END OF THE WORLD...

JOHN LYONS TAKES A LOOK AT SOME OF THE BIG LOSERS FROM WORLD CUP QUAL­I­FY­ING

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - MISSING THE PARTY -

FOR some it was go­ing to be their swan­song, for oth­ers it was go­ing to be their chance to take on the world’s best at the peak of their pow­ers.

But now they have some­thing in com­mon. They’re not go­ing to be in Russia 2018. For while Eng­land booked their ticket with em­bar­rass­ing ease and all the ex­cite­ment of watch­ing paint dry, other fan­cied sides came unstuck in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion.

Although Italy are nowhere near the force they used to be and were, bizarrely, lumped into the same group as Spain, who would have gen­uinely thought they wouldn’t qual­ify even if they had to go through the play-offs to do it?

Af­ter all, they hadn’t failed to join the global jam­boree for 60 years. They were seen as sea­son-ticket hold­ers for the big tour­na­ments.

Yet a 1-0 de­feat in Swe­den fol­lowed by a goal­less draw on home soil had them say­ing ‘ar­rived­erci’ to the World Cup fi­nals – at least un­til 2022.

And no one felt the pain more than leg­endary goal­keeper Gian­luigi Buf­fon. The 39-year-old was ex­pected to bow out at the top in Russia, but has now called time on his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer af­ter earn­ing an as­ton­ish­ing 175 caps for his coun­try.

The 2006 World Cup win­ner, who was tear­ful at the fi­nal whis­tle, said: "I am not sorry for my­self but all of Ital­ian foot­ball. We failed at some­thing which also means some­thing on a so­cial level."

While Italy get used to the idea of not hav­ing a ticket to the ball, it’s some­thing Hol­land are not as un­ac­cus­tomed to.

Com­ing into the qual­i­fiers on the back of not mak­ing it to Euro 2016, the Dutch – who fin­ished third in the World Cup in Brazil three years ago – once again failed to pro­duce the goods, fin­ish­ing third in their group be­hind France and Swe­den.

As with Buf­fon, Russia could have been the per­fect place for Hol­land skip­per Ar­jen Robben to call time on his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer. Yet the Bay­ern Mu­nich winger, with 96 caps to his name, didn’t get that lux­ury.

Af­ter scor­ing both goals in a 2-0 win over Swe­den, which was not enough for the Dutch to reach the play-offs, he said: “It hasn't been an easy de­ci­sion but I am 33 and now must give my full fo­cus to my club."

It’s a dif­fer­ent story for Alexis Sanchez. The Arse­nal striker turns 29 in De­cem­ber and should be ap­proach­ing his prime. Russia 2018 could have been the op­por­tu­nity for him and his Chilean team­mates to go for glory.

Back-to-back South Amer­i­can cham­pi­ons, Sanchez and Co. had al­ready eared their place in Chilean folk­lore by bag­ging the coun­try’s first ever tro­phies.

With the likes of Arturo Vi­dal, Gary Medel and Clau­dio Bravo to call on, Chile would have fan­cied their chances to go a long way in the World Cup.

Yet the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup fi­nal­ists failed to make it. In the South Amer­i­can all-against-all bun­fight, La Roja came up ag­o­nis­ingly short. With the top four go­ing through au­to­mat­i­cally and the fifth-placed team head­ing into a play-off, Chile came sixth.

They fin­ished a cou­ple of goals be­hind fifth-placed Peru on goal dif­fer­ence, a 3-0 de­feat in Brazil in the fi­nal game seal­ing their fate.

Iron­i­cally, Chile and Peru both gained

ex­tra points af­ter Bo­livia fielded an in­el­i­gi­ble player against them. How­ever, Chile got two ex­tra points af­ter orig­i­nally draw­ing against the Bo­li­vians, while Peru got three af­ter los­ing their match. If that hadn’t hap­pened, Chile would have fin­ished above Peru, who beat New Zealand in their play­off to qual­ify for the World Cup for the first time since 1982. It’s a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion for Wales winger Gareth Bale. At 28, the Real Madrid winger should be at his peak, but a World Cup fi­nals ap­pear­ance con­tin­ues to elude him. Af­ter their mag­nif­i­cent run to the semis at the Eu­ros, hopes were high that Chris Cole­man’s men could con­tinue that mo­men­tum by reach­ing Wales’ first World Cup since 1958. How­ever, in a group won by Ser­bia, it was the Repub­lic of Ire­land who killed off Welsh dreams by snatch­ing sec­ond place with a 1-0 win in Cardiff in the fi­nal group game. And the in­jured Bale could only watch from the side­lines as his team’s World Cup hopes went up in smoke due to James McClean’s sec­ond half goal. While Ir­ish eyes were smil­ing that night, they cer­tainly weren’t in the play-offs a month later. Af­ter hold­ing Den­mark to a goal­less draw in Copenhagen, Martin O’Neill’s men took the lead through Shane Duffy af­ter just six min­utes of the re­turn.

Dublin pre­pared to party, but then Tot­ten­ham’s Chris­tian Erik­sen hit a stun­ning hat­trick as Den­mark romped to an ex­tra­or­di­nary 5-1 win.

It was just as painful, but in a dif­fer­ent way, for North­ern Ire­land. A far­ci­cal hand­ball call against Corry Evans in the first leg in Belfast helped give Switzer­land a cru­cial 1-0 away win.

De­spite Michael O’Neill’s men giv­ing it their all in the sec­ond leg – and Jonny Evans hav­ing a header cleared off the line at the death – they couldn’t turn things around and bowed out af­ter a goal­less draw in Basel.

An­other coun­try look­ing in at the party next year from the out­side will be the USA (see p6), who lost 2-1 against al­ready-elim­i­nated Trinidad & Tobago to blow their chances and open the door for Panama and Hon­duras to leapfrog them in CONCACAF qual­i­fy­ing.

While a host of big names and dis­ap­pointed coun­tries sit out the World Cup, they will be able to watch the fol­low­ing 32 with envy:

Ar­gentina, Aus­tralia, Bel­gium, Brazil, Colom­bia, Costa Rica, Croa­tia, Den­mark, Egypt, Eng­land, France, Ger­many, Ice­land, Iran, Ja­pan, Mex­ico, Morocco, Nige­ria, Panama, Peru, Poland, Por­tu­gal, Russia, Saudi Ara­bia, Sene­gal, Ser­bia, South Korea, Spain, Swe­den, Switzer­land, Tu­nisia and Uruguay.

Hands up if you’re not go­ing to Russia: Hol­land’s Ar­jen Robben and, above, Chile’s Alexis Sanchez

End of an era: A de­jected Gian­luigi Buf­fon and, be­low, Wales star Gareth Bale

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