211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XI) – All Together Now

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2022 dawned with a third of the World Cup Finalists determined. The remaining places were hotly contested, with continental giants and minnows still duking it out for one of those precious seats at the top table. The long-awaited commencement of the qualification process for FIFA’s smallest confederation meant that the entire footballing world was now in the fight in different ways, as things headed towards the wire.

Part Eleven: All Together Now

94. 64 Years: Wales

95. The Next Goal: American Samoa

96. Near Miss: Algeria/Morocco

97. Marmite: Australia

98. The Sequel: Panama

99. The World Cup Conspiracy: South Korea

100. Failing Process: Uruguay

101. On The Brink: USA/Honduras

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94. 64 Years: Wales

(26/11/2021)

They’ve done it at a continental level, now they need to take the world.

The remaining European teams still in the running for places in Qatar were back in Zurich today, to find out their play-off fate. Twelve sides had made it to this point, and over two games nine of those will be discarded. With the decision to move from two-legs to single contests, the UEFA Second Round has become more like a mini-tournament of its own accord, cup semi-finals and finals with a reward that is the bare minimum expected for some teams, and would be the culmination of decades worth of work for others. One of those “others” is undoubtedly a side that has been trying and failing to get back to a World Cup for 64 years: Wales.

Four years ago, the Welsh, their team and their supporters could taste a long-awaited trip to a Finals. Perhaps the nature of what happened on the 9th October 2017, in terms of the expectation and the result, may have swung perceptions in an unrealistic fashion: after all, Wales were seeking to confirm only a play-off place that night, and not a slot among the 32 in Russia. But try telling that to the thousands of expectant fans who packed the Cardiff City Stadium, in full confidence that they were about to see the most significant step forward in Welsh World Cup history in well over half a century. As an Irishman, I can testify to fully expecting that Wales’ Irish opponents, stuttering throughout that qualification campaign under the Martin O’Neill/Roy Keane tandem, would fall to what seemed like a formidable Welsh side, who had performed so admirably in 2016 and now were going about taking the next step. Welsh domination of the game seemed to portend a fulfilment of those expectations. All the way up to the 56th minute.

But the full story of why what happened in that moment was so pivotal necessitates that we take a fuller look at Welsh footballing history. Despite having one of the oldest international sides, Wales have struggled to have the same impact on the game as their English neighbours and cousins in Scotland, a natural consequence, perhaps, of their limited size, population and the competing interests of other sports like Rugby Union and Rugby League. The 1958 trip to Sweden was more to do with a unique qualification campaign – the Welsh failed in their UEFA group, but got and won a play-off with Israel owing to geo-political problems in other confederations – than a particularly talented set of players, though the squad did include the legendary centre forward John Charles. Wales acquitted themselves well in Sweden, beating the iconic Hungarian team that had lost the “Miracle of Bern” Final four years previously, before losing a Quarter-Final to eventual winners Brazil, the lone goal scored by a little-known 17-year-old named Pele.

Since then the best that Wales have been able to do is be a near-run thing. They missed out on Spain 82 and Mexico 86 because of goal difference but were often non-entities in other campaigns, struggling with a lack of truly gifted players and a reputation for crowd trouble at home garnered after an extremely hostile atmosphere in a 1976 European Championship qualifier with Yugoslavia: that ended with the team temporarily banned from the 1980 edition. Down the years Wales were fielding some truly great footballers – Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs – but they were too often the special individuals unable to drag a squad of mediocrities up to their level.

Things ebbed and flowed for the Welsh all the way up to Gary Speed’s tenure in charge, which was the start of the current era that has seen Wales rise to become a legitimate power in the continent. Starting with Speed and then on with Chris Coleman after Speed’s tragic death, Wales bet heavily on a number of youth players coming up through the ranks, and won big: names like Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and most importantly Gareth Bale all got their starts in this time, and helped to turn Wales from an also-ran of the home nations into a team that others were worried about playing. The speed and ferocity with which Wales did their business on the field was eventually tempered with needed experience, and results followed. Despite some bumps in the road, like a 6-1 defeat to Serbia in Brazil 2014 qualification, the rise was not to be stopped, and by 2015 Wales were higher-ranked than England for the first time in their history. In 2016 the new era of Welsh dominance got its climax with their run to the Semi-Finals of the European Championships, with that scorching 3-1 win over Belgium in the last eight undoubtedly the highlight. When they got going, Wales looked simply unstoppable, being able to marry the talents of superstars like Bale with less flashy, but no less hard-working, players like Hal Robson-Kanu.

Fast forward to the Russia 2018 campaign then. It was tough enough group on paper, with Wales competing with Serbia, Ireland and Austria for automatic progression or a play-off. It was a tight experience from the off, with Wales going on a run of four games where they took the lead against Austria, Georgia and Serbia (twice) only to settle for a draw, then added a scoreless one in Dublin to freshen things up. A late spate of wins, including a critical one at home to Austria where Ben Woodburn came up with the crucial late goal, righted the ship, and gave Wales a real sense of momentum. Going into the last day things were very finely poised, with Serbia top on 18, Wales behind on 17 and Ireland on 16. Serbia hosted Georgia, knowing they had to win to secure top spot; Wales hosted Ireland, knowing a draw would more than likely be enough for a play-off, and a win could potentially give them an automatic berth in Russia.

While I was sitting at home contemplating what seemed a likely defeat, I was unaware of the level of pressure slowly building on the Wales team: much-noted newspaper headlines published on the morning of the game urged the players to make up for sixty years of hurt; the WFA made special arrangements for the 30’000 strong crowd to sing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” without musical accompaniment for maximum effect; and even manager Coleman joined in, literally dubbing his side a “golden generation” that needed to make good on this night. Other factors were less-noticed at the time, but become more obvious in retrospect, like the nerves on the players’ faces at kick-off or the manner in which an injured Gareth Bale, whose absence was dismissed by more than one squad member, coach and pundit, choose to sit in the stands and not with the team (injured Irish players did the opposite). Not enough people factored in the long-trip Wales had back from Georgia from their proceeding game either, nor the not-exactly-quiet Irish support in their corner of the stadium. Once the game started things got worse thanks to the loss of Joe Allen early to a head injury, which, when combined with Bale, left Wales without the two men responsible for half of their goals in the group.

What unfolded was a nightmare for the Welsh in many ways. A solid Irish defence successfully kept Wales from making any significant chances in the first 20 minutes, which neutered the red-hot crowd. Despite having most of the ball the aforementioned loss of Allen hamstrung anything Wales were trying to put together. Every moment of wasted possession ratcheted up the pressure, as 30 minutes went, then 40, then half-time, then 50. It was one of those games where, watching as an Ireland fan, it seemed quite possible that a ground out 0-0 would be the most likely result, with chances at a premium and the favourites struggling with the occasion, even with most of the ball.

The moment came in the 56th minute. Captain Ashley Williams was caught in possession as Wales tried to work it out from the back. Jeff Hendrick raced down the line and sent in a low cross. Harry Arter allowed it through his legs, catching a scrambling Welsh defence completely off-guard. The man waiting to receive the ball was James McClean. A player who, despite being in the downturn of a career, has always exemplified commitment in a green jersey, he was able to send the ball screaming into the corner of the Welsh net with a pinpoint accurate volley, and send the Irish fans to the left of that goal into raptures.

An unbearable 30 minutes followed, as a stunned Welsh team attempted to rectify the situation and a stunned Welsh crowd struggled to get behind their team. But if the crowd had trouble outsinging the Irish fans behind the Welsh goal, then the Welsh side, shorn of its most creative elements and looking as if they were already thinking of the following days headlines, was equally impotent. The Irish goal was harassed a bit, but too often the home side looked like they were simply out of ideas. When results elsewhere meant that a draw would no longer be sufficient to win a play-off place, the energy in the stadium seemed to wilt. Ireland held on. Wales would not go to the World Cup.

The aftermath of that awful night was a raw one. Murmurs of discontent were present, especially in accusations that the side had proven themselves to be over-reliant on Bale. A discontented Welsh media began to question the side’s “bottle”, and whether their experience in France had left them with heads too big for their shoulders. When Coleman announced he would leave the manager’s job to take up a role with Sunderland, fears were rife that the golden era was passing. And when Ireland got annihilated by Denmark, 5-1 on aggregate, in the resulting play-offs, the loss in Cardiff that night only seemed to become more tragic.

The years since have been mixed. Qualification to EURO 2020 was achieved, though Wales would have a right to think that their last 16 exit, thumped 4-0 by Denmark, made it a tournament of disappointment more than success. The situation surrounding Coleman’s replacement, Ryan Giggs, has run and run. The team still seem very reliant on that rapidly aging generation of Bale, Allen and Ramsey, with it yet to be seen if the younger players coming up are at the same standard.

