211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XII) – Face-Off

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With all six confederations barrelling towards the conclusion of their qualification formats, March of 2022 came with added tension. In Asia the last play-off spot became a life raft for big and small names alike; in Africa the crucial moment arrived for the ten remaining teams; in North America unlikely overachievers reached for their apogee while others scrambled for places behind; in South America former winners, favourites and dark horses competed for ever decreasing progression places; in Europe mini-tournaments sought to turn twelve into three; and in Qatar, the minnows of the OFC finally got their chance to play actual football. It was a month of face-offs around the world, and by the end of it there would be only three spots left among the 32 yet to be filled.

Part Twelve: Face-Off

102. Unranked: Cook Islands/Tonga

103. The More Things Change: Iraq/UAE

104. Fingertips: Costa Rica/Canada

105. Half And Half: The CAF Third Round

106. Exeunt: The Final CONMEBOL Matchday

107. Nightmare Fuel: Portugal/North Macedonia

108. 0.5: The OFC Tournament

109. A Brief History Of Balls In Bowls: The World Cup Draw

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102. Unranked: Cook Islands/Tonga

(13/03/2022)

Football makes its mark everywhere, but the environment of the Pacific Ocean brings its own unique challenges.

As outlined previously, the final game of the OFC First Round qualification for Russia 2018 took place between American Samoa and the Cook Islands, the match played in front of a few hundred spectators at Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Taking place shortly after Tonga had fallen to Samoa, the Cook Islands needed only a draw to progress, but it was the American Samoans who ran out 2-0 winners, both goals coming from well-placed free kicks ten minutes apart in the second half. As the dejected Cook Islanders left the field, it is unlikely they realised they would not be scheduled to contest another full international game until today, a full six years, six months and nine days later. So long has been their absence from this stage, where they were meant to take to the field for the right to compete in the remainder of OFC qualification, that the Cook Islanders fell out of FIFA Ranking computation, which only includes results from a nations previous four years of play. As such, while they were #190 when they were removed from the rankings, they are today the only side of the 211 eligible for World Cup qualification to be officially unranked. On the other side of the pitch, their Tongan opponents were not all that better off, and were meant to enter the game on the back of a major ecological crisis at home. In the end, no game took place. How did this come to pass? And what does the experience of the Cook Islands and Tonga tell us about football in the vastness of the Pacific?

The first, and arguably most important, factor that has determined the Cook Islands’ place in the footballing sphere is simple geography and demographics. The Islands consist of 11 small specks that, if put together, would be a few Irish counties worth of land, spread out over an expanse of ocean equivalent in size to France, Spain, Germany and Italy. Their population hasn’t yet breached 20’000 people, less than any of Ireland’s counties individually. Their nearest neighbours in the OFC, Tahiti, are over a thousand kms away, the furthest, Papua New Guinea, 5’800 kms. Politically, the Cook Islands are not even a fully sovereign nation, being instead a self-governing state in “free association” with New Zealand, with whom their denizens share citizenship.

In such circumstances, the possibility of a successful international side emerging are minute. The low population and dominance of other sports means the internal football league is small, totally amateur and dependent on a very small number of facilities, with the CIFA lacking the needed financial resources to better the situation. Competing at the highest level necessitates extremely expensive trips abroad, for all levels and genders, inherently limiting such trips to only a few instances every cycle. And with such limited contact with other teams at the highest level, the Cook Islander senior side have very few opportunities to improve. These are problems that all members of the OFC, bar perhaps New Zealand, have encountered at some point or another: it is international football at the extreme fringe. Given such circumstances, it may not seem surprising that teams like the Cook Islands may find itself in a position where they have gone long enough between games to be considered a non-entity by FIFA.

But there is a deeper truth behind the Cook Islands’ current predicament in particular, which speaks to all too common realities of international football at the edges of the world. The leadership from the top during this period has been less than exemplary, summed up by recurring suspensions of CIFA head Lee Harmon. A three month spell on the figurative sidelines was followed by a much more serious six-year ban in August of last year, with the charges cited as accepting a gift of free flights to attend the wedding of a former OFC President, using OFC funds for personal flights, using OFC funds to pay for personal legal costs and, the old classic, illegally selling his FA’s allocation of World Cup tickets. Alongside the ban, Harmon is required to pay a substantial fine, and will be barred from any official footballing activity until he does so. Harmon, who has maintained that the charges are a “witch hunt”, still describes himself as CIFA President on his LinkedIn page and has pledged to bring the case to CAS. It is a story one sees over and over in among the smaller nations of FIFA, with the admittance of sides like the Cook Islands to the ranks often criticised at the time and afterwards as a vote-creation exercise as much as a football spreading one for FIFA’s top echelons. The temptation of personal enrichment in the head positions of FA’s like that of the Cook Islands, when you have political power in the OFC and FIFA out of all proportion to your drawn salary, must be considered quite high.

When things are seemingly rotten at the top, it can hardly be considered a surprise when they aren’t top notch below. Despite a degree of FIFA funding for facilities and training courses, the CIFA has been unable to progress the state of the national side, with a succession of managers making public complaints about the situation. Welshman Drew Sherman, who coached the senior team from 2015 to 2017, criticised the CIFA mindset towards the squad as one where it was felt investing in them was not worthwhile, with changing that mindset as big a challenge as training the team. Numerous managers have come and gone since 2015 without playing a single recognised friendly or competitive fixture, with their time with the side limited to unofficial games with clubs in other Pacific nations. A team that does not play regularly, or at all as the case is here, is likely to lose interest of potential players, and home support, aside from seeing whatever levels of talent it can claim diminish through sheer atrophy. And that atrophy can be self-perpetuating, with the Cook Islands ranked so low in 2019 they were barred from taking part in the football section of that years Pacific Games.

Tonga has its own unique problems. It exists in a bigger space than that of the Cook Islands with a much bigger population, at over 100’000. It also has full sovereignty, having separated from the UK’s hegemony in 1970. But the distances between them and their neighbours are still enormous relative to what those of us in the global west and north would be used to, and that population, while large in comparison to some others in the OFC, isn’t going to provide a productive base for football that easily. That’s before you consider the facts of sporting life: football is small beer in Tonga, not even worthy of being listed as an option in the “Sport In Tonga” Wikipedia page. Rugby is King there, especially the Union code. In that sport the Tongan national side have made it to six World Cup Finals, and managed to win a few games there to boot. In comparison the footballers occasional venture to struggle against other island minnows in the OFC is not bound to grab much in the way of attention or support.

And even there, there is precious little to really point to. A non-entity in World Cup qualification, the OFC Nations Cup and the Pacific Games, Tonga have played just 62 officially recognised contests since independence, winning only 14 of them. Their record cap holder holds the spot with just 26 appearances, their record goal-scorer with just seven. The last time they got to play football, at the 2019 Pacific Games, they shipped 13 goals to an underage New Zealand team, 14 to Vanuatu and eight to Papua New Guinea, scoring none of their own accord. The talent to be in any way competitive simply isn’t there, with Tonga seemingly doomed to be a perpetual also-ran in a confederation of also-rans.

Now, they are likely to find themselves in much the same position as the Cook Islands, in terms of falling out of FIFA rankings entirely. Tonga will take no part in World Cup qualification after all, but it is not due to their own limitations, or the suffocating nature of rugby’s popularity, or even COVID. Instead, it is because of another unique aspect of life in the Pacific, namely the higher-than-average risk of ecological and geographical catastrophe. Earthquakes, storms and tsunamis are threats that can be considered relatively common in the region, but Tonga got into world headlines for a different problem recently, namely the eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcano on the 20th December last year, that captivated audiences watching satellite imagery of the plume it threw up, and essentially cut Tonga off from the rest of civilisation for a few days. The damage to the islands has been extensive, with five fatalities, and the efforts to enact a recovery mean that the football side do not have the resources, especially financial, to justify what is likely to be an already fruitless trip to Qatar to participate in qualification. In late January the TFA announced in a terse enough press release that Tonga would withdraw, leaving the Cook Islands free to take their place in the group stages proper.

In among the wreckage, there are some silver linings for both teams. Cook Islands club sides have managed to punch a little bit above their weight in OFC’s continental competitions, getting out of preliminary stages against the Champions of Tonga, Samoa and American Samoa, though they have been predictably crushed in later rounds when facing teams from New Zealand or the Solomon Islands. Underage sides of both teams of either gender have managed to keep playing and even excel at points, with the U-16 female Cook Islands side making it to the Semi-Finals of that levels OFC Championship. More stringent club licensing rules, as implemented by the OFC as part of their larger long-term strategy, may also help to improve standards across the Pacific, to the benefit of either set of islands.

And then there is the proposed Nations League. Following in the wake of UEFA and CONCACAF’s adoption of the idea, and the proposed inclusion of CONMEBOL teams in the UEFA model, the OFC is also hoping to get in on the act, announcing in 2019 that plans were afoot for a similar idea to be put in place in the Pacific. The usual problems, most obviously COVID, have meant that such plans have been on ice for most of the intervening time, but it is likely such a concept will be top of the OFC’s agenda once they are capable of putting it into practice. A format where OFC members, including those outside the bounds of the World Cup eligible, get to play each other in a competitive setting every two years guaranteed, on a tiered basis, would be an invaluable addition to the regions footballing calendar. For sides like the Cook Islands and Tonga, it would help to insure that a repeat of their lengthy absence from the stage would not be repeated, and that they could improve through experience.

Today then, the long wait for the Cook Islands should have been over, and Tonga should have been able to fly their flag at the highest level of international football. Instead, the Cook Islands will have to wait a little bit longer, before they face the Solomon Islands on the 17th March. Few will have any pretensions of how far more the Cook Islands are likely to get, but at least they will be playing games again. For Tonga, thoughts remain back at home and on the recovery, with opportunities for games to come down the line. World Cup qualification can be a cruel experience, and the fates of these two sides point to that reality more than most.

103. The More Things Change: Iraq/UAE

(24/03/2022)

A neutral venue doesn’t stop these fans from going to a ground to see their team, but getting to a World Cup is a much harder task.

The longest journey of any confederation in World Cup qualifying belongs to Asia. It was there that the entire thing started, two-and-a-half years ago, when the worst twelve teams were drawn to be whittled down to six straight away, before an arduous group stage that cut 40 teams down to 12 over the course of 21 months. Now, at the third stage, those 12 have been playing off to get down to four qualifiers and two play-off participants. Theoretically, a side could have played 17 games already and still not have a place in Qatar confirmed. It’s a state of affairs that reflects Asia’s size and variety of nations, and perhaps a previously mooted lack of interest in regionalisation.

