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 1974-2002

    A few columns ago we traced the history of World Cup qualifying to 1970; this time we'll continue the story to the present day. But I've managed to dig up one more fact about the Mexico 1970 qualifiers, so let's start there. In the previous column we noted that Morocco defeated Tunisia by lots in 1962, and then again in 1970. Remarkable enough, but it turns out that 1970 was actually the third time Morocco had ousted Tunisia by a game of chance: the same thing had happened in qualifying for the 1968 Olympics. The 1970 win was literally by a coin toss, and the Tunisians, understandably bonkers by now, actually sent films of the toss to FIFA in an attempt to prove the whole thing was rigged. No satisfaction there, but if you're a Tunisian fan, skip to the account of 1978.

    On to West Germany 1974, and one of the most bizarre events in the history of World Cup qualifying. For the first time ever, a European team had to play off against a South American team for a place. The contestants were the USSR and Chile. The first game was uneventful, a 0:0 draw in Moscow, but the second game…Well, it was scheduled for the National Stadium in Santiago, but the Soviets boycotted (something about Allende and Pinochet, and the fact that left-wing prisoners had been executed in the stadium). So on the afternoon of November 21, 1973, before 40,000 bemused fans, the Chileans, in full uniform, kicked off against a non-existent opponent. They advanced tentatively but without hindrance toward the Soviet goal, passing the ball nine times, until their captain shot from maybe six inches into the unattended net. Chile qualified. (You can actually see the match in its entirety on a great video called World Cup Bloopers.)

    Elsewhere, things were relatively normal, if you discount the fact that Belgium didn't allow a goal in all 6 games but still lost out to Holland on goal difference. Thanks to a criminally easy draw (Turkey, Switzerland, Luxembourg), Italy didn't allow a goal in 6 games either. A couple of firsts: East Germany qualified, edging Romania, and England didn't, eliminated by Poland. In an attempt to cut down on playoffs, teams tied on points were separated by goal difference, but it didn't work. Sweden/Austria and Yugoslavia/Spain were both tied on points and goal difference, and the Swedes and Yugoslavs advanced in the tiebreaking games. Uruguay and Argentina won their groups as usual, joining champs Brazil, and you know about Chile.

    Extra, Extra From CONCACAF: Mexico Ousted In Qualifiers! Haiti got the spot, which just might have been because the final 6-team group was held in Port-au-Prince. In the Haiti-Trinidad & Tobago game, the Salvadoran referee, undoubtedly thinking about the pins the fans were just about to stick in his effigy, disallowed no less than 4 goals by the visitors. He was later suspended, but undoubtedly felt he came out ahead.

    The Africans entered a record 24 nations, more than twice as many as ever before; Zaire at one point needed a playoff to get by Cameroon, then bested Zambia and Morocco in the final group. The Moroccans, already eliminated, refused to play the final game against Zaire, perhaps because there was no coin flip involved. The most remarkable thing about the Asian zone was that South Vietnam, in the middle of a war, actually entered a team. But also remarkable was that for the first and only time, Australia qualified, after a group win over New Zealand, Iraq, and Indonesia, a home-and-away victory over Iran, and a final home-and-away victory over South Korea. If only it were so easy today.

    Now to 1978, and the saga of Bolivia. Because Argentina was at home, South American berths were scarce, and the confederation devised an elaborate system to allot the 2 1/2 places available. In their preliminary group, Bolivia shocked Uruguay, giving them a spot in a final three-team round robin. Their opponents were Brazil and Peru, and they were totally outclassed, losing 0:8 and 0:5. But like Chile in 1974, they still had the right to a playoff with a European team for the last berth. Like Chile, too, they drew an Eastern bloc opponent: Hungary, who promptly drubbed them 6:0 in Budapest. So 0:19 for three games, and their only hope was that Hungary would remember Bolivia had executed Che Guevara back in 1967, and boycott like the USSR. But the forgetful Hungarians made the trip to La Paz, and Bolivia wouldn't qualify for 16 more years.

    In Europe, England failed again, going down on goal difference to Italy (tough draw this time), and East Germany fell a point short to Austria. Holland and Belgium were in the same group yet again, but this time the Dutch won easily. France, led by a youngster named Platini, qualified for the first time in 12 years. Never-say-die Scotland got what is kindly called a "controversial" penalty to oust Wales, but of course all it got them was their frequent-flyer round-trip ticket. In CONCACAF, Mexico got wise and wangled the final group at home this time, racking up 5 straight wins to get back to the finals. Iran took the Asian berth with relative ease.