All that being said, Wales went into the current qualification campaign in good shape, having already guaranteed a play-off following a topping of their Nations League group. They then went and did it again, finishing runners-up to Belgium and just ahead of the Czech Republic. Their final day game with Belgium, where Wales were well worth a 1-1 draw, carried much less tension than 2017 as a result, with the Welsh fans already celebrating a progression to the next stage, and an opportunity to make good on the 2018 campaign finale, and the many, many failed campaigns that have come before.

That was what today’s drawing of balls in Zurich was all about. Wales came out in path “A” and will host familiar opposition in the form of Austria in March. Win that, and they will then face the victor of Scotland and Ukraine. Win that, and they will be a World Cup Finalist for the first time in 64 years. With Wales’ best players hitting that stage of their careers where talk becomes about when retirement will arrive, in many ways it would be a suitable swansong for the current generation. They do not want to be talking about 68 years in 2026.

95. The Next Goal: American Samoa

(29/11/2021)

You’ll rarely find a World Cup qualifier played in more scenic surrounds, but this cycle will skip American Samoa by.

It has taken a very long time, but finally the OFC, that most under-noticed and underappreciated of FIFA’s confederations, is getting its qualification underway. On the basis of its small number of nations, the impact of COVID and the financially dicey prospect of jetting across the Pacific multiple times, it is only this month that the OFC and FIFA have come to a final arrangement to parse down its motley collection of 11 island members to one that will take part in the Intercontinentals. The two lowest ranked of OFC’s sides, Tonga and the Cook Islands, will play-off, and the winner will join seven others in two four team groups. The top two in each go to single-legged semi-finals and a final, with the winner of that to face the fourth best side in CONCACAF in another one-off match to go to Qatar. Most of this will be done in little more than two weeks in March, and all held by the World Cup host.

You will notice that I said “11 island nations” up there, but the process will involve only nine. Two of the OFC’s very small contingent have already given up the ghost, and will not participate in qualification for Qatar. They join North Korea and Saint Lucia in the list of withdrawn nations, and now continue what will be something close to a eight year wait between World Cup games by the time they get to try their hand for 2026. One of those two nations is little known Samoa. The other, smaller but actually much better known owing to circumstances both depressing and uplifting, is American Samoa.

I suspect many football fans will already be well aware of the situation regarding American Samoa and its football team, brought to life so vividly in the 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins, but a quick summation may be instructive. In 2001 the side were on the wrong end of football’s record scoreline at that level when they got annihilated 31-0 by Australia, a result that was more to do with the Socceroos demonstrating how pointless it was to keep them in the OFC as much as anything else. Almost entirely amateur, with players drawn almost exclusively from the little-rated or noticed internal league, the American Samoans fell into the true depths of the footballing doldrums in the aftermath, a subject of international ridicule, unable to even score and frequently the victim of lop-sided scorelines.

In 2011, desperate to reverse the situation to any degree, the FFAS asked MLS – American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States – for assistance, and got Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-American coach, to take over the team ahead of the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. Even with only three weeks to prepare, Rongen pulled something incredible off, harnessing what he could see was a strong team spirit and a consistently fanatical local support, in combination with a more practical recruitment of some of the islands’ diaspora. At the heart of it all was a philosophy of playing every moment of every game as if it was “next goal wins” and banishing the spectre of the 31-0.

The results spoke for themselves. In a four team preliminary round the side stunned anyone paying attention by winning their first game 2-1 over Tonga, their first victory in 37 attempts. Aside from the result, the game was notable for the appearance of Jaiyah Saelua in defence – with a critical goal-line clearance at the death to preserve the result – who as a member of the Samoan faʻafafine gender constituted the first trangender player to compete in a World Cup game. American Samoa went on to draw 1-1 with the Cook Islands in their next game and then only narrowly missed out on progression to the next round thanks to a late loss against neighbours Samoa, the opposition scoring in the 89th minute on a rapid counter-attack after Rongen’s side had hit the post at the other end. Samoa would get predictably crushed when put against the teams that have semi-professional status in later rounds while American Samoa dealt with some bittersweet feelings as runners-up: a cruel loss, but the campaign constituted an enormous advance for the side.

The documentary that recorded the events is a real must watch, providing a truly emotional look at what football means, in terms of exhibiting national and personal pride, in the farthest corners of the Earth. In among some of the most beautiful scenery to ever grace the background of a sporting contest, these small nations play mostly amateurs against each other in front of tiny crowds, but with a passion and fervour that can match anything played in the monstrous stadiums of Europe and South America. American Samoa and their journey in such surrounds are a perfect example of the romance the World Cup is still sometimes capable of engendering.

The period in-between the 2014 and 2018 campaigns was to be a frustrating one in many ways. American Samoa had shot up the FIFA rankings and gained a large degree of positive press, which was only magnified when Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s documentary was released, but found themselves unable to make good on any momentum they were able to accrue. Games don’t come all that frequently for these kinds of isolated island nations and American Samoa’s next opportunity, at the 2015 Pacific Games, was denied to them when that footballing tournament became a qualification route for the Olympics, necessitating that participants enter underage squads. American Samoa were not interested in such things, so withdrew. Aside from a single friendly played away in Fiji, a 6-0 defeat, the side would play no games between that heartbreaking loss to Samoa in 2011 and their next World Cup qualifier in 2015, which just so happened to be against the same opposition.

The 2018 preliminary round robin was as much a rollercoaster for American Samoa as the 2014 one was, and probably worthy of a Next Goal Wins sequel should it ever be made. Hoping for a measure of revenge against Samoa in their first game, the underdogs went behind early, Desmond Fa’aiuaso firing hard into the roof of the net following a byline cutback. A second Samoan goal was more controversial, with Faitalia Hamilton-Pama adjudged to have headed home off a corner, but with the TV angles in no way making clear that Pita Falevalu’s save was made only after the ball had crossed the line: naturally the environment, more akin to Sunday League than Premier League, had no goalline tech. American Samoa were reeling and Andrew Mobberley’s goal on 26 minutes, a simple finish on a counter-attack, seemed to indicate that the American side were about to ship another big loss. But whatever Rongen did for the team took effect, and American Samoa were back in the game before the break with Demetrius Beauchamp scoring a peach, a long-range effort that looped over Kilisamasi Toetu in the Samoan goal. The American Samoans plugged away after the break, helped by a red card suffered by the opposition, and got a second with four minutes to play, Beauchamp again slotting home coolly after a high-angled right-wing cross. But the third goal to complete the comeback didn’t come, and American Samoa opened their campaign with what could already have been a decisive defeat.

Not to be dissuaded, the side went into their next game with Tonga confident of repeating their 2011 heroics, and did just that in five madcap minutes after half-time. Tonga struck first, Sione Uhtahi heading home a scrappy loose ball after a spill from Falevalu. Within just minutes American Samoa responded brilliantly, first with another long-range bit of perfection, this time from Justin Manoa powering the ball past a motionless Tongan keeper, then a wonderful bit of individual skill from Beauchamp to beat two defenders and set-up an unmarked Ramin Ott to volley home with power. It was a lead they wouldn’t give up, thanks in part to some redeeming heroics from Falevalu at the other end.

With Samoa losing their second game unexpectedly to the Cook Islands, the final day arithmetic stood against American Samoa. They needed to win first of all against the Cook Islanders – a big enough task for a side that has only ever won a handful times in over 20 years – and hope that they bettered Samoa’s result against Tonga or bettered Samoa’s goal difference if they couldn’t. A decision by the OFC to play the matches consecutively rather than simultaneously as is the normal practice – for reasons that have never been made clear – robbed that day of some drama, with Samoa’s early 3-0 win meaning American Samoa needed to win by four clear goals to top the group and progress. They managed to win by two – both free-kicks, one from Ryan Mitchell that the Cook Islander keeper fumbled into his own net, and a rocket from Manoa ten minutes later – but that was all. Three teams finished on six points each, with Samoa advancing by one GD over their American neighbours and the Cook Islands.

Heartbreak again then, but for a side that were once known only for a single 90 minutes of embarrassment, another two wins over their peers was something to be celebrated, and did no harm to national rankings either. From there things are less romantic: American Samoa’s only games since have been against a higher class of opposition in the 2019 Pacific Games, where they could manage only one draw, against Tuvalu, and five heavy defeats. Improvement and wins are to be noted, and cherished, but an imbalance in footballing ability, resources and performances are evident even in the small pond of the OFC: after all, the Samoan side that advanced in World Cup qualifying at the expense of American Samoa left the Second Round with no points, no goals and 19 conceded in three games.

