211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XIII) – Intercontinental

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At the start of June 2022, there were eight teams from five confederations left competing for three places in Qatar. The entire qualification process had come down to just five matches, with the centrepiece of this final set of matchdays the intercontinental play-offs, with Asia set against South America and Oceania against North America. Nerves were understandably shredded across the world: to get this far and not make it would be little short of unbearable. With those five matches, the curtains closed on the longest World Cup qualification in history.

Part Thirteen: Intercontinental

110. Think Again: Scotland

111. Wartime: Ukraine

112. Waiting On A Miracle?: UAE/Australia

113. Dancing On The Line: Australia/Peru

114. Last One Out, Hit The Lights: Costa Rica/New Zealand

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110. Think Again: Scotland

(01/06/2022)

Glasgow will be roaring tonight.

If you happen to be in the general region of Hampden Park around 19:45 tonight, you are liable to hear and feel something close to a hurricane crossed with an earthquake. When “Flower Of Scotland” is belted out by what is sure to be a capacity home crowd ahead of the play-off match with Ukraine, it will be with a gusto that anyone who has been to see the Scottish national side – football, rugby, whatever – will be very familiar with. Few other such displays in football can match the power of that rendition, of a song that commemorates Scottish victories over their southern neighbours, sent scuttling home to “think again”. Tonight, Scotland will invite a watching audience from around the world to think again about their World Cup bona fides, as they seek to end a 24-year-exile from the Finals. This, their sixth campaign since their appearance at France 1998, constitutes the closest they have been to ending the wait, and banishing the memory of the previous five.

In 2002, Scotland entered qualification with high-ish expectations. The appearances at EURO 1996 and France 1998 had extended their unwanted record of the most major tournament appearances without getting past the First Round, but getting to both, and only losing out narrowly to England for a place in EURO 2000, showcased a side that was capable of becoming a mainstay when it came to Finals contention. There were decent, if not flashy, players aplenty still capable of good performances, heading into that period of their careers where motivation could be found in a last effort to grace the big stage. Group 6 of qualification looked manageable too, containing a Croatian side that had traded third place in France for failure to qualify for EURO 2000, and a Belgian side that looked beatable. But Scotland unexpectedly struggled, as a malaise became evident under coach Craig Brown, perhaps influenced by the open secret that the still-popular head man would be leaving the post at the end of that campaign. The Scots needed a very late goal to beat Latvia in their opening game, and a creditable draw in Zagreb was followed up with a less creditable draw at home to Belgium, the Scots throwing a two goal lead and a man advantage away late in the game. In the respective reverse fixtures Scotland drew a blank at home to Croatia in a scoreless draw, and were then soundly beaten 2-0 in Brussels, with Brown criticised for changes in formation and a sense that the Scots could have played for hours and failed to score. The latter result put paid to Scotland’s hopes of back-to-back World Cup appearances and heralded a changing of the guard, with Brown being replaced by Berti Vogts.

Vogts is the only non-Scot to hold the top job and that might be down to the disastrous tenure that he oversaw. Not all of it was of his making it is only fair to point out, with numerous retirements at the start of his reign –  Paul Lambert, Billy Dodds and Tom Boyd were among the mainstays now opting out – unsettling the larger set-up to a significant degree, and necessitating a period of experimentation and new caps: 40 would be awarded by the end of his tenure. The results were poor even before Vogts got the chance to take a crack at World Cup qualification, with the EURO 2004 campaign marked by a draw with the lowly Faroe Islands and an away loss to Lithuania, before the side were stuffed 6-1 on aggregate in a play-off with the Dutch. The writing was on the wall even before the Scots attempted to get to Germany, and when they took just two points from their first three games of Group 5, Vogts resigned. When Walter Smith took over Scotland had hit a low ebb in FIFA rankings, and though the ex-Rangers man steadied the ship somewhat with a reversion to a conservative 4-5-1 and a “hard-to-beat” mentality, a galling 1-0 home defeat to Belarus ended their chances for another cycle. It was a difficult period for the Tartan Army to endure, caught in transition and struggling to find a fixed identity of play.

By the time they got to the run for the 2010 Finals, Scotland had gone through another two managers, with Smith returning to Rangers and replacement Alex McLeish going to Birmingham City. George Burley, after impressing with Southampton, was the new man in the spot, with high expectations after a significant rise in the rankings on the back of performances from a new generation that included Craig Gordon, Darren Fletcher and James McFadden. The expectations were not to be met. The Scots got off to a bad start with defeat away to Macedonia, and a few games later Burley ‘s tenure came under increasing pressure when Kris Boyd, then on his way to becoming that season’s top goalscorer in the SPL, was left on the bench for a goalless draw with Norway, and subsequently made himself unavailable for selection: the game itself was marked by a comical miss of an open goal from three yards out by debutante Chris Iwelumo. Later, squad regulars Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor were dropped after being caught drinking before a game in Iceland and then dumped from the national team altogether after making lewd gestures to journalists while on the sideline. The disruptions and controversy dogged the campaign, though Scotland were still in with a shout going into the final match against runaway group winners the Netherlands. Needing a win, they hit the woodwork twice on the way to a 1-0 defeat. Burley was gone within a month.

