position as one of the most suddenly influential men in European club football.

Flick’s first job with the national side was to make sure that the North Macedonia and EURO 2020 wobbles were just that, and so far his record is flawless. Three wins in September, with 12 goals scored and none conceded, had Germany firmly on top of Group J, with last night’s hosting of Romania a chance to stretch the four point gap to Armenia. Germany did not make it easy for themselves, going into the half-time break a goal down, but a fightback marked by goals from Serge Gnabry and Thomas Muller got them the win and their 98th instance of points from a qualification game. It also means they are on the verge of becoming the first team, bar the hosts, to confirm their attendance at the Finals next year. It’s a result that really shines a light on the progress Flick has been able to make, with a return to what has been dubbed a “Bavarian” style of play, heavily influenced by the manager’s experience in Bayern. His 4-2-3-1 formation has seen plenty of useful experimentation in the attacking midfielder section, with players like Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry thriving. And his willingness to consult with almost all the managers of the Bundesliga on the correct way to play national footballers, and to take their advice on the national team’s tactics, have helped to dispel the notion of Die Mannschaft as an entity all of its own, and to bring a sense of national unity back to its operations.

Next is a game heavy with symbolism: the return match with North Macedonia. Germany can all but secure qualification with a win, and avenge one of those three losses into the bargain. More than that, a victory will continue to indicate that the Flick renaissance is more than just an idle dream right now, but something already in being. In many ways this is still the Germany of Löw, and it still has the philosophy of Klinsmann, but now is the time for Flick to become the inheritor of what those men wrought, from which he can craft another glorious chapter in the history of German football. In other words, it’s time to put the low points behind them, and ascend the mountain one more time.

82. Unfinished: Uganda

(10/10/2021)

“Micho” has lots to do with Uganda, and presumably plenty of other stuff on his mind.

They say that time waits for no man, and in the World Cup qualifying surrounds of CAF this is doubly true. Africa continues today a packed schedule that will see the majority of its members eliminated from contention before the end of next month. For Uganda, the current campaign marks probably their best opportunity to qualify for a World Cup in their history, seeded second and with the far from insurmountable challenge of Mali above them. It also marks an unlikely effort at reconciliation: head coach Milutin Sredojević continues his second stint in charge of the team, eager to make up for previous disappointments and unfinished business. But this latest part of his career is being carried out under a large shadow, as this portion of the football landscape takes its turn dealing with the larger issue summed up so eloquently in the last few years by two words: “Me too”.

Serbian Sredojević, better known by the nickname “Micho”, came from an unspectacular background, his playing time cut short by recurring injuries only seven years into his professional career. But he was determined to make some form of impact on the game, and from the ashes of his time on the field set-off on a veritable odyssey of managerial appointments. After a few years with Yugoslavian clubs and a brief stint with the U-20 national side – he maintains that he had hit an undeserved dead-end in his home country, with his talents going unrecognised – Sredojević was off to Africa, where he has amassed an impressive CV of club and international management in the last 15 years. It started and ended in Uganda, with his stewardship of Villa SC through some of their most successful years coming ahead of stints in Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda, Egypt and Zambia. In that run he has traveled to 50 of CAF’s 54 countries and won over a dozen trophies in various leagues and cups.

His success seems to have been as much down to a mental philosophy as much as an on-pitch one. African football is very different to the European game, just in terms of sheer infrastructure: Sredojević has said that his first rule when it came to jobs was that he would not ask questions about anything and would be driven by the motto of “Get on with it”. The pitches might be sub-standard, the facilities non-existent, the financial backing liable to turn to smoke before your eyes, but there are still teams to train and games to be won. His man management skills are next, with Micho recognising that his role in Africa is as much or more about being a positive role model and life coach for his players than it is about being an on-field tutor and organiser. Offers of jobs back in his home continent have gone ignored in favour of the continuing challenge of the game in CAF.

The success he has been able to earn is undeniable at a club level, but his most notable appointment in that period was his four year run as the head coach of Uganda, a job he took up in 2013 after allegedly beating 37 other applicants. It was a rollercoaster ride: highs included being a runner-up in the regional CECEFA Cup for the first time since Uganda won it in 1995, and qualification for the 2017 AFCON, the first time the Cranes had made it that far in nearly 40 years. Lows were a general inability to compete in that tournament, and everything else that tends to go with football management in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the stated ethos of asking no questions and getting on with things, even Micho had his limits. A few months after that AFCON appearance the man held a press conference in Kampela, and to a packed crowd of journalists and officials announced his resignation. Citing months of unpaid wages, he expressed regret on not being able to take the team on the challenge of World Cup qualification. Uganda’s governing body, FUFA, did not deny the claims, pleading the excuse of simply being out of money, a situation caused at least partly by Sredojević’s success and the additional costs that came with more games and trips to tournaments. Government assistance was called for and Sredojević was eventually, almost a year later, paid off all he was owed. The situation speaks to the inherent instability that so often afflicts African football: taking the claims at face value reveals that success is a double-edged sword, but there are plenty who would wonder darkly why FUFA is unable to carry the cost of qualifications when other countries can.