The entire affair leaves many observers frustrated as, after hundreds of games and so many goals, misses, cards, progressions and eliminations, we are largely back to the traditional powerhouses of the continent, with Iran and South Korea already in the World Cup, and two of Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia to join them there. Today two of the other teams still clinging to contention come together in Group A, as Iraq “host” the UAE: in different ways the two sides represent facets of this seemingly unbridgeable divide between the have and have-nots at this level of Asian football, with today’s game one where a loser may well be scuppered, and a draw as good for one of them. With both sides looking to kick start new beginnings after tumultuous changes in personnel of recent weeks, the game is critical, but it remains to be seen if either team can really make a legitimate challenge to join others in Qatar.

Iraq have a fascinating record at this stage of the competition, with all five of their acquired points coming from stalemates. If they were to make it to Qatar, they’d probably set a record for the sheer lack of wins they have required to get there. Those draws – against South Korea, Lebanon, Syria and today’s opponents – showcase a character of being unwilling to lay down in the Iraqi side, and of having the gumption to fight for every last point. But the defeats -most notably a 3-0 “home” reverse to neighbours Iran – showcase the inherent limitations of the team as they have existed for some time now, and prevent them from joining the confederation’s “Big Five” as seemed possible with the 2007 Asian Cup win. It was enough to cost Zeljko Petrovic his job last month, the Montenegrin replaced by Abdul Ghani Sahid, previously the Iraqi U-23 manager. A few injuries mean he has less players than he would like to choose from, and he will probably be wary of the amount of attention being paid to Zidane Iqbal, the 18-year-old Manchester United forward who only debuted for the side in January: it’s still probably far too soon for that young man to be considered a talisman.

Iraq’s journey on the field can not be separated from the reality at home, where the unsure security situation means that the wait for a true home game will go on past this cycle. The football team remains a rare example of unity in a perpetually divided country, and one can only imagine the level of public joy that would ensue if Iraq were to pull off what might seem like the impossible and get one of those 32 Finals places. It would be a welcome relief from the drudgery and danger of daily life in Iraq, a country were paramilitary violence, political upheaval and angry demonstrations against the interference of foreign powers are always liable to lead to instances of bloodletting and death.

In amongst all of this though, there is hope given and hopes dashed. For the first time in nearly a decade, Iraq had the opportunity to actually host a game, after FIFA lifted its ban late last month. Baghdad last held a competitive football fixture for the international team in 2019, a 2-0 win over Hong Kong in the Second Round. But three days before today’s contest was due to be held, another spike in unrest prompted FIFA to re-instate the ban, and move the game to Riyadh. It was another cruel blow in a country where, in just about every facet of life, people have become only too used to cruel blows. There are plans for Baghdad’s Al-Madina Stadium to be opened up for spectators to watch the game on big screens, and the big numbers who will take the option reflect the passionate support the side engenders.

The UAE’s campaign is ahead of Iraq’s in terms of points, but not all that far ahead in terms of performances and entertainment value. Few would really have credited the Emirates with much of a chance at this stage, and that has been reflected in the lack of wins (just two, over Syria and Lebanon). It was enough to apparently do for Bert van Marwijk, who, in a curious similarity to their opponents today, was ejected from the head coach role last month, and replaced by Rodolfo Arruabarrena, an Argentine with extensive experience within the UAE club scene. But all of that experience may not count for much, given the pathetically limited amount of time that he had to take the team ahead of today’s critical encounter, little more than a week-and-a-half. Arruabarrena will be missing veteran goalkeeper Ali Khaseif through injury, but will welcome the return of striker Ali Mabkhout. But the truth is that these players, and the larger squad, has been underwhelming for a while now, so no-one is quite sure what kind of performance will be found.

At a time when near neighbours like Qatar are Asian Champions and on the verge of hosting a World Cup, and Saudi Arabia continue to garner sporting events across the spectrum, the UAE can sometimes seem curiously left behind. Despite its immense wealth and the attraction of Abu Dhabi as an elite tourist destination, sporting success in terms of national performance is something that seems difficult for the UAE to achieve on the same level as others. The side and the country have not kicked on after hosting the 2019 Asian Cup, and remain very much in the shadow of other Middle Eastern countries. Their current position is actually something of a positive aberration, but only just: the UAE have not performed like a side that have the benefit of endless financial resources.

At the end of all of this, in the context of international football, teams like Iraq and the UAE remain on the outside looking in. Japan, Iran, Australia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia appear to be in as unassailable a position as ever on their own tier: the closest teams to them in the rankings this cycle, the likes of Uzbekistan, North Korea and China PR, have all stumbled and proven their larger irrelevancy. Qatar could be a potential #6 after the last Asian Cup, but the jury is out on their ability to maintain their current standard post-2022. This state of affairs might be more acceptable if the top five actually accomplished much when they get to the World Cup Finals, but most of the time they do not: getting to the World Cup is the surest sign of their dominance, and not anything that occurs there.

Iraq and the UAE just don’t have it in them right now to shatter that ceiling, not with all of their obvious talent in Iraq or with all of their money in the UAE. Whoever gets to the AFC play-off will need to get past one of those Big Five teams, and then one of the better sides of CONMEBOL. Both teams lack the kind of cultures, fanbases and global reach that the big teams have been able to garner, and neither is able to fall back on a strong internal league for players. The elongated AFC format doesn’t help them either, with more games providing an ever decreasing likelihood of the big teams messing up and leaving the door open for an opportunistic underdog.

What can change? A resort to some manner of preliminary regionalised qualifying would shake-up the allocation for the final rounds, and also provide the opportunity for the Second Round groups to have a smaller number of teams per group and at least be shorter. Or the AFC could look to CAF, and work things out so a decisive round is a play-off structure, and not another group stage. But this would work against the interest of the confederation’s big players, and so would never be likely to get far as an idea. Instead it will be FIFA’s profit-obsessed decisions that will likely prove the difference. 2026 and after, when the World Cup adds 16 teams with eight of the 48 ear-marked to be from Asia, is probably the best chance for some of the mid-tier to grab Finals places and begin to establish themselves as among the confederation’s very top sides.

But that is four years from now. Iraq and UAE face each other tonight, with both still clinging to the dream of not needing an expanded Finals to make it to the promised land. The UAE will be slight favourites by virtue of their points advantage, but will be wary of the threat that Iraq can occasionally provide. With both sides going into the game under new managers, both suffering injury problems and now playing in a neutral venue, it’s the kind of contest where the form book goes out the window. Anything can happen on the field. But the divide is probably still too large in Asia for the dream to become reality this year: the more things change at this level of Asian football, the more it seems likely that it will stay the same in the bigger picture.

104. Fingertips: Costa Rica/Canada

(25/03/2022)

They are waiting.

I don’t know if there are any more torturous positions to be in for the two teams that went toe-to-toe in San Jose last night, in different ways. The weight of expectation, the pangs of hope, the fear of elimination, they would all have been evident for every player, every member of the coaching staffs and in every fan watching in the Estadio Nacional. For the home team, it was a case of close but not yet close enough to the position they need to be, which brings a desperation to get what would be a vital point or points in the race to leapfrog their near neighbours. For the away side, it was the agony of knowing they are almost there, are favoured to get there even, but still needing one more result, at least, to make it more than a dream still in danger of being ripped from their hands. It’s a matter of fingertips, maybe grasping at different rungs of the ladder, but grasping with a similar desperation nonetheless. Costa Rica and Canada played out a game with more meaning than most at this later stage of the CONCACAF Octagon last night, with a result that only prolonged the agony.

For Costa Rica, it was an utterly pivotal moment. A potential banana skin at home to El Salvador and a final day trip to the United States mean there were no gimmes on the table after this game, with Costa Rica a point behind Panama in the race for the play-off place. The time in-between their last game, a tight 1-0 win over Jamaica in Kingston, and this one has been marred by a long-running dispute with the JFA, who have accused Costa Rica of putting two COVID positive players in the starting line-up for that tie. Costa Rica have maintained the two followed COVID protocols to the letter – they had already gotten over a COVID diagnosis and were asymptomatic when the second positive test came in, so the argument is they were essentially vaccinated – but Jamaica’s appeal to CONCACAF and FIFA, even if fruitless, has been another threat to their World Cup hopes they could have done without.

For Canada, the holy grail was just coming within sight, if the side that has electrified the Octagon had the nerve to grasp it. Big wins against Mexico and the United States have just been the most obvious signs of a true renaissance in Canadian association football that has put them on the brink of booking Qatari hotels, with Canada showing a consistency throughout their run in this qualification cycle that has been sorely lacking in other years. A win last night would have done it, with a draw also potentially enough.

Fireworks greeted the two sides as they came out onto the Estadio Nacional pitch, that continued even as O Canada played, and there were fireworks aplenty when the game kicked off. Barring a few suspensions – perhaps effecting Canada a bit more as they had absences in the centre of defence, though the home side also had a ream of players one card away from suspension – the biggest absence was Alphonso Davies for Canada, for COVID-related reasons. Both sides set-up for attack, the visitors from lack of fear of what they were facing, the hosts because it was a game they had to win, especially with news of Panama being ahead in their match against Honduras filtering in just before kick-off.

Los Ticos went about their business quickly, threatening early from a corners as a result of Francisco Calvo’s probing headers, and keeping most of the possession. Quick free kicks by Costa Rica were a reason for annoyance from the Canadians, as the tension ratcheted up every minute. Referee Said Martinez took a long VAR-assisted look at a terrible studs-up tackle from Canadian midfielder Mark Anthony-Kaye on Ronald Matarrita around 15 minutes in, but left the crowd baying for blood by giving just a yellow for the offence. Canada began to come into the game a little bit more, utilising their speed when winning possession in their own half to enact blistering counter-attacks, but failed to trouble Keylor Navas in the Costa Rican goal.

Then, what has to go down as one of the worst officiating decisions in World Cup qualifying in this cycle, that left observers all over the word baffled. Off the ball, Costa Rican Johan Venegas walked into the path of Anthony-Kaye and, after the mildest of shoulder bumps, hit the deck. Despite the availability of VAR to make clear the galling amount of play-acting, Martinez felt compelled to reach for a second yellow and Canada were down to ten men with an hour still to be played. It was a miserably incompetent decision, that shines yet more light on a perceived inefficiency of referees in this part of the world.

A scrappy conclusion to the end of the half resulted. Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan was the focal point for what remained, narrowly avoiding a disaster five minutes from the half while dawdling in possession. Then, much worse, he failed to adequately deal with an incoming cross, allowing Costa Rica the chance to put the ball back in from the right. Celso Borges was on hand to head it home, with Borjan motionless. 1-0 Costa Rica. The stadium erupted. Half-time came.

