FOOTBALL: STAR-CROSSED TRIO

Published February 18, 2018
The last World Cup saw Simone Zara of Italy miss a spot kick against Germany, the eventual champions. The Italians will not be at the World Cup in Russia for the first time since 1954
The last World Cup saw Simone Zara of Italy miss a spot kick against Germany, the eventual champions. The Italians will not be at the World Cup in Russia for the first time since 1954

Boasting an array of superstars, Netherlands, Italy and Chile are among the most popular and most watched national teams today. And yet, none of the trio made it to the World Cup in Russia this year.

What went wrong for these great footballing nations who had been performing admirably as recently as 2017?

Although there are a number of reasons for the failure of every nation, there are two that pop up quite regularly: the end of a golden generation (Netherlands and Ivory Coast) and poor managerial changes (Chile, Italy and Algeria).

Netherlands, Italy and Chile had contrasting fortunes in the qualifying rounds but none made it to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. What went wrong?

The failure of these teams to qualify for the 2018 World Cup means that we will not be seeing some of the biggest talents in world football in Russia.

Taking full responsibility for their sides not qualifying for the World Cup, the managers of Netherlands, Italy and Chile all resigned. As did managers of lesser footballing nations — Bruce Arena, the manager of the United States, for example, resigned immediately in the aftermath of his team’s unsuccessful bid to reach the World Cup.

But it is the trio of Netherlands, Italy and Chile who will be sorely missed. We recap their journey on the road to Russia and where they faltered.

THE ORANJE OSCILLATION

On June 13, 2014, in a repeat of the final of the 2010 World Cup, the Netherlands took on defending champions Spain in a group stage game. After Xabi Alonso had put Spain ahead from the penalty spot, Robin van Persie scored one of the iconic goals in World Cup history on the cusp of half-time to bring Holland back into the game. For those of you who don’t remember, let’s just say that Superman would have been proud of that one. After the break, van Persie and Arjen Robben wreaked havoc in the Spanish backline, both scoring twice as Netherlands thumped Spain 5-1 to lay down a marker.

Buoyed by the upset, the Oranje continued to progress through the tournament.

On July 9, 2014, Netherlands’ coach Louis van Gaal pulled off one of the greatest tactical decisions in their quarter-final win over Costa Rica. With the game goalless after extra time, he used his last available substitution to bring on reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul for the penalty shoot-out.

Krul saved two penalties, winning the game for the Oranje and sending them into the semi-finals. In the semi-final against Argentina, they held on to a 0-0 draw again. This time, however, van Gaal had already used his three substitutions so he could not repeat his match-winning change from last match.

Once Messi and Ezequiel Garay had scored, it was the Argentine keeper Sergio Romero’s turn to shine; as he saved penalties from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder to send Argentina into the final against Germany.

Louis van Gaal left for Manchester United after the World Cup, replaced temporarily by Guus Hiddink, before Danny Blind took over on a permanent deal.

But Blind’s tenure was marked with misfortune. The two stalwarts, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, had entered the twilight of their careers. Young talent was still finding its feet. And injury, too, marred the qualifying stage.

On October 10, 2017, as the qualifying campaigns in all the continents came to their conclusions, it soon became evident that Netherlands would struggle to make it through to the World Cup. This was a major setback to the great footballing nation, which had already failed to qualify for Euro 2016. Their absence was confirmed after the final round of matches, as Sweden edged them out on goal difference.

Netherlands had qualified for every World Cup since last failing in 2002.

AN ITALIAN MESS

On July 2, 2016, Italy came up against World Cup winners Germany in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. Italy, playing with a disassembled squad in a rebuilding phase, wasn’t expected to do well in the tournament.

But drilled by a master tactician in Antonio Conte, Italy surpassed all expectations by making it out of their group and beating Spain in the round of 16.

Against Germany, they were resolute and failed to give in without a fight. Once Ozil had scored to put Germany ahead, Italy started pressing higher up the field and were rewarded with a penalty which was dispatched by Leonardo Bonucci.

The game dried out from there on, and following a goalless extra time it went to penalties. After Lorenzo Insigne and Toni Kroos had scored; Simone Zaza, who was brought on specifically for the penalty shoot-out after extra time had ended, produced a comic miss that would probably be remembered for many years to come.

Both Buffon and Neuer saved penalties, and a number of penalties were off target. Jonas Hector scored the ninth penalty taken by his side to send Germany through to the semi-finals. Italy had fought hard, but just couldn’t make it stick. Conte resigned following the match, Gian Piero Ventura filling the void after two weeks.

Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal will be sorely missed at the World Cup
Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal will be sorely missed at the World Cup

Ventura’s task was made complicated by the fact that only one team could automatically qualify from their qualification group. But while they had to face minnows such as Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein, they also had to face Spain.