The intervening period has been an illuminating one on Micho, and for all the wrong reasons. Periods with South Africa’s Orlando Pirates, Egypt’s Zameluk and the Zambian national team have come without the usual cavalcade of success, which might be down to allegations that have severely stained Sredojević’s reputation in recent years. The first was that he attempted to sexual assault a woman employed as a cleaner in a Johannesburg Hotel in August of 2019: the charges were later dropped, against the claimants wishes. Then in December of last year Sredojević was accused of groping a woman and making lewd comments towards her while attending a regional underage football tournament in South Africa. A trial to determine the matter has been repeatedly delayed owing to Sredojević’s issues obtaining a visa to visit South Africa to defend himself.

One does not wish to form some kind of summary judgement of Sredojević on the basis of these allegations, none of which have been proven in a court of law. The man is entitled to his innocence until he is proven guilty, the same as anyone. But, as is oh so common in these cases, it isn’t the individual allegations that are the problem, it is the pattern that emerges of numerous allegations, and that is what appears to happening here. One hopes that Sredojević will get his day in court and that a judgement will be made on the matter, something denied to us in the first case. One also hopes that the alleged victims find their peace with what happened, on a personal level if it is denied to them on a judicial level. The cavalcade of similar cases in just about every facet of the world’s culture over the last number of years has been staggering, and football is no exception: it is all too likely that we are only getting to hear about the tip of the iceberg really, given the reach of the game relative to the stories that have come out. On Micho, for now it is enough to say that the man’s once sterling career in African football has lost some of its lustre, with these allegations more than likely playing a part in his premature departures from recent jobs.

The most recent of those was the Zambian gig, where Micho arrived in February 2020 promising much and left in July of this year having achieved very little. An early exit from the regional COSOVA Cup was the nominal last straw, but it would be naive to think that his upcoming trial in South Africa had no impact on the decision. Sredojević was not unemployed for long, with FUFA calling within a few weeks. Micho was unveiled for his second stint as Ugandan manager on the 27th July in another packed press conference. His opening remarks made no mention of his legal troubles, and were notable only insofar as he issued an apology for the manner in which his first term had ended: a strange thing to do, considering how much money he was owed at the time. A predictable debate has engulfed Ugandan football circles since his appointment, between those that hope Micho can now finish the job he started several years ago, and those who feel his second reign is a sign of too much backward thinking. Presumably some may also feel having a man accused of sexual abuse in charge of the team something worth being unenthusiastic about.

The campaign so far has been a success: Uganda has racked up five points in three games, one of them in a scoreless draw with top seed Mali. It has been less successful in terms of goal tally, with Uganda scoring just once in 270 minutes of football under Micho at this level. Today is the return match from that one victory, over Rwanda on the 7th: ahead of do-or-die matches with Rwanda and Mali in November, a win is required. That’s just for Uganda’s World Cup hopes of course: a win is also required for Micho, whose status is, you have to assume, perpetually hanging by a thread. We may never have a satisfying answer on the man’s personal issues, but it’s likely the denizens of Uganda could care less if he was to get them into the next round. The justice of that, I leave to others to ponder.

83. 1930: Argentina/Uruguay

(11/10/2021)

As I said: joy, despair and a whole lot in-between.

One of the oldest national footballing rivalries in the world underwent its 196th chapter last night, as South America’s two-time World Cup winners on either side of the ball went at it again. Argentina and Uruguay – the Clasico del Rio de la Plata – had plenty on the line. The hosts, unbeaten, were seeking to keep pace with leaders Brazil and continue on a Messi-inspired road to routine qualification. Uruguay have stuttered in comparison, losing twice so far and putting in sub-standard performances. Whenever the two teams face each other, in one of the fiercest conflicts of this level, there are bound to be figurative fireworks, in a rivalry based on geography, history and the odd invasion. Inevitably, those with a mind for footballing history who saw the two teams take to the field last night will have had their thoughts drift to 91 years ago, to the very first World Cup, and the very first World Cup Final.

The world of international football at the time was radically different to what it is today. Up to 1930 it was the Summer Olympics that provided the highest tier of international competition, reflective of the amateur status that the sport still had in large swaths of the world. Amateur only on the pitch though: international football was huge business in Europe and South America. 60’000 people watched the 1924 Olympic final, nearly the same amount over two games four years later, and tours of the best sides were major events when they happened. FIFA, less of a footballing powerhouse and more of a wobbly authority, organised the Olympic tournaments, but by 1928 had decided that it was in a strong enough position to strike out on its own.

The famed Jules Rimet was the major motivator of this, having been trying for the better part of 30 years to get a separate footballing tournament going, and he finally got his way seven years into his Presidency of FIFA. In doing so, he was essentially thumbing his nose at the intransigence of the “home nations” who had left FIFA that same year in an argument over the sports amateur status, and a host of other naysayers. At the 1928 FIFA conference held in Barcelona, the new World Cup was ratified by its leadership. It was to be held in the traditionally strongest footballing nation at the time: Uruguay, Olympic champions in ’24 and ’28, and happy to combine the hosting of the World Cup with the celebrations of their independence centenary in 1930. That Uruguay were also content to pay for the travelling costs of teams, and build a new stadium to host in as grand a fashion as possible, also helped, while Rimet was smart enough to see that the professionalisation of the game in South America was an opportunity that outweighed the objections, and then boycotting, of many European nations.