Long before the next manager, Craig Levein, got his chance at the World Cup, his position seemed to be on thin ice. Experimenting with a 4-6-0 formation had led to strong criticism when it failed to deliver qualification for EURO 2012, and Levein’s Scotland never seemed to get going for the bigger competition, taking just two points from the first six games in a terrible run of form. Gordon Strachan, then three years without a managerial job, was parachuted in when Levein was dismissed early in 2013 and managed to restore a semblance of pride with wins against Croatia and Macedonia, but Scotland had long fallen out of contention by that stage, the campaign dismissed as a write-off and thoughts turning to preparing a team that could credibly challenge at the next cycle. More was needed than just fresh tactical approaches and the right selection: Strachan had as big a job with changing the growing perception of the side as also-rans, and with the team’s own mentality.

In many respects, that period marked a big turning point, as Strachan did what he could to get the side playing better football and with more belief in themselves. The results were stop-start in a failing EURO 2016 campaign before a torturous run at Russia 2018, where more than once the Scots were left to rue late goals. The home game against England, where Leigh Griffith scored twice in the 87th and 90th minutes to overturn a one goal deficit, only for Harry Kane to snatch a draw three minutes after that, was typical of the way things went. Repeatedly, it seemed as if Scotland’s worst enemy was not the other jerseys, but themselves. Once again, a topsy turvy campaign left Scotland needing a win in their last game for a shot at the play-offs, and once again they came up short, this time against Slovenia: they came from behind twice, but couldn’t find the needed winner in a 2-2 draw. Strachan departed, replaced initially by Alex McLeish again, but further poor results meant the job quickly went to Kilmarnock’s Steve Clarke.

It’s Clarke who still leads Scotland, and he has gotten one hoodoo off the Tartan’s Army’s backs in getting to EURO 2020, even if they once again failed to get beyond the group stage. That done, he was ready to take a new brand of aggressive play backed up by a new generation of rising stars all the way to Qatar. Veterans like Craig Gordan in goal and Stuart Armstrong in midfield are still there, but now backed up by newer names like Scott McTominay, Nathan Patterson and Che Adams. The confidence that Strachan had helped to form was there in spades, and an attacking mindset that eschewed Scottish sides’ traditional conservatism. After a few stumbles early in 2022 qualification, they won their last six games on the trot, and but for the excellence of top-seeds Denmark could have been in a position to head the group. The reward for second place was a play-off, which brings us to tonight.

It has been 24 years of repeated heartbreak, underperformance and frustration for Scotland. To add to that pressure, tonight they are playing a side in Ukraine that every neutral going will be cheering for. But tell that to the packed crowd that is sure to roar their team on, and sure to explode if they were to make it to the final play-off game against Wales on Sunday. “Flower of Scotland” is an anthem that exhorts opposition to re-appraise what they know about Scotland. For too long now they have been nearly men. Another four year wait would be torturous. The time to put those five consecutive failures behind them is now. Is Steve Clarke going to be just another name in a list of disappointments, or can this Scotland team do it? We will find out tonight.

111. Wartime: Ukraine

(05/06/2022)

In a fight for survival, Ukraine continues a quest for World Cup qualification that cannot be more meaningful.

This cycle of World Cup qualification has had plenty of non-footballing events and issues have an impact. There is the behemoth that is COVID of course, but military coups, international disputes, civil unrest, financial malfeasance leading to withdrawal, even volcanic eruptions have occurred that have necessitated the re-scheduling of games or proved a significant influence on them. Such things remind us that football is just a game, even if its importance outweighs the reality of 22 people kicking a ball around a field for 90 minutes.

Flat-out war has been a factor too. We’ve seen that with Syria and with Yemen. We’ve seen it in the Horn of Africa, the Maghreb, Myanmar. The level of conflict changes, but the bloody truth of what it portends is common. Football has a trait of persistence, but there are instances when even this most ubiquitous of human activities must stop in the face of bullets, bombs and bodies. The most recent nation to undergo such inhumane trials is Ukraine, at time of writing locked in a desperate battle with the invading forces of the Russian Federation. As their senior mens football team were preparing for a decisive play-off with Scotland, the war brought normal life to a standstill, with questions to be asked about whether the side would even get the chance to compete and whether it was even appropriate for them to do so. This week, three months removed from when they should have played the game, the “Герої” – the Heroes – answer those questions.

Ukraine’s qualification campaign up to March was a like a Faustian bargain played out over eight games: they went unbeaten, but six of the results were stalemates, with Ukraine achieving the unlikely accomplishment of the record for most consecutive draws at this level with five. The feat belonged both to Andriy Shevchenko, who departed in August 2021 for club management, and replacement Oleksandr Petrakov, the man who had led the Ukraine U-20s to World Cup glory in 2019, who between them steered Ukraine to stalemates with France (twice, somewhat credibly), Kazakhstan (again twice, less credibly) and Finland.