The Italians drew at home (1-1) but lost to the Spanish 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu. They had won seven of their 10 games, drawing two, and losing the sole game to Spain. In other circumstances, qualification should have been guaranteed with their points total. But in this group, coming in second meant having to play a second round of qualification. But in the second round, Italy lost out to Sweden after failing to break down their defence over two legs.

This will be the first time since 1954 that Italy will not partake in the World Cup.

CHILEAN CASUALTY

While Brazil and Argentina are fixtures in global tournaments, it is Chile who have been stamping their mark on football in South America and beyond. Boasting the diminutive Alexis Sanchez and mercurial Arturo Vidal, the small nation of Chile has been taking on opponents far bigger than themselves. On most occasions, Chile’s Davids left the many Goliaths bruised and battered.

[Italy manager] Ventura’s task was made complicated by the fact that only one team could automatically qualify from their qualification group. But while they had to face minnows such as Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein, they also had to face Spain. The Italians drew at home (1-1) but lost to the Spanish 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu. They had won seven of their 10 games, drawing two, and losing the sole game to Spain.

Consider the match between Chile and Spain at the last World Cup. Played on June 18, 2014, in the second round of group stage matches, this was a do-or-die game. Chile, dubbed the ‘Spain of South America’ had already beaten Australia in their first group encounter. Chile offered a decent threat going forward, something for the Spanish defence to be wary of, especially after conceding five in the first game. Two goals in the first half from Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz, however, condemned the defending champions to an early exit from their title defence.

Robben and van Persie carried the Dutch for many years but now pass on the baton to a new generation
Robben and van Persie carried the Dutch for many years but now pass on the baton to a new generation

Then came the final of the Copa America 2015, on July 4, 2015, which was played between arguably the two best teams in South America, Argentina and the hosts Chile. Chile had defeated Peru 2-1 in the semi-finals, while Argentina had demolished Paraguay 6-1. The final was evenly balanced, both teams creating chances to score but failing to convert them.

The game ended 0-0, Gonzalo Higuain missing from a tight angle on the last kick of the 90. Extra time followed in which Alexis Sanchez had a penalty call turned down, but no goals were scored and it all boiled down to penalties.

After Messi had scored, Higuain and Éver Banega missed for Argentina. All four of Chile’s penalty takers found the net, Aranguiz absolutely smashing it in and Sanchez winning the game with a Panenka. Chile had won an international trophy for the first time in their history at the expense of Argentina and Messi, who had again faltered at the final stage. Chile’s captain Claudio Bravo won the Golden Glove, and Vargas was awarded the Golden Boot for finishing as the top scorer. Chile’s manager Jorge Sampaoli was declared the best manager of the tournament, and the South American manager of the year.

Another Copa America soon followed.

On June 26, 2016, the Copa America Centenario was held in 2016 in celebration of 100 years of the first Copa America. It was held in the United States — the first time the tournament was held outside South America. It also included extra teams from the CONCACAF region. Sampaoli had resigned as manager of Chile before the tournament after a row with the president of the board. Juan Antonio Pizzi was brought in as his replacement.

In a repeat of the 2015 final, it was Chile locking horns with Argentina once more. Both Chile and Argentina had been scoring goals for fun throughout the tournament; Chile had put seven past an impressive Mexico side while Argentina scored four in both their quarter-final and semi-final. Argentina had beaten Chile 2-1 in the group stages, so the match was well set up.

The match was feisty from the get-go; both sides were willing to go for an opponent if the ball was gone. This resulted in a red card for Chilean midfielder Marcelo Diaz in just the 28th minute. Argentine defender Marcos Rojo followed him down the tunnel in the 43rd minute. The match ended 0-0, neither side registering an effort on target over 120 minutes. For the second time in two years, a final between Chile and Argentina was going to penalties.

Arturo Vidal, Man of the Match in the 2015 final, missed the first penalty for Chile. Lionel Messi, Captain Marvelous for Argentina throughout the tournament, missed his spot kick, too, blazing over the bar. The next two penalties were put away by both sides, making the score even at 2-2. Jean Beausejour scored to give Chile the lead, and then Lucas Biglia missed, Bravo saving to his left.

Alexis Sanchez, who scored the winning penalty in the 2015 final, had been substituted off in extra time. The man who replaced him, Francisco Silva, had a chance to emulate him. And emulate he did, scoring emphatically to ensure that Chile retain their title. Argentina’s title draught continued, and Messi announced his retirement from international football amidst tears, while Alexis Sanchez was announced the best player of the tournament.

Given the recent history of impressive performances, most football fans had expected Chile to walk through qualifying rounds. But what transpired in South America left Chile needing a win against Brazil in the final round of matches to ensure that they qualify for the intercontinental play-off against a nation from Oceania.

However, they lost 3-0 as Gabriel Jesus scored a brace for the victors. Peru drew their match against Colo­mbia, and climbed above Chile through to the play-off on goal difference. The defending South Ame­rican champions were kicked out of the World Cup.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 18th, 2018

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