As we move into the business end of the World Cup it’s time to celebrate and commiserate with those departing Russia. There will be 16 teams going home early, here’s the first eight…
The Saudi team arrived in Russia with drama as the plane carrying the squad caught fire. Not ideal preparations and possibly indicative of the predicted outcome for the lowest ranked team who had not won a game at the World Cup since 1994. In the glitz and glamour of USA94 they qualified for the knockout stage following a wonderful solo effort from Saeed Al Owairan in a 1-0 win over Belgium. Since then, when they have managed to qualify, they have generally been the whipping boys of the groups. Recently though football has started to gather momentum and has become an agent for change. The talent pipeline may not exactly be flowing in abundance (demonstrated by both the age of players and where they play their club football) but there are signs that football is more than just about the success of the national team. Football is playing a part in addressing the extreme gender inequality issues within Saudi Arabia. Women are now allowed to attend matches. More than that they are actually permitted to play the game whereas previous law had forbidden women from participating in any sport. An opening trouncing at the hands of Russia raised no eyebrows but they emerge from the World Cup victorious as a 2-1 win over Egypt meant their long wait for a win is over. Expect more from Saudi Arabia, the heir to the Saudi throne sees football as a way of raising the profile of the country. Investment has been made and the Green Falcons will return stronger in the future.
It may have been just me but I expected a lot more from Egypt at this World Cup. I probably should have boned up a bit more before placing huge faith in Salah. If the Saudi’s had a long wait then the Egyptians have lost generations in their wait for a goal from open play at the World Cup. Their last came in 1934 against Hungary in a 4-2 defeat. The signs were there though. Egypt have players who regularly compete on the biggest stages in Elneny and Salah. Their manager, Hector Cupar, has pedigree. Beyond the stars of the team a cluster of their players have experience in the English leagues. Surely, they could beat an ageing Saudi squad who all play in the Saudi leagues? Sadly not. Success in Africa has not been mirrored on the grand platform in Russia and the World Cup has lost one of its brightest stars, albeit his sparkle was dulled as he recovered from his, erm, tussle with Sergio Ramos in the champions league final. Hector Cupar has now left his position; he probably could have survived if they had beaten Saudi Arabia but the Pharoahs of Africa now need to rebuild.
France 98 holds many memories for me but none more so than being in a call centre selling cable tv packages across the country. The call centre embraced the World Cup and I was fortunate enough to be able to watch matches while working. One thing they didn’t think through though was giving me a lead list for Uddingston at the precise time that Scotland were opening up the World Cup against Brazil. I learned some new insults that day as my English accent interrupted homes in South Lanarkshire to see if I could sell them television channels that I had stopped them from watching. France 98 is memorable for more reasons than that however. Chippo and Hadji burst on to the scene from a previously low ranked Morocco team. They exited at the group stage, but those players were held up as evidence that the African game was evolving. 2018 showed that regardless of optimism, 20 years later, progress had not been maintained. Morocco. Valiant, brave, determined. And a little dull. No excitement that Hadji had offered. If an African team is to succeed they need to have more confidence in themselves. More pride perhaps. The athleticism of African teams needs to be at the forefront of their game and you do wonder whether appointing a European coach limits the fervour that the vast continent can offer. In 98 Morocco exited at the group stage but their performances brought players on to the world stage. This year they tried to shut teams down. Their performances were full of grit and determination but underlying was an apologetic attitude. They did not feel they were good enough to be there and as a result probably weren’t.
Iran are absolutely my shining star of the teams exiting the World Cup. You cannot underestimate the work that Carlos Quieroz has done to bring Iran to the point that they can compete, almost as equal, with Spain and Portugal. Barring a few knife edge decisions we could have seen an elimination of one of the two European powerhouses and it would have been no more than Iran deserved. Quieroz has been with Iran since 2011 and that longevity has ultimately demonstrated that if you get the right coach in, sticking with them is key. He will leave after this World Cup but behind him he will leave a legacy that it is now up to the Iranian FA to continue. Ruthlessly organised and disciplined at times, hopelessly naive and hot headed at others Iran showed pride and invention. Let’s not forget that this is a nation who have struggled on a social level due to conflict. In all of that the roar of pride was prevalent in every game they played. I hope they can maintain momentum in the years to come now that Quieroz looks likely to leave. The fact his reason for leaving is grounded in disagreements with the Iranian FA gives me reason to doubt that will happen. I salute you Iran. A breath of fresh air.
Oh Australia. Where to start. A nation where sport is probably on equal terms with academia. The Australian sporting spirit is a thing of legend. The diverse profile of this island nation has meant that a nation whose population is largely concentrated in a few major cities is made up of immigrant communities. When they pull on the yellow jersey or the baggy hat they are not, however, Croatian or Greek or Slavic or Italian. They are Australian. The problem with Australia is similar to England’s. That is competition. Not competition in terms of their nature, I’m not convinced you could find a more competitive nation in the world. It’s more about the competition of various sports. Australians want to be the best at everything. Rugby, cricket, swimming… football? Maybe a step to far. Always competitive, always committed, always capable of creating the odd gem of a player. Their focus is, however, in places with harder or oddly shaped balls.
Marmalade sandwiches. Nobby Solano. Erm. Not sure where to go beyond that. Peru were introduced to football, as many nations were, by the sprawl of the British empire. Politics and tragedy have massively hampered their progress on the world stage. Firstly with a government clamping down on sporting gatherings then in more recent times losing a squad in a plane crash. A true tragedy when Peruvian football was on the ascendency. They missed a generation and this meant qualification for France 98 was always optimistic. To see Peru at this World Cup is, therefore something of a success. Historically in possession of one of the most aesthetically pleasing strips it is difficult to see Peru climbing to the heights achieved by the other medium sized Latin American nations due to the fact that there is a huge division of wealth in the country. Equally restrictive is the diverse geography of the country. From plains to peaks the country almost operates on two worlds; the vastly populated cities and the impoverished regional craggy mountains. Without a focus on football, Peru will continue to be occasional guests at FIFA’s banquet.
Every World Cup I want the Super eagles to soar. I have a huge soft spot for Nigeria. Every World Cup I think they will push on. Every time they disappoint. To be fair to them this year it possibly wasn’t all down to them. They were, however, in a group with one of the most dysfunctional and ineffective Argentina sides I have seen at a finals. To fail to qualify from that position brings me back to the questions I have of all African teams. It breaks my heart to say it but I have to disagree with Pele. I cannot see an African team winning the World Cup for a very long time. I would love to see it but when you think back to USA94 when we had familiar names like Amokachi, okocha, ikpeba, Ekoku, Oliseh and of course Finidi George; a failure to kick on from that rich talent base belies a fact that Nigerian football needs to sit down and figure out how to do things properly. Nice try Nigeria. Go away and work on your plans.
Passionate, fervent supporters. Possibly a bit nuts. Definitely like a beer or two. How the hell does a nation as tiny as Iceland end up in this competition? To put things in context, Iceland has a population of around 350,000 people. Washington has a population of around 60,000. So effectively Iceland being at the World Cup is akin to drumming up a team from Washington and the pit villages of County Durham and saying, “Let’s give it a bash”. They are benefitting from a few good players at the moment and a tremendous team spirit supported by fans as fun and raucous as can be seen across the world but ultimately, this is Iceland’s purple patch. Love the mad bastards but I don’t expect to see you back next time. Now everyone, clap your hands in the air in unison.