It also meant that the Rio de la Plata rivalry would be centre stage once again. By 1930, teams representing Argentina and Uruguay had already played each other an astonishing 103 times, being the first nations to field teams on the continent. Games between the two attracted huge interest and were often bad-tempered affairs, both on and off the pitch. Tackles would be rough, and the spectators could be rougher, throwing anything they had to hand – rocks, bottles, bits of stadium – at the other teams’ players. Uruguay beat Argentina in the 1928 Olympic Final in Paris, a game where telegraphed updates from Amsterdam in the style of modern-day live trackers were sent to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, to be read out from public-address systems in both cities. The teams refused to speak to each other at the final whistle: a locally-based Argentine singer, Carlos Gardel, invited players from either side to a cabaret show in an attempt at peacemaking, where they ended up brawling. One Argentinian player would proudly recount hitting a black man he thought might have been a Uruguayan player over the head with a violin he had, a few minutes earlier, been performing with. Despite the potential for further chaos, the two were obvious favourites to go all the way, and the draw coincidentally would keep them apart until the Final.

It can be hard to fully realise what on-pitch football was like back then. Players wore long breeches, caps and tough hard boots, and training was often very rudimentary. The game was rough to the point of violence, which could occur regularly. There was no such thing as substitutes, and if you had to go off it meant your team played with ten men, so players often played through injuries. Referees were the subject of abuse that would make any modern player known for “dissent” blush. Crazy things could happen: in one game at the tournament an American medic rushed onto the field to remonstrate with a decision he disagreed with, smashing a “box of medicines” in the process, that included a bottle of chloroform. He had to be helped off the field, and the game then continued, presumably with broken glass on the pitch.

Every team played with only slight variations of the 2-3-5 formation that was the footballing norm. Packed stands would frequently overflow onto the sidelines, with inevitable results when players and spectators clashed. There was extra-time if necessary but replays still ruled after that. Kick and rush, as taught by the mostly British immigrants who had brought the game to every corner of the world, was the order of the day in large stretches, with nuances of tactics still in their early phase. Fully professional teams could still find themselves facing amateurs, with lop-sided scorelines the result, even at this high level.

The tournament itself passed by in a two-and-a-half week whirlwind of matches, played in just three stadiums in Montevideo. The main one, the Estadio Centenario, was only completed five days into the competition: despite the lateness, it was undoubtedly the most impressive stadium in the world at the time, a 90’000 seat example of Uruguayan prosperity and a triumph of design modernism. A tenth of the country’s population would see Uruguay play in it that year. It being winter in the southern hemisphere, sometimes it snowed. Lucien Laurant of France scored the first ever World Cup goal in his team’s 4-1 triumph over Mexico: in a sign of the problems the sport still had, in their next game against Argentina the ref mistakenly blew the final whistle six minutes early, setting off a fracas that needed mounted police to break-up. The United States provided the first major World Cup shock when they beat an under-performing Belgium 3-0 while Yugoslavia, apparently the only European team to actually enjoy the idea of spending months away from home just to play football, shocked Brazil 2-1.

For the favourites, the tournament went smoothly enough. Uruguay benefitted from a four-week training camp beforehand while some of their opponents were togging out on a boat: strict discipline saw goalkeeper Andrés Mazali, a two-time Olympic medal winner, dismissed from the squad (forever, as it turned out) when he was caught sneaking out to spend some time with a mystery woman. Not that it mattered: Uruguay beat Peru, Romania and Yugoslavia on their way to the final, with some help from a local policeman in the semi, who kept a ball in play that should have been a Yugoslav throw, ahead of an equalising goal. On the other side of the draw Argentina got by a ten-man France team whose goalie went off with a head injury and Mexico, before winning their group by beating Chile, a game that was marred by a mass brawl between players and coaches late-on. In the semi-final, thanks largely to one of their opposition going off after a leg-breaking tackle, they thrashed the United States, to set-up the expected final pairing.

That Final was an extraordinary affair long before a whistle was blown or a ball kicked, being the dominant topic of discussion on either side of the River Plate. Factories and production lines shut down, parliaments stopped their sittings. Crowds massed outside of newspaper offices if they couldn’t crowd around a radio. Tens of thousands of people began a temporary migration from Argentina into Uruguay, with ferries crossing the river packed to bursting: it’s unknown how many of the travelers actually made it into the stadium, but they included among their number Argentine political deputies who had requisitioned government barges if they didn’t go in their private yachts, not to mention the private planes that passed overhead.

In Montevideo, the camps of both teams were the subject of throngs of people issuing acclamations of both support and threats, should they put in a sub-par performance: one Argentine player, Luis Monti, only took the field after his club begged to him to, after death threats towards his mother were made by Argentinians (if he played badly) and Uruguayans (if he didn’t). The referee, Jean Langenus of Belgium, only accepted the job when the Uruguayan government agreed to a special protection detail for him and his family, along with passage on a boat due to leave Montevideo an hour after the game was supposed to end. The teams’ escort to the stadium, where thousands were left standing around outside when it was packed to capacity hours before kick-off, comprised both police and military personnel. To ward off accusations of duplicity, both teams provided a game ball, using one in each half.

The game itself exists in popular memory behind a bit of a fog: we have only some brief snippets of poorly framed black-and-white footage and still photos to go by, aside from the match reports. It sounds thrilling enough in retrospect, with the game seemingly marked by a contest between Argentine individualism and Uruguayan teamwork (one journalist used the insectoid comparison of cicadas and ants): Uruguay took an early lead, but Argentina clawed it back and then went in-front before half-time. The second half belonged to the hosts, as they scored three times. The last, a close-range header from Hector Castro, has provided the defining image of the contest: a mid-air Juan Botasso in the Argentine goal, at full-stretch, but the ball already heading into the goal behind him, as players from both sides watch on, frozen in the moment of Uruguay’s victory.

