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Monday, October 31, 2011


The landlocked West African country of Niger currently has more than its fair share of problems. The country, the 21st-largest in the world and one with a population of over 15 million people, has been struggling with the twin evils of drought and famine for most of the 21st Century so far (and for far longer); it is currently suffering from yet another drought and conditions are getting ever more desperate. Niger is also one of the most impoverished places on the planet. According to the International Monetary Fund's list of the poorest countries in the world in 2010, which was published in Global Finance magazine earlier this year, Niger was the sixth poorest country in the world with a per capita GDP of just US$733.

However, in the midst of all the misery sufered by the locals, there has been at least one good news story to emerge from Niger recently: the country's men's national football team qualified for the final stages of the African Cup of Nations for the first time earlier this month in bizarre circumstances. The manner in which the team, whose nickname is the Menas (named after the Hausa word for the Dama Gazelle), eventually reached the finals mirrored the rest of their qualifying campaign; it is a story of goals, goats and glory.

They did it the hard way, too, coming top of Group G, which also featured the defending champions - and red-hot favourites to qualify - Egypt, South Africa and Sierra Leone; the Nigériens were expected to finish bottom of the pile. They kicked off their campaign in Nelspruit, South Africa, in a none-too-auspicious fashion by losing 2:0, as most pundits had expected beforehand. Their next game was played in Niger's capital, Niamey, on 10/10/10, and is now quite possibly regarded as the most noteworthy result in the country's footballing history. 

The Menas faced Egypt at the Stade Général Seyni Kountché and were expected to lose to the holders of the African Cup of Nations. The Egyptians landed in Niamey a few days before the match after a 13-hour journey from Cairo to Niamey which involved a stop in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. According to a report in Almasry Alyoum, the plane landed in Niamey in the middle of a thunderstorm. The story goes that when the players disembarked, they were met by local fans, which included several "sorcerers who performed magical rituals - some involving live goats." Apparently, these witch-doctors - or "magicians" as they were also described in the article - then proceded "to spray the Egyptian footballers with mysterious potions."

This went on until the Egyptian team reached the sanctuary of the team bus, but not before goalkeeper and captain Essam El-Hadari had a run-in with "one of the more aggressive medicine men." The article ended with the following: "In an effort to ward off the effects of maleficent magic, prominent Egyptian footballer Mohamed Abu Treika cited verses from the Quran, while teammate Amr Zaki punched one of the sorcerers in the face." When all was said and done, the Pharaohs probably would have preferred to have been greeted at Niamey airport by one man and his dog..

The valiant attempts of the Egyptian players at the airport to ward off the machinations of a higher power seemed to have been in vain, judging by their display at the stadium. Ouwo Moussa Maazou ensured that he would be the talk of the town after scoring Niger's and the game's only goal in the 34th minute, ensuring a veritably famous victory (as opposed to a Jonathan Pearce-style famous victory) for the hosts, and huge celebrations followed on the streets of Niamey.

The qualification process resumed in March this year, and there was more joy for the Nigérien supporters to come when the Menas recorded another victory on home soil, this time courtesy of a 3:1 win against Sierra Leone, but not before the visitors had taken the lead halfway through the first half. Alhassane Issoufou restored parity just after the hour mark, and with 10 minutes left, Issa Modibo Sidibé put Niger in front. Kamilou Daouda wrapped up proceedings with the third and winning goal for the hosts in the last minute of normal time.

However, the Leone Stars were to gain revenge in the return match in Freetown at the beginning of June with a 1:0 win, a result which put Sierra Leone back in contention. There was another reason for the Nigerien fans to hit the streets and a shot in the arm for football in Niger following another surprise home win, this time against South Africa. Koffi Dan Kowa and Maazou put Niger two-up before South Africa pulled a goal back with 20 minutes left.

Time, then, to go to the last round of matches. To the consternation of many, not least in North Africa, Egypt found themselves firmly at the bottom of the group and out of the running for a place at the finals, with just 2 points from their first five matches. Niger were top of the group with nine points, with both South Africa and Sierra Leone a point adrift. Niger's last game was scheduled for 8/10/11, away to Egypt in Cairo, while it was potentially a "winner takes all" scenario in Nelspruit, with South Africa taking on Sierra Leone. If Niger failed to win in Egypt and South Africa or Sierra Leone were to take all three points, then one of the latter two sides would qualify for the African Cup of Nations. If Niger were to complete an unlikely double against the Pharaohs, then they would qualify for the final stages of the competition for the first time, regardless of what happened in South Africa.

And they did indeed qualify, but not quite according to the above scenario and with a quite bizarre twist. Despite Niger dominating the first half, Egypt, fielding their Olympic team in a virtually deserted Cairo International stadium, ran out 3:0 winners, recording their only win in a disastrous attempt at qualification. The Pharaohs finished bottom of the pile with just five points, an ignominious position for the defending champions, who last failed to qualify for the final stages of the African Cup of Nations in 1978 and who have won the competition seven times in all. Niger's players thought they had blown their chance, but South Africa and Sierra Leone played out a scoreless draw at the other end of the African continent. Towards the end of the game, the South African goalkeeper, Itumeleng Khume, fell to the ground poleaxed and received treatment for some seven minutes, but was soon up on his feet and leaping about as if nothing had happened.

The result eliminated a gallant Sierra Leone side, who had lost but one of their group games, the same total as South Africa, who thought they had qualified. The Bafana Bafana squad went on a lap of honour in Nelspruit, thinking that they had qualified on goal difference.  Khume was not the only one leaping about at this stage; he and his team-mates were performing a celebratory dance along the length of the stadium, and the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) commentators and studio pundits were in ecstasy. All that was quickly about to change.

