Soc­cer’s knack for weird­ness

The Expositor (Brantford) - - SPORTS LISTINGS - Sstin­son@post­media.com

on the way to a 2-0 half­time deficit and an even­tual 2-1 loss. This wasn’t David over Go­liath, it was Go­liath get­ting clipped by David’s lit­tle brother, Ted.

The U.S. exit also hap­pened in the most soc­cer way pos­si­ble, as the team would have sur­vived if ei­ther Hon­duras lost to Mex­ico or Panama lost to Costa Rica. Mex­ico was un­beaten through nine games and Costa Rica had lost just once; both teams were al­ready qual­i­fied for the World Cup. Both also took early leads in their games, with Mex­ico ac­tu­ally tak­ing a lead twice, and yet both lost by a goal. Costa Rica even lost on a blown call, as a ball that rolled around on the goal line was mis­tak­enly ruled a goal de­spite not ac­tu­ally cross­ing the line.

In an era where North Amer­i­can pro sports in par­tic­u­lar are ab­so­lutely nuts for re­plays and chal­lenges and re­views and any­thing else that could elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of hu­man er­ror even if it mad­den­ingly takes away from the emo­tion of the game, here comes soc­cer to ig­nore the most ba­sic of re­view­able calls — did the ball cross the line? — and af­fect the World Cup for­tunes of two na­tions in the process.

Soc­cer has an un­de­ni­able knack for such weird­ness. In part be­cause it’s the only truly global sport and in part be­cause the na­ture of the game at high lev­els lim­its scor­ing chances and cre­ates the greater pos­si­bil­ity of a sta­tis­ti­cal out­lier, wacky re­sults hap­pen with some reg­u­lar­ity.

Ice­land qual­i­fied for Euro 2014, its first ma­jor tour­na­ment, and then made it all the way to the quar­ter­fi­nals, beat­ing Eng­land in the first knock­out stage. Eng­land! Now the plucky Ice­landers have done it again, win­ning their UEFA group stage to qual­ify for the World Cup. Ice­land, the whole of the coun­try, has a pop­u­la­tion of less than 340,000, which is about the size of the Toronto sub­urb in which I re­side. I am pretty sure Markham would have a tough time qual­i­fy­ing for the World Cup, al­though I am will­ing to try out for cen­tre-back, or which­ever po­si­tion in­volves the least run­ning. Ice­land, to put it an­other way, it is about one one-thou­sandth the size of the United States, pop­u­la­tion-wise.

Ice­land isn’t the only un­likely World Cup con­tender, ei­ther. Panama’s Tues­day win qual­i­fied it for Rus­sia de­spite a neg­a­tive goal dif­fer­en­tial in the lat­est round, while Hon­duras is still alive — it will face a play­off against Aus­tralia — even though it gave up six more goals than it scored in the last CONCACAF round.

Then there is Burk­ina Faso, the African na­tion that has a shot at mak­ing Rus­sia with one game left to play. Burk­ina Faso has never played in a World Cup and only twice fin­ished in the top three at the African Cup, both times in the past four THE EX­POS­I­TOR years. They could yet be edged out by Sene­gal, which should have one more game left but in­stead has two, both against South Africa. Sene­gal lost 2-1 last Novem­ber against the South Africans, but FIFA ruled that the de­ci­sive penalty was awarded on a non-ex­is­tent hand­ball and the ref­eree was even­tu­ally banned for life for match fix­ing. Drama!

South Africa, de­spite one win in its four games, could yet leapfrog Burk­ina Faso and Sene­gal if they man­age to beat Sene­gal twice next month. Mean­while, Sene­gal’s best at­tacker, Sa­dio Mane, who plays for Liver­pool in the English Pre­mier League, suf­fered a ham­string in­jury on the week­end — as an 89th-minute sub­sti­tute — that will likely keep him out of the qual­i­fiers. Even with that in­jury, the prospect of a pair of South African wins to jump into Rus­sia seems highly un­likely.

But then, this is soc­cer.

RE­BECCA BLACK­WELL/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Trinidad and Tobago play­ers cel­e­brate their sec­ond goal in a 2-1 win over the U.S. on Tues­day in their World Cup qual­i­fy­ing match at Ato Boldon Sta­dium in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago. The loss elim­i­nated the U.S. from the next World Cup.

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