Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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A Brief History of Qualifying 1934-1970

    As everyone knows, the 2002 World Cup will begin on May 31, 2002, at the beautiful Seoul World Cup Stadium, with defending champion France taking on the debutantes from Senegal. Except the 2002 World Cup actually began a long time ago-on March 4, 2000, to be precise, in San Pedro de Sula, Honduras, where the host catrachos defeated Nicaragua 3:0, and in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where the Soca Warriors overwhelmed the visiting Dutch Antilles 5:0. Angus Eve and Arnold Dwarika of Trinidad and Tobago scored two goals apiece, taking an early lead in the Golden Boot competition.

    Of course, I'm talking about the qualifiers. To most of us the World Cup is magnificent stars at the pinnacle of their game (Maradona, Pele, Platini, etc. etc.) or unforgettable confrontations between great teams (Hungary-Brazil 1966, Italy-West Germany 1970, France-Brazil 1986 etc. etc.) or at the very least those 32 (or 24, or 16) teams battling before huge crowds, in beautifully maintained stadiums, in tightly organized group stages and elimination games. But the World Cup is also those lovely, chaotic, from-Tonga-to-Turkmenistan preliminaries: games seen by hundreds, not thousands; games on pitches that resemble sandboxes; games played by dentists, bank tellers, and auto mechanics; games that sometimes don't even take place; international football at bedrock.

    In other words, who needs Brazil-Holland when you can have Namibia-Seychelles-twice? On behalf of those devoted to the qualifiers, who will always know exactly how many goals Uzbekistan have to score against Bahrain in order to edge out Oman to advance to the next round, I'd like to offer a salute to World Cup qualification. This week, it's a brief history of qualifying up to 1970; then an analysis of current qualifying systems.

    There were no qualifiers for Uruguay 1930 - with the tournament half a world away, only four European teams could be persuaded to make the trip at all, and they were joined by seven South American nations, plus Mexico and the USA. But in 1934, with the tournament in Italy, the Europeans decided they wanted in on the act. Twenty-two European nations competed for twelve places. The first ever World Cup qualifying game was held in Stockholm on June 11, 1933, with Sweden rolling over Estonia 6:2. Swedish striker Knut Kroon got the first goal - unless he didn't: some sources score it an own goal to Estonian keeper/captain Eval Tipner. Italy, the host nation, actually had to qualify like everyone else. They won the first game of their home-and-home series with Greece 2:0; the second game wasn't played, and as part of the deal Italy bought a large house in Athens and donated it to the Greek football federation. (Hmm...) Poland lost their opener to Czechoslovakia 1:2, then quit the tournament after the Polish government, citing a border dispute, refused to grant the team visas to go to Prague.

    Back in South America, there were no qualifiers at all. Champion Uruguay snubbed the tournament - possibly in revenge for European neglect four years ago, possibly because they didn't know if they could defend their title - and when Peru and Chile also withdrew, Brazil and Argentina had walkovers. Mexico and the USA were to decide the North American berth, but they couldn't agree on travel arrangements for the deciding series. So both teams flew to Rome and played off only three days before the tournament began. The USA prevailed 4:2, winning the right to be crushed by Italy in the first round. Meanwhile, the first African entry, Egypt, routed Palestine (yes, Palestine!) in a two-game series.

    You'd figure that by France 1938 the qualifiers would be more fully established, but the volatile political situation made things chancy. Outside of Europe there were no games at all. Brazil, Cuba, and the Dutch East Indies got walkovers. (When Argentina withdrew, their fans very sensibly rioted outside the federation offices.) No Africans this time - Egypt was assigned to play Romania, but withdrew. On the European front, Greece, presumably buoyed by their beautiful new headquarters, defeated Palestine twice, advancing to meet Hungary in a two-game series. They lost the first game 11:1, and as in 1934, the second game wasn't played. In compensation, Hungary donated the land for a country club and threw in 3000 pounds of chicken paprikash...yes, I made that up.

    Elsewhere, we saw the first four-team round robin group, comprised of Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Estonia. Starting a notable trend, Germany won the group with ease, winning all three games and outscoring their opponents 11-1; kudos to Georg Siimenson of Estonia for getting the only goal. Siimenson also struck in the second minute against the old enemy Sweden, but after that it was one-way traffic, and the Swedes qualified by finishing second in the group. In the Benelux group, Luxembourg almost pulled off a gigantic upset, leading 2:1 at halftime in their game against Belgium. A victory would almost certainly have put them through, but they went down 2:3, and both Holland and Belgium qualified. Norway edged Ireland for their first qualification-and their last, for 56 years.