Jules Rimet handed out the trophy, that would one day be named after him. The Uruguayans exulted in the triumph, with the following day decreed a national holiday. In Buenos Aires, outraged Argentinians pelted the Uruguayan consulate with stones and drunken mobs had to be brought under control in running fights with police. The next day, newspapers alleged some manner of nefarious Uruguayan underhandedness in the result, without merit: Langenus was generally seen as being a fair hand between the teams. Regardless, through this spectacle, the World Cup had been established and would only grow in interest and popularity.

Since then, little has changed in terms of the intensity and rivalry between the two teams. Both have won two World Cups, both are at the top of the Copa America roll of honour with 15 wins apiece. Both teams have had their sport-defining moments, superstars, triumphs, controversies. Both remain as two of the best footballing nations in South America and, by extension, the world. In last night’s game, it was another instance of Argentinian revenge for 1930 I suppose, with the game largely wrapped up after an hour, with goals from Messi, Rodrigo de Paul and Lautaro Martinez subduing an under-performing and surprisingly impotent Uruguay. Argentina, fresh from finally making good on their talent with this years Copa victory, are probably heading to Qatar without too much fuss, but Uruguay have some work to do. They’ll have the chance to make-up for last night as early as next month, when they play the return game in Montevideo. 91 years on, the ghosts of 1930 will witness the game 197.

84. 109: Iran

(12/10/2021)

A century+ of goals is no mean feat, but all good things must come to an end.

When Cristiano Ronaldo jumped up to head his Portuguese team back on level terms with Ireland in the 88th minute of their World Cup qualifier in Faro on the 1st September, he was doing much more then breaking Irish hearts (and then smashing them to bits with a winner five minutes into injury time). The ball that looped past a despairing Gavin Bazunu confirmed Ronaldo as the leading goalscorer in international football, with the Portuguese captain’s tally standing at 111 at full-time. The man displaced was a footballer from a very different place and a very different background, who scored his 109 goals in very different circumstances. On the day that Iran continue their World Cup qualification campaign at home against South Korea, it seems apropos to take a look at the career of Ali Daei, and the critical World Cup goals that form part of his impressive, but now second best, tally.

From north-west Iran, Daei blossomed into a powerful centre forward early in his life, and was a full-time professional in the Iranian league before his teens were up. After a few years of scoring for fun at that level he had garnered enough attention to move abroad, first with Qatari club Al-Sadd, and then in the truly heady heights of the Bundesliga, where he played with Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin between 1998 and 2002. Despite being the first Asian player to take part in the Champions League, he was never able to become firmly established in Europe, and Daei saw out his club career in the UAE and then back in his native Iran, finishing with 186 confirmed goals in 434 appearances. Throughout this period, Daei served as a sort of throwback to a now by-gone era of “classic” forward players: big, stocky, capable of short bursts of pace to meet crosses but also with the power to blow past defenders with the ball at feet. He could never be said to be very technically gifted as a player but he most certainly had that finishing touch. A major personality, Daei was famous for falling out with coaches throughout his career but it is not such fractious relationships that concern us here, it’s the goals he scored to help Iran on their way to World Cup appearances.

For someone who proved so prolific for his country, it might be a surprise to hear that it took 24 years and six caps – his international debut was delayed by two years compulsory military service – before he opened his account at home to Chinese Taipei in a qualification match for USA 1994. Still relatively new to the environment, Daei stepped onto the Azadi pitch that day as part of a team under pressure, having drawn their opening match with Oman, and with only the group winners advancing. The Iranian faithful need not have worried though, as they pummeled the visitors with six goals to no reply. The third was Daei’s bow: receiving the ball from the midfield, powering past the covering Taipei defender and smashing home with his left foot. Iran went on to top the group but came up short in later rounds, with Daei scoring five additional goals. He may have come into the team late by modern standards, but he had cemented a place easily enough.

Four years later Daei was a mainstay, and had scored 29 goals for Iran in the meantime. Qualification for France saw the side picking off minnows in the early rounds, like in a 17-0 walloping of the Maldives, with the only real opposition coming from a Syrian team nipping at their heels. With only one progression spot from the First Round up for grabs again, the two games between Iran and Syria were the critical contests. They drew one of them 2-2 in Tehran, but it was Iran who won the other, the only goal that proved so crucial in determining their progression coming from Daei. In a raucous Abbasiyyin Stadium in Damascus, 33’000 fans watched Daei receive the ball with his back to goal around 25 yards out, turn on a dime before anyone could stop him, and fire off another trademark shot full of power that the Syrian keeper could only grasp at ineffectually before it settled in the back of the net. Iran went on to progress, defeat Australia in the Intercontinentals and get that famous win over the United States at France 1998, though Daei did not perform especially well there.

