211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (X) Deep Breaths

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The last set of matchdays before the end of 2021 were replete with meaning for nearly every team involved. A few dead rubbers remained to be sure, but for many teams they had come to a defining moment, a single 90 minute match away from Qatar or progression to a play-off. The only other option was defeat, and that agonizing delay until they got to try again. It was a time for key men to step to the fore, for opportunities to be grasped, and for a succession of very deep breaths

Part Ten: Deep Breaths

87. The Contender: Iraq/Syria

88. From Crisis To Crisis: Egypt

89. Opportunity Missed: Costa Rica

90. The Giant Killer: Luxembourg

91. Collapse: Ghana/South Africa

92. Green Shoots: Bolivia

93. King David: Canada

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87. The Contender: Iraq/Syria

(11/11/2021)

Sandstorms often mark the border between Iraq and Syria, symbolic, perhaps, of the maelstrom the two nations have found themselves in recently.

Things are starting to get very tight now. The World Cup qualification journey began in Asia all the way back in April 2019 and it continues today, with likely qualifiers beginning to emerge, a chasing pack right behind and a few teams that look like they are already preparing the “it was a good experience” speeches. In among them are two teams, neighbours, who have been plugging away against a backdrop of very similar problems, namely an inability to host games owing to internal security issues. But that hasn’t held them back too much so far. Now we enter the real business end of things, where the efforts to rise above the quagmire of war, atrocity, corruption and poverty at home reach the critical point: it is likely that there is, at best, only one “contender” title available for either Syria or Iraq.

We’ve looked at both of these sides before, and both have had similar journeys since them. Syria, the team that continues to upend the odds presented by the ongoing Civil War even as they are accused of being a propaganda tool for Bashar al-Assad, had an easy enough time of their Second Round group, dropping points only on the last day against PR China long past the moment when their progression was assured. Iraq, who still strive to be the team of hope, struggled a bit, dropping points to Bahrain, labouring against Hong Kong and losing their return match to sporting and geo-political rivals Iran: these efforts got them second place in their group and progression to the last round by a single point.

So far in the Third Round its been a mixed bag. The September games were graft and struggle: both sides have lost to Iran, with Iraq’s 3-0 reverse to that opposition especially galling given how much their last minute triumph over their neighbours in November 2019 was trumpeted as an enormous success. Each had a draw in their other September match, with Iraq’s, scoreless away to South Korea, more creditable than Syria’s “home” stalemate with the UAE, 1-1. Onto October then, and it was Iraq who could claim, just about, the greater progression. A scoreless draw against Lebanon was followed by a madcap stalemate with the UAE, Iraq scoring what seemed like a winner in the 89th minute, only for the UAE to snatch back a draw with the last kick of the game five minutes later. In contrast, Syria threw away an invaluable point in Seoul with the concession of a late winner for South Korea, before coming a cropper against Lebanon, conceding three goals in 16 minutes either side of half-time to fall 3-2. The results mean the two sides are holding up Group A, with Iraq on three points ahead of Syria who have still claimed only one. Progression spots are still maddeningly close though, the last currently held by Lebanon on five.

Dick Advocaat, in charge only since late July, leads the Iraq team. He’s had only four games with the side, and so could be forgiven for not having enough knowledge to come to a decision on his best XI. There has been some experimentation, such as the largely untested set of goalkeepers called up, and resort to reliability in veterans like Alaa Abdul-Zhara. Iraq’s advantage is in their youth: with an average age of only 25, it’s a squad of hungry young men with pace and stamina, though this means they also have some rough edges that need to be worked on. This may account for some problems in front of goal, with Iraq scoring just twice in the last four games. The teams current star man, Aris Thessaloniki’s Mohanad Ali, has been struggling with injury, and Advocaat’s reign, and World Cup campaign, may well depend on his fitness long-term.

Nizar Mahrous leads the Syrians, another July appointee. He’s a little known Syrian veteran, and this is actually his second stint in charge of the Eagles. He’s been less experimental than Advocaat, and has mostly stuck with the tried-and-true players that have seen Syria’s stock rise so sharply in the AFC in recent years: Imbrahim Alma in goal, Moaya Ajan in defence, midfield general Mahmoud Al-Mawas and, up front, the ever important Omar Al-Somah, whose seven goals so far have been vital in getting Syria to this stage of qualification. But Al Somah is currently struggling to repeat his form for the Third Round, and the team generally has been finding it difficult to score: the emergence of Bahrain based forward Mahmoud Al Baher, scorer of one of only four Syrian goals at this stage, showcases the need for the team to work at phasing in new players as needed. Fears of regression must be acute in the camp, as the campaign stutters repeatedly.

All of this takes place amid the true defining similarity between the teams. Iraq are nominally the home side of this contest, but are barred from hosting games owing to the internal situation in the country. But of course the same will be the case in March when Syria are the first team on the teleprompter, similarly barred by the authorities from hosting any games until such time as the safety of players, officials and spectators can be adequately guaranteed. Instead, the game will take place in neutral Doha. Iraq and Syria, neighbours by geography and neighbours in blood, are two countries that seem depressingly incapable of enjoying anything that we might describe as peace: the Syrian Civil War continues apace even if it no longer dominates western media headlines, and Iraqi unrest – their Prime Minister has just survived an assassination attempt – is as prevalent now as it was when anti-Iranian protests ahead of the Iraq/Iran game ahead of the game in the Second Round were a much bigger news story. Football remains the dim light in the darkness for so many Syrians and Iraqis, one of the sole means of exhibiting something close to national pride in otherwise dire circumstances, but even this is far from absolute: many Syrians still regard the team that FIFA acknowledges as representative of their land as the side of a ruthless dictator, and even some Iraqis will not be too gung-ho in their support for a squad that is representative of a regime that, to be generous, is closer to failed than a success.

Such backdrops loom large over both sides, and are difficult to ignore. Syrian players have been touched by the Civil War in different ways, the Iraqis by what has happened in their country for most of the last twenty years. When they step out onto the field today they will have to try to put it into the back of their minds, locked as they are in the wrong half of the qualifying group and knowing that three points gained could be the difference down the line. These are two teams that could be considered among the most unlikely of qualifiers if they were to make it to Qatar. You still get the feeling that there is room for only one of these teams to be considered capable of challenging for one of those places as we head towards the very end of AFC qualification. By tomorrow, we should have a better ideas as to which one of these teams is that contender.

88. Egypt: From Crisis To Crisis

(12/11/2021)

For Egypt, one man towers above all overs on the football field. But can his talent overcome deep-seeded institutional problems?