    And now it was time for The Revenge of the Tunisians. In the very first round of the African qualifiers, they were matched once again with Morocco in a home-and-away knockout. The first game was drawn 1:1. The second game was drawn 1:1. The Moroccans, smiling, pulled out their very special coin, and prepared for the favorable toss. But while they weren't looking, the rules had been changed, and Tunisia became the very first team in World Cup history to advance on penalty kicks. As an afterthought, they defeated Algeria, Egypt, and Nigeria to get the berth.

    Spain 1982, and the 8 additional spots wreaked havoc with the qualifiers. Several confederations allowed first and second place teams to qualify, and the result was a field day for conspiracy theorists. In Asia/Oceania, Kuwait won the group with ease, but New Zealand needed to beat Saudi Arabia on the road by 5 clear goals to reach a playoff with China. Six herds of sheep, a complete set of Kiri te Kanawa LPs, and an autographed baby picture of Lucy Lawless later, they won exactly 5:0. Needless to say, they won the playoff as well.

    Europe also bristled with suspect scenarios. Exhibit A: the USSR had already clinched a berth when they travelled to Czechoslovakia for the final game, but the Czechs needed a draw to outpoint Wales. The Czechs got the draw. Exhibit B: Hungary had already clinched a berth when they travelled to England for the final game, but England needed a draw to outpoint Romania. England scored early and won 1:0. And Exhibit C: West Germany and Austria qualified from the same group. Oh, right, nothing suspicious there: the teams waited until Spain to rig a result to stiff Algeria. In a nice non-conspiratorial surprise, Northern Ireland finished second to Scotland for their first berth in 24 years (guess which of the two advanced in Spain?). And Belgium and Holland found themselves together for the zillionth consecutive cycle, this time in one of the most closely contested qualifying groups in European history. Final point standings: Belgium 11, France 11, Ireland 10, Holland 9. (And Cyprus 0.)

    No weirdness in South America: Brazil, Peru, and Chile qualified without any fuss. In CONCACAF, Honduras got to host this time, and (hard to believe!) finished top of the group. But now two berths were available, and the Salvadorans, last seen going goalless in 1970, somehow managed to finish ahead of Mexico despite scoring only two goals in five games. It remains the lowest goal-per-game ratio ever for a successful final group stage qualifier. In accordance with the old African saying, "what goes around comes around," it was Tunisia's turn to lose on penalties, done in by Nigeria. But Nigeria fell at the final hurdle to Algeria, who got a goal by some guy named Zidane, and Cameroon beat Morocco for the other berth, getting two goals by some guy named Milla.

    Back to Mexico for 1986, and to the relief of all, Belgium and Holland were drawn in separate groups. Except they were both drawn in 4-team groups, and if you finished second in a 4-team group, you had to go to a playoff somewhere, and both Belgium and Holland finished second, and…oh, why bother anymore? Georges Grun got the killer road goal in the 84th minute in Rotterdam. Conspiracy time again: going into the final game England had already qualified, but Northern Ireland needed a point at England to get by Romania. You can guess the result, but at least the Irish had beaten Romania twice in group play. No sweetness and light among the other two Home Countries: Scotland denied Wales on yet another penalty, and went on to beat Australia in a playoff. (I'm out of Scots jokes.) The dynamic Danes qualified for the very first time, and Portugal got a stunning road win against West Germany to slip by Sweden for the second spot in their group.

    In South America, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay all won their groups. Old hat, right? Believe it or not, it had never happened before; in all the past tournaments someone had a free pass or someone failed to qualify. Paraguay won the repechage to go through for the first time in 28 years. Farther north, CONCACAF finally figured out that this home-team business was a bit shady, and the final three teams played a normal double round robin. A shame, really, since it prevented those rabid, passionate, over-the-top Canadian fans from intimidating the opposition. Canada qualified anyway, distracting their opponents with repeated cries of "two minutes for roughing!"

    In Africa, favorites Algeria needed an 87th minute goal to eliminate Angola, then manhandled Tunisia in the final round. Morocco put away their coin collection and took up stamps, beating upstart Liberia for the other spot. Asia very sensibly decided upon separate berths for the Middle East and the Far East. But Iran and Iraq were at war, and the confederation insisted they play all their home matches on neutral ground. Iran balked and were disqualified; Iraq said OK, why not, then played "home" matches in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and even India, and still qualified. In the other half of the draw, South Korea started their current qualifying streak, beating (who else?) Japan in the final round.