The 2002 campaign gave Daei, now at 64 and counting, the chance to add hugely to his tally with ten goals spread across the qualifying rounds. The first four are among the most notable, just one section of Iran’s record winning margin in an incredible 19-0 romp against island minnows Guam. Iran’s seventh was when Daei started, thumping home a penalty kick, then he added their tenth with a solo run through the penalty area, a 15th with a simple close-range finish after the Guam defence fell to pieces dealing with a through ball, and the 18th late on. The thrashing was partially due to the unique group circumstances, with only Tajikistan otherwise involved: if Iran had lost to the Tajik’s, whoever ran up the biggest scoreline against Guam would have progressed. In the end Iran won both games – with Daei scoring one of two goals against Tajikistan – so the ridiculous scorelines against Guam were not really necessary. Aside from bringing attention to the sometimes enormous disparity in Asian international football, the rout shines light on a frequent criticism of Daei’s immense scoring pedigree, that too many of the goals were scored against amateur teams of little standing. Of Daei’s eight international hat-tricks for example, at least six of them could be said to have taken place against teams of no special consequence, at least at the time. Of course this is a criticism I have seen few lay at the feet of Ronaldo, who has scored plenty of his goals against bottom seeds, so this sentiment may betray some blinkered thinking. Strikers don’t pick the teams they play against. Regardless, the free-scoring aspect of that Iran team did not help them at the crucial point: Iran would end up settling for the Intercontinental Play-Offs again, where they would be vanquished by Ireland.

A few years later was Daei’s last World Cup campaign, where Iran found themselves in a bit of difficulty in the first group stage. Having shipped an embarrassing loss 1-0 to Jordan at home, the team needed to find a result in Amman or have their hopes of gaining the one automatic progression spot dependent on other teams. For 80 tension-filled minutes, the score stayed level until Alirezi Vahedi’s looping header finally broke the deadlock. A goal the other way was still possible, and nerves remained on a knife-edge before Daei, who had become the world’s top scoring international player earlier in the campaign, put the tie beyond doubt in injury time, with a well-placed header after a perfectly judged right-wing cross. Iran progressed at Jordan’s expense and did make it to Germany, but it was to be another disappointing Finals appearance for Daei, playing just two games and scoring no goals as Iran slumped to a bottom finish in their group. By that time there were growing calls for the aging talisman to step back from the national team, or be forced to, and Daei’s tenure as an Iranian international player came to a conclusion afterward.

It is partly because of those two unexceptional experiences of a World Cup Finals that Daei is not as well-known or revered in the rest of the world as he undoubtedly is at home, where he has managed the national team after retirement from playing. I have said it before and will say it again more than likely: the very best players are usually those perceived as excelling for both club and country, and in the very highest of stages. Cristiano Ronaldo has undoubtedly done both, which may be why he is more deserving of his ascent to the pinnacle of the goalscoring charts than Daei was. It may be an unjust comparison given the team that Daei had around him during his playing days, that could never be said to be on a par with the likes of Portugal, but it can’t be denied that Daei never demonstrated his value in a World Cup Finals. It was the goals he scored in qualification that were to be his lasting impression on that competition. Daei and his 109 will likely live forever for Iranians; the rest of us can wonder if the player who will surpass Ronaldo is already here.

85. The Hero Twins: Honduras

(13/10/2021)

The first sporting celebrities?

Tonight, the Honduran national team is playing Jamaica in the sixth game of CONCACAF’s Third Round in San Pedro Sula’s Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. 180 km’s to the south-west and not too far from the border with Guatemala, a very different arena can be found. The Copan ruins are one of the most spectacular remnants of the Mayan civilisation to be found in the country, and were once part of a city that ruled that portion of Central America for the better part of four centuries. There are the shells of buildings, palaces, temples and pyramids, and some magnificent examples of Mayan sculpture and architecture. For those of a sporting mind, the eye will easily be drawn to a set of stone ramps and steps in the central part of the overall site, which is flanked on all sides by statues of macaws. A hieroglyphic text informs us that the place was dedicated, in the modern western calendar, on the 6th January 738 AD. This is where the Mayans came to play a sport that has been given many names down the years, but whose catch-all term is simply the “Mesoamerican ballgame”.

The ballgame is one of the earliest organised sports that we have records of. It was played as far back at 1650 BCE at least, by a variety of different cultures throughout North, Central and South America. The exact rules are something that we have only a nebulous amount of knowledge on, and probably varied from place to place and from time to time, but we know it was played in specially constructed courts like that at Copan, and that it involved two teams playing with a heavy rubber ball. It’s likely that it bore some resemblance to modern-day racquetball or volleyball, where the objective was to keep the ball in play and to make the opposing team incapable of doing the same. At some point some variations included circular stone goals that were placed high up on walls around the court, with the presumed objective of putting the ball in them. Depending on where you are and what year it was, you could expect to see players using their hips, forearms or various forms of racket to move the ball around.

We may not know all that much about how it was played, but we do know that the game had some manner of ritual aspect to the people who played it and the people who watched it. Games may have, at some time or another, served as a proxy for warfare between rival cities and nations, and later in the existence of these Mesoamerican cultures had ties to ritualistic human sacrifice. More than that it was closely related to the religion and mythology that were part of these cultures, with various Gods and legendary figures described as being players of the game.