On paper, things seem to be going well enough for Egypt. Long one of the heavy hitters of CAF, they sit top of Group F of qualification, four points clear of Libya with just two games to play. A single win in those games would be enough to see them safely through to the Third Round, where they would be favourites to progress to the World Cup against most sides. Yet this sense of stability masks the latest round of crisis for one of Africa’s most successful sides, with a new manager installed only two months ago on the back of perceived inadequacy in this very qualification group. It is only the latest issue to have jeopardised Egypt’s standing in the last few years, with many tracing the beginning of the current troubles to the Summer of 2018. It was supposed to be a stand-out moment for the Pharaohs, but instead it turned out to be a disaster many times over.

They may have won the most AFCON’s of anyone in CAF and they may have the most successful clubs on the continent, but Egypt have routinely underwhelmed when it comes to the World Cup. Before 2018 they had taken part in a Finals only twice, and with no wins to their name from either instance. That’s why 2018 was such a big deal: their first qualification since 1990, it came with a draw into what looked like a very manageable Group A alongside the hosts, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. Egypt had Mohamed Salah as a trump card, playing out of his skin for Liverpool in their Champions League run that season, alongside highly talented players like right-back veteran Ahmed Elmohamady and Arsenal DMC Mohamed Elneny. Expectations of a place in the knock-outs were high, and that was all the better for a side that had seen a period of decline in the previous decade: the unstable political situation in Egypt as much the reason as anything else, though purely footballing signs of the coming trouble were there as well.

The spirit of optimism that prevailed after the fall of Mubarek had rapidly given way to something more rancourous as Egypt, and Cairo, became routinely rocked by continuing protests over the inadequacies of the new government(s) and persistent socio-economic inequality. The Port Said disaster, where 74 people were killed in a riot after a match between Al Masry and Al Ahly in 2012, was football’s horrific contribution to this period of sustained chaos: it has long been asserted that the events were organised by members of the new regime and those from the old still in positions of power, to punish Al Ahly supporters who overwhelmingly backed the revolution of the previous year. Football in Egypt ground to a halt for a time in the aftermath as FA heads fell and protesting Al Ahly ultras refused to allow the league season to begin. The inevitable knock-on effect on the national team promoted a sense of stagnation for several years, and only a rise in the belief of World Cup qualification as the surest sign of success, redemption and justification for years of graft and toil. And in 2018 it had finally happened. It was joy unbounded on the streets of Cairo when qualification was assured, and Egyptian fans were able to think a platform for their side most had never got to see.

But then Salah went off injured in the Champions League Final, and things began to fall apart. Salah would eventually play two of Egypt’s games but missed their first, a disappointing 1-0 loss to Uruguay where Egypt fell to an 89th minute Jose Gimenez goal. Having done well to contain Uruguay for most of the game, the end result heaped pressure on Hector Cuper and his team, seen as playing too conservatively to adjust for the absence of Salah. A rattled side went on to surrender meekly enough to hosts Russia in a 3-1 defeat where Salah’s penalty was a mere consolation. There followed a serious low point in losing a dead rubber to the unfancied Saudis, with Salem Al-Dawsari’s 95th minute winner the rancid cheery on top of what had been an utterly catastrophic tournament. Egypt went into it contemplating the idea of playing Spain or Portugal in the Second Round, and left it with their tails very much between their legs.

The aftermath – or should we say, the post mortem – was rancorous. 24 hours after the Saudi loss, Cuper was sacked. Before too long the Egyptian Ministry of Youth and Sports was talking about an investigation, as numerous unpleasant aspects of the Egyptian Football Association’s handling of things for the team during the tournament came to light. There was criticism levelled at the choice to place Egypt’s pre-tournament base in Grozny, over 1’500 km’s south of their first match in Moscow; at the laissez-faire approach to camp access with the place routinely visited by various celebrities and businessmen demanding meet-and-greets with players (especially Salah); and the touting of tickets for matches to the highest bidder. The long and short of it was a perception that the EFA had forgotten its main reason for existing, and had used Egypt’s time at the tournament as a racket to gain commercial success at the expense of adequate preparations for the team.

Salah especially was at the centre of some bizarre issues. Bad enough was an embarrassing PR spat when his face was used without permission on the EFA’s charter plane, to the annoyance of his marketing representatives. A much more serious bit of exploitation was when he was seemingly obliged to pose for photos with controversial Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a man accused of various human rights abuses by NGO’s. A New York Times article published during the World Cup would describe Salah as “Now Starring In Chechnya” as a result, with the forward accused of being a participant, willing or not, of a sportswashing exercise. Salah insisted he was a victim in the whole affair, and would have several acrimonious meetings with EFA officials during the tournament. By the time it was over most believed he would never play for Egypt again.

All of this of course was just the most visible aspects of the problems with the EFA, and with Egyptian football in general. The EFA seems so badly run and so beset by corrupt practices that it would be easy to believe that its purpose is to damage Egyptian football, not advance it. Their treatment of the national team is self-evident. What’s more serious is the black hole that appears to exist in their accounts, with millions of government investment in the sport vanishing into the thin air of unfinished projects and unrealised aspirations. Promises of a national academy to nurture young Egyptian talent have remained just that, as leading members of the EFA travel around the world in first class. High rankings members of the organisation, many of them in place more because of who their parents are than on their own merits, have been convicted of embezzling funds, others have resigned their positions in the face of investigations into the same. Egyptian club football has suffered as a result, even if the achievements of their best representatives sometimes masks this.

To speak on more specific issues, one of the most notable aspects of the EFA’s treatment of the men’s national team is a perceived obsession with bringing in foreign coaches to lead the team; so acute was this system that it prompted the Egyptian government to intervene and insist that a native Egyptian be hired for the role in 2019. You might well wonder what the issue is. Many countries hire managers externally, with European coaches to be found at the head of national teams in just about every confederation. The problem is that the EFA don’t hire good non-Egyptian managers, tending to instead plump for men who have either not yet had the opportunity to prove their credentials at the level they are being hired for, or had the opportunity and did little with it. Just in the last ten years, Egypt have installed Bob Bradley on the basis seemingly of the USA’s Second Round exit at South Africa 2010, a man almost famous for not winning things in Hector Cuper and Mexican Javier Aguirre, who lasted less than a year after a disastrous effort in the 2019 AFCON. Egyptian native Hossam El Bawdry coached the side during COVID and was dispatched with remarkable swiftness early in this World Cup qualification campaign after a draw with Gabon: he has taken more than one public swipe at the EFA since for the little amount of time he was given, the lack of international friendlies he was allowed ahead of competitive matches, and a general mess in Egyptian club scheduling as the country’s game attempts to move on from pandemic restrictions. Carlos Queiroz is the latest man to be given the reins, and while he has righted the ship by winning the last two games of qualification, few are in little doubt that it would not take all that much for him to be unseated.