Which brings us to today, and the long deferred OFC qualification campaign. American Samoa have been felled by professional giants before, by a lack of talent, by inept coaching, by the financial strain that comes with the territory and by a lack of underage structures, but this time the problem is different. Neither they, nor neighbouring Samoa, will travel to the tournament that will be hosted by Qatar in March, with both citing travel restrictions caused by the ongoing pandemic. It must be remembered that we are still discussing largely amateur footballing nations whose players either have other jobs, or are being requested to fly great distances from clubs in places like the United States; asking them to go through weeks away from home for a tournament, and then isolate for a few more weeks when they get back, is a difficult thing to get a positive answer to. For the Samoan islands, it was too much to expect. Now formally withdrawn, they will take no part in World Cup qualification.

So, as hot favourites New Zealand, and other relative giants of the confederation like the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia, prepare for an all-or-nothing few weeks in March, the heroes of Next Goal Wins will be staying at home. It is a bitter pill to swallow for such a team, so used to facing enormous odds on the pitch and now forced to reckon with too great an obstacle off of it. Now the wait for games begins again, as it always inevitably does I suppose, and I predict that this side will continue their efforts to display their flag, play as hard as they are able to and continue to upend peoples expectations once they have the opportunity to. For all the misery of present-day circumstances, there’s always another tournament coming down the line, another friendly, another half and another chance to score the next goal.

96. Near Miss: Algeria/Morocco

(22/01/2022)

As long as they are just chasing a ball everything is OK, but a game between these two North African neighbours can mean so much more.

For a while, it is fair to say that the smooth running of the CAF Third Round Draw was in a bit of jeopardy following the conclusion of the last round of matchdays in November. 54 African nations have been reduced to ten, with those teams now to pair-off for a final set of home-and-away qualifiers. Two of those ten had their places the subject of appeals: Ghana, from South Africa who felt their critical game was the subject of officiating duplicity, and DR Congo, from Benin on the grounds the Congolese had abused substitution rules during their critical match. Both appeals were thrown out, and so things can continue. It’s a sign of how strange things can get in CAF really, that the procedure of World Cup qualifying can be held up by such things.

And they are far from isolated incidents. Various figures in CAF, from President Patrice Motsepe right down to the people picking the balls out today were hoping that two particular sides in the final ten would avoid each other. In the event that they could not, fears would be acute that real world political tensions, fuelled by accusations of murder and destruction, could prove an intractable obstacle to the holding of football matches. For Algeria and Morocco, the possibility of having another reason to ratchet up the temperature between the two nations right now is something to be avoided. Those tensions have already played a part in their recent footballing history after all.

Neighbours in North Africa, relations between Algeria and Morocco have been poor for some time. Morocco may have provided aid to Algerian insurgents fighting France in that country’s War of Independence in the 1950’s, but that’s largely as far as friendliness has gone. A brief border conflict between the two in 1963, the Sand War, was prelude to a longer period of dispute. For the better part of the last fifty years they’ve been at loggerheads over the status of the Western Sahara territory, a sparely populated section of North-West Africa. A Spanish colonial possession until 1975, four-fifths of it is occupied by Morocco, with the remainder controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, who have Algerian support. Morocco’s decade long conflict with the SADR was largely a proxy conflict with Algeria, Algeria has accused Morocco of supporting dissident elements during its own Civil War, both have accused the other of being lax when it comes to drug trafficking between the two and in 1994 things deteriorated to the point of borders being closed.

Tensions and mistrust have flared up again more recently, in the wake of Morocco’s normalisation of relations with Israel and the Trump administrations move to recognise Moroccan claims in the Western Sahara. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune claimed Morocco was responsible for a series of devastating wildfires that have killed 90 people in Northern Algeria last year, and broke off diplomatic relations in August. After the death of three truck drivers travelling between the two countries in November, killed in a bombing, the Algerian government blamed Morocco. Algeria’s action has been to end a contract for a pivotal gas pipeline that runs through its borders, and from there through Morocco and into Europe. Morocco gets 10% of its energy supplies through the pipeline, so the cut-off has the potential to be quite damaging in the long-run, if Algeria can maintain the shut-off: if they can’t keep gas flowing into Europe through alternate pipelines they could face some hefty financial penalties themselves. Some analysts fear this tit-for-tat escalation is leading to armed conflict between the two countries, though the capacity for either to prosecute such an effort would be very much in question.

So how does football come into this? Beyond the threat that Algeria and Morocco could end up playing a vital two-legged play-off with each other at such a critical time? Well, football’s part of this crisis has been evident for a few months now, starting in September. Algeria were supposed to be travelling to Burkina Faso then as part of their Second Round qualification group, but the Stade de 4 Aout was one of many stadiums deemed incapable of hosting such matches by CAF, and thus an alternate one had to be found. For whatever reasons, and they surely could not be considered weightier than avoiding potential flashpoints in a geo-political crisis, Algeria were told they would have to cross the border into Morocco and play the game in Marrakesh.

The trip caused understandable nerves among many, wondering what kind of reception the Algerian squad could expect in Morocco, and even worries that the team could find themselves unwitting pawns of this game of diplomatic posturing. Algerian coach Djamel Belmadi was at pains to play down the unexpectedly political backdrop to the tie, insisting that his side would play with “lot of hope, a lot of ambition, without fussing… and without excessive paranoia.” His last point was in reference to security fears, but in the end he was right: Algeria’s game with Burkina Faso passed off without incident, with Belmadi ultimately more concerned with the result, a 1-1 draw where Algeria surrendered an early lead and left what should have been a straightforward group balanced precariously. The worst of it off the pitch was when Algerians complained that their journalists were unnecessarily banned from reporting, with the Moroccans insisting this was unjust whinging over necessary COVID protocols; indeed, the fact that the virus meant the game was played with no fans in attendance probably helped matters.

The second footballing flashpoint was, perhaps, more serious. In late November Tebboune made the extraordinary claim that “foreign parties” working from and with the support of Morocco were attempting to distract and otherwise undermine the work of Belmadi, as part of some larger scheme to cause unrest and unhappiness in Algeria more generally. The President did not go into any greater specifics about these accusations, naturally enough, but it was undoubtedly alarming that the executive head of a country felt himself in a position to both fan the flames of a diplomatic crisis and to wade into a developing football drama at the same time. Some would rightly say that the Algerian government is merely doing what it has always done, namely blaming Morocco for all of its problems. It’s probably a drama that the actual Algeria team, who secured progression to the Third Round with another draw against Burkina Faso a week before the President’s comments, could do without.

Since then the two teams on either side of that oft-disputed border actually have come together, in the Quarter-Finals of the Arab Cup in Qatar. Held in a neutral location, and with both teams sending second strings of local players, the opportunity for the diplomatic situation to be a major factor was thankfully reduced. That said, one could see the nervy aspects of the tie, especially some high-profile errors from the Morocco defence, as signs of a larger tension. 2-2 the game finished at the end of extra-time, with Youcef Belaïli’s goal just past the 100 minute mark the pick of the bunch, a spectacular volley from over 40 yards out that caught the Moroccan defence and goalkeeper completely off guard. In the shoot-out Algeria scored all of their penalties, and Morocco didn’t. It’s actually a rare example of Algerian triumph in this particular regional rivalry, with this their sixth win in 26 attempts. Algeria went on to win the Cup, beating Tunisia in the Final. Despite the lack of controversy and on-pitch difficulties, people would still have been nervous at the prospect of the teams having to have a home-and-away series at such a difficult time. There’s priors in the region after all, with many perhaps thinking of the ties between Algeria and Egypt during the qualification for South Africa 2010, which were marred by violence in and out of stadiums, massive media mudslinging campaigns and jingoistic feeling that reached truly worrying levels.

So we came to the actual draw. In the end, the air was taken out of the balloon by the decision to seed the participants, and to do so on the basis of November’s FIFA rankings as opposed to those that would be effected by performances in the Arab Cup and the ongoing AFCON (where, at time of writing, Morocco are soaring while Algeria have been dumped out at the group stage: a change in ranking that could have put the two back into the orbit of each other was unlikely, but possible). Both Morocco and Algeria can count themselves as top seeds, so could not be drawn against the other. Instead, Morocco will travel to Egypt, while Algeria will face Cameroon. Notwithstanding their importance as the final hurdle ahead of World Cup qualification, these ties will do much to determine the relative position of both teams in 2022.

It’s the kind of drama that the people of either country could do with more of, in comparison to the seemingly endless dispute between their governments that always carries with it the risk of a bloody conflict. There seems to be little likelihood of a final settlement ever being reached on the Western Sahara, and little more likely is a normalisation of border status. There seems to be just too much distrust, anger and memory in that relationship but at least, for the time being anyway, football will see its part in proceedings as a near miss, and not as a flashpoint.

97. Marmite: Australia

(27/01/2022)

Take two, and a last chance.

