Only truly formed as a nation in the midst of early-1990s Yugoslav dissolution and departmentisation, Croatia has defied its turbulent history, geographical dwarfism and cultural reformation in equal measure throughout its formative existence; on both political and sporting fronts. Certainly, an unexpected 1998 World Cup third-place result contributed to this status, as on face value has the global diaspora of its gilded footballing ilk – Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Perišić, Ivan Rakitić, Šime Vrsaljiko, Mateo Kovačić and Nicola Kalinić currently included – yet it remains fact that the nation’s international impact is by no means limited to mere fortune or sheer determination. In the week of their draw, alongside previously vanquished English and Spanish contemporaries, in League A’s three-team Group 4 of the revolutionary UEFA Nations League arrangement, after all, there was little complacency demonstrated towards their challenge by media and fans alike in two former World Cup-winning, and socio-economically superior, Western European nations. In exploring their claim for what will be an extremely culturally poignant tournament this summer, hosted in the region that exerted such callous decree over its past governance, we must then delve deeper within the framework of Hrvatski nogometni savez (HNS, or Croatian Football Federation) and Republika Hrvatska itself; immersing ourselves in the very circumstances in which a nationalistically devout population forged its own destiny.
Etched eternally within Croatia’s folklore is the cultural prevalence of nogomet (football), and wider sport; 10% of native Croats recorded as partaking regularly in at least one such form of the national trades, predominantly football, with around 118,000 registered practitioners, but also increasingly tennis, athletics, rowing, swimming, water polo, basketball, handball and any conceivable range of winter sports. For a nation consisting only of the relative land mass of impoverished Togo or desolate Svalbard, featuring a population both in decline and above only the micro nations of Luxembourg, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra and Liechtenstein in terms of Central and Western European nations, and armoured with a nominal GDP inferior to Guatemala, Myanmar and the Dominican Republic, they are certainly unlikely global challengers. Yet while emerging as a truly international economy in the past decade, with particular prowess in its tourist and shipbuilding industries, their sporting representatives have again profited in sustaining competition with their socio-economically superior near neighbours. Since its inception as an Olympic nation, for example, teams under the Croatian flag have achieved 33 summer medals, and, on the verge of the PyeongChang Games, 11 winter medals; five more in the first respect than the renowned sporting fervour of India, one more than the populated ranks of Indonesia and four more than Egypt, and in the latter more than most other temporarily-iced nations other than Australia, the UK and arguably the Netherlands. Little further basic evidence can be employed to assert the conclusion that their sporting programmes are equally well-funded, efficient and sustainable in their common practices.
This was not always the case, however. Formed, unofficially, all the way back in 1907 with the establishment of local clubs and formation of agreed rules, the HNS, as it would become known from 1990, was the product of ethnic oppression and wartime relief. English workers had introduced the sport as early as 1873 – prior even to the formation of all but seven current ’92 club’ teams in England – to large-scale industrial project employees, in much the same vein in which effective unions would have been drawing up designs for their own sporting clubs in the Industrial Revolution’s key metropoles. Subsequently, as the Croat ethnic region was first within Austro-Hungarian Empire borders before World War One, and after the brief respite of partial democracy in the pan-Slavic State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs of late 1918 – in which the national team had the reprise to compete in a selection of internal matches – the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, initially titled the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, until 1941, the nation’s residual footballing verve was tempered by these amalgamated, and culturally unsympathetic, monarchical regimes. If the Karađorđević dynasty’s reign had been oppressive, however, the Yugoslav brand of ethnopolitics would only be further hijacked by dictator Josip Broz Tito after the atrocities – of both human and infrastructural cost – of World War Two’s Nazi occupation, and the civil divisions between Allied-backed Partisans and Nazi-sympathising Chetniks. Committed on both sides to ethnic purges, Tito’s Partisans eventually emerged as the reformist successors to a deposed monarchy by 1945, having already proclaimed power in late 1943 with the democratic intention of asserting each constituent region’s equality, as opposed to preceding Serb dominance. As such, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia assumed totalitarian control of the nation, in comparison with the altogether ineffective power they hosted in pre-war constitutional monarchy circumstances.
Fundamentally, however, Croatia had acted at the forefront of all Yugoslav football prior to this diversion in their political history. The conurbations of Zagreb and Split had acted as ethnically aligned adversaries on a hex-national stage; alone achieving a respective eight and two Yugoslav First League titles from the division’s inception in 1923 to 1940 in the forms of HŠK Građanski Zagreb, Concordia Zagreb, HAŠK Zagreb and Hajduk Split, and hosting the conception of the Football Association of Yugoslavia in 1919 before Zagreb and Split’s regional subassociations soon became the first in the state months later. Yet for all of their domestic expertise, these formative Croats did not achieve international recognition; the members of the Yugoslav 1930 World Cup squad entirely omitting the talents of Hadjuk’s Leo Lemešić, Vladimir Kragić and Ljubo Benčić or indeed Zagreb’s Danijel Premerl, Dragutin Babić and Gustav Lechner after the Croats boycotted the association, which had moved itself to Belgrade a year earlier in a defiant demonstration of Serbian allegiances.
Similarly perturbed by Tito’s regime as Concordia, Građanski and HAŠK were each dissolved and consumed, most prominently in Građanski’s case, by the newly-formed Dinamo Zagreb in 1945, Croatian football had lost both its foremost institutions and genuine autonomous national team; one that had played both four matches as the Banovina of Croatia in 1941, and 15 matches as the Independent State of Croatia between 1942 and ’45. Eventually, the proud nation’s population would not tolerate such cultural oppression, but not decisively until the dictator’s 1980 death. In the preceding period, meanwhile, a first decade of the democratically unified First League featured five Serbs and five Croats in its list of historic champions, while the amalgamation of Zagreb’s various outfits largely benefited their overall competition, considering their triple title accomplishment between 1950 and 1955, while striker Franjo Wölfl starred in Dinamo’s state-fostered exploits. But this compliance is exactly as the socialist regime prised in football; such a fundamental Croatian cultural outlet. Whether they were so perceptive to realise the true gravity of their intervention is debatable, but they certainly valued the reform of the sport upon their true assumption of unargued influence. Manipulation, as also evident in the era on foreign policy as both Soviet and American establishments were pitted against one another by the irrepressible Tito for Yugoslav favour, was a critical aspect of the Eastern European behemoth’s regime, and despite oppressing Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Bosnians and Macedonians alike, enabled their communal cause to seize with pride a prominent position on the global political table.
After Dinamo reasserted their dominance within the vicinity with a 1957-58 title, and represented the state in only the third ever European Cup competition – although losing in the Preliminary Round to Czechoslovakian opponents Dukla Prague, the state’s dominant Army-backed side – however, Croatian pre-eminence would soon subside dramatically. Previously comprising of three sides, typically, amongst a 12-club First League structure, the internal republic’s struggle would consist on an almost perennial status of the dogged Lokomotiva Zagreb – a formerly minor side in the city before the three key clubs had been amalgamated in 1945 – or later NK Rijeka staving off relegation by a few points during the 1950s. With the advent of the ‘60s, however, entered NSK Split and NK Trešnjevka as divisional Second League champions, and although they both soon returned from whence they came, their fellow Croats were at the time blunted. Throughout the decade’s entire span, not once did they rival the Serb occupation of league silverware – with four Yugoslav Cup scalps comparatively negligible, given the scarcity of national success in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup – as the infamous Red Star-Partizan Belgrade rivalry rose to consume the entire Yugoslav state. 1965-66 and ’66-67 aside, in which the semi-autonomous Serb region of Vojvodina and Bosnia’s FK Sarajevo temporarily swooped, nobody defied the often-violent exchange of authority in the Socialist Federal Republic’s capital. Considering Dinamo’s status more as a challenger often in close proximity, but without true conviction, throughout this era, it was perhaps a surprise than Hajduk would be the first side to break this spell in 1970-71 with 29-year-old talisman Petar Nadoveza’s goals, alongside a productive younger generation in support, firing them to glory; a title that would be followed by a further three, and five consecutive Yugoslav Cups, in the 1970s, controversially in the midst of the 1971 Croatian Spring and ongoing political disputes centred on nationalistic demand, threatening the entire socialist ideology’s continuation. After Tito’s 1980 death, and the increasing national disenfranchisement from Communism, Hajduk’s ambitions were reduced to continental qualification and Dinamo returned to take the 1981-82 title, yet as the inevitable violent dissolution unfolded, Croatian capability yet again took a backseat to the politically frothing Belgrade conflict; often literal, both on and off the pitch.
Upon the eventual ’91 dissolution and nationalistic fragmentation of the state, and the emergence of a generation comprising chiefly of Davor Šuker, Slaven Bilić, Robert Prosinečki, Robert Jarni and Zvonimir Boban, finally Croatia’s talents would be granted a liberated flag and repute under which pride would not have to be fabricated. Emerging from adversity, particularly amidst the 1991-94 Croatian War of Independence, as Serbian forces relentlessly engaged in futile and bitter conflict, the formative nation first took to the international stage in 1996 after, as is now forged in football’s greatest romanticisms, the Yugoslav team that had been ousted at the quarter-final stage of Italia ’90 was removed by UEFA for Euro 1992 and replaced by the eventually victorious Danish, and all post-Yugoslav nations were prohibited from 1994 qualification. Šuker was, of course, one of the main protagonists of the tournament in England that summer, and led his nation’s formative cause to the quarter-final with a characteristic aplomb that would come to typify all future exploits.