It rapidly transpired that the South Africans had seemingly neglected to read the CAF rule-book before the game, with the national team's manager Pitso Mosimane claiming before kick-off that a draw would be good enough to qualify. Nobody at the SABC bothered to check the rule-book either, it would appear. Within 20 minutes of the end of the game, the BBC had contacted the CAF who confirmed that Niger would qualify instead of South Africa. While the Bafana Bafana support were digesting the news that their team hadn't qualified after all, the Nigerien players knew the rules beforehand and they, their manager Harouna Doula Gabdé and his staff, and their compatriots back home, were all already celebrating qualification. 

Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone were all tied on 9 points apiece, so results of the matches played between all three teams would now come into play. The Menas had beaten both South Africa and Sierra Leone, which left them on a total points total of 6 from the games that the trio had played against each other; the South Africans and the Leone Stars, on the other hand, had both beaten the Nigeriens, but had drawn both matches played against each other, which left both teams having won 5 points. Niger, despite having a goal difference of zero and having lost all three of their away games in the group, thus qualified for the African Cup of Nations for the very first time.

Just in case anybody is still in any doubt, the following appears in the CAF African Cup of Nations rule-book (or, to give the document its proper title, the Regulations of the Orange Africa Cup of Nations Gabon-Guinea Equatorial 2012) under Chapter 7 (Preliminary Phase), Article 14:

"In case of equality of points between two or more teams, after all the group matches, the ranking of the teams shall be established according to the following criteria:

14.1 Greater number of points obtained in the matches between the concerned teams;
14.2. Best goal difference in the matches between the concerned teams;
14.3. Greater number of goals scored in the group matches between the concerned teams;
14.4. Greater number of away goals scored in the direct matches between the concerned teams;
14.5. Goal difference in all the group matches;
14.6. Greatest number of goals scored in all the group matches;
14.7. A drawing of lots by the Organising Committee of CAF."

In short, Niger qualified after sub-section 14.1 was taken into consideration. The South African Football Federation would do well to learn a lesson from what one could only describe as a débacle: always read the small-print..

So, Niger have created their own little piece of football history, and all credit to them for doing so, but what are their chances of progress at the African Cup of Nations, which are due to be co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon early next year? In the draw for the final stages, which was made on Saturday past, the Menas were drawn alongside Gabon, Morocco and Tunisia in Group B, and, to be frank, their chances do not look good, judging by the quality of the sides they will be up against. A point against Gabon may well be as good as Niger will achieve; they do not travel well, as can be judged by the three away defeats (without scoring themselves) during the African Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. Add to that a 3:0 defeat in February against Morocco in Marrakech and the outlook is bleak.

There are no household names in the squad; several of the Niger squad play in the national league, most of the rest play in other African countries and only a few of that number play in Europe. Olivier Bonnes plays for LOSC Lille's reseve team, Délis Ahou is a squad member of La Vitréenne in the Breton CFA division, William Ngounou played in the season just ended in the Swedish First Division South for IF Limhamn Bunkerflo, while Ouwo Moussa Maazou, currently playing in Belgium for SV Zulte Waregem, is the only Nigerien playing in a top division in Europe. Mohamed Abdoulaye is on the playing-staff of DRC Congo's finest, TP Mazembe. Four of the Menas play for Cotonsport Garoua in Cameroon: goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda, defenders Lassina Abdoul Karim and Amadou Kader, and midfielder Idrissa Saidou.

Domestically-speaking, the national association the Fédération Nigerienne de Football (FENIFOOT) was founded as recently as 1967, and joined both the CAF and FIFA the same year. The national league championship, also known as Ligue 1 Orange or Championnat D1, was first contested in 1966 by Secteur 6 Niamey (now known as Olympic FC), whilst the club with the most league titles under their belt is Sahel SC (formerly known as Secteur 7); they have won 13 in all. AS GNN, the team representing the local gendarmerie, are the current league champions, having won this year's edition with 9 points to spare from runners-up Dankassawa. Sixteen clubs competed in last season's Ligue 1 Orange.

Sahel SC are the cup kings in Niger; they have lifted the trophy on 10 occasions, including this year's edition when they defeated Jangorzo de Maradi 1:0 in the cup final. The national championship has frequently been blighted by financial troubles - for instance, the competition was cancelled in 2002, and the programme was severely curtailed in 2004 and 2005, the latter was also due to the famine which was affecting the country at the time.

Secteur 6 were the first Nigerien club to take part in the African Cup of Champion Clubs, when they took on - and lost 5:4 on aggregate against - Libya's Al-Ittihad in the preliminary round, while Sahel SC were Niger's first representatives in the African Cup Winners' Cup (known since 2004 as the CAF Confederations Cup after it merged with the CAF Cup, Africa's equivalent of the old UEFA Cup - now where have we heard that story before? Europe, perchance?) when they lost 3:2 on aggregate in the preliminary round of the inaugural edition in 1975 to Togo side Ifodjé Atakpamé. The country's club sides have rarely got past the preliminary round in any competition, when they have been able to compete.

Niger's triumph may well have been in reaching the final stages of the African Cup of Nations, and it would be a shame if the Menas were to return home from the finals with their tails between their legs, and then for football in the country to go on a downward spiral after a false dawn. It would mirror the only appearance in the finals by Mauritius in 1974, when they lost all three matches, and they haven't come anywhere qualifying since. When all else has gone from Niger's Pandora's Box, including help from the local witch-doctors and their goats, only hope is left; that may well be all they have to go on, but one never knows.

The team might just spring a surprise, and that would be most welcome for the beleaguered inhabitants of the West African nation, who have suffered a lot down the years. They deserve that even more than the players. The national side's presence at African football's top table could even be a springboard to a revamping and a more professional outlook among those connected with football in Niger; January, and, who knows, February, will tell a tale. For now, though, it's a good news story for the Nigériens, and that in itself is long, long overdue.