If someone thought the moronic officiating, red card and the blow of the late goal would leave Canada cowed and desperate just to get out of the hostile atmosphere, they were to be surprised when the ten-man visitors came out for the second half rearing to go, with John Herdman sticking with the men on the field even as Costa Rica made several changes. Tajon Buchanan should have levelled a few minutes in but for a smart save from Navas, and that set the tone. Canada went forward, retained possession and ran around like demons to make up for the personnel shortfall, while Costa Rica withstood the storm and took their chances to go forward when they came, relying on set-pieces to trouble an unsettled Borjan. A Joel Campbell breakaway should have resulted in a goal, but heroic defending nudged the ball out of his path at the last second, with Borjan just big enough to grasp the loose ball before it could squirm over the line.

Notwithstanding that scare, for much of the half it really did seem like the team with ten men were the ones with the lead. Costa Rica probably have grounds to be concerned with how little they were able to retain control over the game with a man advantage, playing at home, as they surrendered the initiative and the Canadians came on and on. On the other hand Canadians fans and management will have plenty of cause for pride and satisfaction with what they saw: a very good football team that responded in just the right way to an unjust bit of circumstance, and showed their calibre. But they still needed to get a goal.

Jonathan David has a shot blocked from close range. Laryea made Navas’s hands sting with a distant effort, then put one over the bar later. On the hour mark Stephen Eustáquio got free and put the ball just wide off a fizzing shot. 15 minutes later Navas needed to be the hero again from a short-range Laryea shot, with Buchanan sending the rebound clanging off the crossbar, and then a second rebound over it, the sort of miss that could haunt a player for years to come. David, a persistent handful for the Costa Rican defence whenever he had the ball, hit the post two minutes from time, though the use of an arm in the build-up would probably have rendered a goal moot if it had gone in. Eustáquio’s injury time free kick, hit hard enough into the Costa Rican wall to hurt someone, was the last chance for the Canadians, who fell to their first defeat in 17 games. The Estadio Nacional, where the cheers of the crowd had devolved to nervous whistling, went wild, especially with news that Panama had slipped to a 1-1 draw in their game.

The result means that Costa Rica move into the fourth spot, while Canada will have to wait to confirm their place in Qatar at least a few more days. With six points separating them and fourth with two games to play, and a vastly superior GD, it might be viewed as academic. But it’s unlikely anyone in Canada will be taking it for granted, any more than Costa Ricans are taking that fourth place for granted: referees in their next two games are unlikely to be as favourable to their antics as Martinez was. Canada host Jamaica next needing just a point, one they will be favoured to get, especially on the back of what has to be called one of the best performances in defeat you are likely to see. One thing is the same for either side: that they both remain reaching for the next rung on the ladder, oh so close, but still fingertips away.

105. Half And Half: The CAF Third Round

(26/03/2022)

Football is life in Africa, and can feel like death too.

There is little crueller in football than the play-off. Over the course of 180 minutes, or 210 and change if the Gods are feeling especially vindictive towards your nerves, teams have it out with a life-changing prize at the other end for the victors, and a life-long what-could-have-been sentiment for the losers. To go out at a group stage is one thing, there the amount of games tends to weed out the unworthy in a fairer and more undeniable manner. But in a play-off, it really can come down to a singular moment. Lots of confederations use them, but none, in this cycle anyway, in as drastic a fashion as CAF. All of their qualifiers, not just the last few spots as is the case in UEFA or the Intercontinentals, are determined at the final hurdle by two legged play-offs. Only half of the best ten go on to Qatar. Some of Africa’s giants, whether they are in the top tier now, were titans of yesteryear or are exciting up-and-comers, will not make it. Throughout yesterday, the first legs of these ties took place, and, just a few short months since the last AFCON put the continent in the spotlight, showcased much of what makes African football the enticing spectacle that it is, on and off the pitch.

Not all that far gone from the bizarre AFCON tie where a sunstroke-afflicted ref blew up early twice, Mali and Tunisia met again in a scorching hot Bamoko. Mali came into the game as one of the form teams of the continent, unbeaten over 90 minutes in 11 games, and dominating their part of Second Round CAF qualification. Tunisia had been less impressive, especially in front of goal, over the last few months: discounting a 4-0 win over lowly Mauritania at the AFCON, they had scored just once in five games this year. It did not bode well for snatching a badly needed away goal, and Mali could go into the game confident they were capable of overturning one of the traditional heavy-hitters of the confederation. The prize for them, seeing as they had never qualified for a Finals, was immense.

Things seemed to be going to plan for the home team in the early stages as they made the first real chances and limited Tunisia to ineffective breaks forward on the counter. There was a definite sense in the air that it could be Mali’s day, and they could end that long wait for their first Finals place. But the tie, as they so often are, got turned on its head by a disastrous defensive error, when Moussa Sissoka put far too much power behind a back pass goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro wasn’t ready for, with the ball ending up in the net. Sissoka, playing only his fourth game for his country, was left distraught, and the Tunisians exultant. It only got worse, or better if you’re Tunisian: a few minutes after the goal Sissoka tripped an onrushing Saifeddine Jaziri after he was put through on goal, and was deemed worthy of a straight red. Though they did their best in the second half, benefitting from the aforementioned Tunisian limitation in the final third, Mali could not find a way back into the game. New Tunisian coach Jalel Kadri got his tenure off to the best start, though he must have been aware of how much work was still to be done. For the home team and their fans, what started as a confident assertion of their ability to make good on years of preparation and waiting was undone in two terrible strokes, and much of that confidence will have vanished ahead of the second leg.

The match-up of Ghana and Nigeria is sometimes dubbed the “jollof derby”, after a spicy rice dish that did not even originate in either country, and despite the fact that neither country borders the other. But it is no matter, with the roots of the rivalry going back to political machinations in the region in the 1950s which has since turned into what is perceived as a tit-for-tat escalation on societal and cultural matters, with topics as diverse as which nation has the better claim to afrobeats innovation, or which is more culpable for (or better at) the dark industry of internet swindles. In footballing terms both have had their periods of apogee within Africa, with Nigeria remembering fondly the 1990s, and Ghana their tantalisingly close brush with the World Cup Semi-Finals in 2010. Though Ghana has been traditionally dominant in the rivalry, it is Nigeria who have been on the up recently, getting to the knock-outs in the most recent AFCON and presumably enjoying the discontent in the Ghanaian national team being experienced by the Black Stars fanbase after their winless exit in the same competition. New Ghanaian coach Otto Addo, installed after that disappointment, was presumably desperate to solidify his new regime with a positive result.

Despite the apparent shift in power, a jam-packed Baba Yara Stadium was in boisterous mood ahead of Nigeria’s visit, but if the spectators were hoping for a rollicking contest they were disappointed. The home team only really tested the opposition twice in the 90, while Nigeria were not able to muster much more at the other end. The biggest talking point was a Nigerian penalty award overturned by VAR late in the game, with guilty Ghanaian defender Iddrisu Baba adjudged to have been impeded ahead of his own handball. The lack of fireworks on the pitch is easily explained by looking at the misfortune suffered by teams in other ties, and CAF is not alone in having play-offs where teams play conservatively, unwilling to commit to attack for fear of conceding. The 0-0 result leaves things balanced in Ghana’s favour after they avoided an away goal concession, but they will need to be in a more incisive mood in Lagos next week if they are to once again assert their dominance in this unlikely rivalry.

Algeria had a point to prove when they travelled to Cameroon. Having surrendered their AFCON title so tamely there a few months previously, Djamel Belmadi would have been more than keen to steer his side to a straightforward World Cup qualification. Despite the unhappiness at home with the AFCON campaign, he kept faith with the same set of players, and Algeria went about their business with determination from the off. It helped that their opponents were in a bit of disarray, with former icon Rigobert Song making his coaching debut following Toni Conceicao’s unceremonious sacking in February, guilty of the crime of being unable to take a not especially impressive set of players to an AFCON triumph on home soil, a tournament marred by a fan stampede at Cameroon’s Second Round game against Comoros that left eight dead. Song would have been banking much on Cameroon’s stellar home record to create some better footballing memories, the side unbeaten there for decades.

But records are just numbers. Islam Slimani should have opened the scoring for Algeria only 13 minutes in when granted an unexpected breakaway opportunity, but Andre Onanan denied him with a fine save. It was a just a delay, and after bossing the next half-hour Algeria hit the front from a set-piece, Slimani rising to plant a powerful header that Onanan could only parry onto the crossbar and into the net. Cameroon were hard-pressed to find any way back into the game, especially when Captain and main goalscorer Vincent Aboubakar went off injured at half-time. A few half chances and one late effort from Lyon’s Karl Toko Ekambi that was straight at the keeper were as close as they came, thanks largely to a disciplined Algerian defensive effort, the visitors happy to take their one away goal and hold out to confirm the end of the Cameroonian home streak. A floodlight failure paused the game and resulted in 11 minutes of injury time, but Cameroon couldn’t make the best use of it. The return leg in Algiers seems likely to only go one way, with Algeria’s unbeaten streak at home, over 40 games since 2004, now taking centre stage.

DR Congo hoped that a rocking Stade de Martyrs in Kinshasa would help their players on their way to their first World Cup since 1974, when Morocco came to town. The home team badly needed the lift, their World Cup campaign undoubtedly affected somewhat by their failure to qualify for the AFCON in January. For 75 wonderful minutes, it seemed as if Congo was going to get their wish, with Brentford’s Yoane Wissa giving them the lead courtesy of a wickedly deflected header early, and Morocco spending the next hour and change struggling to get anything going, their shots going wide or straight into the hands of the keeper. When Ryan Mmaee blasted a 53rd minute penalty wide for the visitors, it seemed fated for the Congolese.

But fate can be capricious. DR Congo wasted a host of chances to really make the game secure at the other end, with Dieumerci Mbokani’s miss, courtesy of a desperate block from Samy Mmaee, the most glaring. It was set-up for heartache, and the dagger was provided by Moroccan substitute Tarik Tissoudali, finishing off a fine counter-attacking move that was carried out with a verve and confidence that presumably masked the rising panic his side must have been feeling as time ticked away. Congo still had chances to re-take the lead in the last 15 minutes, most notably Cedric Bakumbu’s late header that was parried away, but in the end had to settle for that most hateful of results, a 1-1 home draw with the away goals rule in effect. Morocco were glad to get out of Kinshasa with a positive result they scarcely deserved. The return leg in Casablanca will have a different atmosphere, with DR Congo under pressure to score from the kick-off, in addition to the pressure of ending that 48 year wait.

The big one of course was the visit of African Champions Senegal to Egypt, little less than two months after they won the AFCON over the same opposition. Notwithstanding their differences in rankings, this was a true battle of heavyweights, with Mane vs Salah, recent success vs historical legacy, north vs sub-Saharan. Either leg promised an extremely hostile atmosphere for whomever was visiting, and yesterday it was Cairo that got to go first, with a capacity crowd hungry to see their side claim a second successive World Cup place, and gain immediate revenge on the team that beat them in the AFCON Final.