Despite the Gabon draw that saw the latest phase of the crisis in Egyptian international football take shape, the Pharaohs are still in pole position to make it out of the group, and probably with points to spare. Tonight’s game with Angola, if it ends with the expected three points, will see the job done. Then Queiroz can start thinking on the Third Round, that last step that has seen Egypt slip up far too many times before this. If they get out of this group, if they win that last play-off, if Egypt get back to a World Cup, then will come the real challenge: to face into that environment and in so doing learn the lessons of 2018. Egypt, for so long the team that was at the forefront of CAF, will never be able to fully justify a position of one of the great international sides of the continent if they do not get the job done at that level.

The EFA will have a job to do of their own to aid that effort, and to prevent another in a long series of crises that Egypt seem to be eternally stuck in. Preparations need to be better, respect for their players needs to be shown. It’s unlikely that Salah, coaxed into maintaining his international career into this cycle, will tolerate another mess as that which unfolded in Russia. If we’re all being honest with ourselves, players of his ability shouldn’t have to. If the EFA get the opportunity to make amends, it will largely be on the back of his talent after all. They should be prepared to make the absolute most of such a chance. Egypt’s long-suffering fans, forever dreaming of the highest stage, deserve nothing less.

89. Opportunity Missed: Costa Rica

(13/11/2021)

2014 was a glorious year for Costa Rica, but have they made the most of it?

The Commonwealth Stadium of Edmonton is not the most pleasant place to be in mid-November. The hottest it tends to get in that time is just above freezing, so anyone attempting to play football is bound to be wearing gloves and generating their own mist. For the home team they are conditions they will be well used to, being the representatives of the Great Frozen North. For the away team, much more accustomed to tropical climes and being closer to the equator than the Arctic, it’s a challenge in and of itself, before they even consider the team they are playing. But for Costa Rica, the attitude remained the same: it’s just another obstacle to be under-estimated in front of, and to shock the world by leaping. Just like they did seven years ago, when the modern side burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion.

2014 was a special year for Costa Rican football. Under Jorge Luis Pinto, and with once-in-a-lifetime levels of talent in Keylar Navas, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell assembled into one group, they tore a convincing swath through CONCACAF qualifying, claiming scalps from the United States and Mexico on the way to finishing with 18 points and in second place of “the Hex”. Italy, England and Uruguay in the Finals were the prize, but while most of the world was wondering which one of Andrea Pirlo, Luis Suarez or Wayne Rooney would be going home early, Costa Rica planned a surprise.

A scintillating second-half display saw them recover from a one goal deficit to stun Uruguay 3-1, and then they dismissed the sobriquet of “fluke” by besting Italy, captain Ruiz scoring the only goal just before half-time with a header in off the crossbar. A scoreless draw with an impotent England secured one of the most unlikely World Cup group stage first places in history, with Costa Rica wowing people with their speed, team ethic and ability to go for the jugular. Greece were the first opponent in the knock-outs, with Ruiz scoring again to give the Central Americans the lead, before a last gasp equaliser from Sokratis Papastathopoulos sent things into extra time and eventually penalties. Navas, with 15 saves in the 120 and another in the shoot-out, and Michael Umana, scoring Costa Rica’s last penalty, were the heroes, complementing the unlikely group win with an even more unlikely advance to the last eight.

That’s where it ended of course, despite an heroic effort to keep the Netherlands at bay for 120 minutes, where Costa Rica had their chances to march farther than any team from CONCACAF had ever been able to go. After a scoreless draw filled with the kind of tension only such an environment can create Louis Van Gaal’s famous goalkeeping switch, Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen, led to two saved penalties from the Costa Ricans, to four scored from the Dutch. It was the end of a remarkable run.  

But of course it wasn’t really the end, and it’s here that we need to talk a bit more about CONCACAF and opportunity therein. Sometimes those can be hard to see, with the confederation dominated by Mexico and the United States: in an era where the third automatic CONCACAF spot is given to an ever-changing best of the rest, little comes to be expected of any of them. Jamaica in 1998, Costa Rica in 2002 and 2006, Honduras in 2010, Panama in 2018, are all examples of smaller CONCACAF nations getting to the World Cup with their more northerly brethren, and getting nowhere quickly. Costa Rica in 2014 was the glorious exception.

Successful qualification campaigns followed by successful Finals campaigns can really start things. Unless the team is really old there’s the chance of more success in the future; rankings rise making future qualification campaigns easier; money flows in from prize funds and increased sponsorship; youngsters inspired by the team can, properly managed, start an assembly line of talent; and simple momentum, properly kept up, can turn a team that was delighted by once-a-decade appearances at the top table into a veritable big gun. That was the opportunity that lay before Costa Rica at the end of Summer 2014: in a year when Mexico had crashed out at the usual stage and ahead of the biggest disaster in American soccer history, Costa Rica were well placed to make good on their hard won advantages and stake a claim as a perpetual power in CONCACAF. It wouldn’t take all that much really, with so many of the confederations members amateur, semi-amateur or liable to dips and valleys in form.

That was what lay ahead of Costa Rica after the 2014 World Cup. So how have they done? It started well enough, with a win in the 2014 Copa Centroamericana just a few months afterwards. A Quarter-Final finish in the following years Gold Cup, the Ticos eliminated by Mexico, before a disappointing group stage exit in the US-hosted Copa America of 2016 followed. Costa Rica bounced back with a last four showing in the 2017 Gold Cup and qualification for Russia 2018, but that was a poor tournament for the side that had captured the imagination or the neutrals four years earlier, with the side able only to garner a single point shared with Switzerland against losses to Brazil – who took 91 minutes to get past Navas – and Serbia. A fourth-place finish in the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League has been sandwiched between consecutive Quarter-Final exits in the 2019 and 2021 Gold Cups. In that time they have gone through just about one manager a year, as the team has tried, and mostly failed, to find the same kind of spark that carried them to that high water mark in 2014.

In essence, Costa Rica have been unable to grab the opportunity that was presented to them, and like so many teams have settled back into the pattern of boom and bust that has largely defined their footballing history: after all, they got to the knock-outs of the 1990 World Cup over 30 years ago, and failed to become a power in North America out of that. There are many reason why this is the case I suppose: the difficulties of trying to become one of the big fish in CONCACAF’s small pond, where just a few bad results can see you sunk for a cycle; the lack of diversity in opponents regionally, so it’s easier for everyone to get used to you; retired players, and others lacking the same hunger as after success; and, perhaps, an acknowledgement that a nation like Costa Rica, with an unexceptional internal league and not enough players at the top level, has a ceiling.