Australia need two wins in the next few days. Vietnam, without a point so far, are first, then an Omani team that a side like the Socceroos really should be beating. Following a dropping of five points to their chief rivals in Group B of AFC’s Third Round, then a disappointing stalemate with China PR, Australia are fully aware that they have only a limited time to right the ship and assure qualification to Qatar. The man most keenly aware of this, who knows full well that his employment relies upon that qualification, is their head coach, Graham Arnold. He lies at the centre of a maelstrom, a debate that has engulfed Australian football for many years about this polarising figure within the sport: at once derided for being too old school, too conservative, too arrogant, and at the same time praised for a maturity in tactics, for a needed solidity and for having that air of confidence that someone in his position needs. He’s the Marmite manager in other words, and the final verdict on what is his second stint in charge of the team may be coming soon.

Arnold is a long-time member of the Australian footballing community. Born in Sydney in 1963, he started playing competitively from a very early age, and over the next ten years in various underage sides demonstrated an eye for goal that soon had him marked as a likely professional: a not inconsiderable achievement in a country with much more time for Aussie Rules, cricket and rugby. A striker with a playing career spanning over three decades, he was a mainstay of Sydney Croatia, later Sydney United, during the 80’s when he topped league goal-scoring charts, before a seven year sojourn in the Netherlands and Belgium. Arnold would have been one of the few Australians playing regular top-flight European football at the time, even if his playing career petered out afterwards with brief spells in Japan and back in his home country. Despite amassing a not inconsiderable record as a forward – even late in his career he was averaging a goal every two games – it was not as a player but as a manager that he was going to make his name. After two years as a player manager with his last club, Northern Spirit, Arnold graduated to the international scene.

For six years Arnold served as an assistant to the mens senior national side, first under Frank Farina during the nadir of Australia’s time in the OFC, and then briefly under Gus Hiddink for the 2006 World Cup campaign. It was a time of heartbreak and success, between the oh-so-close 2002 cycle that ended in such despair against Uruguay in Montevideo and then the team’s first trip to a Finals in 32 years in Germany, already covered in this series. Arnold was there through it all, a valuable cog in that very special team of Australian superstars. When Hiddink left after Germany, Arnold was the natural choice to elevate into the top position.

Arnold’s preferred playing style errs towards a practical, some might say cynical, pursuit of a result above anything else. He likes using only a core set of players who can implement his system, and focuses much of his planning on the quick movement of the ball from defence straight to the forward line, bypassing a midfield that Arnold has only rarely put a huge amount of time into. There is little in the way of tactical flexibility, and little resort to any kind of Plan B. It’s very much a well worn mentality that would not look out of place at the 1990 World Cup: a philosophy that is derided by many as just a dressed up hoofball, where the object is get as quickly as possible into the scoring third so a forward can get onto a breaking ball and fashion an opportunity. Sometimes it works, and then Arnold is described as a realistic coach good at grinding for the three points. Sometimes it doesn’t, and then he is a dinosaur. What can’t be denied is that such an inherently limited and conservative approach achieves its best results against inferior opposition, and Arnold’s first stint in charge of Australia had too little of that.

It was to be a tumultuous time. The media and the fans at home had gotten used to the side winning games and making a splash at tournaments, and expected such things to continue, meaning Arnold was probably dealing with the highest expectations of any Australian coach for some time. This belied the reality of what he was facing into, with that golden generation already declining, and Australia dealing with the much tougher environment of the AFC. In the 2007 Asian Cup, Australia’s first edition of the tournament, plenty considered them as favourites, but that did not translate to on-field performance. A defeat to lowly Kuwait during qualification had raised eyebrows only to be largely dismissed when the Socceroos booked their place, but that was as far as the patience went. Before a ball was kicked Arnold was in trouble for his squad selection, and several bad-tempered press conferences before and during the tournament only added to the pressure.

Australia barely salvaged a draw with Oman in their opening game, before being humbled 3-1 by eventual tournament winners Iraq. A belated thrashing of Thailand got Australia into the knock-outs on goal difference where a penalty shoot-out loss to Japan ended their tournament. There were howls of outrage at home about the perceived inability of Australia to compete at that level, compared to the World Cup, and especially after so much effort had gone into getting the country into the AFC in the first place. Arnold retained his job for a time, enough to take the U-23 team to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was a talented squad of youngsters bolstered by a few veterans from the senior side, but they again underperformed, especially relative to the expectations back home, where the “Olyroos” have a dedicated following that occasionally matches that of the older side. Arnold came back from China with a point and a shared bottom spot. It was the final straw, and he was relieved of his position shortly afterwards, though he retained a coaching role for several more years.

Arnold left the Australian job a somewhat vilified figure, perceived as a man promoted too far who had conspired to throw away the talents of the best generation of players the country had ever seen. But he wasn’t one to rest on his limited laurels. When his assistant position expired after the 2010 World Cup, he turned to club management within Australia, beginning a new, and often divisive, phase of his career. First with Central Coast Mariners, then briefly with Japanese side Vegalta Sendai, then more substantially with his local Sydney FC, Arnold has excelled in this particular arena, winning two A-League Championships and three Premierships in six years.

But his successes have only added to the argument surrounding him. Arnold retained many supporters, both in terms of the fanbase and within the organisations of Australian football, who felt that he wasn’t given a fair enough shot at the national side, and that his management was preferable to those that came after. Others maintain that he’s one of the worst things to happen to the national side, a man whose enormous ego and penchant for negative tactics mired the Socceroos unnecessarily. The debate has only been fuelled by his club management career: Sydney FC’s success has perhaps only increased the unpopularity of Arnold from other core areas of football support in the country. His titles speak for themselves, but can be countered by acknowledging the truth that the A-League is fundamentally limited, with Arnold’s team succeeding against poor opposition at home but never able to assert themselves greatly at continental level. Sometimes his unpopularity has reached ridiculous extremes: when a banner depicting Arnold engaged in a lewd act was unfurled by Western Sydney Wanderers fans during a 2017 derby game, it could be counted as a fairly low moment in the discourse surrounding fan support in Australia. Such is the level of antipathy that Arnold has been able to generate.

That antipathy did not prevent Arnold from being hired to take over the Socceroos after the 2018 World Cup, in what we can describe as take two for his international management career. Even here the Marmite manager has continued to court two very different kinds of opinions, relative to his first stint: on the one hand deemed a smarter, more accomplished and more capable coach who is able to handle the media more deftly and get better results on the pitch, and on the other called a busted flush whose continued adherence to a system too conservative for the modern game will see Australian football fail to evolve.

Despite Arnold’s insistence that he is up for the challenge, the second take for him at this level has only produced more red meat for his critics, and time is rapidly running out for him to right the ship. The 2019 Asian Cup, where Australia were defending champions, ended, as it did for Arnold in 2007, with a Quarter-Final exit. COVID delayed Arnold’s return to the Olympics with the Olyroos, but the end result was still the same as it had been in 2008, with Australia out in the group stage despite an impressive victory against Argentina: subsequent losses had critics decrying Arnold’s continued insistence on defensive tactics when Australia’s squad seemed far more capable than their opponents.

Which leaves the 2022 World Cup campaign, and that’s hardly been the best example of Arnold’s skills either. Inheriting a side unsettled by multiple managerial changes in the months leading up to an unimpressive showing in Russia, Arnold breezed through the Second Round with a 100% record and seemed to be going well initially in the Third, with three wins in their first three matches. But in the last few months of 2021 the wheels came off. A late loss in Tokyo and frustrating draws with Saudi Arabia and China have seen Australia drop seven of the last nine points and fall to the play-off spot. All along, the continued chorus of dissenting voices and defenders of Arnold have played out their off-pitch battle, the one convinced that Arnold is leading Australia to disaster, the other than he needs more time.

The question to be asked is has Arnold grown enough as a coach between his two stints? The results have carried a similarity, as have the complaints about the way that he sets his team’s up on the pitch. A tactful attitude with the press is one thing, but even a mollified media will have its patience worn a bit thin if Australia continue to drop points. The debate over Arnold, sometimes rancorous, will undoubtedly continue for at least another few months.

Those few months coincide with Australia’s final four games in World Cup qualification. Vietnam today, where Arnold is absent owing to a COVID diagnosis, should be an easy three points, the south-east Asian side knocking on the door of a premature elimination. Oman, a few days from now in Muscat, will be a tad trickier, but three points is still the minimum to be expected to be won. That done, Arnold can look ahead to the critical five day stretch in March when he faces Saudi Arabia and Japan again, with at least four points required to assure Australia of automatic progression. Third place would leave them needing to get past two-play off matches, one of them against the unpalatable prospect of South America’s fifth-best team. Given Australia’s traumatic history with such ties, it’s something they will want to avoid.

