Heartbreak and jubilation: Tales of World Cup Qualifying


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If playing in the FIFA World Cup finals remains the ultimate experience for any footballer, then the process of getting there brings its own unique pressures.

The high stakes ensure no shortage of shredded nerves as the qualifying competition concludes and the final verdict could not be starker: a black-and-white picture of joy and pain.

As the Russia 2018 finals approach, WGL recalls past dramas on the road to world football’s greatest showpiece.

2018: United States agony, Panama ecstasy

The United States has been seen as a rising force in the world game, but its failure to reach the finals for the 2018 World Cup is a disaster for the growth of the sport there. They had qualified for each World Cup finals since 1990 and were expected to do so with ease given their qualifying group CONCACAF effectively has 3.5 spots for the six teams involved. Cue a humiliating final-round 2-1 loss at minnows Trinidad & Tobago at sodden Ato Boldon Stadium in front of 1000-odd disinterested locals. Results elsewhere went against them and they were doomed as Panama’s late winner against Costa Rica sent them through. The misery of the US was in stark contrast to the joy in Panama, where a national holiday was immediately declared as they advanced to the finals for the first time.

2014: Panama agony, United States plays villain

If you think there was widespread sympathy for the US plight in 2018, think again. Panamanians would have relished the outcome after what had happened four years earlier, though it was their own shortcomings that were largely to blame. They went into the final home match against the US and a win would have meant a play-off against New Zealand to qualify for Brazil 2014. And they led 2-1 thanks to a Luis Tejada goal in the 83rd minute. Surely this was their time. The US were already qualified and had left several top players at home. But no. Extra-time goals to Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson broke Panama’s heart.

2010: No hooray for Henry, Iran so close

Few fans and certainly no Irish fans will forget the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident that cost the Irish a place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was extra-time in the second leg of a play-off in Paris on November 18, 2009, and Henry handled twice in the lead-up to William Gallas’ crucial 103rd-minute goal. Ireland football association chief executive John Delaney later claimed a five-million euro payment from FIFA was forthcoming so the Irish would not pursue legal action.
Elsewhere, Iran were nine minutes away from qualifying when Manchester United star Park Ji-Sung equalised for South Korea in their Asian Group B qualifier. The 1-1 draw meant North Korea later that day claimed Asia’s fourth automatic berth when they drew with Saudi Arabia, 0-0.

2006: Socceroos finally make the grade

John Aloisi Penalty

Australia had not reached the finals since the 1970s but overcame Uruguay, so often their tormentors in previous bids, in a two-legged play-off. They trailed 1-0 after the first leg but levelled it up at home and the match went to penalties, with Mark Schwarzer the hero in goal and John Aloisi scoring the fateful penalty. Reward for so many near misses for the Socceroos, including the disaster against Iran when they gave up a two-goal lead to only draw in 1998, costing them their place in France on away goals.

2002: Beckham truly becomes a England hero

Heading into the 2002 World Cup, David Beckham may have been loved by Manchester United fans but it was not until England’s closing qualifier for Korea/Japan that he became a national hero. England had beaten Germany 5-1 in Munich a month earlier but now they trailed Greece 2-1 at Old Trafford and appeared destined for the play-offs. Deep into injury time, however, they won a free kick on the edge of the Greek penalty area. Beckham stepped up coolly to curl the ball home and England’s place in the Far East was secure.

1994: French live through nightmare

If English fans recall fondly that late flourish then across La Manche, the French still have nightmares about the night of November 17, 1993. Needing a solitary point from home matches against Israel and Bulgaria, France looked certain qualifiers for USA 94 but a 3-2 loss to Israel set nerves on edge.
Then Bulgaria came to the Parc des Princes: Gerard Houllier’s side took the lead through Eric Cantona but Emil Kostadinov equalised and in injury time the same player got on to the end of a Bulgarian breakaway to smash in a shot off the underside of the crossbar. While Bulgaria went on to reach the semi-finals in the US, back in France, the international career of David Ginola, who had lost possession in the build-up to Kostadinov’s winning goal, never truly recovered.

1994: Spain lose keeper but sink Denmark

Spain goalkeeper red card

Paris was not the only European city that witnessed some telling drama that night in 1993. In Seville, Spain lost goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta to a red card just 10 minutes into their must-win match against Denmark. His replacement was an untried 23-year-old called Santiago Canizares. The future Valencia keeper rose to the occasion, however, making a succession of superb saves as Fernando Hierro’s header sent Spain to the US – and left European champions Denmark reflecting on a second successive last-day disappointment.

1994: Frustration as Portugal fail against Italy

While Spain celebrated it was an unhappy night for neighbours Portugal as their hopes died with a 1-0 defeat by Italy in Milan, Dino Baggio scoring the late winner before Fernando Couto was sent off as Portuguese frustrations boiled over. Wales supporters, meanwhile, will never forget Paul Bodin’s missed penalty in their decisive home match against Romania. With the game in the balance at 1-1, Bodin rattled the crossbar and instead it was the Romanians who found a second goal. Romania proceeded to the quarter-finals in the States while the Welsh wait for a first finals appearance since 1958 continued.

1990: Germany scrape through qualifying, go on to win

It was against Wales four years earlier that Germany secured their passage to an Italia 90 tournament they would go on to win. It was an uncomfortable evening in Cologne, however, as the Germans fell behind before Rudi Voller and Thomas Hassler secured the victory Franz Beckenbauer’s men needed to qualify as one of the best second-placed teams. Of course, the Germans were not the first side to win the FIFA World Cup after scraping into the finals – Argentina had done the same four years earlier.

1986: Maradona-inspired Argentina leave it late

Diego Maradona would have never illuminated Mexico 86 had it not been for a late goal by Argentina substitute Ricardo Gareca in the Albicelestes’ 2-2 draw with Peru on June 30, 1985, in Buenos Aires. Carlos Bilardo’s side needed to avoid defeat to pip Peru to first place in their group but were 2-1 down with 10 minutes remaining. However, Daniel Pasarella then shot against a post and Gareca turned in the rebound and Argentina were on their way to Mexico.

1994: Tragedy in Doha as Japan draw with Iraq

It is the hard-luck stories that seem to stick in the memory longest, however. Japan famously lost out on a place at USA 94 after conceding an injury-time equaliser to Iraq in a match remembered on the archipelago as the ‘Tragedy in Doha’. The 2-2 draw in Qatar meant the Japanese, who had then yet to reach a FIFA World Cup, missed out on goal difference to arch-rivals Korea Republic.

1990: Trinidad & Tobago go oh so close

Trinidad &Tobago fans still feel the pain of 1989. Curiously they played the very first qualifier for Italia 90 – a 4-0 win against Guyana on April 17, 1988 – and also the last, against the US 20 months later. The small Caribbean country needed just a draw in Port of Spain to qualify for Italy but went down 1-0 to a goal from the USA’s Paul Caligiuri. The Americans had their first finals place in 40 years while T&T repaid the favour in some ways in 2017 with their shock victory costing the US a place at Russia 2018.

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