Monday, October 17, 2011


After an interesting Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, the Irish national senior men's team find themselves - yet again - facing home-and-away play-offs in order to qualify for the final stages of a major tournament, which, this time, is scheduled to take place in Poland and Ukraine next June.

Ireland finished second to Russia in the qualifying group, ahead of 2010 World Cup qualifiers Slovakia, the group's surprise package Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra. The Irish national side and the play-offs have always been more than uncomfortable bedfellows; now, the question is: can the Boys in Green finally end their dismal record of never having beaten a European team in a play-off contest?

With only the co-hosts (naturally enough), group winners and the group runners-up with the best record qualifying for the Euro 2012 finals - in this case Sweden, who beat Holland 3:2 in Solna on Tuesday evening - without the need of a play-off, any opposition with whom Ireland would have been paired would be a daunting prospect. Seven other nations made it through to the play-offs, and it was a tasty menu to choose from as well: Turkey, Croatia, Portugal, Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Czech Republic.

The draw took place on Thursday 13/10/11, and Ireland were  eventually paired with Estonia. Ireland, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Croatia were all seeded, so they all avoided each other in the play-offs and they host the second-legs of their respective ties.

The full play-off schedule is as follows:

Bosnia-Herzegovina : Portugal
Estonia : Ireland
Montenegro : Czech Republic
Turkey : Croatia

The question must be asked, though; was Ireland's seeding a kind of compensation for the shambles which was the play-off series for the 2010 World Cup, when the European play-offs were originally unseeded, but when it appeared that France might not make it through to South Africa via the group stage, the whole system was changed and Les Bleus ended up being seeded against the Boys In Green?

The tie against Ireland will be the first play-off ever contested by the Estonia, but it will hardly be the first time that Ireland will find themselves in play-off territory; after all, it has happened several times before. Here's how Ireland's play-off story has gone so far (together with a nod to the various successes and failures in between - it's a long and winding road, as you will see); it spans more than 60 years and it makes rather uncomfortable reading for Irish fans..

Once upon a time, a team representing Ireland, now known in FIFA circles as Ireland Republic, but then known as the Irish Free State, first played international football at the 1924 Olympic Games, which were held in Paris, and in the association's first-ever international, defeated Bulgaria in Paris on 28/5/24 before losing 2:1 to the Netherlands on 2/6/24. An invitation was issued to the country's football association, then known as the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS - now known as the FAI, or the Football Association of Ireland - Cumann Péile na hÉireann in Irish), to compete in a World Cup tournament in 1930, organised by the Uruguyan FA to celebrate 100 years of Uruguayan independence, but the invitation was turned down by the FAIFS.

After being eliminated in the qualifying stages for the 1934 World Cup (losing 2:0 away to Holland and drawing 2:2 at home against Belgium - a match which featured Paddy Moore scoring a hat-trick, the first southern Irish player to do so under the new association - in the process; in fact, he scored all four Free State goals), qualification for the 1938 competition saw the Free State paired with Norway in Group, the group being a straight two-legged home and away affair. Although officially classified as Group 2 in the European qualifiers, the tie could be looked at as a two-legged play off.

The first leg took place in Oslo in October 1937, and the hosts won by the odd goal in five. Nowadays, this would leave the Irish team in a good position for the second-leg, but back then, if Ireland had beaten the Norwegians, a third match would have had to have been played, no matter if Ireland had won by 1:0, 2:1 or 10:0. Sadly for the FAIFS team, there was to be no third match; the return match staged in Dublin a month after the first-leg ended in a 3:3 draw, and the Free State were eliminated 6:5 on aggregate.

Years passed, and the country which had since 1949 become known as plain old Ireland (or as Ireland Republic in FIFA-speak) had come nowhere near qualifying for the World Cup, nor, for that matter, the new Europaean Championship, in which Ireland actually not only earned the distinction of playing - and hosting -the first-ever fixture in the new competition n 5/4/59 against Czechoslovakia in Dublin, but defeated their Eastern-European conterparts by 2 goals to 0, with Liam Tuohy (later to become Ireland manager, and who is now a sprightly 78-year-old), earning his place in European football history by scoring the first-ever goal in an European Championship match. Unfortunately, they lost 4:0 in Bratislava just over a month later and were eliminated.

The Czechs thrashed Ireland 7:1 in a World Cup qualification match a year later in Prague, which put the seal on a miserable campaign in which they lost all four matches, 2 against Czechoslovakia and 2 against Scotland. The Czechs qualified for the World Cup, which was held in Chile in 1962 and went all the way to the final, where they lost 3:1 to Brazil.

The qualification campaign for the 1964 European Championship qualifiers saw Ireland up against Iceland, Austria, and Spain, who eventually not only came out on top of the group, but who won the European Championship that year, defeating the Soviet Union 2:1 in the final. It would be Spain who would turn out to be standing in the way of Ireland qualifying for the World Cup finals for the first time after, erm, Syria withdrew from their qualifying group for the 1966 finals, which were to be held in England.

The Syrians apparently withdrew after FIFA decided that the winners of both the African and Asian sections should play off against each other to determine who should qualify alongside 10 countries representing UEFA (including the hosts, England), 4 countries from CONMEBOL (including Brazil, winners of the 1962 World Cup), and 1 country from CONCACAF - the African nations withdrew en masse, and the Syrians - and most of the other Asian nations - did likewise as a show of support. Only North Korea and Australia were left, and they played off over two legs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with the North Koreans running out easy winners over two legs by an aggregate of 9:2 (6:1 and 3:1). For the North Koreans, the rest was history..

