It’s hard to remember a week of international football like this one. One full of so many shocks and stories and of twists and turns. International football gets a bad reputation, but where does it actually come from? Maybe we should make more of an effort to try. There was drama everywhere this week, it’s just a shame it was seen by so few. By Jamie Braidwood
Given the amount of negativity amongst the British media this week, you may well have been led to believe that the past round of World Cup qualifiers have been the dullest and most insignificant week of the football season so far.
But do not be fooled. For underneath England’s tedious and uneventful 1-0 victories over Slovenia and Lithuania were countless stories of triumph and failure, scenes of ecstasy and heartbreak, as teams from across the world scrambled to qualify for the 2018 Russia World Cup. Never before had it seemed that so many countries had so much to play for.
On these shores, Scotland’s draw away to Slovenia was heartbreaking, but from a neutral point of view, their late equaliser and the subsequent grandstand finish that followed was a thrilling way to end the campaign.
Wales’ home defeat to the Republic of Ireland on the other hand, was the titanic, winner-takes-all contest that such a tight and gripping qualifying group had been building up to. Wales looked certain to reach their first World Cup since 1958 but James McLean’s goal changed everything.
Of course, the Republic of Ireland’s win guarantees them nothing, neither does Northern Ireland’s 2nd place finish in their group. Both will head to a playoff as unseeded teams, but both will be confident of causing another upset. Northern Ireland especially as they continue to massively overperform. In the end they comfortably finished 2nd, with this week’s defeats to Germany and Norway having no effect on their overall position.
But Northern Ireland aren’t the only European country who continue to overperform. Iceland, still glowing from their Euro 2016 heroics, became the first nation with a population of under one million to qualify for a World Cup. They will be the smallest nation to ever compete at a finals and they qualified in some style. Friday’s 3-0 win in Turkey blew a balanced group wide open, leaving them only needing to beat Kosovo to qualify. They won 2-0.
Elsewhere, France and Portugal qualified on the final day of their respective groups, but the story in Europe on Tuesday was all about who didn’t make it as 2010 finalists as Holland failed to qualify. Sweden’s 8-0 over Luxembourg three days earlier meant that Holland had to beat Sweden by seven goals on the final day. They could only manage three.
In the end it was Sweden’s thrashing of Luxembourg that made the difference, and provided one of the moments of the week, as Swedish commentators excitement grew and grew with each goal until reaching a frenetic crescendo for the eighth, a sublime volley by Ola Toivonen.
In Africa there were extraordinary scenes as Egypt qualified for their first World Cup since 1990 with the last kick of the game, Mohamed Salah’s 95th minute penalty enough to send the crowd of 80,000 and the whole of Cairo into delirious celebrations. Meanwhile in Nigeria, Alex Iwobi came off the bench to score the vital goal as his side secured qualification.
Earlier in the day, Syria’s fairytale run to the Asia playoff round was ended in heartbreaking fashion by Australia. After forcing extra-time thanks to a 1-1 draw, Syria were reduced to 10 men. But with the game heading for penalties, up stepped Australia’s veteran captain Tim Cahill to score a trademark header, his 2nd of the game, to send the Socceroos through to the next round. Now at the age of 37, Cahill rarely completes 90 minutes anymore but he’s still finding a way to deliver crucial goals for country. For Syria, whose story was genuinely inspiring, their road is up.
The final round of matches in the South American section of qualifying were perhaps the most anticipated. The very idea that Lionel Messi and Argentina, finalists in 2014, would fail to make it in 2018 was simply baffling. All eyes were on their opponents Ecuador and jaws hit the floor in shock after Argentina fell behind within 40 seconds. But then Messi turned on the style, scored a sublime hattrick and single handedly dragged his country over the line.
Crisis over, but not for the South American champions Chile. Their defeat to Brazil saw them slip to 6th, which doesn’t even offer them a playoff spot. Someone big wasn’t going to make it from South America, turns out it will be Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and co.
But last of all, in what was probably the most shocking and surprising story of the night, was that coming out of CONCACAF. All the United States had to do to qualify for the World Cup was to beat Trinidad and Tobago, who had only picked up three points from their previous nine qualifiers. Even when Trinidad and Tobago raced into an early lead, the US were still on their way to qualify. As long as neither Panama and Honduras won they would be fine. As it were, they were both losing.
Trinidad and Tobago held onto their win, despite the US pulling one back. But as long as Panama and Hondu… In a dramatic turn of events, suddenly Panama and Honduras were now leading their respective games against already qualified Costa Rica and Mexico. Panama were losing until the 87th minute, but dramatically turned it around to qualify automatically for the finals. The US meanwhile, have surely suffered their worst ever defeat. For a country of that size to fail to qualify from a qualifying group as generous as CONCACAF is truly embarrassing.
I for one can’t ever remember a week of international football like this one. One full of so many shocks and stories and of twists and turns. International football gets a bad reputation, but where does it actually come from? Is it born out of the negativity surrounding the English team, who perhaps have had the most unremarkable week of all.
Obviously, games kicking off at completely different times of the day doesn’t help when it comes to following the action. But maybe we should make more of an effort to try. We should strive to be more global. This isn’t England’s international break. It’s everyones. If you don’t like what England are doing that’s fine, but give something else a go. There was drama everywhere this week, it’s just a shame it was seen by so few.