The results, especially those against Kazakhstan, infuriated many back at home. Petrakov had a distinct lack of management experience outside of underage sides and was appointed initially only as a caretaker before a somewhat permanent one-year deal secured him for this qualification campaign. He has been subject to intense scrutiny for his fall-outs with some players, terse press conferences and an uneasy attempt to alter the team’s playing style from the possession-focused approach of Shevchenko to something more in the counter-attacking vein. Coming only a short-time after Shevchenko had brought the team to the last eight of EURO 2020, the concerns were understandable. Up to February it seemed to be an open secret that Petrakov’s holding of the management role would be dependent on World Cup qualification and Ukraine could count themselves somewhat fortunate to wind up in second place in their group: a hard-fought 2-1 win in Helsinki in October 2021 married to a French victory in the same city on the last matchday let them squeak by the Finns and secure the play-off position, just about.

All the while, the growing tensions between Kyiv and Moscow played out, as what initially seemed inconceivable rapidly became inevitable. What has followed since Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border in numerous places has held the worlds attention, and constitutes little less than the largest crisis in European history for at least three decades, if not more. I will keep my thoughts on the larger war brief, as the remit of this series is clear, but something must be said. It can be difficult, in the world of 2022, to distinguish the signal from the noise, but it is enough to say that the war has not developed to the advantage of Russia as much as many, within and without Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, thought that it would. Ukraine’s resistance, most especially to the thrust in the direction of Kyiv but elsewhere too, has astonished many, as much or more as the apparent poor performance of the vaunted Russian war making machine. The refusal of Ukraine’s people to meekly accept Russia’s invasion has provoked a worldwide admiration, even as the destruction and the death toll such resistance has incurred leaves any proponent of democracy sick to their stomach.

If Petrakov didn’t win many friends during the first few months of his tenure as Ukraine boss, he certainly has now through his actions since the fighting started. When Putin committed his forces to the invasion on the 24th February, Petrakov was in his home in Kyiv. He’s a born and raised Kyivete, whose playing career in the old Soviet system started with his graduation from the Dynamo Kyiv academy, and it was back to the city he went when his playing days were over. For him, the idea of leaving the place was unthinkable and he has resolutely refused to do so amid the shelling and missile strikes, instead attempting to volunteer for service with the military forces (for which he was denied owing to his age, 64). Petrakov is representative of a remarkable sub-set of the Ukrainian population, Russian-speaking owing to their background from the days of the Soviet Union, but distinctly Ukrainian, and proud of it, in nationality and feeling: like many others, from Zelensky down, he has become a living symbol of Ukraine’s resistance.

He was far from alone in Ukrainian football circles. With the internal league halted and the government calling up all able-bodied men from 18-60 to serve in makeshift military units, many footballers and ex-footballers have found themselves in some manner of uniform. At least six members of the most recent international squad, players from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, have joined up. Others, dispossessed by the Russian advance and with young families to care for, are among the legions of people streaming out of the country. For the Donetsk contingent, it’s simply more of the depressing same, with the club having been obliged to leave their home in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 after the outbreak of the Russian-backed insurgency.

How to approach the matter of Ukraine’s play-off hopes was the dominant topic when it came to the invasion’s impact on sport, after Russia’s delayed, but essentially inevitable, expulsion from World Cup qualifying was decided upon by FIFA. The majority of the team still plays within Ukraine, and any possible preparations that could be done were essentially impossible. Shakhtar players went on with training in a Turkish site, but the mindset of any Ukrainian would hardly be considered appropriate for a decisive play-off with Scotland within a month of their homeland being invaded.

Any insistence that the planned game in Hampden Park go ahead was deemed impractical and against humanitarian sense, and it was thus postponed. But where to go from there was another issue. There were numerous factors at play, not least something of a ticking clock, with World Cup qualification due to be completed by the Summer at the latest. Postponement meant that no qualifier for this path of UEFA’s Second Round would be ascertained, which had a knock-on effect for the seedings of the World Cup draw: if, for example, Wales were to make it now, they will be fourth seeds when they would otherwise have been in the third pot. Ukraine’s seeding meant it would not be asked to host a subsequent game against Wales, so that was not a factor, but the expected ability of the national team to field a side very much was. A Ukrainian withdrawal was mooted as a possibility, with even Petrakov indicating his belief that his side would not be in a competitive state come June.

In the end, the authorities in Kyiv were able to convince enough people that Ukraine would be able to send a side to Glasgow, and they dutifully arrived on Wednesday night, after training camps held in Slovakia and other places, and warm-up watches against club sides from Germany and Italy. Some wondered if the emotion of the moment might overwhelm the visitors, but they dispelled such fears with an assured, professional performance, where they outplayed and largely outfought Scotland over the course of the 90 minutes. Andriy Yarmolenko’s lob, Roman Yaremchuk’s header and Artem Dovbyk’s late breakaway were enough to progress, and it was the Ukrainian away end of Hampden Park that ended the night singing. Morale in the squad is described as “sky-high” and there is little indication that the side will need much motivating ahead of the subsequent game with Wales tonight, if Captain Oleksandr Zinchenkjo’s tears at a pre-match press conference are anything to go by.

Some will ask, quite reasonably why any of this really matters. Ukraine appears to be in a battle for its very existence, against forces of immense, if so far misused, strength, who would think very little about turning it into a province. In the face of such a monumental crisis, the adventures of a football team on tour must seem to amount to very little.