The formation of such a heralded nucleus of individuals, of course, was no mere coincidence. Their 1998 World Cup performance, with qualification only earlier assured by one point over Adriatic adversaries Greece in a group coincidentally containing both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Slovenia and in a 3-1 play-off elimination of Ukraine, need not have been astounding had it not been for the social melodrama acting as its catalyst. In a group, again by sheer coincidence, with the tournament’s only other World Cup debutants in Japan and Jamaica, they emerged with six points, only a 1-0 defeat to 1986 victors Argentina and great credit before removing the fearsome Romanians – complete with Steaua București alumni Gheorghe Hagi, Dan Petrescu, Adrian Ilie, Gheorghe Popescu and Ilie Dumitrescu – and menacing, yet ageing, unified Germans from the equation at RO16 and QF stages, with goals on the stroke of half-time pivotal on each occasion. Though no match, even against ten men after Laurent Blanc’s debatable sending-off, for the French in front of 76,000 in Saint-Denis, their resolute 2-1 victory over a Dutch threat cruelly quelled by the Brazilians on semi-final penalties and boasting Messrs Kluivert, Bergkamp, de Boer, Stam, Overmars, Seedorf, Bogarde, van der Sar and David, was nothing short of spectacular.
Former Rijeka, Dinamo and Switzerland boss Miroslav Blažević – intrinsically politically conscious, bespectacled, often with a thinly-rolled cigarette in close supply and typically pictured in one of any two expressions within his capability, sly gregariousness or sage supervision – had performed pragmatic tactical manoeuvres at both tournaments. Upsetting the rhetoric of all 1998 challengers with a form of 3-4-3, or 3-4-2-1 as Šuker formed a trinity ahead of both Prosinečki and Boban, his managerial poise of flexibility and defiance in equal measure in approach to both tactics and squad cohesion forged the national affection he is afforded still to this day. In an age where public unity was nothing without sagacious leadership, and nobody could foresee the future, his ilk was critical to the survival of patriotic order. I sincerely doubt that his squad would have turned on another manager without some of such adeptly held skills – their positions, after all, were as volatile as any in a post-Yugoslav perspective – yet little of the late ‘90s’ acclaim would have been otherwise possible in Blažević’s absence.
Through the turbulence – thankfully only sporting, not political – since, we have observed as external onlookers the limitations and advantages of the HNS programme. Often a given in the analysis of Croatian exploits are the remnants of a characteristic unbounded playing ability; Šuker and Prosinečki, particularly, laying the gauntlet for Ivica Olić, Darijo Srna, Niko Kranjčar and now especially Modrić, who have flourished perhaps not to the same astounding extents, but certainly in the context of their tutelage. As Bilić handed the managerial reigns over to former centre-back partner Igor Štimac, and Šuker assumed the role of HNS president after Vlatko Marković’s death ended a 14-year tenure, after all, a generation of Croatians were entering the fray who were born not as Yugoslavs, but liberated; Vrsaljko, the Austrian-born Kovačić, Ante Rebić and Marcelo Brozović notably amongst their number. Niko Kovač, captain in the mid-to-late 2000s, had perhaps not been afforded the true extent of time it may have required to forge a coherent side during and after the 2014 World Cup after arriving with such expectation, but with the 2015 appointment of well-travelled and acutely experienced Ante Čačić, fortunes were reversed for an emphatic Euro 2016 performance memorably featuring a 2-1 victory against Vicente del Bosque’s seemingly resurgent Spain. And so, with Čačić ejected and Zlatko Dalić recruited to salvage 2018 qualifying from defeats to the Icelandic and Turkish, the eternal conundrum in Croatian culture unfolds; volatility in management equating paradoxically to continued international prowess.
It appears only as natural as the glistening aqua and picturesque orange-hued rooftops of the resorts’ coastline that the Adriatic jewel should possess such a volatile and hypercritical managerial environment. Not least for a throne as gilded in heretics as the HNS hot seat, a definitive aura must exude of overt suitability prior to recruitment, and for this to also prove a discontinuing factor to a prospective tenure only 18 months down the line can only strike the British observer as hypocritical, and forsaken only to regress. Yet this culture can also act in many beneficial manners, certainly if we cast aside such aforementioned cynicisms. Balkan cultural perspective is entirely askew in comparison with its British contemporary, and insofar as ten qualifications from twelve preliminary campaigns – resulting in a status since 1994 as Europe’s seventh best, and highest non-World Cup or European Championship winning, qualifiers, following Italy and the Netherlands’ recent mishaps – can communicate, their interpretation has enabled various generations to progress and attain tangible ambitions on a stable and prestigious foothold.
That attainment, however, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Only escaping the Group Stage of two tournaments since ’98 in a nervy quarter-final penalty defeat to Turkey in 2008 and similarly late RO16 exit in extra time against eventual tournament victors Portugal in 2016, national ability, many argue, cannot now sustain a reputation on glories twenty years entrenched in history. Sooner or later, the sentiment continues, a rousing consistency must be achieved in the unenviable and entirely incomparable environment of tournament football. Preferably, this would materialise in Russia, and in response the HNS has, on face value, changed tact decisively. In the midst of a largely creditable eleven-year spell that consisted entirely of former Vatreni representatives in Zlatko Kranjčar, Bilić, Štimac and Kovač’s respective regimes, Šuker, as president, evidently took an intervening stance that can differ in its popular interpretations. In selecting Čačić – a 30-year veteran of Croatian football, solely from a coaching perspective – and more recently Dalić – a Hajduk product who only ever made nine senior league matches before plying the majority of his trade with mid-table Varteks – he has not only demonstrated that he prefers polysyllabic, accented surnames, but that the previously fundamental experience offered by such eminent former playing figures is no longer relevant in a brave move to shirk his clique of ex-teammates. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a form of retreat in the gradual ageing of what some observe as a second ‘golden generation’, approaching coaches more akin to Blažević; an uninspiring player never amounting to Yugoslav representation at the turn of the 1960s, and under whom he personally had so much fulfilment. Either way, this is perhaps the last chance of Šuker’s hand available prior to the irretrievable expiration of 32-year-old Modrić, 28-year-olds Perišić and Domagoj Vida, 29-year-old Rakitić, 31-year-old Mandžukić, 30-year old Kalinić and 33-year-old Danijel Subašić’s viable international careers; a proposition only exacerbated by 2016’s departure of the 134-time capped Srna.
These are by no means weaning talents at present, but in impending years their powers could rapidly diminish. Resistance, as the adage goes, is futile and the regrets insurmountable if the HNS governance proves itself incapable of accomplishing something special with such superfluous ingenuity, guile and composure. If not then able to arrest this regression, the only logical solution is to entrust a potentially final regime and reform with their aspirations. Yet if employing the other relevant modern circumstances of the Vatreni, the expectations cannot be for Dalić to prolong his tenure beyond 18 months and establish a significant rapport with the aforementioned senior players, especially considering the limited exposure international managers are granted with their squad. Thus, former Rijeka, Al-Hilal and Al-Ain boss Dalić must attempt to convert the momentum already established from a 2-0 qualifying win over Ukraine and subsequent 4-1 play-off demolition of Greece into serious intent, and harness the confidence seething from his La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga-based patrons. Posing them in Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov-on-Don this summer, after all, are Nigeria, Argentina, and by a curious twist of fate Iceland, respectively; the former duo arguably the continental subsidiaries to regional kingpins Egypt and Brazil, while the latter has little fear in imposing its influence on an unprecedented environment.
In many respects, Šuker’s decision has been admirable. Certainly, the nation’s focus cannot any longer be on recapturing the spirit of ’98, but instead forging their own destiny without such a burdensome shadow cast over their efforts. The appointment of Olić, the nation’s first tri-league victor after titles with Dinamo, CSKA Moscow and Bayern Munich, as well as a veteran of the side that condemned Steve McLaren to the sack in 2007, as assistant counterbalances this pursuit of a less institutionalised, and perhaps less emotionally attached, managerial future. Whether such a balance can produce the desired results is entirely shrouded in secrecy at this stage. But the building blocks are in place.
Amongst a diaspora of coaching ability that has comprised England, Italy, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Greece and Belgium this season – to title-bound extents in both Poland and Belgium, it must be noted, in the form of a tussle between Romeo Jozak’s Legia Warsaw and Nenad Bjelica’s Lech Poznan, and Ivan Leko’s Club Brugge – is an array of former national team players and career coaches that many nations would greatly prise. Bilić and Kovač aside, none of the remaining seven in these domestic top-flight competitions alone have been Vatreni boss before, and when supported by the products of their native First Football League, where presently eight of ten managers are indeed Croats and the Dinamo-Hajduk rivalry is fully alive under the stewardship of 42-year-old Mario Cvitanović and 40-year-old Željko Kopić, poetically a former international and bit-part player respectively, the HNS’s coaching programme has good reason to believe its values are currently effective. Removing the burden of inevitable national team management for former players with the progression of a vast array of such coaches, and finally carving out a systematic Croatian footballing identity over the past two decades, fundamental aspects have been positioned to keep pace with larger and more materially privileged nations.