Things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for the home team, with Saliou Ciss sticking the ball in his own net after Salah had hit the bar, and with just four minutes played. Coming two months after 120 scoreless minutes, viewers would have been forgiven for wondering if we were about to witness a goal fest, but what resulted was much more conservative in nature. Egypt seemed happy to have grabbed an early score, and were unwilling to risk spoiling the achievement through the concession of an away goal, while Senegal did not seem capable of making much headway. The sheer hostility of the home crowd was an undoubted factor, with even Egypt’s stars struggling with the occasion: both Salah and Mane had off nights, and none of their teammates were able to create clear cut chances. Egypt celebrated at the conclusion, but Aliou Cisse would presumably not be too worried, knowing that Dakar would be a very different arena, and his team only needing to score one goal to get back in the game.

Remarkably, all five ties can still realistically go either way, with Tunisia, Ghana, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt holding the advantages, but none by more than a single goal. What will occur next Tuesday evening is difficult to foresee, but what you can bet on is loud crowds, under-pressure refs and plenty of drama. You can also bet on more than one ripped-up seat to get thrown from the stands, more than one controversial VAR check and more than one game needing an additional 30 minutes, and maybe penalties, to sort it all out. Half of these teams will be going to the World Cup, and they are half-way there. Africa concludes its World Cup qualification next week, the first continent to do so, and the enticing spectacle of football in this part of the globe will continue to draw eyes.

106. Exeunt: The Final CONMEBOL Matchday

(29/03/2022)

The job is done for some, others await a conclusion.

So it all comes down to this. Leaving aside the rather pointless dead rubber that will be the re-scheduled Brazil/Argentina contest taking place sometime this Summer, today is the final day of CONMEBOL qualification. There are teams that have made it, for whom today is just a glorified friendly, a chance to test things out ahead of November. There are teams that cannot make it, for whom today can probably be considered something of a depressing obligation. And there are a few teams in-between these two poles. In the razor-tight environment of South America’s single qualification group, the last matchday is always going to be fascinating, as those few games manage to come up with something to attract interest and all teams attempt to exit the stage in the best manner as possible

Bolivia’s dreams of getting back to the World Cup came to an end last Thursday with an unexpectedly gutless 3-0 loss away to Colombia, which leaves them seeking 8th place at most. It’s a far cry from the expectations earlier in the campaign, but it seems a truism that Bolivia are unable to replicate the form they can demonstrate in the altitude at home when they go on the road. It’s also plain that the squad lacks a key degree of talent, with little in the way of stars who can rally the side when things are going wrong. The long-standing problems with the internal league may hobble Bolivia for some time to come.

Their opponents, Brazil, will be happy that they go to La Paz with nothing to play for, having long since secured qualification to Qatar and top spot in CONMEBOL. A surprisingly full strength looking team put a hapless Chile to the sword on the penultimate matchday and it can’t be denied that the Selecao have looked seriously impressive in this cycle, even for being one of the traditional big fish in this small pond. No team has ever gone through this format unbeaten, but Brazil will achieve that feat if they avoid a loss tonight, and whenever they play Argentina. That would be a serious statement of intent ahead of a Finals where expectations will be high for Brazil, who have too often flattered to deceive in recent years at that highest stage.

Ecuador could be forgiven for wondering how they have ended up in their position. Taking just two points from their last three games, the La Tri secured their place in Qatar on Thursday despite a dreadful away loss to Paraguay, where a recent spell of limited performances and lack of attacking incisiveness was once again in evidence. Tonight’s game is the perfect preparation for the harder tasks to come in Qatar, where the securing of Ecuador’s place has come more for the failures of others than their own achievements. Gustavo Alfaro will be desperate to recapture more of the form that marked Ecuador’s early campaign, and to end the current cycle on a high for home fans whose disgruntlement with recent results are not what any team would want ahead of a Finals.

Their opponents have had their minds in Qatar for a while now. Argentina remain a side that seems to be less than expectational in comparison to previous iterations, still very reliant on the bits of genius provided by Lionel Messi and with too many players unwilling or unable to step up and be the kind of talisman that the PSG man is for his nation. But they are the Copa American champions, they are unbeaten in World Cup qualifying (albeit with a lot more draws than Brazil) and they are back in a World Cup Finals yet again. Tonight’s game may be more of a friendly contest for both sides, with the most to play for being the securing of third spot for the home team, but Lionel Scaloni will be keen to put his players through their paces in competitive circumstances, and to prove that Brazil are not the only team coming out of CONMEBOL worth talking about.

We get into the business end of things in the next three games. There is only one progression spot left up for grabs in CONMEBOL, that being fifth, where the holder gets the right to face either Australia, the UAE, or Iraq for a spot in Qatar. After the previous matchday, three sides still have a chance of getting it.

The first is Peru. It hasn’t been a cycle to savour for La Blanquirroja, with more losses than wins, and much of their current position down to late goals over Paraguay, Ecuador and Colombia. Despite a desperately poor opening to their campaign, Peru have been able to drag themselves back into contention, and would be in a better position but for a narrow loss to Uruguay last Thursday. Hosting an eliminated Paraguay, Peru will need to rise above their tendency to concede first and spend the rest of the game playing catch-up. Holding fifth place as it stands, a one-nil win is all it would take to send them to the Intercontinentals.

For Paraguay, the 2022 campaign is a recurring case of “if”. If they had held on for the win in the opening game against Peru. If they had taken chances in draws to Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia. If they had shown up at all in that disastrous loss at Bolivia. If they could have taken more than a point in the last four games previous to Thursday. The win against Ecuador signified a team that was doing sterling work in reversing a catastrophic loss of form in recent months, but it came too little, too late. Thoughts turn to the next cycle, and playing spoiler against Peru tonight is the first step in that.

Venezuela started this campaign with great expectations, and a genuine shout at ending their long wait for a World Cup Finals place. They conclude it in a familiar state of disarray, rock bottom of the table again, with a trail of missed chances, awful performances and managerial changes the sum total of their experience. The 3-0 loss to Argentina in their previous game was just the latest setback, and it is fair to say that thoughts of a Burgundy Rise are well and truly banished. How the team rebuilds is difficult to see, and they will be hoping to end the campaign on something approximating a positive manner when they host a side that have a lot more to play for.

It’s been a case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for Colombia this time, with just four wins and a hell of a lot of draws keeping them in contention. At times they have showcased the kind of form that brought to mind would-be World Cup winners of yesteryear, in wins against Venezuela, Peru and Chile where they seemed to be bursting with attacking potential. But then, in the second half of the campaign, the floor seemed to drop out, with goals difficult to come by and the side relying on a grinding out of stalemates to keep themselves in the discussion. The destruction of Bolivia on Thursday, their first win in seven games and revenge for the 6-1 pasting suffered in La Paz, means that they have the ability to overtake Peru, but will need a win and a favour from Paraguay. Stranger things have happened, but given the way Colombia seem in such a perilous state nowadays, winning in Ciudad Guayana may be challenge enough.

Which leaves just Chile among the list of would-be Finalists. It’s been a very painful four years for Chile, as we have discussed on several occasions, and their struggles over the previous 17 games have provided ample fuel for those critical of a set-up that is desperately trying to wring what it can out of an aging generation before things collapse completely. There was perhaps no clearer sign of how bad things have gotten for Chile than the manner in which they were comprehensively outplayed by Brazil in the Maracana on Thursday, especially in a second half where La Roja were tiring quickly. The 4-0 scoreline, when competing for position against a side long since qualified, is stark in terms of what it portents. Remarkably Chile still have a shot, but will need a win tonight against buoyed opposition, as well as results in two other games to go their way. It seems like a lot to hope for.

That opposition is enjoying a high that few would have thought they would be experiencing at the start of the year. It was another average performance from Uruguay against Peru on Thursday, but one that came with three points: Giorgian de Arrrascaeta’s goal late in the first half enough to get the win and, thanks to favourable results elsewhere, guarantee fourth place and qualification. After the torrid results of late last year that saw Oscar Tabarez removed, it’s a welcome balm to the soul of Uruguayan football. Tonight, they can relax a bit but not too much: the pressure for Diego Alonso to succeed in Qatar to the required degree will be strong and the preparation starts now.

It’s been the longest unbroken story of World Cup qualification, with CONMEBOL providing everything that you will have come to expect from the confederation. Tonight, with the exception of that afterthought between Brazil and Argentina in the Summer, the players take their positions for the last act. After 90 minutes, they will leave the stage, some to the continuation of the story in Qatar, others back home to think about the next iteration of the show. Exeunt it will be, but who will be getting the applause and who will be getting the rotten fruit? We shall see.

107. Nightmare Fuel: Portugal/North Macedonia

(30/03/2022)

Eye on the ball.

To be this close to a World Cup Finals is a great leveller. No matter who you are, how big your nation is, what superstars you have in your team or what has gone on before, to be one of the European sides within 90 minutes of a place in Qatar makes a mockery of perceived gulfs in class and quality, chuckles at the idea of long shots, and laughs at seemingly pre-destined outcomes. Presumption is the great enemy here, like presumption that one side is vastly superior to another, or that the pressure is off just because so few expect anything from one team. Such feelings are tailor made to produce lasting regrets with every misplaced kick. Getting to the World Cup is the stuff that dreams are made of for many teams for whom the chance has mostly been fantasy; failure to get there is the nightmare that will haunt those so burdened with expectation that it has become normal. So we can describe Portugal and North Macedonia. Last night they played out their do-or-die final qualifying match, where for one team the dream would come true, while the other would only find fuel for the nightmares to come.

It is unlikely, as long as he continues to play for them anyway, that Portugal will ever be able to get out of the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s still the man who pulls the strings, he’s still the man that everyone comes to see and he’s still the man who scores a significant proportion of Portugal’s goals. It can be easy to fall into the trap of declaring Portugal to be a one man entity hopelessly stuck on accommodating Ronaldo at every turn. This does a disservice to a side that has been working hard, often without much notice, in crafting an organisation where Ronaldo is just the bonus, and not the main event.

Take the game last Thursday that secured this one last step before Qatar. Ronaldo was there, yes, and an important part of Portugal’s attacking options. But he was relatively subdued, with the hard work of Portugal’s progress accomplished by others. There was Bernardo Silva, whose 15th minute shot beat Turkey’s Ugurcan Cakir only to rattle off the post. There is Otavio, who was on hand with poacher’s instinct to race onto the subsequent loose ball and turn it into the net. There is Diogo Jota, whose pinpoint accurate header from an Otavio cross doubled the lead. And there is Matheus Nunes, whose late game breakaway and finish secured the win for Portugal. In all instances, Ronaldo was barely involved. His talismanic presence drives much of the media narrative around Portugal, but this is a team that is more than just one man, and they showed that against Turkey. They aimed to keep on showing it last night.