But it really does matter. Whether just or not, the senior football team of a nation is one of the key ambassadorial entities of that nation. The term “representative side” has fallen out of favour, but it still fits: these players represent their country. They represent a free, democratic, sovereign Ukraine. That they get to exist as they do and play as they do is because of the existence of a free, democratic, sovereign Ukraine. They are a symbol that Ukraine is still alive: battered, bruised, more than a little heartsick, but alive nonetheless. That’s why they get to wear those colours, hear that anthem and continue their efforts to make it to the biggest spectacle of international sporting competition our planet has to offer. Most of us are lucky enough that this representation carries with it less of a dire accompaniment.

No matter what happens, it will be an emotional night once more in Cardiff on Sunday. On the pitch, Ukraine may fail. They may be beaten by a decent Welsh side sure to be roared on by passionate home fans who have been waiting 64 years for another World Cup Finals. It may well be too much for a side who can only be expected to carry so much non-footballing weight, and whose preparations for the tie will pale in comparison to what the opposition were able to do. But just being there is victory enough I suppose. Ukraine is alive, and they will show that tonight. And with all due respect to Wales, the world will be roaring them on.

112. Waiting On A Miracle?: UAE/Australia

(07/06/2022)

Three years on from a meeting that produced a big shock, the UAE and Australia meet again, with the power balance of the AFC on the line.

The AFC has often, in recent times anyway, been defined by its “Big Five”: Australia, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Only twice since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams has the AFC sent anyone else to a Finals. On one occasion, 2018, they sent all five. Breaking into that top tier is the dream of many middle-ranked Asian nations, but for a very long time now that has seemed like something more akin to fantasy than a realistic ambition. Not only does one team need to strive to break out of the mediocrity that marks so many of the AFC’s lesser members, but they need to do so at a time when one of those Big Five is getting lower than they should. Such is the dynamic facing the two sides competing in what will be the last game of AFC qualification for this cycle. The United Arab Emirates are the pretenders, Australia are the giant clinging on; neither side is favoured to make it to Qatar in November. Is it fair to say that both are waiting on a miracle?

If the UAE were to find a way to make it to Qatar, it would really rank among the great World Cup qualification shocks. At the start of the cycle it was Uzbekistan and China PR people were looking to as the potential breakthroughs, not a team that has perpetually been an also-ran just within the Middle-East. Now, three years later, those also-rans are one more positive result away from being on the brink. A squad picked entirely from their little-noted domestic league is just 180 minutes and maybe two goals from a spot among the very best, and that is no small achievement, even if it getting to this point the Emirates have not exactly lit the world of Asian international football on fire. The approach in a famous win against South Korea paints the picture, with just about 20% of possession and a somewhat fortunate breakaway goal enough to get them what was a vital three points. Such a manner of playing is common among the AFC’s vast mid-tier whenever they come up against the Big Five, with the gulf in class often necessitating such anti-football. Ask the UAE’s support if they care about such descriptions and you’re likely to get a shake of the head: they would say that the their side are simply working with what they have. Three years since they beat Australia in the Asian Cup they hosted, the UAE are hungry for a repeat of that scalp, and they won’t care how they get it. If it requires another tortoise job and taking one of what will be just a handful of chances at the other end, so be it.

Australia have gotten used to not being in this position. The transfer from the OFC to the AFC inaugurated a new period of success for the Socceroos, marked by consistent World Cup Finals qualification. But recent years have not been especially happy, with much of the debate engulfing the sport’s standing at an international level centring upon the frequently maligned figure of head coach Graham Arnold. The stop-start nature of Australia’s qualifying campaign has naturally resulted in intense scrutiny on the head coach, to the point that speculation in March indicated that Football Australia would cut their losses on him ahead of any play-offs. Such predictions have proved premature, but no one would say that Arnold’s position is looking very secure. Simply put, he needs to get beyond the accusations that he is tactically inflexible and too unpredictable when it comes to selection. The only way to do that, and keep the increasingly loud critics at bay for a time, is to get Australia to the World Cup. If he fails, his tenure will surely be over, and a larger crisis, one similar to that which engulfed the USA four year ago, will take over the Australian football (small F), scene. The malaise has probably been evident since the disappointing showing in the 2019 Asian Cup, that tournament where Australia lost out to todays opponents, and it was only just about covered up by the Second Round qualification stage for 2022, when the Socceroos were able to steamroll lesser AFC sides. The terrible form exhibited in the Third Round, where Australia won just one of their last six games, has put them in the position of wondering if the good times are coming to at least a temporary conclusion. For some, avoiding that fate would be a miracle in itself.

The coming game is unlikely to be a five star classic, though by its very nature it will be a tense affair. Australia are a side struggling to break down teams and score goals, the UAE are a side that set themselves up to be hard to break down. You can expect lots of Australian possession, and plenty of efforts by the UAE to counter-attack quickly. To help with that they have a returning Omar Abdulrahman of Al-Ahli, a former AFC player of the year though he is likely to start from the bench, and Al Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout, the top scorer of AFC qualification with 14. If the two can quickly re-establish a connection, then Australia are going to be under pressure any time that the UAE come forward. The Socceroos, for their part, have nearly a full squad to choose from, with Celtic’s Tom Rogic the only major absentee. The question is just who Arnold will go with, with the head coach known for selection calls that occasionally confuse: a very experimental looking side beat Jordan in a friendly a few days ago, raising eyebrows as to just what Arnold will intend for tonight. More than likely a conservative manager will resort to conservative choices: the likes of Shanghai Port’s Aaron Mooy and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Ajdin Hrustic will be called upon to create things in midfield, ahead of a lone striker who will either be Mathew Leckie or Jamie Maclaren, both of Melbourne City. Everything is set-up for a tight encounter, that will likely only be decided by a single goal one way or another.

