Updated: December 27, 2017 1:58:39 am
The FIFA World Cup – the quadrennial extravaganza that FIFA describes, in varying synonymous phrases, as ‘a celebration of football’ and where ridiculous sums of money slosh about. There is little argument that the football World Cup is the world’s biggest, most well known sporting event apart from the Summer Olympics. But before the World Cup, come the qualifiers which are at times more exciting than the final tournament because of the many instances of giant-killing that can occur in it. The qualifiers for the 2018 tournament had pretty much been a roller-coaster ride and they came to a hedonistic climax in 2017.
The Big Dropouts
Chile: Chile were riding sky-high coming into the qualifiers. They had won consecutive Copa America titles, edging Argentina in both the finals and prompting Lionel Messi to temporarily retire and send the country into an existential crisis. Those wins came on the back of a very impressive performance in the 2014 World Cup. They also started the qualifiers on a positive note, beating Brazil 2-0. But then came the draws and the defeats and the great Nelson Cabrera saga. After their 1-1 draw with Bolivia, Chile went to the Court of Arbitration of Sport claiming that the Bolivians used an ineligible Paraguayan player in Cabrera. The CAS ruled in their favour and thus Chile got three points instead of one. But the catch was that Cabrera also played for Bolivia in their 1-0 win over Peru, who were hence awarded three points instead of zero. In the final table, Peru pipped Chile to the final playoff spot. Talk about a cruel joke. But all this was matched by the drama that was unfolding in Europe.
Italy: Football, or soccer, is described as the most popular game in the world. That claim has some substance to it too but for all means and purposes, there are only a handfull of countries that play at a truly world-class level. Hence, it is always a big surprise when any of them are not represented in a World Cup and this time, the wearer of that stinking hat is Italy. It has to be mentioned that, having been clubbed with a resurgent Spanish team, the Azzurri were dealt a tough hand in the qualifiers. One of these two giants would have to take the hard road and it was Italy who did. They drew 1-1 with Spain the first time the two teams met but the second time was one of the most convincing 3-0 losses you would ever see and Italy were on the wrong side of it. Spain went unbeaten and Italy finished second, thus making do with the nervy playoffs. Sweden, a side that is not a recognisable heavyweight and is known to many only as the country Zlatan Ibrahimovic used to play for, were their opponents. Not too much of a challenge, one would think. But football is a funny game and the joke was on the mighty Italians. They lost the first leg 1-0 and a shocked San Siro saw them draw the second leg 0-0. Apart from producing one of the biggest upsets in the hallowed history of this tournament, Sweden vs Italy 2nd leg also produced a number of videos that would qualify as ‘Social Media Gold.’ Some of these are:
Gianluigi Buffon’s retirement speech. Most videos on the internet did not have subtitles but if you are a football fan, you will tear up without understanding a word that comes out of his mouth. If you want to know what he was saying you can find the translated text here.
Danielle De Rossi’s argument with Italy’s assistant coach. In the final minutes of the match, with Italy trailing and desperately needing a goal, coach Gian Piero Ventura made the bizarre decision of bringing on defensive midfielder Danielle De Rossi instead of in-form striker Lorenzo Insigne. Why Insigne was left on the bench in a match in which Italy needed to come from behind remains a mystery and when De Rossi became their final substitution, he was as flabbergasted as anyone watching the game.
Swedish players destroying a TV studio set. If you want to remember what it felt like when your team beat those pesky, bullying seniors back in your school days, watch this video. It can also be watched by all those who are yet to be convinced that human beings are nothing more than grotesquely evolved apes.
The Big Strugglers
Argentina: Argentina can thank their stars (and Lionel Messi) that they did not meet the same fate as that of Italy. Captain and talisman Lionel Messi’s hat-trick against Ecuador and a host of other results in what has to be one of the craziest 90 minutes in recent South American football history ensured that the 2014 semi-finalists will be making a trip to Russia come 2018. But their pothole filled journey to Russia does raise a lot of questions. They may have some of the most well known attackers in the world but those names have done precious little on the international stage as compared to their phenomenal performances at club-level. They have needed Messi to bail them out on numerous sticky situations over the years despite the fact that the likes of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain have done the same for Manchester City and Juventus respectively. It is doubtful, and truly unfair on Messi, whether La Albiceleste can get where they did in 2014, let alone win the trophy in Russia, if they go in with a team similar to the ones they played the qualifiers with. But in a world where Italy can crash out to Sweden, it should never come as a surprise if Argentina make a white hot run through the entire tournament and erase a significant part of a Cristiano Ronaldo fan’s bragging script. A Euro is nothing compared to a World Cup. Right?
Colombia: The Colombians failed to win a single match against the rest of the teams that make the ‘Big Five’ in South America i.e., Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. A headline-grabbing 1-2 defeat to Paraguay at home on October 5, 2017 meant that Colombia would be one of the five teams scrambling for the final automatic qualification spot and the playoff spot five days later. Their opponents were fellow challengers Peru and the score stood at 1-1. Chile had lost 3-0 to Brazil and that meant that one point would be enough for Peru to reach the playoffs and Colombia to the fourth spot. It looked like both teams had come to a parley and indeed, at the final whistle, both sets of players celebrated as if they had won the match.
Two countries will be represented for the first time in a FIFA World Cup at Russia while three others have qualified for the first time in two decades.
The Debutantes, Iceland & Panama: It seems to be a great time to be a football fan in Iceland, a country with a population that is less than a fourth of that of New Delhi or Mumbai. Two years after giving England fans a reason to say, “Not again!” in the Euros, Iceland have reached the World Cup finals. More videos of Viking claps might be coming our way but who is complaining? Panama, on the other hand, did a Sweden in their own way, knocking out overwhelming, an underestimation, favourites United States in the playoffs.
The long-time-no-see’s, Egypt & Morocco: Egypt attracted a lot of critics over the course of their qualifying campaign, chief of which was that their tactic is ‘Pass it to Mohammed Salah and see what happens,’ but they did end up booking a flight to Russia. Morocco got into the ‘final six’ from Africa ahead of traditional heavyweights Ivory Coast.
Syria: They gave their ailing nation a rare reason to smile as the Syrian football team, playing their ‘home’ games in Malaysia, pushed all the way to the fourth round. They were finally stopped by Australia, courtesy a last gasp goal from Tim Cahill. Had they crossed that hurdle and the subsequent Inter-Confederation play-offs, Syria would have been the third team making their World Cup debut in Russia.
Saudi Arabia: Although their absence has not been as long as that of Egypt or Morocco, it is the first time that Saudi Arabia will be playing in a World Cup since 2006. Their challenge was powered by striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi who, with 16 goals, is the join top scorer in the qualifiers with UAE’s Ahmed Khalil and Poland’s Robert Lewandowski.
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