On the other side of the field was the remarkable appearance of North Macedonia, as close to a World Cup Finals as they have been since “FYR Macedonia” first came into being in 1994. It would be very easy, seductively so, to describe them as underdog darlings, a side lucky to have gotten this far who have the eyes of the world upon them to see if they can go one step further. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who can identify a single player in their squad, or had much regard for them ahead of their heroics last Thursday that landed them in this position.

But can a side that has, in a single qualifying campaign, beaten Germany and Italy, away, really be considered an underdog? After all, this is not the same team that spent most of their first two decades in existence propping up qualification groups and scrounging for the odd win here and there. Recent years have seen a noted improvement in Macedonian results, culminating in their first tournament appearance at EURO 2020. Getting there marks North Macedonia as one of the big stories of the Nations League, utilising their success against teams of their level to finagle such Finals places. But the results in this cycle – the win in Duisburg, the points secured against Iceland and Romania, and then that stunning last minute victory against Italy – point to a side that is ready to mature out of its given tier, and embrace an identity as one of the dark horses of the continent. They are ready to do so on the back of highly disciplined defensive displays (the vast majority of Italy’s 32 attempts on goal were blazed wide from distance) and an ability to poach the needed goals at the other end as the opportunities arise. The biggest compliment that could be paid North Macedonia, perhaps, is the reality that Portugal would have looked at what happened in Palermo and had a degree of foreboding.

The location for their clash was a heaving Estadio do Dragao, where the home fans were intent on creating the same amount of pressure that had seen Turkey take a half to get into their earlier game. The team sheets and tactical layouts couldn’t have been much different: superstars like Ronaldo, Fernandes, Pepe and Moutinho laid out in an attack-minded 4-3-3 on the one hand, and less flashy players like Kostadinov, Bardhi, Ristovski and Dimitrievski set-up in a deep-lying 4-4-2 to absorb attacks and frustrate the opposition. The Macedonians applied a press from the off, crowding midfield and advancing whenever they could, but Portuguese potency was always a threat. Six minutes in a fizzing Nuno Mendes cross from the left just needed someone to throw themselves at the ball to score a goal, then a few minutes later Fernandes got crowded out on the edge of the area just as he was preparing to pull the trigger, then a few minutes later he headed well wide in space. Barely 60 seconds after that Ronaldo got the first full-on chance, set free as a result of an utterly wonderful throughball from Otavio, only to fire a foot wide of the right hand post.

The pattern seemed to be set but North Macedonia attempted to wrest back some control in the following few minutes, gaining set-piece opportunities but no goal scoring ones. Portugal settled more and more into the game, and Diego Jota was the next to go close, heading wide from a corner kick after being given far too much space by a briefly bamboozled North Macedonian defence. The home team was keen to work the ball fast and waste little time over throws or frees, perhaps mindful that every second not dedicated to moving the ball forward was one that went in favour of the opposition.

And it worked. 31 minutes in it was Manchester United 1-0 North Macedonia, as Fernandes picked up on a loose pass inside the opposition half, laid it off for Ronaldo, had it laid back from his club and country teammate in turn as the Macedonian defence scrambled ineffectually, before a vicious finish past Dimitrievski blew up the game plan for the visitors. North Macedonia stayed in a tortoise form for the remainder of the half, seemingly happy just to get to the locker room with the score as it was: they were lucky when they did, with Jota guilty of missing a guilt-edged chance five minutes from the whistle after a Ronaldo cutback and a goalie spill, the Liverpool man hitting the side of the net instead of the back of it. The teams went in for their slices of orange with Portugal looking untouchable: only one ahead, but with the opposition barely registering a legitimate attempt at goal.

North Macedonia had to change things up, and they did, with Milan Rostovski going off and replaced by Bojan Miovski, a straight swap but one that reflected a change to a more direct 4-2-3-1 formation, with Miovski favoured at the head of the spear. But the second half began much like the last one ended, with Portugal on the up and Fernandes making Dimitrievski’s hand sting with an early rasper. Fernandes seemed to be all over the pitch, always there for a pass and always willing to get the ball into the box or headed towards goal. North Macedonia had little in reply, and were pegged back consistently up to and past the hour mark. Head coach Blagoja Milevski decided to plump for youth over experience in response, putting 21-year-old Stuttgart Winger Dark Churlinov on for veteran forward Aleksandar Trajkovski. Portugal looked comparatively happy with who was left on the field.

Before Churlinov could have any involvement, it was Fernandes again who intervened to kill the game, and with one of the goals of UEFA qualification. Winning the ball in their own half off a brilliant Pepe challenge, Portugal broke fast, with Jota receiving the ball on the left. He was able to place an inch perfect pass into the box to hit an onrushing Fernandes, timing his run to absolute perfection, to fire the ball first time, side-footed, into the top-right corner of the net. The North Macedonian defence looked motionless in the face of such impressive attacking intent.

A brief and embarrassing moment of pushing and shoving as a result of Macedonian frustrations ended in some yellow cards, and unfortunate spice added to an occasion that was already slipping away from being competitive. The Estadio do Drago began to cheer every successful pass, and the best that North Macedonia could do was drag a distant effort wide from Levante’s Enis Bardhi. Ezgjan Alioski was the next in the book for a clumsy push on an onrushing Fernandes, as tempers began to obviously fray. Fernando Santos was confident enough to start taking off some of his key players in Otavio, Jota, Bernardo Silva and, eventually, Fernandes, an easy man of the match.

The last key turning point of the game came 12 minutes from time, as North Macedonia had two shouts in quick succession for a penalty, with Pepe and Danilo perhaps fortunate to avoid whistles for two strong challenges, one of which left Napoli’s Elif Elmas needing medical attention: on the subsequent counter Ronaldo was a hairs breadth for turning the ball in for a third off a Fernandes – who else – cross, before Darko Velkovski intervened with a perfectly judged last-ditch tackle. The chance for things to shift in terms of momentum seemed to have gone. Portugal passed the ball at will in the last few minutes, thoughts already turning to Qatar. North Macedonia could barely get a sniff, thoughts already turning to EURO 2024.

At full time Portugal settled for limited celebrations, perhaps mindful that they should have qualified a while ago. For them the nightmare has been dodged, and the team can enjoy at least a bit of unbroken sleep before expectations and pressure build ahead of November. North Macedonia, the hopes over for another cycle, dusted themselves off, refused to mope on the pitch, congratulated their opponents and left with heads held high, the campaign enough to indicate that there is more they might be able to do in future. They had few enough missed chances to regret, and the fuel for future nightmares might come more from the memory of Bruno Fernandes, of a different class on the night, completely unplayable. The superstars won out, the underdogs go home. Such is the way of Worlds Cup qualification more often than not. It won’t stop the less favoured from trying though: the fear of nightmares will never be greater than the promise of dreams.

108. 0.5: The OFC Tournament

(31/03/2022)

Has half of something ever been such a prize?

For the true neutral, March of this World Cup qualification cycle is something to savour. And not because of the do-or-die play-offs of UEFA and CAF, or the final matchdays of CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and the AFC, but because of what is taking place with some of the smallest nations of the planet in front of non-existent crowds in Qatar. This month, with three of their 11 members choosing not to make the trip for various reasons, the eight participating nations of the OFC came together for what constituted a mini-tournament, of two groups and then knock-outs, with the winner to claim that most unusual of things: the officially designated “0.5” of a place in Qatar, with the other half of the equation going to the fourth best team in CONCACAF for a June play-off. You probably will never have heard of most of the players, maybe even some of the nations, but they were there and playing at a level that matches that of the heavyweights of world football. For two tension filled weeks they went at it, with progression on the line alongside rare chances to exhibit national identity and pride in a worldwide sporting context.

Many watching may well have felt that proceedings were little more than a potential stroll in the park for New Zealand, who have adopted Australia’s title as big fish in the Pacific footballing community’s small pond ever since the Socceroos departed for the AFC in 2006. Since then the All-Whites have lost just two games against OFC opposition, on the way to two OFC Nations Cups and a place in the 2010 World Cup, where they may not have thrilled people with their style of football, but came out of the tournament with three creditable draws, not least against Italy. With the biggest population, most professional set-up, highest ranked national league, and players plying their trade in the top tiers of England, Italy, Scotland, Denmark and the United States, the belief that New Zealand should be walking this tournament was understandable.

But they are not quite at the altitude that Australia were pre-2006. One of those two losses, to Fiji at the Semi-Finals of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup, proves that New Zealand are not entire levels ahead of their OFC brethren even if they are easily the confederation’s must successful side of the last decade and a half. The nature of their squad for the tournament, which started out made up almost entirely of players from New Zealand’s A-League before others playing further afield arrived in dribs and drabs, resulted in a weaker side than they would like.

Externally, challengers to their would-be hegemony could be found, with the most obvious being the Solomon Islands. Under a succession of recent coaches – most notably the former Dutch international Wim Rijsberge and current coach Felipe Vega-Aranago – the scattered chain of islands has seen a relative rise in recent years, propelled by an unexpectedly capable group of players who have transcended their otherwise less-than-capable surroundings. One should not exaggerate these things – as the second highest ranked OFC side, the Solomon Islands are still 30+ places behind New Zealand – but it points to the possibility of the OFC becoming more competitive bit-by-bit.

Other nations are not to be entirely discounted either. Tahiti stunned the confederation by winning that 2012 tournament, with their reward being to grace the stage of the Confederations Cup in 2013, and they remain at least somewhat potent, with connections to French football that can be useful. New Caledonia have similar connections that have been somewhat advantageous at times, with that side enjoying a training camp with FC Nantes, whose manager Antoine Kombouare is from the archipelago, a few weeks before the tournament. The other nations taking part – Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands – are less likely to compete seriously, but may have been good value for at least one shock between them all. The games took place in deserted secondary stadiums, with practically no atmosphere, save for the shouts and exertions of the players themselves. A strange environment, but one not unknown to any football fan from the last few years.

Things don’t get off to the very best start for the primary pretenders to New Zealand’s throne, with the Solomon Islands frequently looking sloppy and short of ideas against the Cook Islands. It was a game where some thought the Solomon’s might run up a cricket score, but in the end they had to settle for 2-0, with the goals from Atkin Kaua and Alwin Hou before half-time. While they never looked truly uncomfortable against a team that could barely register two efforts all game, they were unable to translate their total dominance of possession into something genuinely fruitful, and strangely the Cook Islands came out of their first game in nearly seven years the happier side, defending well and preventing an expected humiliation.

A few hours later the whole tournament was thrown into a degree of disarray when Vanuatu, owing to a large number of positive Coronavirus tests, were unable to field a team for their opener against Tahiti: a few days later the side became the fourth of the OFC’s members to officially withdraw, with all three of their games formally considered to be abandoned. On the same day a number of cases in the Cook Islands camp necessitated the cancelling of what was now their last game against Tahiti, essentially ending their qualification progress. A few days of limbo followed, with the Cook Islands in the strange position of being capable of progressing to the next round despite losing their only game, if the Solomon Islands could beat Tahiti by three or more goals in what was now the only other group game to be played.