Something worse than that, where the Socceroos find themselves overtaken by the likes of Oman, is still, for the moment anyway, the realm of nightmare. But it is a possibility. Arnold’s second tenure as Australian head coach will be decided by such things. Get to Qatar, and he’ll be given the side until the end of next year at the very least. Fail to, and the debate is likely to be settled once and for all: Australia did not enter the AFC to sit out World Cup Finals. Take two continues, and we’ll see if Australia still has a taste for Marmite after March.

98. The Sequel: Panama

(30/01/2022)

Their appetite whetted by 2018, Panamanian fans hold out hope for another course.

When their tenure at the 2018 World Cup came to a conclusion, following a flat 2-1 loss to Tunisia, the players, squad and supporters of Panama would be forgiven for feeling that the entire affair had been a curious anti-climax. After all, the manner in which they had achieved a place in the tournament, with the infamous “ghost goal” on the last day of qualifying, was so extraordinary that it almost presaged something extraordinary happening in the Finals themselves. But in three games the Panamanians were ruthlessly exposed, first by Belgium, then by England and finally by Tunisia, to finish as the statistically worst of the 32 sides, and make their Finals appearance more of a limp post-script than the epic continuation of an unlikely venture. Ever since that final whistle in their last group game, this little-rated Central American side has undoubtedly been thinking about an opportunity to get back to a Finals and making a better go of it, to prove worthy of the slightly ridiculous story of 2018. They remain in the hunt, and the story of their 2022 qualification campaign to date has been dramatic enough, one worthy of consideration.

When last we spoke about Panama, all the way back in June 2021, they had just topped their First Round CONCACAF group. Amid a restructuring of the Panamanian Football Federation, hit badly by the pandemic to the point of needing to cut costs everywhere, the little-noted Thomas Christiansen took charge of the team. Best known for a failed tenure at a pre-Bielsa Leeds United and with only a Cypriot League Title in his cabinet as a manager, Christiansen must have seemed like a somewhat desperate appointment at the time, but his lack of trophies belied his background: a veteran of the Barcelona academy structure as a player and with experience all over Europe, Christiansen brings more to the table than may initially meet the eye, with an attacking philosophy that has drawn some comparison to his Catalan contemporary Pep Guardiola.

It took a while for Christiansen’s philosophy to become rooted with Panama, trying to keep standards up during a pandemic and dealing with the disappointment of being ranked low enough to fall into CONCACAF’s First Round sides. They laboured a bit early on in this campaign, needing late goals to put away minnows like Barbados and Dominca, before smashing Anguilla and the Dominican Republic a few months later, scoring 16 goals in two matches. A dicey Second Round play-off with an up-and-coming Curaçao was the reward. The first leg was a tense affair played in front of just 7’000 in Panama City, where two second-half goals were partially cancelled out by a late Curaçaoan response, that left things finely poised a few days later in Willemstad. While the other Second Round ties ended in lopsided victories for Canada and El Salvador, Panama were left to grind out a scoreless draw to secure progression to the Third Round, in a game where, wary of conceding what would have been a killer, Panama provided little attacking impetus of their own, save a missed penalty. It was a tie that had many people dismissing Panama as a major factor in the Octagon, probably just fodder for the likes of Mexico and the United States, and a minor road block for more accomplished Central American sides like Costa Rica. Their time in the Gold Cup in July, where they were knocked out at the group stage after unconvincing performances against the likes of Qatar and Honduras, only seemed to back-up that opinion.

But Panama, and Christiansen, were determined to prove people wrong, and showcase Los Canaleros as more than just a side relying on freak goals. They did just that in the first set of games in the Octagon, which were not some set of pushover ties. A ground out 0-0 at home to Costa Rica showcased some of Panama’s fighting spirit, before a well-deserved 3-0 mauling of Jamaica really got them off the mark in style, Andres Andrade’s opener from distance the pick of the bunch in what was a dominant display. Many would have thought that the other shoe was about to drop when they welcomed a visiting Mexico to Panama City, but that ended up being a game that Panama probably should have won on the back of Rolando Blackburn’s opener, he tipping home from close range after a goalie spill with just under half-an-hour played. The home side were denied the three points by a late Jesus Corona equaliser, a rebounded shot after Mexico had hit the post, but a draw against such opposition was nothing to scoff at really.

The October series of matchdays started off badly, with Panama losing limply by a single goal in San Salvador, Enrico Hernandez the only scorer. Heading into the visit of the United States to Panama City, it seemed like Christiansen’s charges were staring into the void of being an also-ran before they had really gotten started. He and his team responded brilliantly to such a threat to record their stand-out result of the campaign so far, with MLS’ Anabel Godoy scoring the only goal just short of the hour mark, heading home from a corner, and setting off wild celebrations. The Americans had no answer, and just like that Panama had gotten four points from six against the Octagon’s top seeds.

Three days later they went a goal up on Canada in Edmonton with another Blackburn strike, and Panamanian fans would have been forgiven for thinking that the side were on their way to firmly grabbing a hold of an automatic progression place. The Canadians were not of a mind to allow this. In the course of the rest of the game, but especially in the last half-hour, Panama got torn apart, conceding four, the worst probably Jonathan David’s closer as he slotted home from close range with the Panamanian defence in total disarray around him. Despite that historic victory against the US team that had just won the Gold Cup, Panama left October with three points from nine, and in danger again of slipping into the realm of irrelevancy.

November brought easier games, on paper, that Panama needed to get results from. The first, against Honduras, seemed to bode extremely poorly: two down with only 15 minutes to play, Panama’s goose looked cooked. But then they rallied back for one of the great reverses of this World Cup qualification cycle, with goals from Cecelio Waterman, taking advantage of a defensive muddle to ghost in and convert and Cesar Yannis, brilliantly beating the offside trap to then chip over the Honduran keeper, leaving the game tied. When Panama won a free-kick on the edge of the area, you could tell Honduras were petrified at the prospect of going from an easy 2-0 victory to an unlikely defeat. They were right to be. Up stepped Eric Davis, who caught everybody napping by aiming for the smaller target of the far side of the goal. The little-used gambit worked, and Panama had gone from staring a disastrous reverse in the face, to celebrating another iconic victory of recent times, and all in the space of just eight minutes. They repeated the trick in smaller format a few days later, scoring two goals in three minutes to overcome a deficit against El Salvador. The results left Panama in the Intercontinental spot with six games to play, and with a cushion of five points between them and Costa Rica behind.

And it was Costa Rica next, played just a few days ago. Like the earlier scoreless draw it was a tight encounter, and in the end it was Panama who came out on the losing side, falling to Bryan Ruiz’ lone goal, a rebounded effort after Jose Ortiz’ shot had been parried away by Luis Mejia. The result seems to to only emphasise the topsy-turvey nature of this Panamanian campaign, with crucial wins being matched with crucial losses, with Panama only just keeping their noses in front. Two points clear of Costa Rica in the Intercontinental place, it’s going to be a race to the finish over the next five games.

The first of those games is today, at home to Jamaica. With Costa Rica travelling to Mexico, Panama will be desperately hoping for a six-point swing that will leave them with room to breath in the right half of the Octagon, before they make the trip to Mexico City themselves. What has already been a campaign worthy of fiction will presumably have a few more twists and turns yet: Christiansen and his charges are probably worthy of some manner of grand stand finish, but whether it concludes in triumph or with an oh so close failure to make it, remains to be seen. They say sequels are rarely as good as the original, and it’s the last act of the movie that will make that determination for Panama.

99. The World Cup Conspiracy: South Korea

(01/02/2022)

The masses of South Korea didn’t mind the controversy in 2002, but plenty of others did.

For South Korea, everything is going according to the plan, for the most part. Undefeated in Group A of the AFC’s Third Round, the side are practically already making plans for Qatar in November following last Thursday’s narrow 1-0 victory against Lebanon, with the result meaning only some unlikely arithmetic would stop them becoming one of the final 32. This comes as little surprise to anyone really, with South Korea probably the AFC’s most consistent side in terms of World Cup qualification, having made it to the last nine Finals. Most of those appearances have been nothing really of note, with seven group stage exits and one last 16 appearance in 2018.

And then there is 2002. It was the year that South Korea reached their footballing apogee, co-hosting the World Cup and stunning everyone by getting as far as the final four. It is a moment that succeeding generations of South Korean footballers have tried and failed to live up to, and will remain forever embedded in the national consciousness of the South Korean people, an event of national pride and identity separate from the constant and never-ending comparisons with the North. And yet for many others that journey was replete with controversy, to the point that some alleged a degree of scandal: call it the South Korean World Cup Conspiracy.