Why Syria had originally been drawn together with Ireland and Spain is anyone's guess, but their withdrawal left just a two-leg play-off for a berth at the 1966 World Cup Finals between Ireland and the Spaniards. Well, it should have been a two-leg affair, but it turned into a three-leg affair after Ireland defeated Spain by a goal to nil at Dalymount Park, and Spain beat Ireland 4:1 in the return leg in Sevilla. The third and deciding match (aggregate scores were not yet the deciding factor in play-off affairs), Ireland's first "proper" play-off took place in Paris in November 1965, and Spain took the honours and a place in the 1966 World Cup finals thanks to a goal, scored with 10 minutes left, from their forward Ufarte. It would not be the first time that Ireland were to suffer elimination in Paris..

Meanwhile Ireland were to continue to suffer elimination after elimination in the group stages of both European Championship and World Cup action, perhaps most unfortunately in the 1982 World Cup qualifiers, when, having got off to a good start in a group containing France, Cyprus, Holland and Belgium, they faced Belgians in Brussels in March 1981. Frank Stapleton scored for Ireland, but it was wrongly adjudged by the Spanish match officials to have been offside. Jan Ceulemans did score for Belgium in the last minute, when a foul on goalkeeper Séamus McDonagh was also missed. Ireland went on to beat France, but to no avail. Belgium finished top of the group, France finished second and Ireland third, with only a point difference between the sides.

Eoin Hand was the Irish manager during that campaign, and he also oversaw what were, in all honesty, rather limp attempts to qualify for the 1984 European Championship and 1986 World Cup. In the end, Ireland were never in the hunt in either qualifying group, finishing in fourth place in both, though one small crumb of comfort which was gleaned from both qualifiying tournaments was Ireland's 8:0 thrashing of Malta at Lansdowne Road on 16/11/83. It was, and remains, Ireland's biggest international victory at senior level.

After losing away to Russia in the penultimate game in the 1986 World Cup qualifiers, Eoin Hand's reign as Ireland manager came to an end. That Hand was effectively hounded out of the Irish hot-seat by the Irish media and factions within the FAI was an appalling way to treat one of Irish football's most loyal servants, but he left a legacy to cherish: Tony Cascarino, Mick McCarthy, Packie Bonner, Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath and Tony Galvin were all given their débuts for the national team under Eoin Hand, and went on to greater things in the years ahead.

They all, with the exception of Galvin, went on to represent Ireland at both the 1988 European Championships in what was then West Germany, and the 1990 World Cup, which was held in Italy. Galvin played in all 3 games in the group stage in 1988 (which was Ireland's first appearance in the final stages of a major tournament), when Ireland were eliminated by a freakish goal scored by the left ear of Wim Kieft, which seemed to bounce at a 90-degree angle before sneaking past Bonner in the Irish goal.

There was, of course, the consolation of Ireland getting off to a winning start by beating England 1:0 in Stuttgart through a Ray Houghton goal, and Ronnie Whelan's spectacular effort against the USSR a few days later.  Two years later, Ireland got as far as the quarter-finals in their maiden appearance at the World Cup, losing 1:0 to Italy. The Irish team-manager for both tournaments was, of course, Jack Charlton.  

Ireland failed to make it to Euro 1992, which was held in Sweden, though they gave England a good run for their money in the qualifying group. They qualified for the 1994 World Cup, with America as hosts, but were, once again, undone, by the Dutch, this time in the second round by 2:0.

England were the hosts of Euro 1996, and, in the qualifying group, Ireland finished ahead of Northern Ireland on goal-difference, but were to finish in the runners-up spot, finishing a country mile behind Portugal. The two group runners-up from the qualifying competition were required to face-off in a single-match play-off for the very last qualifying spot; Ireland were to find themselves up against Holland at Anfield on 13/12/95. Unfortunately, although they showed plenty of heart, Ireland lost 2:0, Patrick Kluivert scoring both goals for the Dutch. It was a disappointing end to the qualifying campaign; it was also the end of the road for Jack Charlton, who decided to call it a day after almost 10 (largely successful) years in charge of the Irish national team, having earned the thanks and adoration of the nation.

Qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals was, ultimately, also to slip out of Ireland's reach. With Mick McCarthy moving up from captain to national team manager, they finished a distant second to a rampant Romanian side in the qualifying group, a point in front of an improving Lithuania. They faced Belgium in the play-offs, with the first-leg taking place at Lansdowne Road in Dublin at the end of October 1997. Denis Irwin put Ireland in front early on, but Luc Nilis equalised for the Belgians on the half-hour mark, and the game ended 1:1 with the Diables Rouges looking very comfortable indeed ahead of their hosting the second leg.

The second leg took place at the King Baudouin Stadium (formerly known as the Heysel Stadium)  in Brusselson 15/11/97. Luis Oliveira scored half-way through the first-half to give the Belgians the advantage going into the break, but Ray Houghton drew Ireland level just before the hour mark. However, the Belgian advantage on the night, and on aggregate, was restored through what proved to be the winning goal from Luc Nilis, scored with 20 minutes to go. Ireland's players left the field in tears, a stark contrast to the exuberant celebrations of the Belgians, who thus qualified for France '98 having beaten Ireland 3:2 on aggregate.

If that was not bad enough, what happened during the Euro 2000 qualifiers was nothing short of protracted agony for followers of the Boys in Green. Ireland lost two matches in the group, both away to Balkan opposition in the shape of Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia and Montenegro) and Croatia. The Croatian winner was scored in the 94th minute when Dario Suker latched onto a long through ball and threaded it past the onrushing Shay Given. Having beaten Malta away, perhaps the cruellest blow of all was to take place in Skopje, in Ireland's final group gameagainst Macedonia. The Irish took the lead in the 18th minute thanks to an almost impossibly acrobatic effort from Niall Quinn, and, by all accounts, looked fairly in control for most of the remainder of the match. However, with just seconds of the match to go, Goran Stavrevski equalised for Macedonia after heading in a corner-kick. Nine seconds after the ball hit the back of the net, the referee blew for full-time. 

