Against the odds

COLIN ALLAN looks at coun­tries where foot­ball is not the num­ber one sport…

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - FOOTBALL’S FIGHT - LT

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

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