It’s this last aspect that brings us to the story of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the “Hero Twins” of Mayan myth, whose tale constitutes one of the oldest aspects of Mayan civilisation to have survived down the centuries, and by extension forms one of the earliest – maybe the earliest – sports story every told. It begins with a figure named Hun Hunahpu and his brother Vucub, who were both proficient players of the ballgame and, like many proficient players of any ballgame, didn’t mind where they played it as long as they got to play it. One day they set-up shop, with their ball and equipment, not far from an entrance to the Mayan underworld, Xibalba. As you can imagine, this was not an especially wise thing to do. Like the world’s most aggressive community association going after the no good kids making a ruckus in the park, two of the Lords of the Underworld – the appropriately named One Death and Seven Death – lured Hun and Vucub to the Underworld’s very own ballcourt, but if you’re expecting a Space Jam-esque tussle for supremacy, you’ll be disappointed: through mystical means the siblings were lulled to sleep, ritualistically sacrificed and buried underneath the court. That’s one way of dealing with the problem I suppose.

The only exception to the burial was the head of Hun, which was left hanging from a nearby tree, perhaps as a warning by the Gods to any other perceived ASBO’s. No sports here, thank you very much. Hun, still alive enough for the act, was able to spit into the mouth of a passing goddess, Xquic, who grew pregnant from the saliva, eventually giving birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Such immaculate conceptions are a common enough element of various myths, legends and religious practices, but rarely has it been invoked in the setting up of two especially brilliant sportsmen. Xquic, a daughter of one of very Gods who had killed the two brothers, fled into exile and took up a place in the home of Hun and Vucub’s mother.

After an upbringing filled with family squabbles and strange adventures, Hunahpu and Xbalanque discovered their fathers gaming equipment, secreted away by their bitter grandmother, who blamed the ballgame for the death of her son. One can imagine an angry effort to convince the two boys that they should stay away from the same path that their father went down, but like oh so many sons of great footballers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque were not to be dissuaded. Like father, like sons: both Hunahpu and Xbalanque proved themselves adept at the sport, and were soon playing it at an expert level, grandmothers be damned. So alike to their father were they that they even played in the same places, up to and including the fateful spot near Xibalba. No prizes for guessing what came next.

After making much the same racket that their father did, the twins were summoned by the Lords of Xibalba to enter the Underworld and play a game. But Hunahpu and Xbalanque were a little smarter than dear old dad, and successfully avoided the various tricks and enchantments set in their way. Dismayed, the Gods resigned themselves to having to actually engage in a sporting contest, and the most anticipated street game of ancient times was on. The twins would actually play several games against the Xibalban Lords, having to reach new heights of cunning every time. In the first instance they actually walked off the court when they discovered their opponents were playing with a razor-encrusted ball. The Xibalbans were compelled to play fair after this, and to their astonishment, or maybe not, actually won the ensuring contest, and then won a rematch.

Of course, this was all a bit of a ruse by the twins, as they wanted to maximise the Xibalbans humiliation. After both losses the twins were forced into a series of increasing ridiculous challenges – knives, jaguars, fire, it all came and went – but survived them all, until poor Hunahpu got his head taken off by the bat God Camazotz. The Xibalbans were delighted at their apparent triumph, but suffered a true “You’re Not Singing Anymore” moment for the ages when Xbalanque crafted a new head for Hunahpu’s body with the help of some animals, before challenging the Xibalbans to one final game.

In a moment of psychological undermining that would have had Kevin Keegan in tears, the Xibalbans took to the field with the intention of using Hunahpu’s decapitated head as the game ball, but Xbalanque was able, in the course of the match, to swap it out for a piece of fruit. In the ensuring contest the twins held nothing back, and this time they were victorious. The humiliated Xibalbans continued their efforts to destroy the twins, and the myth here turns into a rollicking ride of death, multiple resurrections, animal transformations and magic tricks. The really important point is that at the end of it all the twins stood victorious, and Xibalba had been completely defeated.

The last act of the story was a bit of sporting pilgrimage, as the twins traveled to the Xibalban ballcourt where their father and uncle were buried, digging them up for a proper re-interment in more decent surrounds. Their sporting acumen proved, the twins would go on to ascend into the heavens and become the sun and moon: not a bad reward for their demonstration of athletic excellence. I hope I do not offend anyone with this simplistic synopsis of the hero twins story, taken from Allen J Christensen’s translation of the Popal Vuh text, but I’ll admit I do think that it’s the kind of tale that could so with a bit of simplification.

But what does any of this have to do with football, the World Cup qualifiers or Honduras’ game against Jamaica? Football being what it is – nothing less than the most popular organised past-time and sport in the history of our species – we are naturally attracted to its history and origins. Looking back you can find ancestors of football in the Chinese game of cuju, Japan’s kemari, the Greek episkyros, the Native American pahsahheman, the indigenous Australian marn grook, the Turkish tepuk and of course the “mob football” of England’s Middle Ages. The Mesoamerican ballgame – which has the names pok-ta-pok, pokolpok or ōllamaliztli depending on where you look, with a modern equivalent dubbed uluma – is part of the larger legacy of these sports, proof that humanity has been playing at least partially codified team sports involving balls, teams and goals for a very long time.

The Mesoamerican game itself does not have much in the way of connection to modern association football, if we are being honest. As previously stated, it has more connection to things like racquetball, volleyball and even basketball, than it does to the game that Honduras is currently playing to get to Qatar. But I find this distinction to not be as important as it might seem. A sport is a sport, and for Honduras the existence of that ballcourt in Copan is proof that the people who inhabit the region have been doing this for a very long time: getting groups of like-minded people together, honing their skills and putting them to the test against rival teams. Maybe they did it as a proxy for battle, maybe it was part of some archaic religious rite, or maybe it was just for the glory. Either way, it is part of a legacy of sporting ambition and drive that continues all the way up to the very present day. The Mesoamerican players and the fans who watched them had Hunahpu and Xbalanque to think on. Modern Honduran fans have players like Alberth Elis and Maynor Figuroa.