    With the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, European entries were way down, and even the winners had second thoughts. The four British federations competed for the first time, the round-robin Home Championship doubling as the qualifiers. England finished first and Scotland second, and both qualified, but Scotland refused to participate, claiming their pride wouldn't let them compete except as British champions. More likely they got a premonition of seven straight first-round exits, and decided not to bother. Turkey also qualified by smashing Syria 7:0 and getting a walkover against Austria, but they too chose to stay home. Luxembourg hung in there again, leading Switzerland 2:1 at halftime and nearly sending their series to a deciding third game, but alas, again went down 2:3. Switzerland thus advanced to meet Belgium who withdrew.

    South American countries were equally obliging: Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador jumped ship, leaving Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, and Bolivia free passes. One slot was earmarked for an Asian team, but Burma, Indonesia, and the Phillipines (you guessed it) withdrew, leaving India master of the field, at least until they decided to skip the tournament as well. Africa didn't even get a chance to refuse. The North Americans covered themselves with glory: Mexico and the USA edged out Cuba, and both actually made the trip.

    By Switzerland 1954, the qualifiers had achieved some semblance of order which wasn't much consolation for Spain. Clear favorites over Turkey, they could only split the two games, and the tiebreaker was drawn 2:2 after extra time. The only thing left was lots, and with El Cid spinning in his grave, Spain lost the draw. The Yugoslavia-Greece-Israel group was a thriller: all six games were scoreless at halftime, and five turned out 1:0. (Greece defeated Israel in a 2:0 goalfest.) Scotland again finished second in the Home Championship, and this time actually decided to compete - you know the rest. By now Luxembourg's glory days were over; they got blasted twice each by France and Ireland, GF/GA 1-19. The Hungarians got a walkover against Poland, the last full walkover in European qualifying history.

    But the South Americans finally decided to play for the privilege of qualifying, although Peru and Bolivia withdrew just to keep in practice. Brazil and Paraguay both qualified out of a three-team group with Chile. In a prophetic matchup, South Korea defeated Japan for the Asian spot, while Mexico began their longtime domination of CONCACAF. Still no group for Africa-Egypt, the only entry, went down to Italy.

    Sweden 1958 was a tournament of firsts. Europe introduced a radical innovation: qualifiers had previously been held on a regional basis, but now some teams were seeded at the top of their groups. So Italy had only Northern Ireland and Portugal to beat which proved too hard. The Irish prevailed 2:1 in the final game, so for the first and only time, Italy missed out in the qualifiers. This was also the first year all Euro groups were double round robins, and the first time in the competition for the USSR and East Germany. (Proving that football imitates life, the USSR hammered Finland 10:0 in Helsinki and went through over Poland on goal difference.) Hungary lost their first qualifying game ever - a shocker to Norway - but qualified anyway.

    South America offered some firsts as well: three qualifying groups, each with a winner determined by real live competition. Venezuela entered and withdrew for the first time, maybe because they were drawn in a group with Brazil. The CONCACAF region welcomed Costa Rica, Guatemala, Canada, and the Dutch Antilles, but as always Mexico qualified. FIFA had hoped for a first with a newly minted Asia/Africa group; what they got was the first mass political boycott. After a couple of interesting preliminary series (China-Indonesia and Sudan-Syria), everyone refused to play Israel. To avoid a complete walkover (so much for time-honored tradition!), FIFA chose an opponent for Israel by lot from the second-place European teams. It turned out to be Wales, who said thank you very much, and had little difficulty taking both games.

    For Chile 1962, Africa finally got its own group-excuse me, sub-group. Morocco needed lots to get by Tunisia, then beat Ghana for real, but all it got them was a playoff with Spain, who drove them out of Madrid for the second time in 900 years (more El Cid lines welcome). Ethiopia also took part, but they were shunted off to play Israel, who dismissed them with ease before being stomped by Italy. South Korea beat Japan again to qualify-oops, sorry! Eight years ago that was worth a spot in the finals, but now it was worth the shaft, in the form of a two-match, one-sided playoff with eventual semifinalist Yugoslavia. This was, in fact, the year of the playoff: for the first of several cycles, goal difference didn't count in the European groups, so teams equal on points had to play an extra game.