Finally also transferring this coherency to youth squads, the HNS programme has in its sights a first European Under-21 Championships qualification since 2004 with their current diverse and prodigious 2019-bound squad under the tutelage of highly experienced boss Nenad Gračan – forward Josip Brekalo a particular beneficiary of this system. Although by no means a pre-requisite to future exploits, the sheer presence of these factors should at least assure a viable, and perhaps brighter, future with a much greater diversity of talent within the hallowed senior ranks. Not that this will be of particular short-term solace to the Croatian public if a Modrić-led vanguard do not dispose of doggedly persistent Icelandic opposition or a hopeful, but altogether inexperienced, Nigerian generation in Group D this summer, before potentially presenting nigh-on certain Group C victors France with a considerable RO16 challenge. This is the very least expected of a regiment of such blatant ability, and captures every intrinsic demand of the minor Balkan state. They may be grateful, to an extent, for the opportunity and exposure, but by no means see it as anything but a cultural entitlement. And who can resent them for it? A nation with its ardent population universally dispersed, and equally with grand designs to exploit this; what better formula for footballing theatre? On the inherently profound scale of the World Cup, none that I know of…
Season after season, decade after decade and generation by generation, prodigious talents fall through the metaphorical cracks of elite-level, often even professional football. It is an inevitable tragedy, perhaps, and a feature of the sport only exacerbated by the refined selectivity of modern tendencies. Yet these are individuals within a largely cohesive wider operation that, for reasons psychological, physical or otherwise unrelated to the sport itself, bely abilities that appear so unbounded in the circumstances. When an entire squad, underpinned with the aspirations of a nation renowned for defying its circumstances, fails to translate teenage prowess to any discernible senior prestige – in the example of all but two players – however, we must question the foundations provided and cohesion devoted to of the wider institutions around those whose achievements define an entire sporting history. Such, unfortunately, is the case for an unlikely source; late 1990s competition in the Republic of Ireland.
Only twice prior having finished in the top four of any UEFA Under-18 European Championship tournament – run annually, aside from a biennial treatment between 1986 and 1993, since 1946 – with fourth-placed results in both 1949 and 1984, the nation had not exactly been imposing in earlier appearances. The former of these accomplishments even occurred at a time when unified with Northern Ireland under the IFA (Irish Football Association, now serving the Northern Irish national team), not FAI (Football Association of Ireland), banner – just a year later officially separating in terms of selection, and another two years hence recognised by FIFA as entirely separate entities worthy of individual qualification. As such, when ousted 2-1 by their Spanish counterparts in the third-fourth play-off of the 1997 competition – hosted in Iceland – and proceeding to both lift the trophy in 1998 in a final victory procured, rather aptly, on penalties against an only seven-years reunified Germany and resort to third place with 1-0 third-fourth tie win against Greece the year later, it was celebrated as a defining moment in Irish footballing history; a coup de foudre. All this, after only months prior to their 1998 triumph at under-18 level, the under-16s had also held aloft the spoils of victory in their format’s UEFA European Championship to set up a youth-age double, in the same calendar year (thus discounting Portugal, whose July 1994 under-18 title and May 1995 under-16 trophy meant that they did hold the trophies together for some two months), that was unprecedented for any nation. Considering the prolonged, and considerably more prolific exploits of their English, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Dutch and even Soviet (or post-Soviet dissolution) contemporaries, this was an astounding anomaly, and still stands, rivalled only by the prowess of both Spanish sides in 2007, today; considering UEFA’s 2002 reformation of their under-16 tournament as an under-17 platform instead, that is.
To identify the protagonists involved in such a provocative belittling of their geographically and economically superior continental adversaries, however, fails some of the establishment-defying principles and profound reconciliation involved. Nonetheless, under the tutelage of Brian Kerr – earlier manager at the financially disadvantaged but spirited St Pats Athletic for a decade – was a contingent that, most notably, featured Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, alongside a cast of once-inspired, now-transpired names mired within the total obscurity of lower-league English football and Irish domestic competition, which itself pales in popularity to Gaelic Football and Hurling across the Emerald Isle. London-born goalkeeper Alex O’Reilly and his back-up Dean Delaney, defenders Thomas Heary, Keith Doyle and Jason Gavin, midfielders Ger Crossley, David Freeman, Ronnie O’Brien and Richie Partridge and forward Liam George – himself Luton born-and-bred – formed the majority of this squad; never once capped at senior level. Alongside Keane and Dunne, the somewhat recognisable quartet of Stephen McPhail, Alan Quinn, Barry Quinn (unrelated, but the former one of nine brothers that includes former Hull midfielder Stephen) and Gary Doherty did amount to this feat, although to little cumulative aplomb or acclaim, it must be noted. For all of their dexterity as youths, the 18-man squad achieved just 283 caps over what now amounts to 20 years of international opportunity; an unprecedented 146 from Keane, and Dunne’s 80 predominating this total. Thus, it is evident that their talents found little sympathy on the senior stage, despite the largely English club coaching they received and their repeated youth-level international accomplishments.
And these were not moments of mere inspiration; for moments are exactly as they suggest, individual, isolated events of short-term influence, not repeated achievements that lead to a continental title across two weeks of high-risk tournament action in a nation – Cyprus – where presumably none of the players had before ventured. A squad that was cultivated almost entirely by manager Brian Kerr, they rose from an encouraging performance at the 1996 under-18 European Championship, despite only netting once, with draws against Spain and Italy and a single-goal defeat to an England side featuring Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard consigning them to a group-stage exit, and soon forced the aforementioned spell of relative continental ascendancy. Meanwhile, with Kerr as manager of all FIA youth levels between under-16 and under-20, the nation achieved a third placed finish at the subsequent 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia; ousting the socio-economic might of China and the USA after losing to the feverish talent of Ghana in the group stage opening match and claiming their revenge, after defeating both Morocco and Spain in the knockout stage, with a 2-1 third-fourth playoff victory against the Ghanaians. Each of their games at the tournament, aside from their 1-1 draw with China, was decided by a single-goal margin; steeliness, as opposed to proliferation, in abundance even against the eventual tournament winners Argentina, who boasted Juan Román Riquelme, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso in their ranks.
Kerr’s exploits, and the application he received in reciprocation, should not be undervalued in any context throughout this late 1990s period. One of the most evident talents of that World Youth Championship campaign was Damien Duff – who as we now know went on to compete on a continental level for each of his Premier League clubs in Blackburn, Chelsea, Newcastle and Fulham, and racked up an entire century of caps on the international scene – who would have also been selected for the 1998 under-18 tournament had it not been for a season-curtailing injury following his first season of full senior action at Blackburn. Replacing him with Freeman, who had struggled for exposure at Nottingham Forest in the preceding season and during the club’s immediate return to Premier League football, though leaving the winger uncapped throughout the tournament, proved the unwavering faith of Kerr in his existing squad at that time, even with the most highly experienced and arguably pivotal member of his squad giving the notice of only a few days before the competition of his irredeemable affliction. For a nation that mounted a challenge far beyond the capacity of their status as a relative minnow by population at any number of tournaments – only beaten by Lithuania and hosts Cyprus in this subordinate respect in 1998 – this depth, in both resilience and individual game-changing intuition, was unlikely, but delivered admirably by Kerr.
It was only logical, then, that the Dubliner, and then-49-year-old, was appointed senior Irish manager in January 2003, leading a generation that prised Keane, Dunne and Duff as its chief hopes into qualification campaigns for both Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup, at the very least. Granted, a vast proportion of the individuals he had coached to youth-group fruition had long since departed the international stage, but when supplemented by other prodigies within his programme that had seriously progressed at club level including John O’Shea and Clinton Morrison, and established internationals Kevin Kilbane, Matt Holland, Gary Breen – all thoroughly English – Shay Given and Kenny Cunningham, reasonably ambitious. In recuperating a nation and institution from the public embarrassment of the 2002 World Cup, in which Roy Keane’s acrimonious mid-tournament departure after clashing with manager Mick McCarthy became so infamous it gained the politically conspicuous phrasing ‘Saipan controversy’, Kerr had a significant task on his hands. Admired throughout the nation for his influence on youth, and his well-stated desire to aid the Irish domestic game with his position’s commanding prestige, his task felt the burden of events that led to McCarthy’s eventual departure, and required a highly unlikely run, trailing the Swiss, to reach Portugal for the 2004 finals. Long-distance trips to Georgia and Albania delivered four points; a hard-fought 2-1 victory and frustrating 0-0 tie followed two months later by a late 2-1 win against Albania, and commanding 2-0 triumph against the Georgians, both at Lansdowne Road – in 2007 demolished to make way for the Aviva Stadium. Ultimately, however, a 1-1 – when a win would have been most pivotal – suffered against Russia confounded hopes prior to a daunted trip and 2-0 defeat to Switzerland in the timid culmination of efforts.