In the end the OFC was not made to worry about this eventuality, with the Cook Islands choosing to formally withdraw on Wednesday. Their result against the Solomon Islands was voided, though would be retained for FIFA rankings. As such, Group A would get just one official game, the Solomon Islands against Tahiti, played for the sole purpose of determining the order of each sides progression, with extra time and penalties required if it happened to be a draw.

In the end that eventuality too was avoided. The two sides played out an entertaining game of football, with Raphael Lea’i’s excellent solo goal cancelled out a few minutes later by Alvin Tehau’s close range header. It was left to Lea’i to provide the winner, and top spot in the group, for the Solomon Islands early in the second half, converting coolly after being set free inside the penalty area. He made sure of things in the dying seconds with a simple tap-in as Tahiti chased the game, claiming the tournament’s only hat-trick in the process. With that, one of the most bizarre groups of qualification in World Cup history came to a conclusion, with a single game of football officially played between four teams.

Group Two opened with New Zealand against Papua New Guinea, and if people were expecting a blowout they were to be disappointed. While New Zealand bossed the majority of the game they exhibited a severe lack of cutting edge, with the Kapuls giving them more than one scare at the other end. Ben Waine’s close-range finish after a quickly taken free kick was the difference, but New Zealand could not credibly claim to have laid down a benchmark.

The first really enthralling contest took place in the other opening Group 2 game, as New Caledonia and Fiji played out a fairly thrilling back-and-forth contest, if such a description could be applied to a game played out in an empty stadium. Sairusi Nalaubu’s first half opener put Fiji up, the result of a comical defensive lapse that left it easier to score than miss, but it was cancelled out with 12 minutes to play by Jordan Wetria’s close-range finish. Both sides had dominating spells, both sides tested the opposing keeper at different points: a draw would have been a fair result, but it was not to be for New Caledonia. On the back of a deep free-kick swung in dangerously, Nalaubu rose to head home a winner for Fiji in the last minute of normal time and give them the advantage in the table.

The drama continued into the second round of games, with Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia facing off in a do-or-die affair. Tommy Semmy gave the Guineans the lead early on with a deflected effort, and he was critical to just about every bit of attacking play his side put together afterwards, but without result. In truth New Caledonia could walk away from the game baffled that they failed to score, creating numerous chances throughout, sometimes carving open the PNG defence at will, but never with an equaliser at the end of it. The game was marred by officiating controversies, with numerous botched offside calls that went against New Caledonia, and then a strange straight red card for New Caledonian defender Jean-Luc Decoire late-on, seemingly for some kind of verbal altercation with the referee or linesman. The final result kept Papua New Guinea still in the fight, but New Caledonia waiting on a miracle.

It didn’t come. New Zealand took a little while to get going again when they faced Fiji in their second match, but a goal from a close range Chris Wood header late in the first half was just reward for a total dominance in possession in the previous 45 minutes, and that continued into the second, with the pressure somewhat off and New Zealand free to stroke the ball around. Fiji could only get half-chances at the other end, and when they tired in the last quarter of the game New Zealand were ruthless. Goals from Elijah Just, Chris Wood again wherein he claimed his nations goal scoring record with a neat finish after being set clear, and then an injury time penalty from Clayton Lewis gave the OFC qualification format its first blowout. New Zealand confirmed their progression, and New Caledonia’s elimination.

That meant that Fiji and Papua New Guinea played out the only game of consequence on the final day of the group stage, with only one spot in the knock-outs available. Fiji had the best of the opening stages, and were rewarded 11 minutes in when Tevita Waranaivalu smashed home on the counter after connecting with a low left-wing cross. They should have added to their lead but the game was turned upside down on 40 minutes when Waranaivalu was given his marching orders for two bookable offences, leaving Fiji to play the majority of the game with ten men. When Ati Kepo equalised for Papua New Guinea in first half injury time, fending off the attentions of multiple Fijian defenders to power home a fine right-footed shot, the writing was on the wall. The Guineans dominated the last 45, and after numerous chances not taken got the winner they needed after the hour mark, with Semmy delivering a fine finish after latching onto a brilliant throughball from distance. Fiji gamely tried to get back into it and created some chances, but Ronald Warisan’s goal held. Papua New Guinea went through.

On the other side of Qatar New Zealand finally showed why they are the big fish in the Pacific pond as they put a despairing New Caledonia to the sword, scoring for fun in a 7-1 rout. Backheels from close range, a penalty, clownish defensive errors, rebound tap-ins and a darkly amusing moment when the opposition keeper clearly spilled a ball over the line then lamely tried to act as if he hadn’t, the goals mounted up, the tournament favourites laying down a serious marker for the first time. New Caledonia were left with elimination, and regrets of what might have been if they had gotten better officiating in their second game.

The first Semi-Final saw the Solomon Islands come up against Papua New Guinea, a tie with an unexpectedly political backdrop given PNG’s contribution to an international peacekeeping force that intervened recently in the Islands, following anti-government riots that left four dead. Solomon leadership has suggested the peacekeeping forces could be requested to return, giving this Semi-Final an unusual bit of depth. As expected the Solomon Islands made all the early running, finding gaps and exposing their opponents down the right repeatedly, so it was a nasty shock when Papua New Guinea took the lead after 24 minutes, Alwin Komolong finishing with confidence on the back of a set-piece and a Solomon Islander muddle in defence. If the Guineans were eyeing an upset though they were soon to be disabused, with Alwin Hou levelling things up within ten minutes after being set free down the left of the penalty area. The Solomons would have been in front before half-time, but for a penalty sent ricocheting off the post. Despite a brief PNG resurgence at the start of the second half, two quick fire goals largely settled things for the favourites, with Hou’s rapid half-volley on 66 minutes giving his side the lead, before Lea’i put it beyond the opposition by cutting through the PNG defence and finishing with aplomb through the legs of Warisan. Papua New Guinea, to their credit, did not wilt, and made plenty of chances before the end. One, an Ati Kepo effort that deflected up and over Phillip Mango to make it 3-2, certainly made things interesting in injury time. But the Solomon Islands had done enough on this occasion, even if the effort required to make sure of it was far more than they may have expected.

The second of the last four games was a more serious test for New Zealand against Tahiti. After rolling over New Caledonia in their last game many logically expected that New Zealand would find their rhythm and do much the same to the next opposition, but the underdogs surprised many with a resolute defensive showing, one that limited the All-Whites mostly to speculative efforts and wasted set-pieces. The Tahitian utilised their physicality and gumption to continually harass their opponents, and while the yellow card was shown more than once, the approach seemed to unnerve the side 50 places above them in the rankings enough to give Tahiti a shot. Spending a huge majority of the game camped resolutely in the Tahitian camp, New Zealand certainly couldn’t claim that they weren’t getting enough time with the ball, but the shooting boots were seemingly not on the pitch. Of the 26 registered efforts on goal, only eight were on target. Of those, only one went in. When it came it was Empoli’s Liberato Cacace 20 minutes from time, the left-back pouncing on a loose ball that had rebounded after one of his own passes, and breaking Tahitian hearts in the process. New Zealand were unable to take advantage of the subsequent gaps that appeared as Tahiti chased the game, and settled for an unexpectedly nervy progression by a single goal.

So, in the end, it was the two top seeds in the Solomon Islands and New Zealand who contested the Final. Given New Zealand’s difficulties in their last game hopes would have been high that a competitive contest would ensue, and when the Solomon Islands’ Lea’i had the first chance of the game, stinging the palms of Stefan Marinovic in the New Zealand goal in the 8th minute, those hopes would have increased. It was not to be. Recovering quickly from the early scare to exert the same dominance in possession that has marked their run through the tournament, New Zealand took over, pressed on and made their opportunities. It took a little while for the first opening to become apparent, but when it did Bill Toiluma was there to finish with confidence.

New Zealand never looked back. They had the ball in the net again shortly afterwards only for it to be ruled out for an infringement, but the second goal was only delayed, Chris Wood getting his fifth of the tournament, enough to claim a golden boot. Two down at half-time, the Solomon Islands looked like a team that was more in mind to accept their fate than mount a comeback, and New Zealand’s third had an inevitable feel about it, Joe Bell touching home from a corner in the 50th minute. The game was done and dusted, but the All Whites were in a ruthless mood: Tuiloma added a fourth, Chris Wood grabbed another only for it to be ruled out of an offside, before Matthew Garbett scored a fifth in injury time. This dominant display confirmed New Zealand once again as the stand-out side of the OFC, and as that confederation’s representative for the Intercontinental Play-Offs in June.

It was an anti-climactic end to a tournament that the OFC had long waited for, which had been marked by plenty of drama on and off the pitch, even absent the atmosphere of fans. Signs that New Zealand might not be the regional behemoth that we expected them to be were there, but they turned it on when they had to. They will have little fear when it comes to that once-off play-off game against Costa Rica, a tie where the neutral venue probably benefits the OFC team. On a larger level, one hopes that we will now be entering a new era for the OFC, one where the virus comes to have less of an impact, where a potential Nations League format allows for increased competition, where standards will have a chance to improve and where the members will be able to avoid another lengthy gap in competitive senior football. The 0.5 place is New Zealand’s: in the future it will grow to an even 1. It’s time for the OFC to strive to be more than FIFA’s also-ran.

109. A Brief History Of Balls In Bowls: The World Cup Draw

(01/04/2022)

Malfunctioning equipment, uncomfortable physical contact and giant footballs: the World Cup draw is rarely without something to note.

1930: It’s hard to know where the draw took place in Uruguay, other than some office of the Uruguayan Football Association in the midst of Montevideo. We’re not even sure if Jules Rimet and other would-be luminaries of FIFA and the World Cup organising committee were involved. We do know that it was held all quite late in the process, no more than a week before the tournament itself started, with a format that appears to have had no great deal of pre-planning. 13 teams, some of whom had only arrived into Uruguay in the days beforehand, went into four groups, necessitating three of three and one of four: A, with eventual runners-up Argentina, France, Mexico and Chile, was the stand-out. It matched the helter-skelter aspects of that inaugural World Cup’s planning, and it’s perhaps for the best that we have no great records of the process involved.

1934: Things were a bit different four years on. The draw was still held only days ahead of the tournament’s commencement, but the stage this time was the opulent Ambasciatori Palace Hotel in Rome, where present most definitely was Jules Rimet. Less pleasant, in retrospect, was the presence of General Giorgio Vaccaro, President of Italian football and fascist militia leader, to oversee things: his grandson, perhaps wearing a uniform of the Fascist Youth organisation Opera Nazionale Balilla in surviving pictures, was allowed to do the actual drawing out of two urns when the organising committee seeded teams in the straight knock-out format. Our greater knowledge of this event matches the greater publicity around the various ceremonial aspects of the 1934 tournament, organised as it as with a constant emphasis on glorification of Mussolini’s Italy: even the sight of Vaccaro’s grandson doing the draw carries with it such feelings, the child looking militaristic in a serious pose as he hands the pieces of paper over. The seeding, more than likely intentionally, prevented any two big names coming up against each other immediately, and the pick of the first ties was probably Austria and France, with Austria running out 3-2 winners after extra time.