The World Cup, when you strip away so much of the noise and the sham and the money-obsessed grubbery that surrounds it, is meant to be about that shared experience of humanity, a chance for the very best practitioners of the very best sport to showcase what they can do. It is not all that different from what must have taken place in Copan over a thousand years ago. And if the Honduran team was able to get to Qatar, to that sun and moon, I think they might just take a very large step towards their own modern deification.

86. The View From One Year Out: The Confederations

(14/10/2021)

Blue good, yellow bad.

As CONMEBOL continues its efforts to make up for lost dates with a squeeze of their calendar in later matchdays tonight, it seems apropos to take a look at where we stand. 85 entries in this series, over fifty days of football, and qualification games taking place in five of six confederations has so far produced three qualifiers, left 95 nations still in contention for the remaining 29 places, and 113 others looking back ruefully and thinking of next time. More importantly, by the time the next series of matches comes about next month, we will be just about a year away from the World Cup Finals. Who is looking likely to get there, and of those who is not what you would expect? And who among them looks the most likely to lift the golden trophy, and who is the most likely to produce something of a shock?

In the AFC Iran and Saudi Arabia top the Third Round groups, both looking likely bets to join Qatar as one of Asia’s five guaranteed participants. The remaining top contenders at the present time are a mix of the familiar – South Korea and Australia – and the unfamiliar – Lebanon and Oman – with the biggest story of underachievement so far coming from Japan, who are two for four at a time when they are usually thinking of booking their World Cup training camp. Vietnam, so hopeful after impressive displays earlier in qualification, have lost all four of their opening games, and are probably the one team you’d feel completely confident of writing off at this point.

There are no real potential World Cup winners among this lot though, with the reigning Asian Champions just humbled by Ireland 4-0 in a friendly where Qatar looked like they wanted to be anywhere else. Asia’s lack of true competitiveness is likely to rumble on as a symptom of international football’s wider problems past 2022, and luck in the drawing of groups will be required for most teams from the AFC to even get to the knock-out stage: Qatar, automatic first seeds, still have some work to do to be worthy of such a level. A World Cup winner from Asia, even in a year where the continent hosts the competition, is as distant a dream as ever.

In CAF, things remain on a knife edge in most of the Second Round groups, with only two teams – Senegal and Morocco – having booked their places in the final play-offs with four games played. Algeria/Burkino Faso, Nigeria/Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire/Cameroon and South Africa/Ghana are among the pairs whose matches with each other next month are likely to be winner-take-all affairs. Group J, containing Tanzania, Benin (both on seven points), DR Congo (five) and Madagascar (three) is the only one where all four teams still have a shot. The cruelty of this phase in Africa, where only a quarter of teams advance to the last round, has made for a certain sense of pedestrianism to some games, and it seems likely that only now, as we get matches which will actually decide groups, is their the chance for true excitement.

Have any World Cup contenders emerged from it all? Senegal have strolled through their group winning every game so far by two goals or more, and it’s the same for Morocco, but neither have been adequately tested to the point where you would imagine them as a new contender to ponder on. There has been such disruption to African qualification – between COVID, reorganisation around AFCON qualifying and the banning of stadiums – that it is difficult to really get a feel for the state of African international football right now, and it’s likely that we will have to wait until the Third Round – and the 2021 AFCON, taking place in January/February – before we get a clearer picture of who the real top teams of CAF are in a post-COVID world.

In South America we are past the tipping point, with just six games left for most teams. Here things are both more clearcut and equally murky as in other confederations: Brazil are strolling to yet another Finals appearance and Argentina should not be too far behind, but after that things are much tighter. Six points separate the next seven sides, with only two of them getting automatic qualification and a third looking at the Intercontinentals. The sides on the knife edge are Colombia, Uruguay and Chile, but they are far from safe from those below. Only Venezuela, yet to reach double points, are liable to be dismissed as possible contenders.

Brazil may have struggled in the last few editions of the World Cup, but it would be a foolish person who would write them off this time. Their journey through CONMEBOL so far has been simply electric, with only two dropped points marring their record. Neymar, Firminho, Richarlison and others have been in stupendous form, scoring for fun and conceding little. Of course their nearest rivals can rightly point to their continental triumph during the Summer in an argument about who is best placed to challenge for the first South American World Cup victory since 2002. However, in what is likely to be Messi’s final bow at this stage, Argentina still don’t look the complete package in comparison to the top European sides. Indeed at every World Cup since they last won it in 1986, it has been European opposition that dumped Argentina out. No one else in CONMEBOL looks like World Cup winners in the making, though teams like Ecuador and Colombia seem capable of making a splash if they were to get that far.

In North America it is Mexico that have control of the Octagon, eight points ahead of the nearest non-progression spot with six of 14 games played. The USA, three points behind, are in relatively good shape also, despite an alarming loss to Panama this month. There follows Canada in the last automatic spot, then a high-flying Panama, then the rest all within one win of each other. There’s still plenty of time for that last slot, and the Intercontinental berth, to became very tightly competed for before we reach game 14.