Nine seconds. That was the difference between direct qualification for Ireland for Euro 2000, and having to go into the hat for the play-offs. It would almost take someone that long just to read out the previous sentence. Nine seconds. Yugoslavia qualified for Euro 2000, with Holland and Belgium being co-hosts of the tournament. For Ireland to get there, they would have to get past Turkey in the play-offs. Once again, it was to prove a mountain which was just too big for the Ireland team to climb, despite having taken the lead, thanks to Robbie Keane, with ten minutes to go in the first-leg, which, yet again, was played at Lansdowne Road. Hayutuc equalised for Turkey four minutes later from the penalty-spot.

The second-leg was played four days later, on 17/11/99, in Bursa. For the previous three months, football had almost taken a back-seat in Turkey due to the Izmit earthquake, which happened three months earlier, in which 19000 people were killed. The Irish team had to travel by bus through the affected area, and this was mentioned briefly in Tony Cascarino's excellent book, Full Time, along with an account of what was to prove his eighty-eighth, and final, appearance for Ireland. It ended 0:0, a tense, edgy, stalemate of a match and Ireland found themselves, once again, on the outside looking in, eliminated on away goals, while the Turks celebrated. And all because of a goal scored with nine seconds to go in Skopje..

And then there was the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup, another co-hosting affair, this time with Japan and South Korea opening their doors to football's most fanatical. Ireland were up against their old foes Holland, who, along with Portugal, were expected to qualify. The Dutch press had labelled Ireland as a "Roy Keane and that's about it, folks" sort of team and the Irish support as being great for a party; they had, in short, written Ireland off. The group also contained Estonia, Cyprus and Andorra, who were patronisingly described, again in the Dutch press, as being a team of players who were only interested in whose shirt they could get at the end of a game.

Ireland started the group off well, drawing away in both Amsterdam and Lisbon, and the unbeaten run kept on going. Ireland had to face off against Holland at Landsdowne Road in their penultimate game to put one foot in the play-offs. Holland had 2 games to go, both at home against Estonia and Andorra, and if they won in Dublin, would most probably have finished second and progressed to the play-offs. As it was, Jason McAteer's strike with just over 20 minutes to go of a pulsating encounter put Ireland in front and untimately earned them a famous victory. Portugal had beaten Ireland to automatic qualification on goal difference, both teams finishing on 24 points, with the Dutch ending up in third place on 20 points, and their media ending up with egg on their faces. Holland would not be going to the 2002 World Cup; Ireland were still in the running.

There was yet another play-off scenario to get through before Ireland could count themselves as being home and dry, and it would be against the rather unlikely opposition of Iran, as the play-off draw had paired the eventual runners-up in the UEFA Group 2 (Ireland's group) against the fifth-best AFC team in what was billed as the UEFA-AFC Intercontinental Play-Off. Once more, the first leg was played in Dublin on 10/11/01, and the home crowd lifted the team, who responded to the "Lansdowne Roar" and beat their Iranian counterparts thanks to a first-half penalty from Ian Harte and a 50th-minute goal from Robbie Keane.

It was then off to Tehran's Azadi Stadium, where the second leg took place in front of 100000 people, including an estimated 1000 Irish supporters..20 or so of whom were women, who were only allowed to attend the match under strict supervision and after being kept cordonned-off from male supporters. Iran dominated from the start, but Shay Given kept Ireland ahead in the tie, making several important saves, as he had done during the first game in Dublin, and the defence held firm. Large sections of the ground were empty as the end of the game approached, but seconds into injury-time Yahya Golhohammadi scored for Iran with a header that left Given flat-footed and which led to a stampede of Iranian fans back into the stadium for the remainder of added-time. However, no further goals were to follow, and Ireland were through, having qualified via a play-off for the first time in six (if one includes the two games against Norway back in 1937) attempts.

The tournament should have been national team manager Mick McCarthy's finest hour, but everybody remembers Ireland's participation in the 2002 World Cup for all the wrong reasons (and this is cutting a long story very short indeed); captain Roy Keane walked out of the team's training-camp in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, after complaining about the training facilties on offer to the squad, but relented. The next day, however, Keane gave an interview to an Irish journalist and lambasted the facilities once again, which led to a very public bust-up between Keane and McCarthy, in which Keane basically called McCarthy everything under the sun apart from being a haemarrhoid in Satan's backside.

Keane eventually got sent home in disgrace, and the Irish squad made it through their first-round group, which contained Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia, unbeaten, but only got as far as the second round, where they lost to Spain on penalties after the game finished 1:1 after extra-time. Mick McCarthy stayed on as Ireland manager until the end of 2002, when he resigned two games into Euro 2004 qualifying action. Irish youth team coach Brian Kerr took over, where his new charges finished a rather disappointing third. 

Kerr resigned after the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, which saw Ireland finish fourth in a very tight group, behind France, Switzerland and Israel, with a late, late Israeli equaliser in Tel Aviv costing Ireland dear. Former international player Steve Staunton took his place for the Euro 2008 preliminaries, but he probably now wishes he hadn't. This time round, Ireland were up against Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, San Marino and Cyprus, and hopes were high of getting through to the play-off stages once again. Not this time.

A shock 5:2 defeat at the hands of a rampant Cyprus in Nicosia was one of the low points of the campaign; a 2:1 away victory against San Marino courtesy of Stephen Ireland's winner with the last kick of the ball sparked calls for Staunton's dismissal. There was, of course, the by now obligatory conceding of an injury-time goal; this time, Slovakia were the beneficiaries of Irish generosity at the back in Bratislava in a game which finished two apiece. Despite brave displays against Germany and the Czechs, Ireland ended the qualifiers a full 10 points behind the group runners-up, the Czech Republic (Germany finished on 29 points), on 17 points, after finishing off with a dismal 1:1 draw at home to Cyprus in October 2007.