If Russia and Switzerland had proved immovable forces for the Irish in 2003, however, France would join the Swiss to test Kerr’s forces for any hopes of making the flight to Germany for the summer of 2006. Four games in, and by the end of October, they were unbeaten, with home wins against Cyprus and the Faroe Islands bookending highly creditable – but arguably unambitious – draws in Basel (1-1) and Paris (0-0). By June 2005, Kerr’s reign was in turmoil; suffering the indignity of late Israeli comebacks home and away in three-month succession, even more culpable in the later match at Lansdowne after taking a 2-0 lead. A 2-0 victory in the Faroes, a Thierry Henry wunderstrike and nervy 1-0 win in Cyprus later, the equation came down to a final match; win at home against Switzerland and progress to the play-offs. Toiling away with all striking options – Keane, Morrison, Stephen Elliott and Doherty – exhausted, the event petered out to 0-0 draw; not good enough. With the public inquest finally arriving into Kerr’s perceived conservatism, and even protégé Duff lambasting his style, his FAI contract was not renewed in October 2005, thus bringing to a rather despondent and immediate end an eight-year association within the national set-up. The qualms that had existed in some quarters about a lack of prior senior management experience told, with the FAI made to look naïve in the decision – yet, arguably not in the context, given 2003’s other interviewees and leading candidates included Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Philippe Troussier, all of whom went on to have dismal managerial stints; the former in the English lower leagues, as Thai national manager and in the emergence of Indian franchises, Robson at Bradford, West Brom and Sheffield United, with little Premier League/Championship prowess aside from in the Baggies’ 2004-05 ‘Great Escape’, and also at the Thai national team, and Troussier at the Qatari national team – prior to financial injections – and across Japanese and Chinese football. Some sins can then be forgiven, perhaps.
Employing the vast benefit of retrospect, it may have been misguided to believe that the squad upon which World Cup and European Championship finals attendance was hoped would benefit from a single individual’s regime, from youth grade football to senior action. Perhaps Kerr manipulated the FAI framework so considerably by 2003 that they had little choice but to promote him to senior responsibilities, or perhaps they could not see beyond a single vision for the mid-2000s and beyond. The ambition exercised by the administration in the interviewing process now appears half-hearted and decidedly uninspiring, and only with the 2008 appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni did the Irish footballing culture receive a true upset to its institutionalised tendencies. Granted, the Italian could be abrasive, but it may have been what the establishment required, and did come to amends in qualification for the 2012 European Championships – albeit not a proud tournament for the Irish to now gaze back upon, nor one that conjures up much joy.
Naturally, only a very slight selection of nations can ever make the grade for tournament finals appearances, and even fewer for trophy-laden accomplishment. Simply observe the scalps of Italy, the United States, Chile, the Netherlands, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon and Algeria taken in the most recent global qualification skirmish, and how inept an achievement as Syria’s can be rendered by an ultimate failure to prise open an unprecedented barrier. For all of these failures, granted, the likes of Iceland, Peru, Tunisia, Panama and Saudi Arabia profited, and such are the perils of exclusivity while refining the excellence demanded at such prestigious events, but one can hardly regard these achievements without exercising empathy for the neglected opportunity bequeathed to so many players. It is in occasions like these that sport gains its reputation as a fortunate individual’s speculation.
Within these tales, also, must be recounted the argument between the value of club football against international action, and where they overlay in respects of prestige. Glenn Whelan, Marc Wilson, Hal Robson-Kanu, David Cotterill and Alan Hutton are just five Home Nations encapsulations of the faith that can be reciprocated between individuals, having established respectable international careers despite experiencing often unfulfilling careers at a domestic level; particularly at the time of their greatest patriotic feats. Even Danny Welbeck – prior to his conspicuous English exclusion by Gareth Southgate – had shone brightest more often for Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions than for Manchester United or Arsenal, demonstrating the alignment of this phenomenon in nations more commonly regarded as around an elite level. The proportion of players who, on the evidence of silverware alone, are fortunate enough for every vital aspect to align for both club and country, is, quite naturally, minute; 54 players have completed the Champions League and World Cup double in the post-1990 era, while a notable number of those (Javi Martínez, Víctor Valdés, Juan Mata, Massimo Oddo, Filippo Inzaghi, Juliano Belletti, Roque Júnior, Paulo Sérgio and Andreas Möller) were not exactly starring features, with just 229 sum minutes of exposure, in an average of around 25 minutes, in their respective World Cup-winning campaigns. As the exploits in the English league structure of O’Reilly – making only nine senior appearances before falling down to semi-professional levels by 2003, and running out only 25 further times for Gravesend & Northfleet, Dagenham and Redbridge and Athlone Town in Ireland before retiring in 2009 – and the gradual declines of Heary, Donnelly, Gavin and Crossley to obscurity in their native nation demonstrate, the influence often wielded callously by elite academies, in this case West Ham, Huddersfield, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Celtic, proved detrimental to an entire generation of Irish footballers. This very circumstance of the sport may have cost Kerr his employment, and the Irish a place at the World Cup, down the line.
Kerr was not blameless in this, however. Nor can the wider FAI programme have escaped prosecution in this inquiry. Despite possessing one of the global game’s leading youth coaches of the era, the administration failed him, and other trainers under their employment, by denying the opportunity to instil a cohesive contingency strategy to support the individuals who progressed through each age group. Awareness of this psychological factor may have been in short supply at the time – especially as the ‘Class of ‘92’ were greeted as an entity of relatively miraculous emergence only five years prior – yet this did not excuse an altogether naïve national structure that proved all-too-often to prise accomplishment at the highest club level over tactical fluency, or historic contribution to their patriotic cause. Some may argue this inevitable, but the lack of a productive Irish programme, with a central focus on the players who would give their nation any opportunity of future attainment, did undoubtedly fail those who developed at such a young age.
Of players capped ten times or more from the previous 41 Irish senior call-ups, four distinct groups reveal the current pathways to senior representation; long-term figures within the system, those who suffered many years exiled post-youth before being instated, converts from English and Northern Irish birthplaces and those who experienced fortune in almost immediate promotion despite entering at later youth groups. The first society features, in all honesty, only Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, now Burnley teammates who entered at the U15 phase and featured at each rung before the senior squad; the second boasts Darren Randolph, Jonathan Walters, Richard Keogh, Harry Arter, Wes Hoolahan, Stephen Ward and Glenn Whelan as lacking four, seven, six, eight, five, and the final duo three, years, respectively between their final under-21 cap and first senior call-up; the third possesses born-and-bred Northerners Kieron Westwood and Ciaran Clark, Coventry’s Cyrus Christie, Londoner Arter and Derry boys Shane Duffy and James McLean as dual-nationality loyalists, and the fourth boasts Paul McShane, David Meyler, Daryl Murphy and Seamus Coleman – playing at no level lower than U19 – as its active yield, and Kevin Doyle as a now-retired figure. From this evidence, and the presence of Aiden McGeady, having made his debut aged 18 in 2004, no evident contingency remains to define the Green Army’s existing delegation.
Whilst this may reflect the circumstances of the other Home Nations in only realising the importance of a consistent and accommodating system in recent years, little solace remains for those cast aside at the turn of the millennium. In the past twelve months, and Brady and Hendrick aside, only 25 caps were awarded to players at the time under the age of 25, with 16 of those for Duffy and Christie alone. Adverse to youth, perhaps, but Martin O’Neill cannot be blamed alone for the lack of youth breaking into the side. Processes appear to still be lacking to encourage elite-level youth development, and especially evident progression, with twelve of the last 21 players selected for the national under-21 squad born in England, and goalkeeper Liam Bossin in the outskirts of Brussels. This import culture has sustained the squad for numerous years now, and with an over-reliance on the likes of Londoner Declan Rice, Essex-born Josh Cullen and Mancunian Kieran O’Hara, inevitable questions will arise over the gravity of the patriotic cause at hand. Nor can those at the helm evade accusations of the perpetual vulnerability of the approach, considering the potential draw of English shores is these youngsters do amount to regular Premier League action, such as in Rice’s case. In near-on eight years now of Noel King’s management of the under-21 squad, also, the side have failed to qualify for the European Championship on four consecutive occasions, and have never truly come close either; trailing behind the likes of Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Estonia, Armenia and Georgia in their respective groups, and making little discernible progress over King’s tenure. Having not faced Germany home or away in their current qualification phase for the 2019 competition in Italy and San Marino, they are perhaps best primed to finally qualify in a group also containing Norway, Israel, newcomers Kosovo and Azerbaijan. But these are nations they should be beating to reach the tournament itself.
Meanwhile, since 2002’s appearance at the U19 European Championship, and a fourth placed finish after ousting an English side in which Dean Ashton starred, only once have the Irish U19’s qualified for tournament football; 2011’s European Championship witnessing a semi-final exit to a star-studded Spanish outfit after third-fourth play-offs were removed. The profligacy of these two squads was also notable; the former producing only three senior representatives, and the latter only, to date, John Egan and Jeff Hendrick.