As already discussed in this section of the series, Mexico could possibly be considered a contender for a World Cup triumph if they could somehow break the terrible curse that has afflicted them for the last seven tournaments. The United States has long thought itself a favourite in waiting, but after 2018 will probably just be happy to be among the 32, and not among any would-be winners. The same can be said for everyone else still competing in CONCACAF, though there is more than enough scope for some surprises among whomever gets the other spots.

The OFC remains the odd one out. No qualification matches have taken place in the Pacific, indeed a qualification format has not even been agreed. COVID has been a particularly heavy-hitter in this confederation, an extra blow on top of the usual problems of cash-strapped island minnows who struggle to finance trips of thousands of km’s as a matter of course. Initially supposed to have started last September, the nearest indication that the OFC will get its qualification done is somewhere around June next year, possibly in a condensed format to be held in one centralised location. Fiji, New Caledonia and even Qatar have been mooted as possible hosts.

The lack of information about what is going to happen with the OFC can be seen as a consequence of the confederation’s lowly status. No one expects anyone from the OFC to be going to Qatar, with New Zealand the most likely to top its standings before elimination from the Intercontinental Play-Offs. As such there is little urgency to sorting the OFC out, which I would deem somewhat disrespectful: the 11 teams of the Pacific are as important as any from UEFA and CONMEBOL when you get right down to the brass tacks, but are now left waiting in a sort of limbo, where the possibility of the qualifiers for the confederation being outright cancelled has been bandied about. No one from this part of the world is ever likely to challenge for a World Cup, though when the format expands to include 48 teams in 2026 there will be at least a guaranteed place there.

Last, alphabetically anyway, comes UEFA. Germany became the first non-host country to qualify this week, followed closely by Denmark, the only competitor to maintain a 100% record in World Cup qualifying worldwide to this point. France, Belgium and England are on the brink and should sow up their places as soon as their next game, while several other groups remain extremely tight: Serbia/Portugal in Group A, Sweden/Spain in B, Italy/Switzerland in C, the Netherlands/Norway in G and Russia/Croatia in H are all examples of match-ups that will occur in November, and will largely decide which of those teams can start booking Qatari hotels and who will have to think on the play-offs next year.

UEFA, from where the winners of the last four World Cups have come from, remains the confederation with the teams to beat. Holders France are an obvious favourite despite some slips in qualification, Belgium will be desperate to make good on their golden generation, Italy have proven they have a team capable of winning major tournaments, England seem likely to have at least one more deep run left in them under Gareth Southgate and Germany are enjoying what may turn into a very profitable renaissance. Any one of them would look like they belonged in a World Cup Final if it took place tomorrow, but the side that is really raising some eyebrows is Denmark. Based on qualifying form they have to be considered contenders to some degree, an opinion bolstered by their Semi-Final run in EURO 2020, all accomplished despite the trauma of what happened in their first game there. If the form holds, there’s nothing to stop them aiming high. With so many proven world beaters, and more than enough potential giant killers in the mix – Finland, Wales, Scotland, Norway, Croatia and Albania all spring to mind as teams who could earn a moniker of “dark horse” should they qualify – it’s hard to look beyond Europe as the most likely origin point of a fifth straight World Cup victory.

So that’s where we stand. Three qualifiers, a good few more to be added by the end of November and some obvious favourites already starting to emerge to be the one in 211. There’s lots more football to be played between now and when the final place in Qatar is determined, probably in the Summer of 2022. The stories, the histories, the coaches, the players, the hopes and dreams of so many remain in the balance. One year out, the world starts to think of the biggest stage as less of an intangible, and more of a coming reality.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Denmark, Germany, Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Colombia, Congo (Democratic Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Equatorial Guinea, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Ghana, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Korea (Republic), Lebanon, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia*, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tahiti, Tanzania, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales, Zambia,

Teams Eliminated But With Games To Play

Andorra, Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Congo (Republic), Cyprus, Djibouti, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Gibraltar, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Faroe Islands, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Latvia, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malta, Mauritania, Moldova, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sudan, Togo, Zimbabwe

Teams Eliminated

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

Teams Withdrawn

Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic), Saint Lucia

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

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

Photo Credits

The Coup: Members of Guinea’s military parade in the streets after the overthrow of Alpha Conde. Photo by Aboubacarkhoraa, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

“Quinto Partido”: Mexican fans watching in Mexico City as their side concede in the 2010 World Cup. Photo by Eneas,reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

No Fear: Omani fans at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Muskat, during the 2010 Gulf Cup. Photo in the public domain.

Low Point: Joachim Low, pictured in 2011. Photo by Steindy, reproduced under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Unfinished: Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic, pictured in 2017. Photo by AFP.

1930: Hector Castro scores Uruguay’s fourth goal in the first World Cup Final. Photo in the public domain.

109: Ali Daei, pictured in 2014. Photo by Foad Ashtari, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The Hero Twins: The Mayan Hero Twins, in a modern re-creation of a Mayan ceramic. Photo by Lacambalam, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 4.0 International license.

The View From One Year Out: Wikipedia’s status of countries with respect to the 2022 FIFA World Cup as of the 28th October 2021. Photo in the public domain.

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3 Responses to 211 To One: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (IX) – The First Qualifiers

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

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

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

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