Last night the road continued for Costa Rica, away to Canada. It was another difficult night for the away side, who had trouble holding onto the ball or doing much with it when they did have it. The Canadians peppered in shots throughout, but like Costa Rica’s few forays forward most of them ended up not troubling Leonel Moreira, subbing in for an injured Navas. Both sides could be considered guilty of foul play and initiating “scrums” needlessly, though the rushes of blood to the head might have been needed in weather that approached the freezing point. In the end Costa Rica had more cause than they had hoped to regret Navas’ absence, as the only goal of the contest came as a result of a goalkeeping error: Johnathan David will rarely have it easier, slotting home after Moreira fumbled a floated throughball right to his feet.

The result leaves Costa Rica in an awkward position. With just seven games left to play, they trail the vital fourth place slot by five points. They have no time to lick their wounds or complain about the cold weather in Canada, instead they need to pick themselves up and get ready for the next match, Honduras at home on Tuesday evening. Win that, and they can face into a series of real decisive seeming clashes – Panama at home, Mexico away and Jamaica away – with renewed confidence they can still right the ship and make a convincing effort to claim one of the progression spots. Lose, and the game is pretty much up. Failure to make it to Qatar will undoubtedly mean that the team will have to accept the hard reality that the opportunity to become CONCACAF’s third “big” team has essentially passed them by, with Canada looking more likely to accept that mantle right now. Football is a game that is unforgiving of substandard results and not making the very most of what comes your direction: Costa Rica are running out of chances to avoid becoming just the latest student to learn this lesson the hard way.

90. The Giant Killer: Luxembourg

(14/11/2021)

A new attitude, a new stadium and new success: 2021’s Luxembourg

Luxembourg are not used to feeling this big of a team, that is for sure. The chance to get to Qatar has come and gone of course, but a prize that would have been unthinkable to any Luxembourg fan only a decade ago is very much still possible: to finish not last in their qualifying group, not second last, but to finish third, behind only giants like Portugal and Serbia. After an existence spent as one of UEFA’s lesser known minnows, the good times, relatively speaking, have seemingly arrived for d’Roud Léiwen, with thoughts already turning to what more they can achieve in the next few years.

Football in the Grand Duchy dates back, in organised form anyway, to the relatively late year of 1906 when a one time ex-pat who had lived in England and fell in love with the game there returned to found the first Luxembourger club. Just to make sure it didn’t offend too many sensibilities with it’s new-fangled ideas of team-based athleticism, that club was designed for both football and lawn tennis. Well the lawn tennis didn’t last but the football certainly did, and rapidly inspired others. A few years later enough clubs existed that a league was started, and the year after that a national side was formed. Like any other part of Europe, once the sport took off it was a juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped, and has been the most popular past-time and professional sport in the country all the way to the present day. The national team has been competing consistently throughout that time, and has long been a mainstay of UEFA.

And they have been whipping boys for much of that time. Luxembourg’s senior mens side has been a consistent bottom or low seed, and has never come close to qualification for any major tournament on a continental or global level. This is natural really given the reality of what Luxembourg is, which is a very small country of just about 600’000 people, whose best clubs are never likely to make a major impact outside of their own borders and whose national team, for many years, counted among its number total amateurs. Its highest scorer at international level, Leon Mart, holds the honour with just 16 goals in the 30’s and 40’s, and in the modern era the best Luxembourg could do was 14 with one time Burton Albion forward Aurelien Joachim. For decades Luxembourg’s record has reflected a nonentity status: between qualification for West Germany 1974 and South Africa 2010, they failed to win a single World Cup game in over 60 attempts. Especially low ebbs were events like losing to micro-nations, like back-to-back losses in 2006 qualifying to Liechtenstein, that really marked Luxembourg out as a total non-factor at this level. In 2006 the Duchy was hovering near the very base of FIFA rankings, and never looking in any way likely to reverse the situation. Drawing Luxembourg in a qualification group was something to be waved away by those teams of a higher seed: an easy six points if you played even halfway well, and I suppose a pleasant trip to the Benelux into the bargain.

How does a country like Luxembourg change this? That was the question that lay before Paul Phillipp, 54 cap veteran of the senior team, when he became President of the LFF in 2004. The answer was to look to the example of countries like Iceland, and to professionalise Luxembourger football from top to bottom: amateur or semi-professional nations are never going to get anywhere. Starting with the youth levels and adopting a patient approach, under Phillipp there has been an emphasis on more full-time coaches and careful cultivation of talented youth during their teenage years, with a centralised academy to teach them the ropes during the week before they played with their own Luxembourger clubs at the weekends. Once old enough, the best of the lot are farmed out to places in Germany and France where they develop their skills in a far more constructive manner than they could at home, with the national team standing by to reap the benefits as they go (and Luxembourger clubs for those just not quite good enough to play abroad). Over time the quality of footballer increases, with knock-on effects for revenue opportunities on all levels internally as spectator numbers and sponsorship go up: a greater amount professionalisation inevitably follows.

It’s a cynical system in many ways that will not do much to better the internal leagues long-term: and speaking as an Irishman, I can show you exactly what will probably result half a century down the line of such a system. Issues have abounded, like how difficult it can be to convince the parents of as 15-year-old prodigy that it is worth his time moving to Belgium to pursue a risky footballing career when a more stable life might be possible at home. But it has worked. After instituting this system for the better part of two decades, Luxembourg is now a nation of professional footballers, some of them plying their trade at levels previously only dreamed of.

Of course the team that comes from these circumstances needs a leader, and the LFF found that in Luc Holtz. A former international, Holtz took charge of the national team in 2010 after success within the Luxembourg league, and has enjoyed a rapidly increasing level of quality in the players available to him. Attack minded and with little fear of any opposition they encounter, Luxembourg have been a progressive and attractive team to watch under Holtz, a side intent on leaving behind the minnow title of the past and to erupt into the mid-tier of European nations. In essence, Luxembourg have become giant hunters, going after the other sides of Europe that are used to towering over them.

