Against the odds
COLIN ALLAN looks at countries where football is not the number one sport…
MAYBE one day I’ll tell my grandchildren that I saw Harry Kane’s first England goal. It came on his debut against Lithuania on Friday, March 27, 2015 during a Euro qualifying game.
England were already three up when Kane entered the fray and it took him just 80 seconds to score. A cross from Raheem Sterling found the striker unmarked at the far post and his fierce header could only be parried into the net by keeper Giedrius Arlauskis.
Earlier goals by Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Sterling had ensured a safe passage to more Euro points for a dominant England.
Along with the rest of the 83,671 crowd, I left Wembley that chilly March evening a satisfied supporter.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist feeling a bit sorry for Lithuania. It had been a mismatch from the start with the visitors defending in depth for long periods of the match.
But what should you expect from a Baltic nation of only 3.2 million? Furthermore, football is not the country’s national sport.
Before the game, I assumed it was ice hockey. But, when I read the programme notes, I found out that basketball is Lithuania’s claim to sporting prowess.
Amazingly, the country is ranked fourth in the world and regularly wins medals at Olympic and European competitions.
In fact, my soccer programme included the following quote from American journalist Luke Winn in Sports Illustrated: “Basketball is the only sport the 3.2 million Lithuanians truly care about – it is their second religion . . . and their success is proportionately stunning.”
The Lithuanian soccer team in that Euro match was made up of youngsters from the country’s own league and journeymen who ply their trade around Europe.
For instance, their goalie, Giedrius Arlauskis, was shot-stopper for Steaua Bucharest at the time and then signed for Watford that summer.
He made two splendid saves in the second half, the first from a volley by Fabian Delph and the second to repel a strong shot from Webeck.
At centre-back was a player who would be familiar to Scottish fans. Marius Zaliukas made 200 appearances for Hearts before moving on to Rangers. Of course, Lithuania are also in England’s present World Cup qualifying group. In March at Wembley, goals from the returning Jermain Defoe on 21 minutes and Jamie Vardy in the 66th minute ensured a 2-0 win for the Three Lions. Again, Lithuania had been forced to spend most of the match defending. My sympathies for them will not extend to wanting anything but a solid England victory in the away match! Yet it has got me thinking about how countries cope when football is not their national sport. A prime example of the syndrome is New Zealand. The Kiwis have dominated rugby union virtually since the game’s inception. Despite England’s recent revival, the All Blacks remain number one in the world rankings. So what chance do New Zealand’s footballers stand when the whole nation is gripped by rugby fever? I had the pleasure of seeing the All Whites (albeit their Under-23 team with the permissible over-age players) at the 2012 Olympics. Along with 66,200 others, I was at Old Trafford to see them take on Egypt (or the Baby Pharaohs as they were cutely nicknamed ). It was a spirited match played with good sportsmanship. Egypt generally looked the sharper and fitter side but New Zealand battled
away to share the points. The Kiwis went ahead when a cross from the right was poked in by New Zealand’s star forward, Chris Wood (then of West Brom, now of Leeds United).
Egypt equalised with a close-range shot from Mohamed Salah which keeper Michael O’Keeffe got a hand to but couldn’t stop.
The Baby Pharaohs did most of the attacking in the second half, coming close to scoring on several occasions. They should have won in the dying seconds but the ball was blasted over the crossbar from close range.
At the final whistle, the players were clearly exhausted with some of them lying on the turf. Both sides got a deserved standing ovation from the appreciative and non-tribal crowd.
New Zealand’s greatest soccer moments came in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Having already held Slovakia to a 1-1 draw, they took on reigning champions Italy in Nelspruit on June 20.
The Kiwis took the lead when Winston Reid, currently of West Ham, met a free-kick and headed the ball into the goalmouth. Italian defender Fabio Cannavaro could only deflect the ball into the path of ex-Mansfield, AFC Wimbledon and Halifax striker Shane Smeltz, who prodded it into the net.
Italy equalised with a rather dubious penalty. Daniele De Rossi appeared to go down too easily when challenging for the ball with Ipswich’s Tommy Smith. Vicenzo Iaquinta scored from the spot.
The aforementioned Wood could have won the game for the Kiwis late on but his effort went just wide of the post. Nevertheless, it was the finest result in New Zealand’s soccer history.
They finished their campaign undefeated with a goalless draw against Paraguay. Unfortunately, they missed qualifying for the knockout stage by a single point.
Another country not naturally associated with football is Canada. The Canucks have always been known as a mighty ice hockey nation.
They also have Canadian Football (a kind of gridiron), which is very popular.
On March 27 last year, I watched their Under20 team take on England at the Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster.
In truth, I had gone to see the new Manchester United sensation, 18-year-old Marcus Rashford. Still, it would be an opportunity to measure the progress of another of football’s minnows.
The England Under-20 lads dominated possession but Canada scored with their only two shots on goal!
Their first was a brilliant solo effort from Kadin Chung. He was allowed to run in from the left and strike a powerful shot on 13 minutes.
In the 68th minute, Marco Bustos increased Canada’s shock lead with a fine shot from the edge of the area.
Rashford, who had been well-marked throughout by Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, finally broke free from his marker on 71 minutes to cross for Kasey Palmer to score with a sidefooted effort from 12 yards.
But Canada held on for a surprise win. At the time, their senior squad was ranked a lowly 87th in the FIFA rankings.
Of course, there are lots of other countries where soccer has to play second or third fiddle.
Cuba and Japan are both obsessed with baseball. Australian soccer has to compete with the more popular rugby league, Australian Rules football and cricket. India is cricket-mad.
Even in the Republic of Ireland, football isn’t the favourite spectator sport.
That honour belongs to gaelic football. The All-Ireland Final can attract 80,000 spectators to Croke Park.
And don’t even get me started on the USA with its baseball, basketball, American Football and ice hockey!
For over 50 years, pundits have expected the USA to become a major soccer nation.
It has in the women’s game but its traditional North American sports remain paramount.
Even here in England, soccer has to compete – with rugby union and, to a lesser extent, rugby league for players and spectators.
It all began when the public schools and universities turned away from soccer in the late 19th century when professionalism took over association football.
What talent and brains English soccer must have lost through that fateful move. It’s competition that soccer giants like Brazil, Germany and Spain have never had to bother about.
Still, despite post-1966 gloom, football remains our national sport. Now where’s my grandson, Jack. I’ve got something to tell him about Harry Kane.
Hoop dreams: Lithuania, seen here playing against Australia in Rio, is a basketball hotbed
Tough to compete: New Zealand is gripped by rugby fever
Big moment: Harry Kane scores on his debut against Lithuania