First, the facts. South Korea qualified for the 2002 World Cup as co-hosts, and with the first seed status that such things bring. They still faced a difficult group, but managed to top it: an opening victory over Poland was followed by a draw with the United States and then a crowning win over an underperforming Portugal, where a 22-year old Park Ji-sung scored the only goal. That resulted in a Second Round tie with Italy, who had not exactly lit the tournament up to that point. South Korea took the game to extra-time late on with Seol Ki-Hyeon’s 88th minute equaliser after Christian Vieri had opened the scoring, before Ahn Jung-hwan won the game with a Golden Goal for the co-hosts just three minutes from time. That brought a last eight clash with Spain, where neither side was capable of scoring in 120 minutes, but where South Korea were capable of scoring five penalties to Spain’s three. Having become the first Asian side to reach the last four of a World Cup, the Koreans came up short against eventual runners-up Germany, conceding the only goal of a tight contest with 15 minutes to play. In the 3rd Place Play Off they were unable to completely reverse a flurry of Turkish scoring in the first half-hour, and ended the tournament in fourth. South Korea’s road through the World Cup attracted enormous interest at home and abroad, and has been held up then and since as an example of how host nations can make use of their advantages to exceed expectations.

But there was a dark, negative kernel at the heart of this otherwise miraculous journey. The group stages were alright, and while South Korea topping their group was unexpected, many put it down to favourable results against a nervy American side and a Portuguese team still 13 months away from getting Cristiano Ronaldo onto the pitch. A soft penalty won against the US, and two red cards suffered by the Portuguese, did not warrant too much attention, though some felt the second of those reds had been harsh.

The Italian game was different. Officiated by Ecuadorian Byron Moreno, the game saw a number of controversial decisions go in the favour of the home team. Just five minutes in the ref awarded the Koreans a penalty for some pushing and shirt-pulling in the area, arguably a real six-of-one situation as it came from a set-piece and both sides were doing the usual. Buffon saved the spot-kick though, so justice could be said to be done. Moreno struggled to retain control of the game thereafter, especially as things became more physical after Italy’s opener: nine yellow cards would be dished out before the end, and two Italian players left the field owing to injuries. Elbows flew from both sides, and Paulo Maldini got kicked in the head while prone at one point, with no stoppage in play.

After Korea’s dramatic late equaliser Italy lost Francesco Totti to a second yellow for an alleged diving offence in the South Korean penalty area: Totti perhaps overegged his collapse, but contact was made in a manner that should have been deemed offence worthy. Even if it was not considered a foul, it was unheard of for such a fall to be considered deserving of a caution, let alone a second yellow. A few minutes later Damiano Tommasi had the ball in the net for what would have been a winning Golden Goal, only for it to be ruled out for offside: replays indicated the call was marginal at best. With a few minutes to play South Korea scored the winner, and that was that.

The aftermath was fairly bitter from the Italians, already smarting from some controversial offside decisions in the group stage (Tommasi’s effort was their fifth disallowed goal for that offence). Their media went into overdrive alleging dirty dealings. Seol was infamously the subject of public harassment from the owner of his Italian club, to the point that he left Italy and then successfully sued for damage to his career. Both Totti and Italian manager Giovanni Trappatoni, along with Italian government figures, alleged that the powers that be had worked to insure Italy’s elimination, so the co-hosts could proceed. So much ire was rained down on Moreno – Alessandro Nesta even went as far as to dub him overweight after the game – that Sepp Blatter felt obliged to step to to defend him for “human not premeditated errors”. It didn’t help that Moreno was suspended a few months later from his Ecuadorian refereeing duties after some sketchy decisions, and that he retired owing to poor performance marks a year later: he has since spent several years in a US prison for heroin smuggling.

People might have put it down to a poor officiating performance and left it at that, but then came the Quarter-Final with Spain. The first half of that game passed largely without much incident, but not the second. On 50 minutes Spain had the ball in the net but it was chalked off for an alleged infringement in the build-up: in the muddle of players, it seemed as if innocuous contact was an excuse more than an actual foul. Next Luis Enrique was put clean through, only to be called offside, later shown to be an incorrect flag raising. In the second minute of extra-time Fernando Morientes scored from a header, only for another flag to rule it out, this time on the grounds that the ball had crossed the end-line in the build-up: again, incorrect. In the decisive shoot-out, Korean keeper Lee Woon-jae strayed off his line repeatedly as he stopped one of the opposing kicks, but nothing was done.

One such game was bad, but two in a row provoked a storm of complaint and accusations. Ivan Helguera had to be restrained from doing something stupid in the aftermath with referee Gamal Al-Ghandour, and joined the chorus in claiming “they” wanted Spain to lose. Captain Fernando Hierro expressed doubt in the possibility of human error. Spanish media whipped up a veritable hate campaign against the officiating team, while Spanish manager Jose Camacho claimed that Spain were “just one more victim”. Across the globe, people decried the farcical descent the World Cup appeared to have taken. So many eyes were intently watching Urs Meier’s role as referee in the subsequent Semi-Final with Germany that any mite of controversy might have been enough to bring the entire tournament into serious disrepute, but in the end the game passed without major incident, save Michael Ballack’s winner.

So, was it a conspiracy? Well, if we are to imagine ourselves inside a courtroom, the answer would have to be a fairly definitive “no”. Nothing even approaching hard evidence has ever been presented that something literally criminal took place that summer, that the two referees deliberately made decisions that favoured South Korea, whether it was because of pressure from FIFA or just for financial gain. Such direct accusations could probably be considered defamatory if they were made, and it’s a wonder the two officiating teams didn’t attempt such suits with certain Italian and Spanish individuals. Subsequent revelations of FIFA corruption, such as Sepp Blatter claiming the 1998 World Cup draw was rigged in France’s favour, have only added to the sense that something untoward could have occurred in 2002, but just because something could have happened does not mean that something did happen.

If we are to make any suppositions about those two games, it is only that bad refereeing decisions are not exactly unknown, or even infrequent; that referee’s having bad games where they make a succession of bad decisions are less likely, but do happen with enough regularity that it can’t be considered suspicious when it does happen; and that two instances of this happening in a row is more unlikely, and justifiably can raise eyebrows, but is also far from a statistical impossibility. Sometimes these things do just happen, and absence actual evidence to the contrary, that is how they should be treated: an aberration that was especially unfair for Italy and then Spain, but an aberration all the same.

Regardless, there was little in the way of any practical action taken. South Korea, though their manager, players and others, maintained their own dismissive attitude towards such accusations, and the 2002 team were acclaimed as heroes long before the conclusion of that tournament. Incidents like those that took place in both of those games did help to propel forward the arguments for some manner of video referrals in football, even if it took the better part of two decades for it to become more concretely manifest. Both Italy and Spain would, somewhat ironically, win the next two World Cups, and memories of what happened on the Korean peninsula were bound to understandably fade in relevance because of that.

Today, nearly 20 years on, South Korea continue their World Cup efforts. Gue-Sung Cho’s first half injury time strike against Lebanon three days ago, a close-range side-footed effort, put them on the brink and tonight, against Syria, they can take the plunge. The side that takes to the field in Dubai is different in many fundamental ways from the 2002 team, who remain the idols, the group of players that everyone in the country wants to emulate. The most important distinction is undoubtedly that the 2022 side aren’t anywhere near as lucky with officials, but then again it is hard to imagine that kind of luck repeating for too long.

100. Failing Process: Uruguay

(02/02/2022)

It had its highs, but the lows of Oscar Tabarez’ run as Uruguay manager have left the two-time winners on the brink.

South American qualifying is so lengthy it can be easy to become lost in the fixture list, and in the fact that 50% of the teams involved progress in some form, and think that so much of its make-up is largely meaningless. With COVID-caused postponements, we are now 16 months into this process and still not done, with last November the original end-date. But we have now, finally, hit the business end of things. Two of the qualification spots have been snapped up, by Brazil and Argentina. Ecuador will either be a qualifier or will take the play-off spot. five teams remain in contention for the other two places, be they automatic or a trip to Qatar to face an Asian side. Things are so tight here: with two games to play six points separate Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Peru..

And just above those four, there is Uruguay. The two-time winners of the World Cup, the strongest opposition that the traditional Rio/Buenos Aires axis has faced within the continent in the last decade or so, have spent the last few months staring into the void, left scrambling for position after a disastrous final quarter of 2021. It was a period that saw the end of of one of the longest managerial reigns in the modern era, and a realisation that one of the finest generations of international players of recent times have entered a period of swansong. We have to go back to five months ago to see how the current crisis started, and explain how it may constitute one of the biggest shocks for this confederation should Uruguay fail to make it to Qatar.