    Italy 1990 is famous as The Dullest World Cup Ever; in the qualifiers, though, it was The Year of the Scandal. Going into the final game of their group, Chile and Brazil were even on points, with Brazil ahead on goal difference. Chile needed a win at Brazil, but were trailing 1:0 when the Chilean goalkeeper, Roberto Rojas, suddenly collapsed, bleeding from the face. It appeared he'd been injured by something thrown from the stands. The game was abandoned, and it looked like trouble for Brazil -- until it was discovered that Rojas had faked the assault and cut himself deliberately. Brazil was awarded the game, Rojas was banned for life, and Chile was kicked out of the next World Cup as well.

    Fraud north of the equator as well: Mexico had been banned for fielding overage players in a FIFA youth tournament. Rumor had it that the ban was imposed to give a mediocre USA team a chance to qualify for the first time in 40 years; if so, it worked. Getting a road win against Trinidad and Tobago in the final game, they slipped into second and qualified along with debutantes Costa Rica.

    In Europe the only scandal was that Germany almost failed to qualify. A surprise draw at Wales left them second behind Holland, but two second place finishers from the 4-team groups went through that year, and they turned out to be Germany and England, with Denmark just missing out. Another surprise was two-time semifinalist France, who couldn't even finish second this time, and had to watch Yugoslavia and (gulp!) Scotland go through ahead of them. Jackie Charlton's Ireland, with a long-ball style better suited to 1890 than 1990, qualified as second in their group, behind Spain. Belgium had already clinched a spot, so it didn't bother them that they only got a 1:1 draw (at home!) to Luxembourg.

    In Africa, Tunisia won a thrilling 4-team semifinal group with a final-game win over Zambia (Morocco, now reduced to model trains, finished last), but fell to Cameroon in the final round. Liberia again made a run at it, but late failures at Kenya and Malawi left Egypt top of the group, and they beat Algeria to qualify for the first time in a mere 56 years. Iran and Iraq had stopped fighting, but neither made it out of their preliminary groups this time. Asia came up with a 6-team final round robin, and on the final dramatic day, China, who with a win might have qualified, fell to Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates got a point against leaders South Korea to share the two spots. Israel got assigned to Oceania this time (well, the Mediterranean's pretty big), and won the group with a key draw at Sydney; too bad Colombia got the only goal of their two-game playoff.

    For USA 1994, Asia again went with the 6-team group, and it produced one of the most exciting finishes in World Cup history. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Japan met in a single round robin in Qatar, and going into the final day all but North Korea had a chance to qualify. Saudi Arabia defeated Iran in a crazy 4:3 to take first place; Japan was only moments away from going through, but an injury time equalizer to Iraq gave the spot to (all together now) South Korea, who had beaten the North seconds before.

    Another devastating injury time goal came in Paris: Emil Kostadinov put Bulgaria in and France out, and sauces were spilled all over the stadium. Two other European surprises: Norway (first time since 1938) and Greece (first time ever) both won their qualifying groups, with Holland and Russia going through in the second places. England, third behind Holland, got left out entirely. Spain and Ireland were one-two in a group for the second straight year, Spain eliminating the Danes in the final game. Belgium got a scoreless draw on the last day against the Czechs, and quietly qualified for the fourth straight time. And great news for Cyprus: the Faeroe Islands debuted in their group, losing all 10 games, GF/GA 1-38 -- but let the record show the one goal came against the Cypriots.

    In South America, it was time for the big boys to suffer -- but not too much. Bolivia handed Brazil their very first qualifying loss ever, but the Brazilians still topped the group with ease, the Bolivians qualifying as well. Argentina was nailed with their all-time worst home disaster: 0:5 to Colombia! But Peru fell 9 minutes short of a win against Paraguay, so Argentina finished second, entitling them to a playoff with the winner of Oceania/2d place CONCACAF. No fair for the Socceroos, who thus had to win two playoffs to qualify: they nipped Canada on penalty kicks, but Argentina was a bit too much. Mexico had fallen behind the Canadians in their decisive game, but got the last two goals and went through.