    Bulgaria and Switzerland, who would have lost out on goal difference under current rules, knocked out France and Sweden respectively; Czechoslovakia spared Scotland some agony by scoring a tying goal in the 84th minute and winning in extra time. West Germany, of course, didn't need a playoff. But Mexico did, because the CONCACAF winner had to play Paraguay. A win in Mexico City and draw in Asuncion saw the Aztecs through again. South America saw a big surprise - no, Venezuela didn't participate, but Colombia did, and qualified over Peru on their very first try, joining usual suspects Argentina, Uruguay, and champs Brazil.

    Ah, England 1966 - Pele hurting, Eusebio dazzling, Hurst scoring (maybe), and North Korea coming out of nowhere to upset Italy. So how did North Korea get there? Well, FIFA had decided on a joint Asia/Africa group. This was slightly better than the get-rid-of-them-in-a-playoff system of four years ago, but the Africans and Asians didn't see it that way. Seventeen nations withdrew in protest, leaving only the (insert "steadfast" or "unprincipled") North Koreans. FIFA played them off against newcomers Australia in Phnom Penh, of all places, and the Koreans breezed.

    Back in Europe, the playoff rule was still in effect, and Bulgaria took advantage again, finishing behind Belgium on goal difference but winning the game that mattered. With the finals next door, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all had plenty of incentive, but all three finished second in their groups, falling to Italy, the USSR, and Switzerland respectively. Norway had their strongest run in years before losing out to France. Minnows Cyprus, who had gone out in the preliminaries to Israel four years ago, somehow found themselves in a three-team group with West Germany and Sweden. Don't ask. In South America, for the very first time, all 10 nations entered. Brazil again was defending champ, and the rest went according to form, although Ecuador surprised by taking Chile to a playoff. You Know Who outpointed Costa Rica and Jamaica in CONCACAF.

    And so we come to Mexico 1970, and the revolution. FIFA saw the light, or perhaps the potential hole in their pocketbook, and set up separate groups for Africa and Asia/Oceania. There were still a few bugs in the system, of course. "Political considerations" put Rhodesia in the Asia/Oceania group, which was won by Israel, undoubtedly thrilled that someone else was being boycotted for once. Lots were needed for Tunisia and Morocco again (who writes these scripts?), and again the Tunisians came up empty. Morocco then beat Nigeria and Sudan to reach the promised land.

    In South America, Brazil and Uruguay qualified with ease, but nobody in England mourned when Argentina finished last in their group (!) behind Peru and Bolivia. With Mexico hosting, someone else from the region had to qualify, if only by accident, and an accident was very nearly required. El Salvador and Haiti both managed to lose at home in the final showdown, and the playoff went scoreless into extra time before Juan Ramon Martinez of El Salvador got the only goal. (By the way, that's one more goal than the Salvadorans got in their three first-round games in Mexico.)

    In Europe, the big surprise was Romania, qualifying for the first time since 1938. Portugal still had Eusebio, but finished last in Romania's group, behind Greece and Switzerland as well. Bulgaria didn't need a playoff this time, but Czechoslovakia did, defeating Hungary. To save everyone the worry, Scotland got drawn with West Germany. So did Cyprus again, and lost only 0:1 at home, making it unfair to add that they lost 10:0 in Essen and finished with 2 goals for and 35 against. And to close out our survey of the first four decades of World Cup qualifying, we note that the Ireland-Denmark game in Dublin had to be abandoned in the 50th minute because of fog. The replay took place ten months later, with both teams already eliminated, and duly ended in a draw.

    Why stop at 1970? No reason, really, except to take a break from history. We'll look at the last 30 years in a later column. Next time we'll look at qualifying systems: which are the fairest, the most exciting, the most absurd (hint: think Australia-American Samoa)? And to close with a few trivia questions-answers next week:

1) Name the European team that went through a double round-robin qualifying group without allowing a single goal-and still failed to qualify.

2) Luxembourg has given up more goals in qualifiers than any other team. Who is second?

3) Name the team that got its first World Cup qualifying point this year, after 18 straight losses.



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