Oscar Tabarez is one of the great managerial success stories at the international level. He took over, for the second time, a Uruguayan team that in 2006 was in disarray, having only gotten to one of the last four World Cups since the end of his first stint in 1990. They seemed ready to accept a long-term mediocrity, with excuses of a limited population, unexceptional internal league and unrealistic expectations created by World Cup and Copa triumphs in bygone eras. But Tabarez was having none of it. He immediately implemented what has gone down in history as the “Proceso”: his own personal management of the national side, that incorporated matchday tactics, one-on-one player improvement programmes and a linking in of the senior side with various underage levels to ensure that Uruguay would become a factory of teams that were trained to develop and play the proper way. That being, of course, the Proceso way.

Tabarez told his staff and underage coaches what he wanted in his players – above all things, the ability to think quickly, move quickly and execute a pass quickly – but refused to be part of a system that hoarded players, happy to see them ply their trade in Europe when old enough. Mandatory courses in Uruguay’s national and footballing history as part of those underage structures would be enough to insure those same players were gagging at the bit to represent their country when the time came, and continue on a legacy of footballing excellence, bravado and gumption. The Uruguayans call it “garra charrua”, a loose term used to describe the courage of a footballing team beating the odds in every game, and it was something that Uruguay showed repeatedly during those years.

The results were simply outstanding. Uruguay went from being one of CONMEBOL’s little noted also-rans to a major continental power, on the back of a gloriously talented generation of players that included Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin. They worked together with the ease of a hive mind mentality moulded over years of playing the same system, they attacked beautifully, and there seemed to be no end of young players fighting it out to be the next one to pull on one of the blue jerseys. This was the team that made it to the Semi-Finals of the 2010 World Cup in electric fashion and it was the team that won the 2011 Copa America. Yes, it had its controversies, most of them provided by the perennially divisive figure of Suarez, but Tabarez seemed like the man with the magic touch, a manager who had figured out international football and made Uruguay a dominant force in South America again, and a side who were spoken of as genuine World Cup contenders

Flash forward a decade. Tabarez was still there, but the good times had dried up. It’s the curse of international teams that one game can define an entire cycle of years, and for Uruguay those games have included the 2014 Second Round loss to Colombia in Brazil, Suarez missing after choosing to use his teeth to challenge an opponent; the Copa Quarter-Final in 2015 where Cavani was sent off after a ridiculous interaction with Chile’s Gonzalo Jaro; and a meek rollover to eventual winners France in the last 16 of 2018. It could be put down to bad individual days, but the signs that the “Proceso” was wavering were there: an over-reliance on aging veterans, the conveyor belt of talent from the underage teams not producing as well as it had, and a frustration that Uruguay did not seem capable of evolving from the attack-minded formations that had been so successful for them, but which now seemed somewhat predictable.

Inevitably some began to wonder if the Proceso had been a success more because of a uniquely gifted set of players rather than the underling procedures at its heart, which could not overcome Uruguay’s small population or an internal league that shed professionals of any real talent very quickly. And, equally as inevitably, some would have thought Tabarez, no spring chicken and suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, would have had enough after 2018. Sad to see, but it was undeniable that the sight of the beloved manager, making his way to the dugout with the help of a crutch, gave more than one Uruguayan fan pause after 2018.

On several occasions Tabarez has looked like he was on the way out, but the promise of a new generation of players coming up from the U-20s, and the respect of enough Uruguayan officials and supporters, meant he was retained for the current qualifying campaign. You can’t really blame him, with players like Suarez and Cavani heading into what is likely to be their last significant campaign, younger stars like Maxi Gomes and Darwin Nunez arguably hitting their peak years and the new breed, like Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur ready to take on their first Finals. If, that is, Tabarez could get them there, which is why he was allowed to take the reins one more time.

It’s a decision that the AUF, often mired in controversy themselves, have had cause to regret. For the first half of the campaign Uruguay were slipshod, dropping points to teams they have coasted by at times of the last decade. Tame performance in losses to Ecuador and Brazil, combined with a number of draws where Uruguay struggled to even hit the target, let alone score, marked out a side that looked tired and little out of ideas. And after a September 2021 where seven points from nine seemed to point to a revival, the floor really fell out from under La Celeste the following month.

It wasn’t just the results of October, but the manner of them that really put Tabarez on the brink. A scoreless draw against Colombia drew attention to Uruguay’s lack of cutting edge, before embarrassing reversals to Argentina and Brazil, 3-0 and 4-1 respectively. Uruguay were barely averaging a goal a game in qualification total, and Tabarez’ reversion to a 4-4-2 formation that accommodates Suarez and Cavani equally has not resulted in any change. Jose Gimenez, an utterly vital part of Uruguay’s defensive system with Godin ageing fast, went off injured against Colombia, and then Barca’s Ronald Araujo did the same against Argentina: Uruguay seven goals conceded in two games is a consequence of their sudden threadbare appearance at the back. Tabarez, desperate to force a result against one of the top sides of the continent, kept a mis-guided faith with his 4-4-2 formation, and was over-run in the midfield in the course of 180 miserable minutes.

He clung on to his position, though the vote of confidence he received from the AUF was hardly unanimous. Many would have thought it better to retain the veteran manager with more games only three weeks away, against Argentina and then the oft-dreaded visit to the altitude of La Paz. But it was an open secret that a replacement was already lined up. When Argentina completed the double in Montevideo on the back of a lone Angel di Maria goal, followed by a 3-0 humiliation in Bolivia, enough was enough. What once was only spoken of in heretical tones became reality, with Tabarez relieved of his position after the team returned from the mountains. His 15 year reign brought Uruguay some of its greatest highs in over half-a-century, but he left the side seventh of ten in CONMEBOL qualifying, with only four games to play. It seemed a grim end to what had once been seen as one of the greatest managerial administrations at this level.

At the same time, it would be slightly ridiculous to claim as if all was lost. Tabarez’ replacement, Inter Miami’s Diego Alonso, inherited a side that was only one point off the qualification places with half of their remaining games against sides below them in the table. Getting to Qatar remained not only possible, but likely, if the players that Uruguay have could get the finger out. Their first chance at doing so was against Paraguay a few days ago, and it was Luis Suarez that came up with the goods to end Uruguay’s losing streak, his lone second-half goal, a fine left-footed volley after taking down a Godin pass, enough to claim a vital three points that elevated La Celeste into the right half of the table. It was an improved if not exactly inspiring performance where Uruguay made the most chances, and they would have been concerned that they were unable to hit the net more than once. A late red card to Gustavo Gomez made things more nervous for the visitors than they would have liked, but a win was a win.

Last night, it was Venezuela. Here, against opposition whose high hopes at the outset off qualifying have been so ruthlessly dashed to the point of becoming the first side mathematically eliminated from contention, Uruguay embodied some of their previous flash and flair. It took less than sixty seconds for Rodrigo Betancur to bring Montevideo to its feet, slamming home a loose ball from just outside the box. 21 minutes later Giorgian De basically killed the game with a close-range finish after hard-work in the build-up from Facundo Pellistri. Just before half-time Cavani scored a ridiculous-looking third, a bicycle kick into an empty net after a muddle inside the Venezuelan penalty area, before Luis Suarez added a fourth in the second half with a re-taken penalty. A Venezuelan consolation, Josef Martinez scoring on a one-on-one after a basic error from s returning Giminez, will surely give the celebrating Uruguayans a bit of pause as they consider defensive frailty, but the end result already shows that the post-Processo era may be more profitable for Uruguay then its denouement. They hold the last automatic qualification spot with two games to play.

It could all yet come undone. Those two games are against Peru at home and Chile away, both of those sides still firmly in the hunt for World Cup places themselves. A final table where Uruguay are pipped is not only possible but, on the basis of form over the last twelve months, could not be considered especially surprising. If this was to come to pass, it will probably be blamed on Tabarez and his too elongated tenure. If it does not, it will probably all be put on Alonso’s new regime. Such is the way of things. It’s for the historians. For the present, Uruguay need focus, preparation and plenty of “garra charrua” as they look to keep the good times rolling and present themselves as more than this one generation of sublime footballers.

101. On The Brink: USA/Honduras

(03/02/2022)

Once much closer in ability, last nights game solidified the truth that even as troubled as they sometimes are, the US is streaks ahead of Honduras.

Things are looking a little unexpected in the Octagon these days. The teams you would expect to be essentially booking their plane tickets to the Middle-East by now are lagging behind unlikely challengers, and others are so far behind where they need to be that they are contemplating the next competition and the next cycle, the dream of being a Finalist already something it would be best not to dwell on too much. Last night, sides that encapsulated either of these two definitions came together in CONCACAF. One, a team that has pretensions of joining the global elite, was smarting from a defeat to their northern neighbours that would have seemed unthinkable just a short time ago, and has brought up uncomfortable memories of disasters some thought had been banished. The other had a similar experience on Sunday last, are rooted to the very bottom of this eight team shoot-out, and presumably wondering how it has all gone wrong since their appearance among the last 32 in 2014. Arrayed against each other, the United States and Honduras had only four games left to either secure qualification or regain a semblance of competitiveness and pride.