But at the end of it all is the not inconsiderable question of whether any of this has any point. Because awaiting the winner of this tie is not a place in Qatar, but instead another play-off in just under a week, and this time the opposition will be the very considerable force that is Peru. If whoever wins between the UAE and Australia is to be considered the fifth best team in the AFC, it is hard to say that they match up very well to the fifth best team from CONMEBOL: while Peru have stuttered at times they are a side with plenty of team spirit and bursts of creativity, from the likes of Christian Cueva, Andre Carillo and Gianluca Lapadula, meaning they have been able to do without the services of the long-term injured Paulo Guererro. They are all of them ravenously hungry to get back to a World Cup and make good for the disappointing showing in 2018. No matter who comes out of the AFC game, Peru will be strongly favoured, and for good reason. That is the larger miracle that the UAE and Australia are still waiting on: the hope, which does not seem all that likely to be fulfilled at this point in time, that they get past both the other later today, and then the more considerable threat coming down the line.

The Emirates want to be in the big boys club and Australia want to stay there. Successful qualification for the World Cup would be the most obvious way of fulfilling either objective. But the truth is that this remains a distant goal for either side. The UAE can’t really get away from the perception that they are punching above their weight at the moment, while Australia are a side that everyone seems to be waiting on in terms of an inevitable implosion. The looming problem that is Peru is only just around the corner, but tonight the two sides have to facilitate the creation of a the kind of miracle that could see one of them to Qatar. Some may say I am exaggerating the depth of the problem facing either the UAE or Australia, but I don’t think so. Both sides are at a critical point. Here, at the end of the marathon that has been AFC qualification, in the third last game of the entire process, the notion that the Almighty helps those who helps themselves has rarely been more apt in a sporting context.

113. Dancing On The Line: Australia/Peru

(14/06/2022)

In the end, Australia and Peru went the distance, with either side of the Pacific hooked on the outcome.

Since the 1958 World Cup qualifying process, when FIFA had to finagle a way for politically unpopular Israel to have to actually play a few games to get to a Finals and threw them together with a randomly drawn UEFA runner-up in Wales, we have gotten the excitement, tension, joy and heartbreak of the “inter-confederation” play-offs, though I will always prefer the term “intercontinental” (fair to say it just rolls off the tongue more). For over 60 years these play-offs have been the concluding chapter of an increasingly lengthy qualification slog, and have come up with plenty of memorable moments: the 1974 tie between Chile and the Soviet Union, where the Soviet’s refused to play the second leg in a stadium that was being used as a prison for political dissidents; the “Battle of Melbourne” in 1997 where Iran crushed Australian hopes late-on; the redeeming shoot-out win over Uruguay eight years later for the Socceroos; the Paulo Guerrero drama that surrounded Peru’s win over New Zealand in 2017. Last night, the first of the two play-offs for the 2022 cycle took place, and it was two of the teams mentioned above who were coming together in Qatar’s Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, hoping for one more 90 minutes worth of heroism, to grasp the penultimate spot of the Finals.

It seems a bit of fate that it was Peru and Australia, with both sides’ last World Cup game being against the other, a 2018 2-0 Peruvian victory in a dead rubber. For Peru, the last four years has been about a singular mission to get back to a Finals and give a better account of themselves divorced from the Guerrero scandal that dominated that campaign. Getting this far was no easy task, with Ricardo Gareca’s side lacking any players able to say they are plying their trade at the very highest levels of club football, and an internal club scene that continues to lag far behind their neighbours in South America. For Gareca, a man who famously scored a late goal in 1986 qualification for his native Argentina that prevented Peru from getting to that Finals, the whole campaign has been another example of getting the most out of a collective of frequently average individuals. They don’t score many, and frequently concede first, but Gareca has managed to imbue them with a heads-up mentality that rejects previous generations’ tendency to collapse in the face of adversity. Such traits, combined with a decent ability to move the ball quickly from flank to flank, got Peru into the intercontinental slot of CONMEBOL by a razor thin margin. Last night, Serie B’s Gianluca Lapadula lead the line in the continued absence through injury of icon Guerrero, with much of the other attacking impetus expected from Andre Carillo down the right and Christian Cueva down the left.