1938: For the first time we know the exact date for the draw, which was the 5th June, a month exactly before the tournament began. Perhaps in a bid to outdo his Italian counterparts, Jules Rimet had his 6-year-old grandson Yves – absent fascist paraphernalia of course – given the honour of picking the bits of paper out of the glass urns, and Yves can be seen in black-and-white pictures at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs standing on a table to do so, surrounded by stern men in suits not quite getting into the child-friendly nature of the stunt. It reflects a time when the world governing body for the sport did not take itself as seriously as it does now. Yves’ involvement may have helped people forget that it was an awkward draw in many ways, with the 16 qualifiers reduced to 15 following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and the inability of FIFA to find someone else to take the last even number. It was Germany that provided one-half of the best First Round matches, against Switzerland: despite the politically enforced inclusion of a number of high-profile Austrian players, the Germans were beaten 4-2 in a replay, which still constitutes their worst performance at a World Cup.

1950: There were no children this time. The first post-war World Cup moved things to Brazil, with the draw taking place in Rio de Janeiro’s Itamaraty Palace on the 22nd May. For the first time balls, not slips of paper, were used, contained within a silver spherical cage that looked like a somewhat dressed up bingo wheel. Coming after a messy qualification format marked by several withdrawals, one of the balls contained the words “Team to be named”, waiting for the side that would be invited to replace Turkey (it would eventually be France, before they withdrew as well). The conference hall, packed with FIFA delegates, journalists and photographers all speaking different languages, was described as “wonderfully bizarre confusion”: the surviving images back this up, showing a sardine-can atmosphere with people spilling out the doors. They quieted down when Brazilian Minister for Foreign Affairs Raul Fernandes did the honours. The draw he made would end up having to be edited a bit when only 14 of the expected 16 turned up and is perhaps most notable for the spectacle of a two-team Group D, with Uruguay – the eventual winners – and Bolivia – who did not even bother to send a delegate to the draw – the occupants. They played a single game against each other, a facile 8-0 victory for Uruguay, set on their way to devastate the hosts in the Maracana.

1954: The draw was getting earlier in every edition, and in Zurich took place in late November the year before the Finals. The city’s mayor, Emil Landolt, drew the names inside the St- Gotthard Hotel, a palatial building in the heart of the city centre. This is one where comparatively little in the way of remembrances have survived, perhaps fitting as it was one of the last to avoid any hint of celebrity or larger ceremony surrounding it. The unique draw – where groups were divided evenly between seeded and unseeded sides, but where the seeded teams only played each other if even on points – produced some strange confrontations, not least Group 4 where the highlight of the round was probably England’s 4-4 draw with Belgium.

1958: For the first time the draw was broadcast, as part of the Swedish radio entertainment show Stora Famnen (Big Hugs), though it appears that no copies of the event are still around (or at least easily accessible). The show’s edition for the 8th February that year saw local radio presenter Sven Jerring, CONMEBOL rep Lorenzo Vilizio, and TV personality/journalist Lennart Hyland conduct the draw. The bits of paper were stored inside a spherical trophy on this occasion, and alongside the others to help with the draw was presenter Agneta Ljungström, probably the first woman to take part in the procedure. Going with the surrounds, this draw was also the first to contain artistic accompaniments, with singer Jussi Björling granting the audience four of his songs: Holger Bergérus, Secretary General of the Swedish Football Association, would gift Björling with tickets to matches during the event as a thank you. Group 4, that contained eventual winners Brazil, a highly fancied Soviet side, an England still reeling from the Munich air disaster and a decent Austrian outfit was the pick of the lots, with the USSR pipping the English to progression after a play-off.

1962: Held in Santiago’s Carrera Hotel in January, the draw for this Finals was a fairly low-key affair, lacking much in the way of celebrity, notoriety or surviving media. This was perhaps reflective of the way the build-up to the tournament was handled by hosts Chile, the country still struggling to rebuild after the 1960 earthquake and with its government investing only a limited amount of time and money into the endeavour. We know that Stanley Rous, then President of FIFA, was involved: after the tournament opened with several broken legs and ribs, it would be Rous that would be back in the Carrera Hotel, meeting representatives of all 16 teams and demanding/pleading that the hurricane of violence occurring on the field come to an end. Group 2, with the hosts, West Germany, Italy and Switzerland was the most high-profile pool, containing as it did the infamous “Battle of Santiago” where Italy and Chile served up one of the most infamous 90 minute brawls in football history.

1966: This was the first draw to be televised, via the BBC, who broadcast black-and-white pictures of a hall in London’s Royal Garden Hotel a few days into the new year, with the groups put up on enormous blackboards behind a main stage helpfully emblazoned with the words “WORLD CUP DRAW”, in case anyone was confused. Silver trophies were used in place of urns to draw the teams, and the process was watched by a packed crowd of murmuring journalists. It all seems to have been very civilised, maybe overly so: very English in other words. Brazilian FA officials ceremoniously handed over the Jules Rimet trophy to Stanley Rous, who good-naturedly baited them by suggesting England’s possession of the trophy would be more than temporary: he presumably was laughing less when the trophy was stolen two months later. The most interesting group drawn was probably D, which contained respected Soviet Union and Italian sides along with Chile, guaranteeing a replay of the Battle of Santiago, and an over-performing North Korea: they would famously pip Italy to a Quarter-Final place.

1970: The Maria Isabel Hotel of Mexico City was the stage on this occasion, as delegates gathered on the 10th January. Broadcast worldwide, this might have been the largest draw yet in terms of immediate attendees, with over a thousand people reported as packing into the hall. Still images of the event represent the first time the draw can be seen in colour, with white-clad female attendants on hand to lift the names of drawn teams onto enormous backboards. In a call back to the 1930s Monica Canedo, 10-year-old daughter of Mexican FA President Guillermo Canedo, drew the names from the four silver cups carried over from 1966. The draw was a departure in that it eschewed traditional seeding in favour of seeking a geographical spread, partly to insure Israel would avoid Morocco, with the North Africans threatening to withdraw otherwise. The third group drawn, containing holders England, favoured Brazil and decent Romania and Czechoslovakian sides was dubbed “Grupo de la Muerte” by local journalists, the first recorded use of “Group of Death” in that context: Brazil and England advanced, the former on their way to iconic status.

1974: The World Cup draw went a bit less conservative in appearance in Frankfurt’s Radio für Hessen Salon six months ahead of kick-off, with a green hued four-tiered stage constructed to house delegates next to an equally monstrous looking board to list fixtures as they were made. 11-year-old Detlef Lange, a lucky member of a famous boys choir, was the designated picker of names, held in capsules instead of slips of paper or balls, with transparent glass bowls replacing the solver cups. Unseen attendants awkwardly placed the names of the drawn countries on boards from the rear, and sometimes struggled with the task, perhaps nervous of the record television audience watching at home. The draw is notable for the stunned reaction when Lange drew East Germany into the same group as the hosts, broken only by some unexplainably exuberant applause from Colombia’s delegation that prompted the hall to join in. The GDR would actually win that meeting – the only time the two Germany’s would ever play each other at that level – in a group that also contained the controversial Chilean side that defaulted their way to the Finals after the USSR refused to play them in a qualifying play-off. Both Germany’s would advance however, the East to fall at the next round and the West to win the tournament.

1978: Argentina moved beyond the hotels and radio halls to host their mid-January draw in the expansive General San Martín Cultural Centre, but couldn’t move beyond the uncomfortable picture of a militarised society two years after the coup that put the “National Reorganization Process” in charge, with soldiers present all over the building. The enormous hall used for the event was dominated by a gargantuan “FIFA” backboard where the draw would be put up. FIFA President Joao Havelange got into the family act of previous draws by getting his four-year-old grandson Ricardo to pull the capsules from some stylised glass spheres, the little boy’s yellow jumper just about the only bit of colour in an otherwise sombre setting: more than one delegation was dealing with boycott calls back at home, not least eventual finalists the Netherlands. The pick of the First Round groups was probably 1, where the hosts were joined by Italy, France and Hungary: Argentina would commence a controversy-laden run to an inaugural World Cup triumph by finishing in second.

1982: Spain went all out for their draw, building a temporary skyway to connect the location, Madrid’s Palacio de Congresos, with the neighbouring Bernabeu Stadium. In keeping with the, by now, traditional arrangements of the draw, three young boys, members of a Madrid orphanage, were picked to don peculiar looking purple sashes and do the conducting, carrying miniature footballs from enormous spinning cages to the dignitaries for announcing. Alas, the draw was not to be remembered for its infrastructure or for its orphans, but more for the mess that occurred when it all went wrong. Then FIFA general secretary Sepp Blatter and vice-president Germann Neuberger appeared to forget about arrangements made to prevent too many South American sides from being in the same group, necessitating some swaps for European teams drawn too early. This was followed by one of the giant cages refusing to open, and one of the balls splitting apart prematurely. An awkward wait while these issues were resolved drew scathing comments from the worlds press, and more than one jeer from a restless audience inside the hall. Blatter would vow to never rely on a “machine” for a draw again. Group 6 was the standout when all was eventually sorted, containing Brazil, the Soviet Union, a strong Scotland and New Zealand: the Scots would crash out after failing to beat the Soviets in the last group game.

1986: Just 16 years after the last one the World Cup draw came back to Mexico, but this time to the TV studios at Televisa San Angel. It was perhaps the most bizarre backdrop to a Finals draw ever, with the studio made up to look like a subtropical jungle complete with vegetation, birds and mock-ups of ancient ruins as a stage. Despite this archaic-looking set-up, the event included a laser show, described by one journalist as “Aztec to high tech”. Perhaps with a mind at the farce that had occurred four years earlier, the actual draw was undertaken with a minimum of fuss, lasting little less than 25 minutes from start to finish. More local boys were used to collect the balls, though perhaps with a bit more in the way of oversight from FIFA. The pick of the groups was probably F, containing England, Portugal, Poland and Morocco, which allowed England manager Bobby Robson the chance to perform a comical flipflop, complaining about the possibility of playing in low altitude Monterrey before the draw, then insisting he was happy to play there when such a location came to pass. Morocco would be the unexpected group toppers, the first African side to do so at a World Cup, while England followed them on their way to experiencing a Hand of God and the Goal of the Century.