The US remains very much on the edge of an unpalatable abyss. The 2018 disaster was supposed to have been redeemed by now, and the side’s convincing victory in the Gold Cup last Summer certainly indicated that the ghosts of what occurred on the last day of qualification for Russia could be laid to rest. But six months on and the “USMNT” find themselves far from assured of a place in Qatar, after a qualification campaign wherein they have stuttered on numerous occasions. Points dropped to El Salvador, Canada, Panama and Jamaica meant that ahead of last night the US lay only one point ahead of the Intercontinental spot and only two more bad results from being out of progression entirely. And with tricky away trips to Mexico and Costa Rica to come, on either side of an unpredictable Panama, the US cannot take any points for granted. The parallels to what occurred the last time are striking really, and have left more than one commentator and journalist pondering as to whether it is about to be confirmed as a blip or a pattern. The States had little time to arrest the criticism.

On the other side Honduras has had, by the standards of any team that nominally places themselves inside the top eight of a footballing confederation, a disastrous campaign. Three points from three draws have been the sum total of their achievements in the Octagon, with a 2-0 home loss to little-fancied Jamaica a particular low-point. In ten games they have managed to score only five goals, and in this specific series of matchdays have shipped back-to-back 2-0 defeats to a Canadian side that is clearly on another level and Salvadorian neighbours who have just about overtaken Honduras in terms of quality and relative position in recent years. The last result means Honduras are the first team at this Third Round of CONCACAF qualification to no longer be able to reach Qatar. Their remaining matches, especially that against Jamaica, are about restoring a bit of pride and preparing for the next cycle, even while a host of voices at home call for wholesale change at FENAFUTH. But first there is the giant of the United States which, given the difference in their points totals – a full 15 after only ten games – could only be considered a free shot for Los Catrachos.

Suffering from a few knocks picked up against Canada, and mindful of the opposition, the US made seven changes from their last game. Among the new arrivals were defenders Reggie Cannon of Boavista and Walker Zimmerman of Nashville, while the head of Gregg Berhalter’s 4-3-3 had a very new look in the form of Jordan Morris, Ricardo Pepi and Tim Weah. The really big guns, not least Christian Pulisic, were left on the bench: some would say a just reward for a series of uninspiring performances from Pulisic in his nations shirt recently. Honduras maintained an evolving strategy in team section that has been preferred ever since Hernan Dario Gomez took over the side late last year, but the team that took to the field last night still had an aging and desperate look to it: it is difficult to really think otherwise when you see the person of Maynor Figueroa in central defence, 38 years old and currently without a club. Bryan Acosta in midfield and Romell Quito upfront remain the central focuses of a side that was winless in 14 games going into last night.

The major talking point before, during and after the game in Minnesota was the weather, with lows as deep as -14 degrees Celsius in the wind recorded in St Paul. While the US is famously no stranger to Arctic conditions when it comes to football, the game’s temperature still constituted the lowest ever experienced by the home team, and of course played into the hands of those who think, with some degree of proof, that Central American sides suffer in the freeze. Some players donned two pairs of gloves, both benches spent the game huddled inside layers and stadium officials felt compelled to provide complimentary hand-warmers to the 20’000 or so fans who braved the weather to come see the game. Some might well wonder if sporting regulations should preclude US authorities from deliberately picking home grounds where weather conditions are so extreme when other, warmer, options are available. The USSF makes no bones about its reasons for such choices, reasoning that their away trips to tropical conditions can be just as hard on them. The difference of course is that Honduras can’t make stadium choices on the basis of weather. The USA can, and they picked the cold option on Wednesday evening. It is what it is, but it betrays an unmistakable smallness in the character of the American FA.

From the off, the game belonged to the home team, playing in what one can only describe as an eclectic strip of uneven red and purple stripes. Honduras, showcasing the problems that have seen them fall to the position they are in, struggled to get more than two touches of the ball before turning over possession, and the US sought to send in direct long balls to attackers to put the visiting defence under pressure from minute one. And it took only eight for the first goal to come in. When it did it was from a set-piece, something that the Americans have been perceived as struggling with as of late. Kellyn Acosta swung in a free kick from the centre-right of the Honduran half, Weston McKennie rose and his header planted the ball firmly in the net, the Juventus midfielder now firmly established as one of USMNT’s stalwarts. If Honduras had any pretensions about being able to frustrate an American side that have occasionally struggled for goals recently, their ambitions were firmly and quickly thwarted.

The breakthrough achieved, the United States had the time and space to be a bit more patient in their build-up play, knowing that the conditions would wear down Honduras as fast as the movement of the ball. The Honduran goal withstood something of a flurry of offence, with keeper Luis “Buba” Lopez called upon on multiple occasions. Despite their dominance in possession and willingness to move the ball around, the second goal for the hosts, when it came on 36 minutes, was also from a set-piece. This time it was a free kick from near the half-way line whose delivery resulted in a close-range muddle, the ball eventually falling to Zimmerman to dispatch home while most of the Honduran backline looked like they were still wondering where the sphere was. The rest of the half was so dominated by US possession that the heavily bundled up onlookers felt confidant enough to start a “U-S-A” chant marked by successful passes of the ball. With the game already looking sown up, the ascendant side didn’t seem inclined to try too hard, and a well-earned half-time break in heated dressing rooms – where Lopez would stay after getting an IV treatment for suspected hypothermia – arrived without much more in the way of incident.

If one was hoping for a rousing Honduran comeback in the second half, they were to be disappointed. The Central Americans looked spent quickly enough, all they could do to just crowd out American attackers if they got close, and keep the opposition build-up play lasting as long as they could. The US, for their part, did not demonstrate a ruthless streak that may get them into trouble in later games, while a recurring turn to wing-based offence which had no profitable end result against Canada had a similar outcome here. But a third goal to cap the evening could not be denied, and when it arrived it was from yet another set-piece, this time a right-side corner. The floated ball fell kindly for a brought-on Pulisic, and the US’ most recent talisman made no mistake with a low shot to the right of Edrick Menjivar. The remainder of the match was almost farcical in the level of uninterested US domination and desperate Honduran defending: the visitors would reach full-time without testing Matt Turner in the opposite goal once, with the US keeper more concerned with keeping warm through the 90 minutes.

Such was the level of control that the home team exerted on the contest that it would be easy to dismiss Honduras as some sort of third-rate minnow, and not a side that qualified automatically for the Third Round: they would complain about the cold afterwards, but the paucity of talent on display, especially going forward, would indicate that the game could be played at room temperature and the result would not be much different. The win leaves the US in a much stronger position than they were when the game started, five points clear of the dreaded fifth spot and looking far more likely to secure a World Cup place: though their next game, against arch rivals Mexico, may yet send them back into a state of near crisis. For Honduras the beating meted out is a stern reminder of how far the team have fallen recently, and will only pile the pressure on Gomez, whose task is beginning to have a bit of a hopeless look. Both teams are thus on the brink: the US in banishing the memory of 2018, the Hondurans of slipping into a mid-tier CONCACAF mediocrity. The effort to secure or prevent either fate will continue in just under two months, as the bulk of World Cup qualification comes to a conclusion. One hopes that, when it does, teams will only have to reckon with the opposition on the field, and not the temperature as well.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Iran, Korea (Republic), Netherlands, Qatar, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Congo (Democratic Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Fiji, Ghana, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Macedonia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Russia*, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Solomon Islands, Sweden, Tahiti, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Wales

Teams Eliminated But With Games To Play

China (People’s Republic), Honduras, Jamaica, Oman, Paraguay, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam

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

American Samoa, Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic), Saint Lucia, Samoa, Tonga

*If they qualify, Russia are banned from competing under that name.

Photo Credits

64 Years: The Welsh team parade through Cardiff in the aftermath of EURO 2016. Photo by Jeremy Segrott, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share 2.0 Generic License.

The Next Goal: A view of the American Samoa village of Vatia Photo by Eddy23 ,reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Near Miss: Algerian and Moroccan players contest the ball in a 2011 AFCON qualifier. Photo by mustapha_ennaimi, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Marmite: Graham Arnold, pictured in 2007. Photo by AsianFC, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The Sequel: A view from the Estadio Rommel Fernandez ahead of Panama’s World Cup qualifier with El Salvador in October 2021. Photo by 123Hollic, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The World Cup Conspiracy: Crowds in Seoul Plaza during the 2002 World Cup. Photo by ijs, reproduced under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Failing Process: Oscar Tabarez, pictured in 2018. Photo by Ahha Heccn, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

On The Brink: A moment from a USA/Honduras friendly in 2011. Photo by Nathan Forget, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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

This entry was posted in Football (All), Sport and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XI) – All Together Now

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

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