In the two decades since Australia have made World Cup qualification the norm, there’s been an obvious stagnation in results at those Finals, and one can naturally see a culminating point in the current campaign, with head coach Graham Arnold repeatedly described as on the brink of a sacking up to last night. His conservative tactics, selection choices and repeated speeches on Aussie “DNA” being a factor have bred round after round of criticism at home, and his comments over the last few days that his side had to counter Peruvian attractiveness in attack by making “a fight…a war” out of the game will only have fanned the flames. Everyone is aware that Australia had been labouring in recent times, not least in that scrappy 2-1 win over the UAE last week that got them to the final hurdle, with the midfield looking tired, the attack frequently overwhelmed and over-reliant on set-pieces, and a sense that the side are always one concession away from a crisis. The sight of Arnold screaming “4-5-1” repeatedly at his team in the final few moments seemed the perfect image to sum up his current tenure. But he had gotten the side one result away from what he was hired to do, which reflected the talent still available to the Socceroos and their ability to grind out wins when they really need to. The likes of Mat Leckie, perhaps played out of position in a central striker’s role against the UAE, and Ajdin Hrustic, when he gets the right support from the men just behind him in midfield, had to play out of their skins if Australia were going to have a chance.

Peru lined up as many expected, in an attack minded 4-1-4-1, with the flanks expected to provide plenty of their own offensive threat along with supply to target man Lapadula. Australia were not all that dissimilar in shape, but did make some big changes, with Leckie moved back to his more preferred position to the left of midfield and and Mitchell Duke, currently playing in the Japanese second tier, placed up front on his own. In the 30c temperatures of the air conditioned Al Rayyan Stadium, Peruvian fans made up most of those who were able to get tickets and support the expense of travel: the chants of “Arriba Peru” added a very South American background to the unfolding tie, with Qatari hotels packed out with the same. For Australia, more were assembled at fan zones back home, on tenterhooks for a make-or-break few hours.

It was Duke who got off the first shot in anger, hitting a speculative effort well wide after five minutes. From the resulting kickout Peru steamed down the field, but no one was available to get on the end of Lapadula’s cross. It was going to be a repeated sight in the game, as Peruvian creativity in attack fizzled at the crucial moments, and Australia operating more on a “hit-and-hope” basis. Before too long captain Mat Ryan in the Australian goal had started screaming at his outfielders to “use your heads” as passes went astray. Both sides were guilty of obvious nerves, and inevitably this manifested itself in some early crunching tackles.

The pattern repeated. The Socceroos went long again and again, Peru played out of the back, but aside from crosses that no one was getting on the end of and distant shots that slammed into blocking defenders, there was little in the way of highlights. As things settled Peru started to look like the more comfortable outfit, content to sweep the ball from side-to-side of the Australian penalty area and wait for their moment, facilitated in the same by the Australian tendency to lump the ball forward and lose possession after a few touches. The tackles kept flying in, and VAR was called upon to check one from Christofer Gonzáles on Martin Boyle for possible worthiness of a red card: having gotten enough of the ball, the Peruvian midfielder was reprieved.

By 35 minutes Gareca was off his seat and shouting directions at his players, obviously frustrated by the lack of penetration; Arnold was comparatively more serene, a change from the previous week. It was Jackson Irvine of St Pauli that got the first proper chance, heading wide from a Boyle cross four minutes from half-time after Peru were caught in possession. That’s about all that there is to say about the first 45, as uneventful a half as there has been in World Cup qualification, with both sides seemingly engaged in a drawn out process of feeling the other out.

Both teams stuck with what they had on the field at the start of the second half. The pattern re-asserted itself, with Australia soon back to chancy efforts from distance that either couldn’t beat the first man or were well wide, and Peru working the ball a bit better but similarly unable to come up with a successful end product. Eschewing his calmer demeanour of the first half, Arnold was soon joining Gareca on the touchline. Ryan collected a throughball just before Gonzalez could get to it, and from there Peru seemed happier going for crosses from the flanks. The tension grew as the 60 minute marked passed, with Leckie and Advincula squaring up after a coming together, but the ref was content to let it go without a card.

VAR was called upon again on 66 minutes to turn down Australian appeals for handball in the Peruvian penalty area, the correct call. Around the same time Gareca had seen enough and hauled off the first of his major attacking options in Carillo in favour of MLS’ Edison Flores. The change added a small bit of dynamism, with Cueva hitting the side netting a few minutes later, as close as Peru had come. They now dominated possession, buzzing around the Australian penalty area in search of an opening, but there was nothing to be found. Arnold hooked a tiring Duke in favour of Awer Mabil, then Leckie for Jamie Maclaren, with immediate benefits: Mabil went close five minutes from time, then left back Aziz Behich hit a shot wide. On 90 minutes a side finally tested the opposition goalkeeper properly, with Hrustic forcing a simple save out of Pedro Gallese. Another failing appeal to VAR for a Peruvian infringement in the area, and a Flores shot that flew high and wide, and that was it.

The tense feeling was only being ratcheted up now as another 30 minutes loomed. Again different forms of conservatism were the order of the day, as Australia sat back and Peru busied themselves with building up a high pass count. It wasn’t until the 101st minute that they fashioned a long awaited opening, Flores forcing a save from Ryan. It was the same man who had the chance of the game just into the second-half of extra time, hitting the crossbar with a header off a left-flank cross. Things settled down in the last few minutes as neither side seemed to want to risk things too much. Gareca was forced to take-off an injured Cueva, not ideal with penalties looming. Then arguably the biggest talking point of the whole tie: Arnold replacing Mat Ryan with third choice keeper Andrew Redmayne, getting only his third senior cap. The victor of a well-remembered shoot-out in the 2019 A-League Grand Final, Redmayne was trusted as both a shot stopper and a disruptor to Peruvian psyches.