1990: Back in Italy, this time the location was, compared to the Ambasciatori Palace, the somewhat less grand Palazzetto dello Sport in late 1989, an indoor arena constructed for the basketball tournament of the 1960 Olympics. A massive stylised map of Italy loomed over proceedings, noting locations of games. For the first time the world of non-footballing celebrity got involved in the draw, with actress Sophia Loren (later accused, without evidence, of helping to rig the draw in favour of the host nation with the help of magnetic rings) and tenor Luciano Pavarotti assisting Sepp Blatter. Indeed, the 1990 version of the draw was perhaps the first to fully embrace the concept of it as a major event of its own accord, and notable for the cavalcade of footballing legends – Pele, Bobby Moore, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge among others – who were present in an official capacity, along with performances of music from Pavarotti (with the help of a full orchestra). Simple orange balls were picked out of simple glass bowls, and for the first time in a while no children were present to help out. No groups of death with F, containing England, the Netherlands, Ireland and Egypt, perhaps the most interesting on paper, but later accused of being at the forefront of the tournaments negative football perception, with five draws in six games.

1994: FIFA clearly got a taste for the world of celebrity, because four years after the initial dalliance it was practically the theme of what took place in the Las Vegas Convention Centre on December 19th 1993. In a somewhat garishly coloured hall Sepp Blatter was the officiant, but few people were looking at him, instead having their eyes drawn by any one or more of Robin Williams, Evander Holyfield, Beau Bridges, Carol Alt, Peter Max, Barry Manilow, Julio Iglesias, Faye Dunaway, Dick Clark, Mario Andretti and a brief recorded appearance from President Bill Clinton, among others. Franz Beckenbauer, tasked with taking the balls from the bowls, might well have been wondering why the heavyweight champion of the world and Aladdin’s genie were doing it with him, but it certainly marked the draw out, as did the first use of TV graphics to distinguish drawn teams in their respective groups. People amused themselves holding up a comically large official football, Williams poked fun at a not terribly happy looking “Sepp Bladder” and the overall feel was less a deadly serious drawing of teams and more like a 48 minute variety act. Again, accusations that the draw was rigged, this time led by a rapidly-disintegrating Diego Maradona, dogged the affair, and again their was little in the way of substantial fact other than the Irish ending up playing near Boston. This time Group B was probably the best of the lot, containing eventual winners Brazil, not dismissible Swedish and Russian teams, and the side that had become the posterboys for African football four years earlier in Cameroon, though 1994 would be a much leaner year for them.

1998: On the face of it, the event that took place in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome in December 1997 was fairly straightforward, even if the location wasn’t. The first time the draw was held in a football stadium, it allowed 38’000 spectators to witness events first-hand. The officials may have regretted it when local Marseille fans, still smarting from the enforced relegation of their side after the 1993 match-fixing scandal, booed the French Prime Minister and LFP President throughout. In front of another enormous ball, Sepp Blatter oversaw the drawing from fixed half-sphere bowls, this time assisted by mostly footballing celebrities, from a returning Beckenbauer to Raymond Kopa. No problems it seemed, save the cold: the most interesting draw was probably that of Group F, containing European Champions Germany, a hugely talented Yugoslavian side, a United States that had been impressing many at the time and arguably the best team in Asia in Iran, with more than one observer noting it seemed to be a pool where America had been at war with everyone else. Stunning many when he spoke 20 years later while serving a ban from football for corruption, tournament organiser Michel Platini claimed the draw had been rigged so the host nation would avoid Brazil in the knock-out’s, saying “We did not spend six years organising the World Cup to not do some little shenanigans.” With France winning the tournament, it seems his “shenanigans” paid off.

2002: There were rumours that the draw wouldn’t go ahead owing to the tense international situation at the time, with 9/11 a very recent memory and the US invading Afghanistan just weeks beforehand. But this proved premature as a worry, and Michel Zen-Ruffinen, general secretary of FIFA, was able to enjoy the crickets that accompanied his awful attempts at humour ahead of the draw on the 1st December in the Busan Exhibition & Convention Center. Traditional Korean dancing, more modern K-Pop, and American flavour of the month Anastasia provided the entertainment, before Japanese/South Korea representatives, along with Pele – restored to some degree of prominence following an informal ban from participating in such things by Joao Havelange, after a very public feud between Pele and Brazilian footballing supremo Ricardo Teixeira – helped to conduct the actual draw. There was a noticeable lack of larger pomp and circumstance in the enormous BEXPO centre, which allowed a bit more attention on the draw itself, all done and dusted in little more than 15 minutes: Group F, that brought together the old enemies of Argentina and England, along with a very strong Nigeria and a considerable Sweden, was the stand-out on this occasion, with either side of the Hand of God making it out.

2006: Germany saw dignitaries gather in the Leipzig Neue Messe, with FIFA Communications director Markus Siegler getting the privilege of assistance from supermodel/actress Heidi Klum, with a man in a giant lion costume – the mascot, “Geleo IV” – also nearby. A sleek stage and massive screen set-up marked this one out as one of the most polished of World Cup draws, with the location described by journalists as a “shimmering modern-day Crystal Palace”. The days of children being asked to perform the draws and giant bingo rollers breaking down were very much a thing of the past, with FIFA now clearly keeping at the forefront of thought the enormous TV audience watching at home. With that in mind, the entertainment could perhaps have been a bit better, with a magician who made the World Cup, and a lovely assistant, disappear seeming rather kitschy only 16 years removed. The by now standard cavalcade of footballing powerhouses of yesteryear did their part, and when finished it was Group C that drew the eye most, containing two favourites in Argentina and the Netherlands, and two dark horses in Cote d’Ivoire and Serbia and Montenegro. The favourites would make it out, but neither would win it all.

2010: The Cape Town International Convention Centre saw various luminaries take part, not least Charlize Thereon who caused a stir when she jokingly announced Ireland, recently eliminated from qualification as a result of Thierry Henry’s infamous handball, coming out of one of the pots during the dress rehearsal. Her experience with FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke was awkward from the off, with Thereon looking visibly uncomfortable with both his proximity and the odd touch of the arm, while her efforts at ribald banter allegedly led to a stage manager telling her to tone it down. David Beckham represented football in the draw, with various South African sporting and cultural celebrities doing the rest in what amounted to a lengthy ceremony that drew much negative comment for its perceived dourness. Group G, which brought together Brazil, Portugal, Cote d’Ivoire and North Korea could be considered the pick of the groups between the colony vs colonial aspect, and the circus that surrounded the DPRK’s involvement: Brazil and Portugal made it out. Speaking years later, Sven Goran-Eriksson, then a member of FIFA committees, would claim North Korean delegates had asked for his assistance in fixing the draw.

2014: There can be few nicer places to hold a World Cup draw then Costa do Sauipe, Bahia, and it was in this sun-drenched part of the world that FIFA descended in December 2013. Jerome Valcke got another go, this time with Brazilian actress Fernanda Lima, on a grand blue stage surrounded by footballing legends of the past and Brazilian politicians of the present. FIFA, and the Brazilian government, were desperately hoping for a decent spectacle to distract from the mammoth security operation outside, with thousands of police, army and private personnel employed to counter planned protests from Brazilian citizens unhappy with the World Cup and what it was costing a country in the midst of economic crisis: by some estimates there were two such security personnel for every three people actually attending the draw. Conspiracies that the draw was rigged to favour Brazil and other South American sides became widespread in the aftermath, with some making much of split-seconds where the bits of paper in Valcke’s hands were not immediately visible, but as ever there was no actual proof. Things went off largely without a hitch, unless you happened to be in this edition’s designated Group of Death: D, which contained England, Italy and Uruguay, along with the comparatively unfancied Costa Rica. All the more surprising then when the Central Americans topped the group, ahead of Uruguay, with the Europeans going home.

2018: Russia went big for their draw location, putting it at the heart of their government in the State Kremlin Palace. The location included a suitably imposing stage that had a mocked-up 3D depth in its video presentation, that towered over the delegates. Vladimir Putin made sure to make himself available for an opening speech, before a less-than-enthralling video package that appeared to send Spanish FA head Juan Luis Larrea to sleep. After some traditional dancing the usual stream of footballing legends assisted with the draw, with Diego Maradona, naturally, getting the most attention with his golden bow tie (and a quip from Gary Lineker, who said Maradona was “always good with his hands”). It was an otherwise unexceptional ceremony, a sign perhaps that a certain blandness was preferable to FIFA than anything remotely controversial. Group H could be regarded as the pick of the bunch with four well-regarded sides from four continents in Colombia, Japan, Senegal and Poland, any two of which could have been considered a dark horse: Colombia and Japan made it out, the Japanese by virtue of the first use of the disciplinary tiebreaker rules in World Cup history, Senegal lagging behind them due to two more yellow cards.

2022: The latest draw in well over half a century took place today in the Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre, with Idris Elba and Reshmin Chowdhury as hosts. There were the usual footballing legends, a performance of the official World Cup anthem, the typical speeches (the Qatari Emir’s joke about keeping his short probably garnering a bit too much laughter), all on a grand stage notable for the enormous golden doors that opened dramatically for the presenters and draw officiants. An Arabian feel was, as you would expect, very much the thematic throughline, with a heavy emphasis on Qatar as a much nicer place than you might have been led to believe (your mileage will vary on how believable it all was). The draw itself was unremarkable save for the repeated jingle that played with every ball picked up, and the standout of the groups is probably B, containing as it does England, the USA, Iran and any one of Scotland, Wales or Ukraine. Notable ties abound, not least a re-match of that famous USA/Iran game from 1998. Seven months away from its proper beginning, Qatar has managed to smoothly carry off the preliminaries: the tournament itself awaits.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, England, France, Germany, Ghana, Iran, Japan, Korea (Republic), Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, United States, Uruguay

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Australia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Peru, Scotland, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Wales

Teams Eliminated

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

Teams Withdrawn

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

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

Photo Credits

Unranked: A view of the Pacific Ocean from Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Photo by RDPixelShop, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The More Things Change: Baghdad’s Al-Madina Stadium, where Iraqi spectators watch footage of their qualifier against the UAE on big-screens. Photo by Kari0t, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Fingertips: Spectators at Costa Rica’s Estadio Nacional, from a friendly in 2011. Photo by MadriCR, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Half And Half: Fans assemble at Cairo Stadium hours before Egypt’s game with Senegal. Photo by Crosskimo, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Exeunt: Argentina celebrate a World Cup qualifier win against Colombia in February 2022. Photo by Jmmuguerza, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Nightmare Fuel: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and North Macedonia’s Stefan Ristovski contest the ball in their UEFA Second Round play-off. Photo by Macedonianbooy1, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

0.5: Raphael Lea’i of the Solomon Islands in action against the Cook Islands. Photo by FIFA.

A Brief History Of Balls In Bowls: Giant replicas of previous World Cup footballs placed near the location of the 2010 World Cup draw in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2009. Photo by warrenski, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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1 Response to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XII) – Face-Off

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

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