The rise was little noticed for a while, even as the total lack of wins turned into one per qualifying campaign, and the draws began to rack up. Holtz has had probably the strongest generation of Luxembourger players available to him to help things along, from pacy attacker Gerson Rodriguez of Troyes to defensive mainstay Laurent Jans of Sparta Rotterdam (only five of the current 24-man squad play within Luxembourg). In 2017 for World Cup qualification the world finally had their eyes drawn to the little country when they held the mighty France, who played Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, to a scoreless draw in Toulouse, the first time Luxembourg had gotten anything from their much more illustrious neighbour in nearly a century: and remember, that was the France team that went on to win the World Cup the next year. More wins, in competitive games and friendlies, followed, and a decent performance in the inaugural Nations League: having been a team that went literal decades between competitive wins, Luxembourg were now beating Hungary, Malta, Georgia, Moldova, Lithuania, Montenegro. The country was taking note too, with an order to build a new national stadium, the Stade de Luxembourg, coming in 2014 to replace the dilapidated Josy Barthel. It opened in September of this year, and in many ways reflects the team it will host: limited enough in its ambitions with a capacity of only 10’000, but sleek, new, confident and unique.

Which brought them to the current campaign. Qualification for Qatar was never really on, but what was, and still is, is third place in a group of Portugal, Serbia, Ireland and Azerbaijan. Luxembourg entered the group targeting Ireland as a scalp, and boy did they take it. In Dublin on the 27th March this year, Holtz’ men came up against an Irish team struggling under the haphazard management of Stephen Kenny, and played with passion, desire and a game plan that made the hosts more than a little uncomfortable. An expected easy win to ease the pressure on Kenny never seemed in the offing really, and then Rodriguez – who, in a sign of contrastingly changed fortunes for the two teams, was the only one on the pitch playing in the Champions League – popped up to send a rocket into the Irish net in the 85th minute, to give Luxembourg one of their most famous footballing days, and a firm grip on third place in Group A. Wins home-and-away against Azerbaijan, including a 3-1 victory in Baku after the hosts had a man sent off in the first half-hour, have solidified the position.

This has allowed tonight’s match with Ireland to become something of a cup final. Win or draw, and Luxembourg will proudly claim third position in the group, with the rankings and potential seeding jump that comes with it. Lose, and they’ll have to settle for what can only be considered a disappointing fourth place, considering the wins they have been able to garner and impressive performances they have been able to put in against the top seeds. The task will not be easy: Kenny’s Ireland, buoyed by unexpectedly impressive showings against Portugal, are a team on the up, and hungry to demonstrate their improvement against the side that relegated them to their lowest ebb. With both sides hungry for that third spot and both fully motivated in their own way, it stands to be a thrilling encounter. Luxembourg will enter into the contest with no fear, those days behind them: Ireland are just another giant to hunt, but like so many other countries in Europe from the Luxembourger perspective, they don’t look quite so big anymore.

91. Collapse: Ghana/South Africa

(15/11/2021)

Hungry for another shot at the World Cup, one of Africa’s previous head teams was going to miss out.

A ball comes flying in. A player tries to take it down, it bounces away. There’s contact, someone falls to the ground. A whistle blows. We could have looked at any number of matches in this month where two teams played each other knowing that to win was to keep the journey going, and to lose was to start the long, agonizing wait for 2026. But one that caught my eye involved two teams that would have been especially desperate to stay in the game. Ghana and South Africa faced off yesterday evening with a place in the CAF Third Round play-offs at stake. The winner would go through, a draw would favour the South Africans. Everyone expected a tense occasion, but few would have expected the level of drama, and controversy, that did occur, as two former giants of CAF continued their efforts to rectify a collapse.

For Ghana, there’s an unmistakable sense that things have slipped out of their fingers. A decade ago they were a penalty shoot-out, and a Luiz Suarez handball, away from becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup Semi-Final, on the back of players like Asamoah Gyan, Kevin-Prince Boatang and a very young Andre Ayew. Since then things have been a mixture of bleak and frustrating: an early exit from Brazil 2014, a disastrous qualifying campaign ending in failure for Russia 2018, and a succession of near-run things at the AFCON have left the Black Stars with very little to show for their greatest generation. Corruption within the GFA, disharmony owing to unmade or incomplete payments and a succession of short-term managerial appointments have offset the abilities of a consistently talented squad, that today includes a more mature Ayew as captain, his younger brother Jordan upfront as the main goal-getter and a number of other highly-skilled players plying their trade as far afield as Russia or China. Despite the talent this campaign has been decidedly iffy: an unconvincing opening match victory over Ethiopia followed by a loss to South Africa put paid to the regime of native Ghanian Charles Akonner in favour of Milovan Rajevac, the man who managed the side in 2010. He had taken seven points from the next nine to leave Ghana within three of the leaders, and hoping that their impressive home form, where they have spent several years unbeaten, would carry the day.

South Africa are in a similar position, just further on down the line. There was a time, over twenty years ago, when Bafana Bafana were one of the major powers of the continent, winning an AFCON in 1996 and qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups without too much fuss. They enjoyed a fine crop of players at the time, like record goalscorer Beni McCarthy, legendary centre-back Lucas Radabe and star midfielder Doctor Khumalo. Coming just a short time after South Africa’s re-admittance to FIFA following the apartheid years, it seemed like the side had the potential to be a mainstay in the top echelons of the continent. But it was not to be. Following 2002 South Africa regressed hugely, and not even the hosting of the 2010 edition of the World Cup could arrest the decline. Garnering a reputation for being a coaching roundabout – since 2002 the average managerial tenure in Johannesburg has been little more than 15 months – and overly-reliant on the internal league for players – more members of the squad play for perennial DStv Premiership winners Mamelodi Sundowns than play abroad – it’s no surprise really that South Africa appear a consistently unsettled team weighed down by unrealistic expectations. Failure to qualify for World Cups and underperformance at AFCON’s has been a constant, but things were looking better this time around under Belgian coach Hugo Broos. Unbeaten after five games and three points clear of Ghana, South Africa would have made the trip to Cape Coast in a somewhat confident mood.

It should come as little surprise given the circumstances and permutations that the game was a nervy affair, played out in front of a far from capacity crowd. For the first half hour little of note occurred, with FIFA’s camera finding most of their replay capacity dedicated to fouls, of which there were many: the ref was being called upon to blow his whistle every two minutes it seemed. Ghana, attacking with a bit more potency as they were required to, fashioned the only chances of note, but they amounted to distant efforts and wild swings at the ball, none of which unduly troubled Ronwen Williams in the South African goal. And then it happened.