And so to a shoot-out. Boyle went first, and was denied by a brilliant Gallese save, the Peruvian keeper diving right and lifting his left arm up to bat away a shot made with power. Up next was Lapadula, and he became the first to be treated to Redmayne’s goal-line antics, the Sydney FC man moving erratically left and right, sometimes spinning around or sticking his limbs out in a clownish manner in a bid to put the kicker off. As long as he kept a foot on the line it was perfectly legal, but in this instance ineffective, Lapadula hitting it left when the keeper went right. Advantage Peru. Mooy got Australia off the mark next, before Callens put Peru back in the lead with a powerful shot to the top right. Craig Goodwin, brought on late to take a penalty, smashed an equaliser into the top of the net. Advincula was next, and Redmayne justified his substitution, getting a fingertip to an otherwise decent effort aimed at the bottom left, tipped onto the post and back out.

Hrustic psyched out Gallese with a simple tap-in to give Australia the lead for the first time, before Tapia just about got beyond Redmayne’s glove to level things at 3-3. Maclaren, quiet since he came on, took the fifth for Australia, sending Gallese the wrong way. Flores, on the back of probably being Peru’s best player, beat Redmayne the same way. Sudden death it was then, the tie going the distance to the most excruciating extent possible. Gallese decided to get in on the gamesmanship a bit, protesting Mabil’s placement of the ball and then delaying the kick by taking a drink of water. It didn’t matter, as the Sudanese immigrant slammed it home regardless. Redmayne took a drink of water himself as Alex Valera waited, and he proved more successful, getting down to his right to save the effort. 5-4 it ended. Australia booked their place, stopped the rot and saved Arnold’s job. Peru collapsed, the dream over. Tears were shed on both sides.

Moving away from Australia’s almost miraculous escape from a failure to qualify, and accusations that Redmayne’s antics were a poor example of sportsmanship at an elite level, it’s hard not to be touched by the moments that occurred after that final kick. Australia’s unrestrained joy reflects so much that can come to infect those used to a certain degree of prominence in footballing circles when that prominence is threatened, while Peru’s shock reflects a grasping at such prominence that has now been denied to them. The reverberations, in both nations, are sure to be felt for some time yet. The image of Redmayne dancing on the line is one that is surely going to become a major sporting touchstone in Australian memory and probably Peru’s too; whether the Socceroos will be dancing in Qatar is another question entirely. They won’t worry about it for a while yet though: they will simply be happy with being the penultimate qualifier.

114. Last One Out, Hit The Lights: Costa Rica/New Zealand

(15/06/2022)

The quest for blue concludes.

Yesterday was the end of qualification for World Cup 2022. After 864 matches, 2’423 goals, close to nine million spectators, 31 celebrations and 178 moments of despair, only one more place, #32 of 32, was left to be decided when Costa Rica took to the field against New Zealand in Qatar. It’s been a hell of a ride for the 211 eligible members of FIFA, between the start of the road all the way back in April of 2019, to this final knock-out game that completed the set. How did it go? What were the trends of World Cup qualification in the confederations? The shocks, the expected, the truly extraordinary? And how did we now stand, five months out from the greatest show in sport?

The AFC had the longest road, but despite that it was a confederation whose qualification was marked by predictability. It started with amateur outfits playing in tiny Pacific specks and within mountain ranges, with ties disrupted by issues as large as terrorism or as petty as football association politics. Teams like Guam, Mongolia and Bangladesh made it through to the next round of the titanic process, but from there a greater sense of normalcy asserted itself. The big names kept going, the hangers-on fell behind, and the biggest shocks to be found were the failure of sides like Uzbekistan and the near miss of teams like Tajikistan. The Third Round saw an even bigger resort to the mean become apparent, with four of the Big Five easing their way to Qatar automatically. The only exception was Australia, who needed a longer route, but even they were able to get there eventually. The message is that the AFC is more of a closed shop than ever, taking a very long time and a huge amount of games to get to a conclusion most would have presumed before it all started. Of all the confederations, perhaps the AFC more than anyone really needs the World Cup expansion, so that Big Five will no longer be so ingrained.

CAF’s road was similar in some respects. Early rounds largely weeded out the conflict zones and humanitarian crises of the African continent, before other problems reared their heads, like the succession of major stadiums deemed unfit to use. Controversy and recrimination perhaps revealed itself more easily with CAF than with others, such as in South Africa’s lengthy proceedings when they were knocked out by Ghana, alleging match fixing shenanigans they had no hard proof for. The strung out nature of qualification, punctuated by an Arab Cup and AFCON at critical points, may have lent strength to the stop-start nature of certain teams’ performances, not least Egypt. The final play-offs were a case-study in all that can be good and bad in African international football with ties that all went to the second leg in a competitive mood, filled with tension and surprises, but coming as they did with crowd violence, a plethora of laser pointers and more VAR than you would ever want or need. In the end some big names missed out, but Africa still sent an unsurprising crop to the Finals: a breakthrough at that stage seems less likely than ever though, especially with so many issues to be addressed within the continent.