Staunton was dismissed 10 days later, and Don Givens stepped in briefly as caretaker manager before Giovanni Trappatoni took over in February 2008, in time for the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds, and steered Ireland to the runners-up spot in UEFA Group 8, and yet another play-off, after finishing behind Trappatoni's native Italy. Behind Ireland came Bulgaria, Cyprus (Ireland beat them home and away, revenge for the previous campaign), Montenegro and Georgia. Though Ireland had plenty of spirit, finished the group unbeaten and weren't conceding many goals, they weren't scoring very many, either; alongside Montenegro, they were the group's draw specialists drawing 6 out of their 10 games, while scoring just 12 goals in the process. Even Cyprus, who finished in fourth place, had scored more goals than Ireland. Not the sort of form a team due to face France in the play-offs would need to progress, one would have thought.

Whatever the goalscoring problems Ireland faced, it was off to Dublin's Croke Park (headquarters of the GAA - the Gaelic Athletic Association) this time for another dose of play-off action for the Boys in Green, and the French were in town. The visitors took the game by the scruff of the neck, and, it should be said, deserved the 1:0 win they came away with, Nicolas Anelka scoring the winner in the 72nd minute.

So, Paris was the next port of call and everybody knows what happened next at the Stade de France. It was Ireland who came out fighting this time round, and "bossed" the first-half; Ireland could have had scored three, but only had Robbie Keane's 32nd-minute goal to show for all their domination. It remained 1:0 to Ireland for the remainder of the 90 minutes, but the French began to look more threatening side the longer the game went on.

Two minutes before the end of the first period of extra-time, an incident which led to William Gallas' equaliser for the French took place, one which brought howls of protest from all over the world. It was, of course, the Thierry Henri double-handball, which happened as a result of a free-kick taken by Florent Malouda. Irish defender Richard Dunne and goalkeeper Shay Given immediately put their hands up, appealing for a free-kick, but to no avail. Henri took advantage of the momentary inertia in the Irish defence, flicked the ball to William Gallas, who nodded the ball into the empty net as Given, Dunne and most of the Irish players appealed. The goal stood, and Ireland were done for, deflated, as France took control and could eventually have won on the night as well as on aggregate. The final score was 1:1 on the night, but 2:1 to France on aggregate. It was a hollow victory, to say the least.

An oft overlooked detail regarding the now infamous Thierry Henri handball incident which led to William Gallas' winner for France that evening at the Stade de France: Sébastien Squillaci was offside when the free-kick which led to the handball was taken (not only that, but he also fouled defender Richard Dunne after the free-kick was taken), but this wasn't spotted by the Swedish linesman. Martin Hansson, the unfortunate Swede who officiated in the second-leg, was pilloried by all and sundry for missing the handball incident; in truth, he had refereed the match superbly up to that point, and what happened should not take away from the fact that, at the time, he was one of the best referees in Europe.

Public opinion, not just in Ireland but worldwide, turned almost immediately after the game against the French, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, against Henri especially, and there were calls for a replay and also for Ireland to be accepted into the tournament as a 33rd qualifier, which Sepp Blatter contemptuously swept aside; his attitude ensured that he wouldn't be receiving too many Christmas cards from Irish supporters. An emotional George Hamilton ( commentator for Irish TV station RTÉ) described Henri as a "cheat" and "the thief of Saint-Dénis", and spoke of the "treachery of Paris." (Eighteen months later, FAI officials voted for Sepp Blatter's retention as FIFA president. In the words of Jimmy Greaves: "Football, it's a funny old game..")

So, to the latest attempt to qualify for a major tournament. Ireland competed in group action against Russia, Slovakia (who featured at the last World Cup), Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra for a place at Euro 2012. Ireland's Group B campaign started off last September with a hard-fought 1:0 victory away to Armenia in Yerevan courtesy of a Keith Fahey goal in the last 15 minutes of the match. It was back to Dublin a few days later, to the all-new, recently opened Aviva Stadium (also known as the Dublin Arena, but still called Lansdowne Road by the traditionalists), where the home fans saw Ireland beat Andorra by 3 goals to 1 thanks to goals from Kevin Kilbane, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane.

Six points out of six, and things were progressing nicely; however, the visit of Russia to the Aviva saw Ireland forced to take a reality check; the visitors were 3:0 to the good with 20 minutes to go before Robbie Keane scored from the spot and Shane Long added a second to fray Russian nerves somewhat, but the visitors held on. Russia had lost their previous game on home soil, Slovakia surprising them by winning 1:0 in Moscow. Ireland then travelled to Slovakia and came away with a precious point after a 1:1 draw, but it could have been more. The important action took place in the first-half, Seán St. Ledger putting the Irish in front with Slovakia equalising 20 minutes later. Sadly for Ireland, Robbie Keane missed a penalty towards the end of the half, and the game finished all-square.

Aidan McGeady put the Boys in Green ahead against Macedonia, the goal coming after only 2 minutes, and Robbie Keane netted yet again to double the advantage. Macedonia netted on the half-time whistle, and this spurred them on in the second-half, which they dominated. Fortunately for the hosts, Macedonia couldn't find a way through a sometimes frantic Irish defence, and Ireland scraped through by 2 goals to 1.

Before the summer break in June, Skopje, Macedonia was next on the travel agenda for many Irish supporters, who saw their team do the double over the Macedonians, and it that man Robbie Keane who claimed the points for Ireland, scoring his 50th and 51st goals for his country in the first-half. Macedonia also missed a penalty late on in the half, but rarely threatened in the second-half, and Ireland netted all three points. They only netted a solitary point in their next game, a dour 0:0 draw in Dublin at the beginning of September.