Ghana won a corner on the right hand side in the 31st minute as South Africa continued to frustrate the hosts, the Black Stars already reduced to hopeful crosses and, to that point, direction-less set-pieces. St Pauli’s Daniel Kofi-Kyereh swung it in. It fell onto the stomach of Daniel Amartey, being marked from behind by South Africa’s Rushine de Reuck. Amartey collapsed in a heap, and Senegalese referee Maguette Ndiaye didn’t hesitate to point to the spot and whip out a yellow card for a stunned de Reuck. Captain Ayew stepped up to slam the ball into the bottom left-hand corner.

Was it a penalty? The South Africans naturally said it wasn’t, claiming that, at best, Amartey went to ground after minimal contact, and not the kind of contact that could be determined to be a foul. There’s only one angle to work off of for television replays: de Reuck appears to have both hands on top of Amartey’s left shoulder as the ball comes in, but there does not seem to be any movement that could be described as a push forward. Lower down, there appears to be contact between both players’ left feet, but only after Amartey is falling over, and it is nothing that could credibly be dubbed a trip. With the advantage of slow-mo and forensic re-viewings, I would say that only the most literal interpretation of the laws would deem the action an offence in terms of pushing or holding. More likely is that Amartey felt contact in a situation where playing on would not be to his advantage – there were three South African defenders within a half-second of the loose ball – and decided to take his chances. Maguette had a decent, and unobstructed, view of the incident, and stuck to his guns once the whistle was blown.

The rest of the game after the incident was to be a frustrating one for South Africa. The foul count ticked steadily upward, as did the amount of time Ghana took with knocks and free-kicks. Both sides managed to trouble the other with routine shots straight into the hands of the opposing keeper, but neither ever really threatened to score. South Africa were able to retain plenty of possession, especially late on as they scrambled for the one goal that would have seen them progress, but it never came. In terms of on-pitch action the match was essentially a damp squib, with everything revolving around the penalty decision.

The recriminations began almost immediately after the full-time whistle was blown. South Africa felt aggrieved at the run-up to the game, annoyed at loud noises that interrupted the squad’s sleep the night before, limited time permitted to them to train, a lengthy commute to the stadium and accusations that Ghana played fast-and-loose with COVID protocols. The manner in which they conceded the only goal ignited that pile of kindling. Within a very short time officials from the SAFA have taken the extraordinary step of essentially accusing Maguette of some manner of malfeasance in his awarding of the penalty, and demanding that the game be replayed.

South Africa’s fury has potent origins. Only a few years ago they came off a vital win over Senegal in qualification for Russia, only for the referee to be exposed as manipulating events in-game to benefit gambling interests. FIFA and CAF chalked off the result and ordered the game replayed: Senegal won the re-run, and while there were plenty of other games where South Africa came up short in that campaign, the affair was perceived as a major factor in Bafana Bafana’s failure to qualify. Now, in the eyes of many of South Africa’s footballing stakeholders, the team is being negatively affected once again by officiating shenanigans.

FIFA will consider South Africa’s appeal, but unless evidence comes out that the officiating team was involved in some kind of murky dealings – and, at time of writing, there is no such evidence that has been supplied – then the result will stand. Ghana will go on to the Third Round play-offs and the chance to get to Qatar, and South Africa will be left thinking of 2026. A good performance, the kick of a ball, the blow of a whistle; these are all that separate teams from stalling a disintegration, and remaining mired in a state of collapse. I suspect we will see many more examples of such things before we get to the World Cup.

92. Green Shoots: Bolivia

(16/11/2021)

It would all end in tears, but the 1994 Bolivian team had a glimpse of true greatness.

CONMEBOL qualifying, perhaps more than that which takes place on any other continent, is a marathon, not a sprint. Every team there has to play 18 games, an enormous number when put against the CONCACAF average of 14, UEFA’s 10 and CAF’s 8. The AFC might have a similar number of games, but its top seeds spend much of their campaigns running up GD against minnows of little standing. South America is different. It’s a long, hard road, and it can seem to take a while to get anywhere. But now time is running out. Only five games remain, and one of the teams whose fate is still in the balance is lowly Bolivia, so often a wooden spoon candidate, but now with their World Cup fate still in their hands. A tie at home to an iffy Uruguay today gives them the chance to keep things within their own power. Thoughts within the Bolivian faithful will inevitably turn back to 27 years ago, the last time that they made it to a Finals: the modern day team will endure a hell of a ride to get to Qatar, but they will always be travelling in the wake of the heroes of 1994, a group of fearless young men who sprouted up from Bolivian soil, flowered gloriously for a short time and left unmatched memories for the country’s football obsessed population.

That 1994 qualification was a long time in the making really, with most tracing the apogee of this most golden of Bolivia’s footballing generations to the year 1978, when the Tahuichi Football Academy opened. It was the brainchild of Rolando Aguilera Pareja, a returning ex-pat who wanted his children, versed only in American sports, the chance to learn the game he had grown up adoring. Located in the outskirts of Santa Cruz, it would prove to be a haven for a large number of poor teenagers: for them it was an avenue for them to stay out of trouble, find a means of escaping poverty and learn how to be better footballers. Students would get the opportunity to go on tours of Europe and the United States, many of them getting trials and professional opportunities abroad out of such things. The core of the mid-90’s Bolivia team were all graduates of Tahuichi: Jamie Moreno, Marco ‘El Diablo’ Etcheverry, Erwin Sanchez, Luis Cristaldo were all young men who learned the craft of competitive football in the Academy together, and found themselves playing for the national team together not too long after graduating. Such closeness and experience of each other’s playing styles can be a powerful method of getting beyond individual flaws. They were the seeds from which green shoots would grow.

The year before Tahuichi opened, the national side shipped 13 goals in two matches to crash out of CONMEBOL qualification for the Argentinian World Cup, just the latest disappointment since the country’s last Finals appearance, in 1950. Improvement from such a state was slow, but measurable: one win for 1982, two draws for ’86, before the first team able to really take advantage of the new footballing school came within a hairs breath of Italia ’90, missing out only on goal difference. The campaign to get to 1994 was different. It was the last time South America would have multiple groups in its qualification, so Bolivia had four dragons to slay, not nine. They started with a 7-1 annihilation of Venezuela before stunning Brazil – the team that would go onto win the World Cup in 94 – 2-0 in La Paz, the Bolivians milking the altitude advantage for all that it was worth to inflict the first qualification defeat of Brazil’s history. Etcheverry, whose nickname derived from the seemingly fiendish way he could dribble the ball, was especially praised for his midfield performance that day, a game that remains one of Bolivia’s greatest footballing moments. Uruguay and Ecuador were the next to fall as Bolivia chased top spot in the group, against all expectations. And they weren’t just winning games, but looking good in the process, attacking with abandon and seemingly scoring for fun.