If there was one confederation that was anything but straightforward, it was CONCACAF. How else could you look at the journey of the side who topped the continent, Canada, who had to navigate four First Round group stage against minnow sides, then a two-legged play-off against a slightly better side, before 14 games against the cream of the confederation? That they did it all and finished top, after decades of irrelevancy, makes Canada perhaps the stand-out story of qualification, one that was straightforward enough for the other big players of CONCACAF: Mexico continuing their never-ending appearance as a Finalist and the USA reverting to type after the 2018 disaster. The confederation remains badly caught in a dichotomy of relative giants and amateur non-entities, but the Canadian story is balm to the soul for those looking for unlikely tales of success, and bodes well for the 2026 World Cup. Given the hosts there, it will be fascinating to see which of the rest can step up to take advantage of what will be one of the most unpredictable qualification cycles in history.

South America was the chaotic extravaganza that it always tends to be in one way or another, with its ten teams all bringing something to the table. There were sides that were dominant from the off, sides that lingered within touching distance of being contenders for a long time before falling away, and then a lot of others who remained in a tightly packed heap, scrambling for the last few spots all the way up to the very last day. If there’s a theme to be found in CONMEBOL it may just be how they found the perfect formula decades ago, and that the 2022 qualification cycle reflects this. Any tweaking that may occur when their compliment expands for the next cycle will be regretted, if it comes to it, but might be necessary: a single group where 80% of the competitors make it will not be as enthralling as what the current system is.

Oceania was notable just for how very long it took for anything to happen, in comparison to how quickly it was all over when it did. It must be considered somewhat disrespectful that FIFA and the OFC seemed to think it was OK to put the regions qualification on the long finger, but when it did get going the results were not exactly a great advertisement. The 2022 cycle will do little for the reputation of football’s smallest confederation, whose process was marred by five withdrawals and an all-too predictable top dog in the form of New Zealand: the All-Whites’ biggest problem in their five win run was figuring out what to do with 80% possession per game. Those who think the OFC should be quietly merged into the AFC will hardly get quieter, but there is hope of an improvement in future, with one guaranteed place at the World Cup up for grabs from 2026.

Europe did what Europe has been doing for a while now, and provided the largest amount of top tier sides duking it out with the largest amount of second tier nations who aren’t all that far from the top. Hence Portugal being pipped by Serbia in the group stage and Italy crashing out in the play-offs, among other surprises. The final identities of the qualifiers won’t elicit much in the way of surprise of course, but it can’t be doubted that this cycle was another demonstration of how the world of international football has a way of coalescing around its nominally smallest continent: there are enough good teams that failed to make it to Qatar that you could fill up Europe’s allocation again and not expect UEFA to be disgraced. How to pivot this reality, and get other confederations up to a similar level, remains the Gordian Knot that FIFA probably won’t fix with the metaphorical Macedonian sword of 16 additional places at the 2026 tournament.

Which brings us neatly onto last night. 31 teams had qualified, and there were only two sides left in contention for that very last spot. The best of Oceania in New Zealand met the fourth best of North America in Costa Rica, in the neutral surrounds of the World Cup host. Costa Rica hit the front early after only a few minutes, Joel Campbell turning the ball in after Jewison Bennette’s fine work on the left to break free and whip in a cross. New Zealand actually had the better of the rest of the half, and had the ball in the net late on when Chris Wood pounced on a defensive lapse, only for VAR to catch a foul in the build-up: it was a tight call, but probably the right one. New Zealand had further reasons for dislike of the video referrals in the second half when, chasing the game, substitute Kosta Barbarouses saw a yellow upgraded to a straight red for a desperate studs-up lunge on Francisco Calvo: again, probably the right call. A goal down and a man down, it was too big a task for the All-Whites to manage, and though Clayton Lewis brought a brilliant save out of Keylor Navas late-on, the night, and that final precious World Cup spot, belonged to Costa Rica. New Zealand became the side designated as the final non-qualifier, and brought qualification to a close: last one out, hit the lights.

That’s it then. 211 has become 32. One of those 32 will be a World Cup winner before the conclusion of this year. The other 179 have already started thinking about next time. The qualification journey has been a long, arduous, sometimes joyous but often times painful one. It has been marked by a global crisis of such scope that it dwarfs the drama of football, but the sport, and this competition, has prevailed. Now comes the the big stage, the opportunity for immortality, the promised land.

Now comes the Finals.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Costa Rica, 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, 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, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Scotland, 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, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, 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

Think Again: Hampden Park ahead of a EURO 2008 qualifier between Scotland and Lithuania. Photo by Xabier Cid, in the public domain.

Wartime: Legia Warsaw fans express support for Ukraine during a charity game with Dynamo Kyiv. Photo by OLLSZCZ, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Waiting On A Miracle?: The UAE and Australia teams take to the field ahead of their 2019 Asian Cup Quarter-Final. Photo, cropped, by Amir Ostovari, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Dancing On The Line: A Peruvian mother and son getting ready to watch the intercontinental play-off in Carmen de la Legua Reynoso. Photo by Johnattan Rupire, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Last One Out, Hit The Lights: a visual representation of World Cup qualification at the conclusion of the process. Photo by 4hrue2kd83f, in the public domain.

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1 Response to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XIII) – Intercontinental

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

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