Within all of these examples, fundamental flaws are exposed within the system. Effectively, as many nations and sides now recognise in cohesive and pragmatic programmes, achievement at youth level is worthless in comparison with progression at senior level. Prioritising overly ambitious youth targets, and selecting only players at sufficiently prestigious academies, over the requisite senior achievements to, in paraphrasing an apt motto, inspire a generation, is evidently an ineffective mode of operation in any sporting administration. Certainly, the two go hand in hand in any effective institution, but without strategic management and intervention for the right cause, Irish football has gone nowhere, and cannot progress sufficiently to challenge the likes of Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Serbia and Croatia; nations, perhaps, with more effective domestic divisions, but without the access in close geographical and political proximity to such footballing fervour as the United Kingdom’s, without similarly successful socio-economic circumstances and – Sweden aside – without the historic sporting achievement as the Republic. Unless the FAI establishment recognises this immediately, the tribulations of their representatives will continue in painful remorse for many a consecutive qualification campaign. Fundamentally, the late 90s should be a testament to learn from, not an era to hail. This cultural disassociation may not require a revolution, but an evolution of the methods adopted. An evolution borne out of necessity. For such a highly independent species as the Irish, perhaps not easy, but certainly necessary.
If you’re a regular reader here – firstly thank you – you may have noticed the global flavour of topics covered throughout recent history. If so, you’re certainly a sharper intellect than I. Having covered ground in England – itself extensively revisited – Germany, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Brazil and, obviously, Egypt, of the 32 sides qualified for this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia, on both domestic and international scenes in the past few months, it has finally come to my realisation that a promising precedent has been established. With 26 nations yet to cover, the task to explore each remaining territory is evidently impossible within our – admittedly liberal – weekly timeframe, but to at least provide context on some of this summer’s participants would prove heartily beneficial. As such, I have opted to immerse the site – not totally, given certain subjects may arise to arouse my curiosity in the extensive period between now and early June – in providing a platform, perhaps, to reveal some of the less prominent or recurrent inquiries and contexts of those who will partake in the globe’s most unifying sporting competition. The nations, their constituents, cultures, controversies, competitive undertones and ultimate aspirations; all will be explored in the observation of specific aspects of their footballing context, from players to clubs, divisions to tactics, governing bodies to overarching political circumstances.
This week, we go to Iran.
Particularly resonant, given the current internal political turmoil facing dominant establishments of power in the Islamic nation, the mere connotations of the nation’s sporting achievement may soon evoke inquiries into the preservation of prospects at this summer’s tournament. Rarely, however, have Team Melli (تیم ملی) – literally the national team – had their fortunes solely reliant on political stability before, and nor will they give much credence to its factor in future.
Perhaps this relative individuality offers a more insightful perception of Middle-Eastern geopolitical debate, and its common ramifications on football, as a perpetually dominant sporting outlet and regional commerce. Personally, I have always perceived Iran as a stable political environment, at least in relativity to its near neighbours Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and arguably Saudi Arabia – yet it cannot be any means responsible to disregard the countless human rights abuses footed at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s near-on 29-year regime in suppressing opposition, ignoring extensive poverty and oppressing women, artists, writers and religious minorities. Public perception has regularly been defined as fundamental to the now-78-year-old Khamenei, and by reversing accusations of humanitarian suffrage on the West, and particularly America, the successor of 1979 Revolutionary icon Ruhollah Khomeini has exposed the true disparity and perpetual hypocrisy of post-WW2 capitalist politics, while managing to aptly balance the demands of political Principlists and Reformists within his system. For a non-hereditary totalitarian political establishment, and strongly Shia cultural exponent founded in revolutionary fervour, Iran’s stability has defiantly upset the rhetoric of the West over the past four decades.
Until now, at least. Institutionally opposed to both the US and Israel as global political powers, Iran’s stance invites the criticism of hard-line Republicans; exactly Donald Trump’s ilk. The public demonstrations against unemployment, economic inflation and corruption – a direct impact of US sanctions on oil exports – especially amongst young citizens, demonstrate disenfranchisement with a system that had exercised acute military influence in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, but evidently not to any extent that critically threatened the status of Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani or the ruling pragmatic-centrist Moderation and Development Party.
Underlining any cultural achievement in the Persian state, then, this social divide ensures that footballing talent will have to defy socio-economic relevance and exceed aspirations to an unprecedented extent to quell political opposition for even a matter of weeks. What better stage, perhaps, than the World Cup, a pinnacle that Team Melli have only reached four times prior, and the ultimate honour in what has now become the national sport, in the emergence of its economic power over traditional freestyle wrestling; a discipline in which the Iranians have won 43 of their 69 historic Olympic medals. Considering a chartered economic decline, however, that in 2013 first faced negative GDP growth, experienced a decline of 1.1 million BPD (barrels per day) of oil exports from 2011 to 2014 and a similar decay of 40% in the car industry between 2011 and 2013, alongside other significant economic scares, how has Iranian sport remained not merely competitive, but front running on a continental scale?
We may imagine, as observers from the politically and economically polarised West, that Carlos Queiroz, as national team manager, has had at his disposal a wide contingent of devoted and corralled talents centred in prestigious Western Europe divisions. Ashkan Dejagah, now the squad’s captain, is perhaps the only recognisable name to British audiences after his stint – albeit brief – at a relegation-bound Fulham between 2012 and 2014, with the fleeting spell notably featuring a stunning volley against Crystal Palace and the scalp of a Cottagers Player of the Season award on the route to Championship competition. Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Ehsan Hajsafi have been the subjects of high praise in some European quarters for their abilities, and have earned moves to AZ Alkmaar and Olympiacos, respectively, in recent seasons, while striker and national talisman Karim Ansarifard is also registered on the Greek champions’ books after prolific goalscoring records in the Persian Gulf Pro League, and former Charlton Athletic forward Reza Ghoochannejhad has similarly earned his employment at Heerenveen, but otherwise, existential celebrity is not prevalent in the outfit; much unlike many of the nations that will descend upon Russia in early June. Dispersed across only eight separate nations – Greece, Russia, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Qatar and Iran itself – the past 48 players, of a politically turbulent preceding twelve months, hail in all but 16 examples from Iran itself; including the free agents Dejagah and goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi as overseas, that is. These 16 far-flung individuals, however, demonstrate an unerring correlation of circumstance; boasting 506 international caps together, or 439 if discounting the two unattached entities. This contrasts to the 359 sum appearances of the remaining 32; 114 of which were accrued by 35-year-old centre-back Jalal Hosseini alone. Thus, average experiences appear mathematically valued at roughly 31 caps for those currently employed abroad – curtailed only by uncapped Marítimo ‘keeper Amir Abedzadeh – and just 11 or so for those focused on the Persian Gulf.
Admittedly, ten of these Iranian-based players have no prior appearances to their name, and have involvement restricted solely to a training camp in Tehran last November, prior to friendly triumphs attained against Panama and Venezuela in Graz and Nijmegen, respectively. To have granted them access to full international honours, regardless of actual in-game appearances, is an entirely admirable policy on the part of Queiroz, his coaching team and the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) itself, and is comparable only to healthy, successful environments that I can immediately recall. These include the English Rugby Union squad (currently in a squad of 35, training down in Brighton) and a revelation I only recognised while observing results from around the globe the other day; Icelandic, Finnish, Swedish and Danish national teams, while in action in the more agreeable environments of Indonesia and Abu Dhabi, sporting players selected exclusively from domestic divisions that obviously have winter breaks imposed upon them, in order to retain fitness, promote home-grown talent and cultivate invaluable international experience in these players for future endeavours, whether resulting inside or out of the international system. Nor, while on the topic, did a bias exist, quite notably, in these recognitions; not for 2016-17’s runaway champions Persepolis (just the three selections), nor the sides that ultimately finished nine and ten points, respectively, adrift in great Tehran-based rivals Esteghlal (five selections) and the culturally Azerbaijani Tabriz’s Tractor Sazi (one), with lesser outfits in Isfahan’s Sepahan and Zob Ahan – effectively the nation’s Sheffield United and Wednesday, steel rivals – Tehran’s Saipa, Ahvaz’s Foolad, and Abadan’s Sanat Naft Abadan all producing at least one worthy individual.
Possibly antiquated, nonetheless, in their domestic perspective, the Iranian establishment continue to run the Pro League like so many failed post-Soviet dissolution Balkan and Caucasus nations. As in these territories, where those who remained at the top of the footballing establishment had consolidated their positions there through intensely corrupt deviance, and scarcely conceived a regime change or had the capacity for an alternative view of club ownership, Iranian beliefs consist of the often-overt patronage of state industries in these clubs. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (Persepolis), Physical Education Organisation (Esteghlal), the Iran Tractor Manufacturing Company (Tractor Sazi, of course), the Foolad Khuzestan Company (Foolad), the Mobarakeh Steel Company (Sepahan) and its adversary, the Isfahan Steel Company (Zob Ahan) each constitute a pondering of the profitability of such a centralised operation, especially given the beleaguered Iranian economy’s unfavourable role in present political furore.