    Joy in Africa: the confederation got a third qualifying spot. But tragedy, too: the Zambian national team was killed in a plane crash. And near triumph: the Zambian second-stringers came oh-so-close to qualifying, losing by a goal to Morocco in the group decider. South Africa, banned for decades for apartheid, was allowed in the competition for the first time, on a late entry after Sao Tome e Principe (never heard of it? try had withdrawn. They went out in the first round to Nigeria, who eventually qualified for the very first time. Cameroon made it three out of four.

    Two changes for France 1998: 8 new berths in the finals, and, for the first time in the qualifiers, three points for a win. In Europe's new system, only first-place teams qualified (and the best second-place team -- hurrah for Scotland!); the other second-placers went to knockout playoffs. England went through in a classic finish, holding Italy scoreless in Rome to take first place; the Italians then beat Russia to qualify. Last year's surprises had mixed results: Greece finished third behind Denmark and Croatia, and was eliminated; Norway, on the other hand, breezed over Hungary.

    Top marks to the Romanians, who, faced with a weak group (Ireland, Lithuania, Macedonia, Iceland, Liechtenstein), won 9, drew 1, GF/GA 37-4, and lapped the field by an amazing 10 points. After 8 blissful years off, we got Holland and Belgium together again: the Dutch took the group with a decisive win in Rotterdam, but Belgium made it five in a row, beating Ireland in their playoff. The Faeroes moved up in class, defeating Malta twice for a solid fifth place in their group. And cheers for Finland, who for only the second time in 14 qualifying attempts managed an even score, in the process beating both Switzerland and Azerbaijan on the road.

    With Brazil getting a free pass, South America reorganized with a mammoth double round-robin, all nine teams in the same group, the top four to qualify. They wound up with nineteen months of boredom. Argentina, Paraguay, and Colombia took the first three spots with ease; Chile managed to avoid self-inflicted injuries, and scored nine more goals than anyone else in the tournament, but still needed a last-day win to stagger into the fourth spot. CONCACAF reorganized too, so Jamaica had to play no less than 20 games before qualifying as third place in a final group of 6. (In a feat of near-Salvadoran proportions, they went through despite scoring only 7 goals in their final 10 games.) No surprise that Mexico and the USA got the top two berths.

    Over in Africa, reorganization left the confederation with 5 seeded groups of 5, possibly to prevent Morocco and Tunisia from coming anywhere near each other. Both won their groups and qualified, as did regulars Nigeria and Cameroon, and an emerging South Africa. Asia had to junk their wonderful final-round group for two groups of 5, but what they came up with worked pretty well, especially for Japan. For the 6,453rd time, they finished behind South Korea. But second place was worth a playoff against Iran, whom they beat with a goal in the 119th minute (whew!). Saudi Arabia topped the other group, despite a goal difference of only +2 in 8 games. And in the final game of the qualifying season, Iran broke whatever was left of Australian hearts with two late goals in Melbourne.

    We come at last to Korea/Japan 2002, and I don't have to tell you much about the qualifiers. Germany and Brazil almost didn't make it; Senegal, Slovenia, and China did; Andorra didn't; etc., etc., etc. You've lived through it yourself, and if for some bizarre reason you weren't paying close attention, you can get all the details right here on this web site. But before we go, let's salute some notable accomplishments. Belgium successfully went through qualifying without a free pass or a walkover for the sixth consecutive World Cup, the only team ever to do so. (An asterisk for Italy here: they qualified six straight times from 1962-82, but got a partial walkover in 1962, needing only to beat Israel to go through.) Cameroon made it for the fourth straight time and fifth overall, both African records. After 40 years, Venezuela finally made it out of the minnow class, winning four of their last five games to finish 9th out of 10, ahead of Chile.

    But let's save the final word for Spain. If you're a World Cup fan, you know Spain as the classic underachievers. But that's only because you've been watching the finals instead of the qualifiers. Since 1982, second-place teams in European groups have been eligible to qualify, but for a Spaniard that's the dishonorable way to do it. In 1982 they had a free pass, but since then -- 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 -- they've finished first in their group every time, the only team in the world to do so. Now backtrack to 1978, and you'll find they won their group as well. And again to 1974, where they finished dead even with Yugoslavia on points and goal difference, but would have won the group under current tiebreaking rules (more goals scored). If you count 1974, and I do, that means Spain has finished first in round-robin qualifiers an incredible seven straight times. The only other European team to do so is Germany, and since the German streak isn't current, Spain will be going for the record all by themselves in 2006. Watch for it!



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