Another pasting of Venezuela, 7-0 in August of 1993, seemed to portend the continuation of Bolivia’s all-conquering form, but a vengeful Brazil were lying in wait in Recife. The 6-0 thrashing Bolivia received there must have been chastening, a reminder that they still had a ways to go before they could consider themselves among the top South American teams. A subsequent loss to Uruguay left things on a knife edge going into the final day, where Bolivia, now limping over the finish line, could only manage a 1-1 draw away to Ecuador. Luckily for them Uruguay slipped to a 2-0 defeat in the Maracana at the same time, meaning Bolivia took the second of two qualification spots in their group. La Verde were going to the USA.

Moreno, a vital part of that qualification run, has admitted in more recent interviews that Bolivia’s preparations for the World Cup were less than ideal. It’s perhaps only natural that a relatively young team at the forefront of a mass expression of adulation from their country – and by all accounts Bolivia ceased to function whenever their team was playing in the United States – might have trouble grounding themselves for the task ahead, which was far from easy: the defending champions in the form of Germany, a decent Spanish side and South Korea. That, and when the tournament began Etcheverry was only just recovered from a serious knee injury sustained the previous November, that would mean he would start from the bench. Still, in a group stage where four of the best third-placed teams would progress, it was not unreasonable to think that the side that had humbled all before them at La Paz would be able to get the points needed.

It was not to be. People at home would claim refereeing shenanigans when Bolivia, despite playing decently, lost their opener to Germany 1-0. Jurgen Klinsmann scored the only goal from a position that would have been offside under the old definition: now the player receiving the pass had to be in front of the last defender, and if even with him no offence was made. Many Bolivians conveniently forgot this change as they complained, and those complaints were all the louder when Etcheverry, brought on as a sub to chase the game, got a straight red card four minutes after his introduction over a clash with Lothar Matthäus. Matthäus elbowed El Diablo in the face while contesting a ball, but it was only Etcheverry punished when he kicked out at the German afterwards. He would claim afterwards that it was all part of the game, but whatever it was it ended his World Cup. A popular belief emerged in Bolivia afterwards that the team would have won the game but for a bent referee, with stories of Bolivian people celebrating a moral victory in the streets afterwards: one suspects these might be exaggerations.

There were still two games to play, but if Bolivia could have been said to have misfired for parts of the Germany game, they must certainly botched things when facing South Korea a few days later, forced to settle for scoreless draw in a game they really had to win. The Koreans had got a hard fought point off the Spanish, and this game was similarly hard-fought, just in a more literal sense. Both teams lost players to injuries, and Bolivia lost another to a red card, in a game marked with excessive fouling and a near assault on the referee. The expelled player, Luis Cristaldo, would claim later not to have realised he had already been booked earlier in the game, and several Bolivian officials made outrageous claims that FIFA was orchestrating their exit from the tournament to insure safe passage for “big” teams like Germany.

Regardless, the draw meant that Bolivia’s only hope was to beat Spain, but that was never likely with several of their best players suspended or injured. 23-year-old defensive midfielder Pep Guardiola set the ball rolling for Spain with a penalty in the first twenty minutes, and Jose Caminero added two more after an hour. Erwin Sanchez provided Bolivia’s only comfort, scoring their first, and to date only, World Cup Final goal in response. Bolivia held up the rest of Group C, and were headed home.

The Bolivian dream team wasn’t done, finishing runners-up in the 1997 Copa America that they hosted, but they would never get back to a World Cup. Men like Etcheverry and Moreno were already national heroes and remain so still, but a more detached view will say that they failed to live up to their potential, at least on the international scene. Those that have followed have fallen well short of the kind of expectations Bolivians naturally have after watching the team beat Brazil in 1993, with La Verde closer to the foot of CONMEBOL than contending for qualification since. They have only gotten to the knock-outs of the Copa once after 1997, and as noted in this series previously their association has recently been mired in in-fighting, with FIFA having to get involved. It isn’t that the supply line of quality players from places like Tahuchi dried up, but perhaps more that the 1994 team was an especially potent crop, and the rest of South America was less likely to be surprised twice: just check out the way they tend to prepare for games in the high altitude of La Paz now, unwilling to be the latest side to get shocked like Brazil were 28 years ago.

And so back to today, as Bolivia face Uruguay with their hopes of getting back to a Finals for the first time since 1994 hanging in the balance. Where 1994’s Bolivia had Etcheverry, Moreno and Cristaldo 2021’s version has Marcelo Martins, Leonel Justiniano and Diego Bejarano. They are probably coming up against Uruguay at the best possible time, La Celeste in a bit of a crisis after winning one point from a possible nine in October, and under severe pressure at home. Bolivia, in contrast, clawed their way back into contention with two wins in the same month. A few days ago they fell hard away to Peru, 3-0. No more slip-ups can be contemplated. A shock, especially in the thin air of La Paz, is always possible. Should they fail, it’s likely that at least some segment of the Bolivian football watching public will decide it’s down to a conspiracy again, but the team have every chance to not fail. It remains in their hands, just as it did when the World Cup began in 1994. Bolivia squandered the chance for true glory then. They’ve had six chances to make amends since. It’s past time that we saw green shoots grow from Bolivian soil again.

93. King David: Canada

(17/11/2021)

The future of Canadian football is named Jonathan David.

Every team in World Cup qualifying will eventually face the critical moment, the ones that fans will look back on in years to come and say “That was when we really booked our place” or “That was when we threw it all away”. In qualification formats like that which CONCACAF is currently using, the teams that hover in and around the last progression spots typically face those moments when they have the chance to take points off the higher seeds. Canada have already done that twice, with two invaluable points taken in 1-1 draws with Mexico and the United States. Last night, in the return game with table toppers Mexico, they had the chance to do it again. Critical to passing the test and making a positive memory to build momentum on was Canada’s star man, the striker who could yet become an icon for a new generation of Canadian footballers: Jonathan David.

David was born in New York just 14 days into the new millennium, to Haitian parents: they were only there visiting relatives when his mother went into labour unexpectedly, and he has a US passport because of the coincidence. The family went back to Port-Au-Prince when he was just three months old but didn’t have a great deal of time to settle there either, with the family upping stakes to move to Ottawa when he was five. With three to choose from, Canada was to prove David’s most definitive homeland: his education there provided ample opportunity to improve burgeoning football skills, both at the École secondaire publique Louis-Riel which had some of the best sporting facilities in the region, and under the tutelage of famed youth coach Hanny El-Magharabia. He was rarely without a ball at his feet in those critical formative years.

