The World Cup is only in its second day but already there has been plenty of comment from people identifying as journalists about the teams that aren’t even there. This is mainly because a tidy, if ineffectual Saudi Arabian team were well beaten by Russia which prompted several of the blue-ticked Twitterati to exclaim how unfair and unjust it was that the USA, the Netherlands, Italy or Chile were not at the World Cup but that Saudi Arabia were.
This was then broadened out by other users of the social media platform to mention teams like Morocco or Iran or Tunisia. Do you see a trend here?
First of all lets point out that this is in fact a WORLD CUP, not a Europe and South American cup with a couple of others we deem worthy thrown in Cup. The first World Cup in 1930 was an open invitation competition, most European nations didn’t even bother turning up. The English national team didn’t bother entering the tournament until 1950, when they qualified they were beaten by Spain and also 1-0 by the United States thanks to a goal scored by a Haitian student in a team captained by a Scottish journeyman. But then that’s the joy of the World Cup, the underdog beating the heavily-favoured, football aristocrat.
Egypt played in the 1934 World Cup, while the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) played in 1938 but representatives from Africa and Asia were rare. In 1966 every team in the African confederation boycotted qualifying for the World Cup because they were offered only half a place at the World Cup. Effectively one African side would have to play-off against the winners of the Asia/Oceania group for a place in England. This boycott meant that North Korea qualified and went on to famously beat Italy 1-0 and drew with Chile which saw them through to the Quarter-finals.
In that quarter final the North Koreans took a surprise 3-0 lead before being eventually overhauled by the personal brilliance of Eusébio who scored four of the Portugal’s five goals in a memorable comeback. Eusébio was of course born in Mozambique, (still a Portuguese colony in 1966), as were team captain Mário Coluna and central defender Vincente.
Things did gradually begin to change however, the FIFA President Stanley Rous ran for re-election in 1974 but was roundly defeated by João Havelange, mainly because Havelange has actively canvassed the support of the AFC and CAF with the promises of greater access to the World Cup tournament.
Whatever one says about Havelange and his debatable legacy, he did follow through on his promise and expanded the World Cup to 24 teams in 1982. With each nation having an equal vote Rous’s reluctance to campaign, coupled with his support for keeping apartheid South Africa as a member of FIFA (he famously said if “South Africa applies segregation in soccer, that is its own concern”) meant that his Eurocentric viewpoint was never going to see him elected to another term and practically guaranteed Havelange victory. Havelange was of course later succeeded by his protege Sepp Blatter, perhaps if Stanley Rous had taken the African and Asian confederations more seriously then FIFA wouldn’t have been defined by the hyper-commercial forces that Havelange and Blatter unleashed? It’s just a thought.
’82 saw steady progress for African sides, Cameroon were unlucky to be eliminated having not lost a game, while Algeria, despite impressive performances were also knocked out after the Disgrace of Gijón when Austria and West Germany conspired to play out a mutually beneficial 1-0 win for the Germans which saw both sides progress.
Subsequent tournaments saw further progress and African and Asian sides created several stand-out performances, in my own lifetime I can think of Cameroon in 1990, Nigeria in 1994, South Korea in 2002, Ghana in 2010 as campaigns from African and Asian sides with a special resonance. South Korea got as far as the semi-finals in 2002, which helps show that a regular high standard of competition can indeed help develop football performance of a nation and indeed a Continent.
Due to a number of factors, historic, colonial and industrial among them, European nations developed a football culture, and crucially professionalised and formalised the sport early, this gave them a certain advantage that subsequent generations of men like Rous fought to preserve.
If a World Cup is to be worthy of it’s name it should of course be about crowning the greatest national side on the planet but it should also be a way to celebrate and grow the game globally. That means competitive football for teams from all corners of the world. Representation is important, younger generations seeing their nation compete, even if and when they lose have something to aspire to. Ireland enjoyed a participation boom in football after Euro 88 and Italia 90 which helped embed the sport in areas which previously might have been a cold house for the Association game. It’s also worth noting that Ireland were dismissed and even derided as England’s “B” team by sections of the football media at both tournaments. No doubt if Twitter had existed users would have bemoaned our qualification for a World Cup ahead of the likes of France or Portugal?
And finally the true mark of a great team, one who deserves to lift the World Cup is that they win games, African and Asian teams who participate this year won their qualification matches, often going through arduous groups and play-offs to get to the World Cup. Saudi Arabia finished higher than Australia, who beat Honduras in a play-off to qualify. Honduras in turn finished higher than the USA in qualifying, though you won’t hear many US pundits mention that.
If people want to see Italy or the Netherlands at the World Cup that’s understandable, but those teams also need to, you know, win matches to get there.