Another 0:0 draw was to come a few days later, and it was maybe Ireland's best performance out of all of the group games this time round. Not too many teams come away from Moscow with anything, but Ireland managed it after a superb defensive display against the Russians ensured a scoreless draw. Ireland managed only 2 shots on Russia's goal in the entire match, but Giovanni Trappatoni and his squad were not complaining at the end of the 90 minutes. The point kept them just ahead of both Armenia and Slovakia.

On 7/10/11, while Slovakia were finding themselves at the wrong end of a 1:0 scoreline at home against the Russians, a result that more or less guaranteed Russian qualification for Euro 2012, and Armenia were superb at home, winning 4:1 in a result which flattered their Macedonian visitors, Ireland strolled to a 2:0 win in Andorra courtesy of two goals in the first 20 minutes from Kevin Doyle and Aidan McGeady.

A point last week against the Armenians in Dublin would have been enough to guarantee Ireland at least a play-off place, and they got all three. Valery Aleksanyan put Ireland ahead thanks to his getting his bearings wrong and turning the ball into his own net, and, on the hour, that rarest of occurrences, a Richard Dunne goal for his country, put Ireland 2-up. Henrik Mkhitaryan didn't waste much time pulling one back for the Armenians, who went on the offensive and might well have come away with at least a point, and with Keith Doyle's red card in the last ten minutes (which leaves him suspended for the first-leg of the play-offs), it was a nervous finale for Ireland, but they held out and found themselves in the play-offs once again. 

In reality, it was probably as much as Ireland could have hoped for, with Russia the best team in the group, both on paper and on the field. Slovakia were expected to make much more of a challenge, especially after defeating Russia 1:0 away early on in the campaign, but ultimately disappointed in finishing fourth. Macedonia were very in-and-out, and also maybe played beneath their potential by finishing fifth. Armenia were probably expected by many to finish fifth in the group, but performed with passion and no little skill, and were formidable opposition, especially at home, eventually in a creditable third place. Their performance this time round augurs well for the future. Andorra finished bottom of the pile, as expected, but although they finished pointless, the 6:0 thrashing in their last game in Moscow was the only really scoreline which reflected at all badly on them.

So, Estonia stand between Ireland and a place at Euro 2012. The Estonians were the team against which every seeded team hoped to have been drawn, while the unseeded teams would probable have looked upon Ireland as their dream draw. Estonia cartainly do, and their manager Tarmo Rüütli said that his team "wanted to face Ireland more than the others." The Estonians twice defeated Northern Ireland in their group, the second time in Belfast by 2:1. However, the Estonians were beaten 2:0 at home by Ukraine at Tallinn's A. Le Coq Staudium in a friendly last Tuesday.

With Italy already comfortably qualified from Group C, where everybody seemed to be taking points off each other, and beating Northern Ireland 3:0 in their last game for good measure, Estonia found themselves ten points behind in second place without kicking a ball, a point ahead of Serbia. Slovenia finished fourth, Northern Ireland fifth and the Faroe Islands brought up the rear, but still managed to win 2:0 against the Estonians and drew against Northern Ireland for good measure.

It will be Estonia's first-ever play-off, and like Ireland, the first international tournament in which they participated was the 1924 Olympic Games, when they lost 1:0 to the United States. They haven't come anywhere near as close to qualification since then, though it must be remembered that Estonia and the other Baltic States (Latvia and Lithuania) were under occupation, first under Nazi Germany and then under the Soviet Union from 1940-91. Before being occupied, the Estonian national team also took part in qualifying for both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. Since Estonia regained independence in 1991, they have participated in every qualification tournament for the European Championship since that for Euro 1996 and  first re-entered for the World Cup for the 1994 edition. Ireland defeated Estonia both home and away, by a score of 2:0 in both cases, during the qualifying round for the 2002 World Cup. That was then..

Both the Irish and the Estonians will be fancying their chances of coming through the play-offs and entering the promised land of the final tournament of Euro 2012; both teams and sets of supporters will view their pairing as their country's best chance of qualifying for a major tournament for some time to come. Ireland should be just too strong for Estonia in what may well be a low-scoring series with the first leg due to take place in Tallinn on 11/11/11 and the decider in Dublin on 15/11/11, but it will be close, and very nervy. It's definitely up for grabs, and glory awaits.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the above information has been taken from, which is mostly concerned with football on the southern side of the Irish border, but is extremely informative and a high-quality starting-off point for anyone wishing to find out more about the game in Ireland. History, Saipan and all that and the statistical side of things are more than adequately covered on the website. Many thanks go to John Hogan for granting permission on behalf of the good people at Soccer-Ireland to include said info. Wikipedia was also plundered in the course of creating this blog.

Monday, October 10, 2011


The fallout from this summer's FIFA congress continues unabated, it appears, as CONCACAF vice-president Chuck Blazer announced last Thursday that he will relinquish his position on 31/12/11. In an interview, conducted via telephone, with a journalist from the Associated Press, Blazer said that he felt that CONCACAF had been enduring what he called a "stagnation period" and that he wanted to do "something entrepreneurial." 

Blazer was the so-called whistle-blower who threw a spanner in the FIFA works just before the congress in May by alleging that CONCACAF president Jack Walker and AFC president and former candidate for the position of FIFA president Mohamed Bin Hammam had, along with two CONCACAF employees, given delegates representing each of the Caribbean Football Union countries US$40,000 each at the CFU congress at the beginning of May.

As a result of Blazer's allegations, Bin Hammam dropped out of the FIFA presidential race, and both Walker and Bin Hammam were to face FIFA's all-new ethics committee. Although the Qatari Bin Hammam was banned from football for life by the committee (he is currently appealing the decision), Walker jumped ship and resigned as CONCACAF president just before he was due to appear in front of the body.