A succession of spells for a variety of local clubs through his young years – the Gloucester Dragons, the Gloucester Hornets, the Ottawa Internationals – further helped his evolution into a pacy, dangerous attacker, but his mind was always abroad when it came to football. David had little interest in playing within Canada, whose league and larger footballing structure was very stagnant at the time. He also didn’t have much time for the idea of playing within the larger sphere of North America, where a career might be possible but a true test of his abilities, and further opportunities to grow, would not be found. Instead he looked to Europe, and made it there in 2018 at the age of just 18, when offered a contract by Belgian side Gent.

Still in his teens when he made his senior club debut, David has been an undoubted success in Europe, and right from the off: in his first game he scored an injury time equaliser to rescue a point for the Buffalo’s in the Belgian league. Five days later he was scoring Gent’s only goal in a Europa League tie, and averaged a goal a game for the next three matches. That was all Gent needed to see, signing the young man up to an extended contract. David helped Gent to a fifth place league finish in that first season, scoring 14 times. He then settled in as the side’s main goal-getter for 2019/20, where they managed to get as high as second and Champions League places on the back of his 24 successful strikes. It was clear to most people that Belgium and its relatively low-profile structures were too small for a talent such as this, who at his age was rapidly accumulating substantial interests from other, bigger, clubs.

The one that came calling with the best offer, in August of 2020, was Lille of Ligue 1. With a reported fee levelling out at €30 million, the transfer from Gent was the most expensive ever made for a Canadian player, with the figure unlikely to be bested anytime soon. The weight of the expectations that inevitably followed David may have caused his game to suffer in the early months at the French giant, with his first goal not coming until November of that season. The second half of that season was more lucrative, for the player and for his club, with David finding enough form to score 13 goals by the end of May, goals that helped Lille end PSG’s recent stranglehold on French league honours and secure their first championship victory for ten years. The current season has seen David continue his settling in, with eight goals in 12 league matches, and one in the Champions League, leaving him top of the clubs charts. Of course it’s been a difficult comedown after last season for a struggling Lille so far, and David is one of their few shining lights: another move to an even bigger club at some point soon does not seem like a far fetched possibility.

Playing most often as an attaching midfielder/second striker, though in a central role of the forward line more recently, David’s success so far in his career comes from his speed and perseverance. His goalscoring touch is undeniable, and critically seems to be improving year-on-year, but that’s just one thing: he’s proven capable of finding the right pass for an assist, has the confidence to receive the ball and attack into space, has demonstrated an intelligence in terms of off-the-ball movement that belies his limited professional years and his tracking back has rarely been questioned. He’s proven adept at position changes, and is perceived as being comfortable receiving the ball and passing it on quickly from midfield during counter-attacks and in build-up play down either wing as is needed. And he also has that really critical aspect of a successful striker that too many can’t claim to have, which is a certain degree of ambidextrousness: he scores goals with the left or right, and can switch from one to the other with ease. It’s no wonder that, when it comes to comparisons, his name has been said in the same breath as younger versions of Mohammad Salah, Deli Alli and Sergio Aguero.

In a way David owes much of this to the Canadian national set-up, as it was when playing for underage Canadian sides that he was first spotted by Gent’s scouts. He’s certainly well on his way to paying them back. Turning down the chance to join the United States’ underage sides in 2018 was swiftly followed by a call-up to the Canadian senior squad, and David has barely looked back since. He’s scored 18 goals in 23 games for the Canucks, including the six in the 2019 Gold Cup that made him that tournaments top scorer, despite Canada only playing four games at it. Some of this must be tempered by the reality of the opposition David was facing – many of his goals have come in blow-outs, like a hat-trick over Cuba in a 7-0 trouncing – but they all count. If he keeps up the current rate, it’s likely he’ll end up his nations top goalscorer of all time within a couple of years. David’s natural skills and experience picked up against top European opposition routinely make him a nightmare for many CONCACAF sides, that too often have seen their defensive players chasing after him. Forming a fruitful partnership with Cyle Larin, Canada’s other top goal-getter, is something many Canadian fans are dreaming of when it comes to him and the future.

Six of David’s goals have come in the current qualification campaign, most recently a fortunate tap-in that gave Canada a vital home victory against Costa Rica. After picking up a slight knock towards the end of that game he was kept on the bench for last nights visit of Mexico to Edmonton until the 73rd minute. In the end he wasn’t all that required, with Larin scoring twice either side of the break to give the home team a comfortable lead in the snow. Canada, showcasing a 3-4-3 with David replacing Larin right at the top, made the most of the frigid conditions and controlled the game, even with Mexico clawing a goal back late-on. David did as required in chasing a killer third goal and assisting in the efforts to shut the game down, and the reward is seeing his national side on top of the Octagon with only six games remaining, and looking extremely likely to progress.

Tough games remain, not least a return match with the United States in late January that could prove decisive. But Canada seem ready, making the most of a bounty of talented young players flourishing at home and abroad. David seems ready too, now long past the point of being an untested teenager. A chance to perform in a World Cup Finals would be a fitting cap to his early professional career, and would be the perfect arena to continue his efforts to be crowned the King of Canadian football. One suspects such a dream will come true, and that by then David may well be playing at an even higher level. One year to go.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Qatar, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Algeria, American Samoa, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Colombia, Congo (Democratic Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Fiji, Ghana, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Korea (Republic), Lebanon, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Macedonia, Oman, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Russia*, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Solomon Islands, Sweden, Syria, Tahiti, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales

Teams Eliminated

Afghanistan, Albania, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Aruba, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, British Virgin Islands, Brunei Darussalem, Bulgaria, Burkino Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chinese Taipei, Comoros, Congo (Republic), Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Finland, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Latvia, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Northern Ireland, Norway, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romania, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

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 Contender: A sandstorm near the border of Iraq and Syria, circa June 2018. Photo in the public domain.

From Crisis To Crisis: Graffiti of Mohamed Salah on a cafe in downtown Cairo. Photo by Ibrahim.ID, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Opportunity Missed: Costa Rican fans at the 2014 World Cup. Photo by Danilo Borges/Portal da Copa, reproduced under a under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license.

The Giant Killer: A moment from the September 2021 World Cup qualifier between Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, in the new Stade de Luxembourg. Photo by GilPe, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Collapse: South African fans watch the opening game of the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg. Photo by Marcela Casual Jr//ABr, reproduced under a under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license.

Green Shoots: The Bolivia side at the 1994 World Cup. Unknown copyright.

King David: Jonathan David playing for Lille in a Champions League game in September 2021. Photo by Werner100359, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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1 Response to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (X) Deep Breaths

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

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