Not that Queiroz’s side appear adversely impacted, that is. Twelve victories, six draws, 36 goals scored and only five conceded from 18 qualifying matches, through two phases and a minimum of 46,532.74 air miles, on their route to 2018 qualification, and none of their exertions appeared to have truly challenged their capabilities. Granted, the quality of sides ranging from Turkmenistan to Oman, China to Qatar and Uzbekistan to surprise package Syria was questionable, but even when posed with a South Korean outfit that we may well observe ourselves here later this year, they eased to qualification with two matches to spare. There is little doubt Queiroz has tamed a potentially unruly beast, and prepared from it a steadfast, professional and incisive tactical exponent.
So often labelled with the manacles of a brief former employment as Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United assistant manager, Queiroz has finally shaken his derided public persona in this employment, to the fortune of both the adopted nation and the 64-year-old himself. Granted the faith to employ a fully Portuguese backroom team, in all positions other than team doctor and masseur, and instil principles that would ultimately prove mutually beneficial over what now amounts to a seven-year tenure, Queiroz has finally found his managerial niche. Revolutionising the methods which predecessors Afshin Ghotbi, a perpetual assistant before spending a single title-winning season at Persepolis in 2007-08, and national team goalscoring icon/Guinness World Record holder Ali Daei, employed in their inconsistent regimes, the Mozambique-born Portuguese has ushered in a new age for the sport in the region. Liberalising the selection policy to envelop the foreign-born talents that now dominate the squad – Dejagah the first ever overseas-nationalised Iranian captain, having moved to Berlin at the age of one, and Ghoochannejhad, a naturalised Dutchman, the only European citizen in the top ten historic goalscorers – has proved an invaluable concession, exploiting the global economic diaspora of Iranians to compete at the very pinnacle of continental competition with established regional powers Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Perhaps this was the final link required in a cohesive and ambitious squad. Iran, after all, retains a status earned predominantly in the 1990s as the fourth most proficient nation and domestic force in Asian Champions League performances; boasting three victories and four final defeats to their name, from the exploits of Esteghlal (1970 and 1990-91 titles, 1991-92 and 1998-99 defeats), the dissolved former military side PAS Tehran (a championship in1992-92), Sepahan and Zob Ahan (2006-07 and 2009-10 final losses), trailing only behind their Koreans (11 titles, six runners-up finishes), Japanese (six wins, three falls at the last) and Saudi Arabian (four victories, nine times ousted) compatriots in that respect. Threatened, however, by the emergence of state-funded Chinese riches and the inclusion of Australian entities as pragmatic Asian participants, Tehran and Isfahan’s institutions may gradually, and quite rationally, cede ground given the prestige offered under Queiroz to players based in Europe, and especially amidst the economic decline within national borders.
An institution that may translate domestic achievements into continental relevance, however, is FC Pars Jonoubi Jam Bushehr. Only promoted as champions from the Azadegan League, or second division, last season; the 11-year-old club was only founded in 2007 as a cultural facet of the Pars Special Energy Economic Zone (PSEEZ), a government facility on the Persian Gulf to exploit statistically the world’s largest natural gas field, the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field. This economy is so valuable, and culturally pivotal to the Iranians, that the town, or nominal city, of Asaluyeh where the PSEEZ is based is now effectively synonymous, or even predominated, by the PSEEZ. A population of almost 5,000 is subjugated by employees in the sector, and the preceding industry of fishing bears little influence today in the port conurbation; poverty remains, however, for those not supported by oil riches, despite extensive foreign investment in the centre and recent attempts by the Iranian government to cultivate a more healthy, admirable community for working and traditional inhabitants alike.
Owing to the vast geographical expanse of the Iranian state, over 1,200km separate the Takhti Stadium, based in Jam, another ‘city’ an entire 83km from Asaluyeh and PSEEZ itself, and the capital Tehran’s commanding structures; principally the crater-like, reduced 78,116-capacity Azadi (“freedom”) Stadium home to both Persepolis and Esteghlal. How Jonoubi have maintained their relatively close pursuit of runaway 2017-18 Pro League leaders Persepolis – at the time of writing twelve points in dividends to the Tehran outfit in third place after 19 matches, while Foolad sit a point and place higher – presents an intrinsic inquiry of logistics, and also of the sustainability of financial structures. The fall of a number of secondary establishments may well be ushered in by the conflicting rise of Jonoubi, and of Qods’ Paykan FC – named after the nation’s most iconic car, and owned by state automobile company Iran Khodro – a yo-yo side in recent seasons, having reached their highest position last season since 2002-03, in sixth, and all things considered for the state of Iranian domestic competition, this may not prove too distressing to international performances. Esteghlal Khuzestan are an adept predecessor to this trend, having held aloft the 2015-16 Pro League title after only four prior seasons as a tangible club – purchasing the second division licence of Esteghlal Jonoub Tehran in 2011, while backed by the funds of the Abadan-based Zagros Airlines, within the same region of Khuzestan in the nation’s climactically hostile south-west. With the acquisition of Jonoub’s identity and, in 2014-15, Foolad B (reserve) team’s assets and, as it turned out, many of its talented local youngsters, given the legal inability of reserve teams to be promoted to the Pro League, Khuzestan simmered wholly unexpectedly through the 2015-16 season, while leading standings at the end of only seven of 30 total weeks of action, to dispose of the close challenges of long-term leaders Esteghlal and Persepolis, who recovered from a number of early stumbles to take the equation to goal difference; ultimately dependent on the Ahvaz-based outfit having conceded only 14 goals, a feat only once equalled in the Pro League’s 16-season history, by Persepolis the term after.
These commercial funds have little of the systemic influence of Chinese proceedings, regardless of the shifting sands partially, if ephemerally, witnessed in Persia. In many respects, the methods assumed by newly-employed directors and chairmen in clubs that have risen rapidly through the domestic pyramid are directly comparable to those adopted in late 1970s to ‘80s Soviet politics. The focus of this economic investment is not in sustainable facets, including training complexes and academy systems, but predominantly first-team, high-profile prowess. It is a narrow perspective, perhaps accepting the circumstance of the age in the economic stagnation of Iran as a nation. The irreversibly corrupt and ageing establishment of Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was so consumed in its disenfranchisement to even attempt to avert the inevitable; when Mikhail Gorbachev was finally handed the reigns, his reforms were impossible to realistically impose, and everyone recognised this. Nationalist dissidents had already abandoned hope, and many politicians viewed this regime’s reforms as an overly extreme admission of ideological fault; few received Glasnost and Perestroika in the fundamental sentiment in which they were composed, and while this apathy, bordering on cynicism, wasn’t the sole affliction to Gorbachev, it certainly contributed with a stinging resonance. The conglomerates, many of whom are inherently tied to state proceedings, involved in Iranian club ownership today demonstrate many an equal trait of cynicism. They mould the status quo to favour their side with short-term injections, and abandon coherent visions beyond twelve months with the apparent pragmatism that the nation’s economic affliction may not sustain competition. They may not have lost total faith, but demonstrate little overt optimism and feature only globally prominent industries – oil and airlines – as the newly emergent challengers, while falling from inherent favour in national squads to a distinct aura of inexperience in paling to European-based contemporaries.
Few would consider this new era a sustainable one, either, all things considered. A reliance on the composure and expendability of Dejagah, Ghoochannejhad, Ansarifard, Hajsafi and Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun – who, at just 23, has 22 goals to his name from 30 international appearances, and will have vast expectation at the tournament itself, having played his entire senior domestic career in Russia – could easily result in failure at the loss of one or two of such pivotal pegs, and an exposure on the highest stage as a subordinate outfit. Each hailing from different youth academies, it appears only pot luck determines the production of such leading lights.
These fates can only be amplified by group stage opponents of the calibre of Spain, Portugal and Morocco – each fine national teams under the tutelage of outstanding coaches, and enjoying some of the brightest eras in the history of their existence as national representatives – come mid-June in Saint Petersburg, Kazan and Saransk. This is by no means to undermine the strength of Iranian domestic competition, of course, but in relativity to the depth presented by players plying their trade in La Liga, the English Premier League, Liga NOS, Serie A and the Eredivisie, perhaps this is a dramatic disposition of individual ability. Yet, as we may regale, individuals have never won matches, only constituent moments within. It is not, quite clearly, as easy to present the rhetoric of high-profile individualism vs small-time unification, while nor is it by any means responsible to deride tactical opposition at such an early stage before Russia. Any number of unforeseeable events could conceivably arise in the six months that separate us from the competition proper, and divulge another fate entirely for our sides.
If 2014 could have been considered at the time as both the modern peak and death knell alike of Iranian ambitions – given the hope instilled by Queiroz’s management, and the economic decline that preceded – then now we have a rebirth. The domestic system can still be bought, but only temporarily from internal Persepolis favour, and another contingent of untamed, largely unproven talent is eyeing up the tournament across the border with great hunger. Queiroz, now, as a result has at his disposal an entirely commendable and skilled squad forget in his spirit – but where it can go, and its ability to significantly exceed expectations and defy constraints, is an ambiguity drenched in doubt. In a national team that, under the administrative influence of former businessman, economist and athlete Ali Kafashian and successor Mehdi Taj – a lifelong sports administrator, with various positions within the Iranian association and Football League Organisation, and also at Sepahan and sports newspaper Jahan Varzesh – as FFIRI President, has instilled a healthy, cohesive vision, little has escaped their aspirations. And nor should it. The distinct divide between the state and the team is sufficient, I would argue, that even if success at the tournament is exploited as a political triumph, it will not galvanise the general population in the same respect as the footballing kinship, and cannot lavish long upon the socio-economic disparities of Iranian society.