The FIFA ethics committee could not deliver a verdict on the Trinidadian, but it later said that Walker would most probably have been found guilty of "assisting corruption." Judging by what one reads in the media and on the internet, it seems that the vast majority of football fans and observers would not only agree with FIFA's assessment of Walker, but would say that it was perhaps a little understated..

Blazer was, no doubt, getting ready to size up a new chair for himself in place of that belonging to "Teflon Jack" at CONCACAF HQ in New York, but the acting federation president, Lisle Austin, like Walker, a gentleman of Trinidadian stock, attempted not only to stop Blazer from taking over the top spot in CONCACAF, but to remove him altogether from the organisation.

Taking it literally and given Chuck's girth, that would have been no easy task, but Austin's attempt to prevent change was thwarted by CONCACAF as they slapped Austin down, saying that he lacked the authority to carry out such an action. FIFA then stepped in and actually suspended Austin, who responded by going to the High Court  in the Bahamas in order to overturn FIFA's decision. Austin has been reported as describing FIFA as "a corrupt cabal of arrogance and cronyism."

Even though Austin, who has now been suspended for a year by FIFA for going to a civil court of law to appeal against his original suspension (FIFA frowns on such things, as anyone with an interest in football and its politics will know), is a close associate of Honest Jack's - that in itself is not a reason for football fans without sin to start throwing stones at the man, squad - many football fans will, without doubt, find themselves concurring with the above statement..

Back to big Chuck, meanwhile, and he also intimated during the interview that he intended to keep his seat on FIFA's executive committee until the next round of elections in 2013. CONCACAF will convene a meeting in due course to discuss electing Blazer's successor in that particular organ. Blazer, who is 66, said it was too early to make a decision as to whether he would seek re-election for his position in FIFA.

It was under his instigation that CONCACAF, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its foundation last month, moved its headquarters from Guatemala City to New York City  in the late 1990s (there was also small talk around at the time that the organisation would change its name to The Confederation, but that quickly dissapated), and that the CONCACAF Champions League - which replaced the CONCACAF Champions' Cup in 2009 - and Gold Cup as we now know them were organised.

It is fairly true that CONCACAF has become somewhat "stagnant" recently, but can that, together with Chuck's "entrepreneurial" ambitions, be why he has decided to hand in his notice? Well, now that Walker is long gone and Austin suspended, media attention soon shifted to Blazer, who is, it has been alleged recently in media organs as diverse and august as The Independent, Transparency In Sport (the indefatigible Andrew Jennings again) and World Soccer, living "high on the hog" in Trump Towers in New York, and has been able to afford to keep doing so thanks not only to his monthly wage from CONCACAF, but also to his obtaining 10 per cent of all CONCACAF-approved sponsorship and television money.

Said money found its way into his bank account through different  (offshore?) bank accounts in different countries all over the Americas, and, according to the soon-to-be ex-vice-president of CONCACAF, that this bonus, if you will, is actually included in his contract with the confederation. Blazer claims that everything has been done legally and is above-board. To be fair to Blazer, if bankers and call-centre workers are able to receive a bonus on top of their normal pay, then one would suppose that he is entitled to receive the same.

However, there may still be muddy waters ahead for our Chuck, as other allegations have been made across the media that he received various payments from none other than Jack Walker, which had been made using the CFU bank account. Blazer claims that Walker was merely paying back a loan. If this is true, then it may well be that these "repayments" were, in fact, unlawful. British satellite television channel Sky News (Rupert Murdoch's crew, but still) relayed a statement made by Walker to reporter Richard Conway refuting the big man's loans/repayments claims (this, too, was published on the Transparency In Sport website):

"Having read with amazement Chuck Blazer’s claim that monies I paid him were in repayment of a personal loan, I have decided after much deliberation to set the record straight..The payment I made to Blazer of
$250,000 was the last of three payments which together totalled $750,000..

"These were absolutely not in repayment for any loan....These monies were paid from the Carribean Football Union’s account with funds received from FIFA. I do not know why Blazer is pretending otherwise..

"I began to become concerned with Blazer several years ago when I became aware of the large sums he was earning from commissions. He refused to respond fully to my questions in regard to them. As a result, since 2004 I have refused to sign any contract with his company Sportvertising, demanding that first he make a complete declaration of his earnings. Up to this point in time, neither he nor his company has
any valid contract with CONCACAF.

"His attitude significantly deteriorated when, after I had paid him the total of $750,000, I told him that I would not pay an additional $250,000 that he was requesting be forwarded to his private account - unless he
provided me with a complete accounting of his CONCACAF earnings.

"Instead of providing this accounting, Blazer treacherously planned and coordinated an attack on myself and the CFU. Only when there is a full accounting at Concacaf will the whole truth come to light. For the time being, I will say no more on this matter."

Pot calling the kettle black? Is this the tsunami Walker was talking about back in May? In any case, it is all rather murky, and if the above is true and Walker was so incensed by this former close friend's behaviour, why didn't he see to it that Blazer was dismissed from his post there and then? There is a fine line between love and hate, it's true, but one would wager that there is a lot to more to the goings-on between Walker and Blazer (and perhaps a cast of dozens in CONCACAF and further afield) than what has been cast out into the public domain, and there will be a lot more to come. When that happens, FIFA president Sepp Blatter might wish to have his tin-hat at the ready; any further allegations may well cause a lot of collateral damage all across the football world, or what's left of it.

Blazer was reported as defending his actions thus: "All of my transactions have been legally and properly done, in compliance with the various laws of the applicable jurisdictions based on the nature of the transaction." (Doing something entrepreneurial indeed, is our Chuck, all this money-lending stuff.) The FBI, of all people, have been investigating Walker's allegations since mid-August, and if found to be in the wrong, Blazer may well find that he might be clearing out his desk at CONCACAF headquarters a little sooner than he expected.. Who will then follow, one asks oneself?