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