Practically equidistant between this year’s hosts, and the apparently formally accepted 2022 venues of Qatar, the geopolitical undertones of their participation will only be protracted, yet Queiroz, or any potential successor, will not allow distraction amongst the unit landing with the expectations of a diverse community. Their campaigns do not consist of mediocrity, as they never can in such a compelling environment. To achieve here, an iron will, a politically autonomous, bordering on naïve, stance and a resolute tact is required; as so proven in the recent exploits of the Syrian side, deeply entrenched in national politics and ousted at the last by Australia, the Saudi Arabian squad that reached only their fifth finals and the Uzbek team that was only ousted to third place by Syria after a political upheaval ushered in by the death of their long-term President. To achieve on the global stage, however, is another beast entirely, and has proved all but an unprecedented achievement for Asian sides, on all occasions other than the 2002 South Korean and Japanese-hosted edition. One may observe that the divide between the continent’s representatives and advancing Europeans and South Americans has only extended since, and thus, only a minor miracle of tactical, behavioural and injury-defiant alignment will deliver an upset to their Strait of Gibraltar opponents – Spain, Portugal and Morocco – this summer. Or we could adopt the romantic’s perspective; merely exceeding their previous tournament goalscoring record of two would truly honour the achievements of this side, and who is there to defy them? Only the small matter of the 2010 World Cup victors, 2016 European champions and Africa’s fifth-ranked outfit, under the tutelage of the acclaimed Hervé Renard. Small fry, really…
Nestled in the very heart of Ismailia – one of Egypt’s largest inland Suez Canal port cities – the appropriately named Ismailia Stadium features two murals of discernible note. The first, upon approach to the otherwise uninspiring 18,525-capacity structure, depicts sportspeople of seven different disciplines – bronze designs of boxers, swimmers, athletes and jockeys past surrounding a trio of predominantly yellow and turquoise-festooned male figures in a gymnast in full splits, a basketballer approaching a slam dunk and footballer charging with the ball at his feet – under the logos of both Ismaily Sporting Club itself, and FIFA. The other, effectively the only shield for fans in the otherwise uncovered, detached East Stand from dust torrents and chilling evenings in the Egyptian North-East, is divided into three segments of a wall-like stone structure; a central motif carved as so to present the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and other iconic ancient national monuments alongside the state’s flag within a central laurel wreath flanked by two slighter slabs with various yellow-shirted and turquoise-shorted players, each performing a unique physical feat, interspersing traditional hieroglyphic and pillared imagery. Both considerable structures connote the fundamentals of this institution’s heritage; visitors to the ground, who may well be greeted with a vociferous matchday spirit, need not possess prior knowledge of the club’s many nicknames prior to kick-off, in either البرازيليون (the Brazilians), برازيل أفريقيا (the Brazilians of Africa), برازيل مصر (the Brazilians of Egypt), المانجا (the Mango) or, most sincerely and commonly amongst local supporters, الدراويش, the Dervishes, a term given to religious figures highly respected for their guidance, particularly to the poverty-stricken, of Sufi Islam ascetics and attainment of God, primarily through the physical exertion of Sama.
Ritualistic, and deeply devout in their principles as a club, Ismaily only uphold the values of their community; a city ranked only 12th by population in Egypt’s sparse, literally deserted, demographics, and known locally as ‘the city of beauty and enchantment’. Formed only in 1924, a respective 13 and 17 years behind the traditional national forces of Giza’s Zamalek SC (12 Egyptian Premier League titles, 32 runners-up finishes) and Cairo’s Al-Ahly SC (39 league championships, 11 second-place results), Ismaily’s relatively youthful stature is quite fitting, given Ismailia itself only came to fruition in 1863, in the first success of the expansion of Suez Canal construction projects by ambitious Khedive (viceroy or governor) Isma'il Pasha; after whom the city is named. Nor do their historic achievements fail to bely their presumed constraints; having lofted three elite-tier titles, in 1966-67, ’90-91 and 2001-02, they have established themselves as the nation’s third side with six seasonal runs to second and 17 third-place returns in their 94-year account, and the Egyptian Premier League’s seven decades of action. For a 305,000-populated urban conurbation that has been perpetually encroached upon, first by British and French occupants in Imperial rule and during World War One’s Battle of Romani, and later by Israeli forces in the 1973 Yom Kippur War’s Battle of Ismailia, they certainly have spirit etched within their identity.
Fatally afflicted, however, in recent seasons by the gradually escalating economic monopoly of Giza and Cairo’s metropoles, the club has finished only as high as 6th in four consecutive seasons, and five of the last six (technically even so in the 2013-14 season, when they finished fourth in Group 2 of a divided division), with their Group 2 runners-up rank behind Zamalek counting for nothing in the 2012-13 after the season was suspended at the knockout stage by the national coup d’état that removed President Mohamed Morsi from power. Not since 2010-11 have they graced the end-of-season top three, since 2009-10 qualified for continental competition (if discounting the 2014 appearance earned from an unfinished previous season) or since 2008-09 finished second, when they did so equal on points, and only separated by goal difference, with champions Al-Ahly. Their financial model, revealingly, requires the regular sale of prodigious youngsters in order to even compete with the clubs that will, generally, themselves make these exploitative purchases to strengthen their own causes. In recent examples, centre-backs Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr – both Ismailia-born – were offloaded to the tune of €1.5 million and a 15% sell-on fee (one that would not be enacted, with the now-West Brom player released by Fiorentina at the end of his contract in 2015) and just £23k respectively, while Ghanaian striker John Antwi departed to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Shabab for £1.76 million, and Egyptians Amr Soleya and Marwan Mohsen to the UAE’s Al-Shaab for £743k and Al-Ahly for £900k respectively. It is, perhaps, surprising that given this, it required no evidently profitable sales this term to lead a title charge; at the time of writing, leading the Premier Division by a single point above Al-Ahly, who possess a single game in hand.
As has been outlined by the post-Communist dissolution demise of Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade and Honvéd, in addition to the present travails of an arguably small-minded Southampton outfit perhaps more fixated on their business plan than coherent footballing vision, this form for sporting achievement is rarely profitable at the peak of domestic competition – unless replicated across national culture. And nor, arguably, should it be for sides like Ismaily, regardless of the possible romanticism of a tale defying economic circumstances, particularly in the modern age. Where the 22-year-old Robert Prosinečki, 26-year-old Darko Pančev, 25-year-old Dejan Savićević and 23-year-old Dejan Petković – all second-generation Belgrade players, in the sense that they were recruited as youngsters from lesser Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin and Serbian clubs in the late 1980s and early ‘90s Yugoslav First League – were seized upon by Real Madrid, Inter and AC Milan, and Bucharest’s fall from grace was ushered in by the departures of Gheorghe Hagi, Dan Petrescu and Ilie Dumitrescu to Madrid, Foggia and Spurs, Egypt have Ismaily. El Daraweesh have, in the past decade alone, suffered the loss of Ahmed Fathy, Sayed Moawad, Sherif Abdel-Fadil, Abdallah El Said, the aforementioned Hegazi and Ahmed Khairy; individuals who, with the exception of a 29-year-old Moawad, had their best years ahead of them at the age of 26 or under, who have established themselves as competent internationals with the majority of their sum 290 caps achieved post-Ismaily, and who have all since gone on to play at least two title-winning seasons at Al-Ahly. This exodus, in practice, equates to a single, potentially pivotal, talent shedding the constraints of a largely third-place existence in every season’s attempts to not only rebuild, but also progress; detrimental to Ismaily pride, physical capabilities and stability even in the emergence of another finely-tuned prodigy.
What is perhaps more alarming to a cause that, as we referenced earlier, has struggled largely in sixth place over the past five to six domestic seasons, is the correlating brief employment of more experienced, perhaps rejuvenated first-team figures; quickly recruited by Al-Ahly or Zamalek if deemed reliable performers. Hany Saïd, who arrived a 26-year-old former Bari, Fiorentina and Mons centre-back approaching the peak of his powers in 2006, left two years later for Zamalek, where in 2010 he would end his 74-time-capped international career; the iconic goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, in return to the nation where he made 412 Al-Ahly appearances after a forgettable spell at Sion, could only make 14 appearances in 2009-10 before being attracted by Zamalek, and repeated his single-season tenure, as a 41-year-old, in 2014-15 before departing to the 13-year-old Wadi Degla club, now managed by Mido; striker Marwan Mohsen fulfilled just a single season of his three-year contract after reviving a career that had stalled, with no goals in 20 appearances, at Portuguese outfit Gil Vicente, to switch to Al-Ahly in 2016, where he has since scored just one goal in a mere nine appearances. Evidently, none of these individuals was content with continental ambitions and mid-table realities; their patience had elapsed, conveniently disregarding the role of Ismaily in offering them a reprise from careers derailed in Europe, and satisfying every one of their personal desires in applying an effective personal coaching regime. They could not endure the humiliation of trailing behind sides not of the calibre of Port Said’s Al-Masry, Alexandria’s Al Ittihad – two fellow clubs in Egypt’s traditional top five, with reputations as the vehemently anti-colonist, possibly nationalist establishment and the side equipped with Africa’s second-largest stadium in the 86,000-capacity Borg al-Arab – but of Smouha SC, the aforementioned Wadi Degla and Misr Lel-Makkasa SC, a trio who had each only been promoted to the Premier Division as recently as 2009-10, and who were the minority clubs of Alexandria and Cairo, and who hailed from the cultural city of Faiyum, respectively.
For all of the sentiments towards any sporting achievement founded in teamwork, football can often display a callously heretic behaviour. The value of any individual, particular those of the respected capabilities of the aforementioned sextuplet, is pronounced as essentially fundamental to the operation of any coherent modern footballing institution by exactly these examples. What now poses Ismaily, courtesy of a projection of these trends on the managerial industry, is yet another reconstruction task, while immersed in an irreversible pursuit of the league title.
Ironically, in a season where they had prevented any significant, or even profitable, playing departures, El Daraweesh were afflicted with the departure of French manager Sébastien Desabre to the rapidly advancing Ugandan national team on 28 December. With Aboutaleb El Essawi, who coached the side temporarily prior to Desabre’s appointment, hurriedly appointed with “no time to hire a foreign coach”, the ramifications are, as yet, unknown. Perhaps, for a helmsman that, despite being only 41, had earlier led sides in eight different nations (France’s non-league ESC Rocheville, the most successful side in Ivorian football in ASEC Mimosas, Cameroon’s CS Garoua, ES Tunis in Tunisia, the Angolan Clube Recreativo Desportivo Libolo, the UAE’s Dubai Sports Club, JS Souara in Algeria and half a season at Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca, who would become African Champions later in the same term) to little discernible success, it was an inevitable occurrence. Not in the midst of the club’s most prominent opportunity for a first title since 2001-02, however.
Desabre’s maturing tenure, it may strike the observer, unfolded in unerring calibration with that of the players that preceded his reign of the side; as if the very lingering fumigations of their heedless ambition consumed his fervour for the international stage. What Ismaily offer, an evidently healthy and productive working environment amidst all the political turmoil of Egyptian ingratiation, had little value in his overall career path, and this deduction could be made of all players who have passed through Ismailia with apparently higher aspirations. To assert such cynicism, however, can only capture events to a certain bigoted extent.
We have to accept the circumstances of much of African football; perpetually liable to corrupt government intervention, comprising some of the most hostile supporter sects seen in the global game and featuring arguably the most dramatic disparities in wealth of any continent’s organisation. Nations, given the recognition of common principles and socio-economic circumstances, are able to unify around a collective goal like in no other region, and the ability to convert raw ability and determination into profitability – although reliant largely on European capitalists to fulfil the ultimate aims of this – through football is totally unrivalled. One can elevate oneself from an uneducated, impoverished and potentially orphaned urban child to a nationally respected icon solely through the means of ability with a football. Perhaps this is the true encapsulation of the ideals of the ‘American Dream’, and the only realistic global example of its continuation, given the status of even the most socially deprived and downtrodden Americans in comparison to the constituents of Monrovia (Liberia), Bamako (Mali), Lusaka (Zambia) and Dakar (Senegal), some of the cities ranked amongst the top ten poorest in the world by U.N figures.
Thus, we may be left to only commend this ceaseless motivation, this burning desire to achieve at the zenith of conceivable environs, rather than restrain it, given the societal pitfalls and doldrums that await players retiring without titles, acclaim or fortune. While statistically one of the richest nations in Africa, Egypt should hold no deferring will, given its fiercely anti-colonisation heritage and the remaining disparities in wealth distribution. To escape the manacles of perpetual hardship, and sacrifice reputation, career stability and health for this, is highly commendable. Let us not forget two underlying factors, after all; Egyptian values very rarely align with British, or wider Western European, ideals, while the perceived ‘loyalty’ of elite figures is virtually non-existent today, with every character, and every inimitable moral, available for its price.
It could also be supposed that, considering the Egyptian people’s contemporary history of oppression – first by the British and French, later by a highly undemocratic political system of internal selection of Presidential candidates, exploited by corrupt and influential schemers, and more recently by the relatively extremist Muslim Brotherhood, and tyrannical military regime – being on the right side of the political spectrum is fundamental to social survival. There is no doubt where the safe bastions lie in the Premier Division; Al-Ahly, equipped with the 30,000-capacity Al-Salam, or more menacingly titled Cairo Military Protection, Stadium, the 93-year-old Mokhtar El-Tetch Stadium training ground and the inherent demographic facilities of a metropolis nearing megacity status (10 million+ inhabitants). Less so Zamalek, perhaps, given the stagnating Giza economy, their reliance on Cairo-based infrastructure while playing their matches at the 16,000-capacity Petro Sport Stadium – shared with fellow Premier Division side ENPPI (Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries) Sporting Club – in New Cairo and their status as league victors only once in the past 13 and a half years. Nonetheless, it would advisable, if coveted by these entities, for managers, players and club officials alike, when the employees of a club equal or below Ismaily’s status, to grant the requests of these establishment pieces in maintaining any semblance of national order.
In times like these, considerations may be made over the potential ramifications of an Ismaily domestic triumph in the political volatility of the nation. Having lost only once this season – at home to Al-Ahly – amongst 11 victories and four draws, the team have assumed a structurally resolute guise, with only eleven goals conceded as the chasm between the elite and bedraggled gapes wider. Seven victories have been achieved by a mere single-goal margin, and five of those away; demonstrating resilience to the last, even amidst the vociferous hostility of reverberating venues across the nation. They have, however, been aided by Al-Ahly’s early-season profligacy in their charge to the Premier Division’s summit; the outfit with 377 senior international caps, and 21 past or present full international players drawing on the opening day against armed forces team Tala'ea El-Gaish SC and suffering a series of domestic postponements amidst their run to the African Champions League Final. This effort, and its ultimately unsuccessful conclusion – certainly when coupled with the discord of former Spurs academy striker Souleymane Coulibaly in criticising the oppressive Egyptian regime over social media, fleeing to England and the club’s subsequent complaint to FIFA – have only exacerbated the burdens that are inherited in the maintenance and reverence of such a dominant national reputation. They are the institution the populous, so fixated on football, particularly after the commanding World Cup Qualifying campaign that has led them to their first finals appearance since 1990, look to for stability and guidance. A hastily-arranged ‘peace against terrorism’ match against Atletico Madrid last weekend – inconsequentially lost 3-2 to the Spanish outfit – only demonstrates the geopolitical undertones of their very existence. Ismaily, in contrast, have few of these obligations, and little of the same expectation. It is doubtless that they will rely on further mistakes from the under-pressure 32-time champions, and revel in this.
What may yet halt their charge, conveniently, is the application of the establishment’s furore. Whether overt, or more immersed in the minutiae of whatever reality Egyptian sport can realistically rely on, the superiority of Al-Ahly, and eternal edict of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, will prove immensely challenging to usurp. These only add to the issues that El Essawi will encounter in imparting his influence on an evidently winning formula, and moulding it into an outfit that could genuinely be proclaimed as his champions, potentially. Although the Egyptian, and wider African, managerial market is notoriously volatile – Ismaily themselves employing 19 different managers in the past decade alone – and coaches educated in this system realise the reliance on short-term accomplishment, rarely are these figures parachuted in to a side vying with the titanic national force for a historic and administratively inflammatory title.
The lack of general concern over World Cup fitness, or even selection, amongst the Ismaily squad – given no player has been capped since January to February 2017’s Africa Cup of Nations by the Egyptian national team while playing for the Suez club, and only goalkeeper Mohamed Awad and midfielder Mohamed Fathi have even been called up by Héctor Cúper since – may prove a significant advantage, however. They can concentrate almost exclusively on league proceedings from here to May, and with strikers Diego Calderón (28, and with eight league goals to date) and Moussa Camara (23, the heftier of the two, and with two goals from seven appearances) in no particular danger of Colombian or Malian call-ups in the near future, only a drastic loss of form would radically derail any title charge. With 20 players having already partaken in at least 90 minutes of league action all season, and mainstays such as Awad, left-back Bahaa Magdy and right winger Ibrahim Hassan forming a reliable nucleus alongside central-midfield pairing Hosny (club captain) and Emad Hamdi, and the centre-back partnership of Ghanaian Richard Baffour and Mahmoud Metwaly, the framework at least exists for El Essawi to continue a prosperous present. Whether he opts to retain the single striker, largely 4-5-1, system professed by his acclaimed predecessor, or revert to a more expansive outlook is entirely shrouded in speculation as of yet, but such civil duties must be settled by January 30, for the visit to the Borg El Arab; a venue only reserved for Al-Ahly for their most prestigious games of any season. Aside from his ten games in charge at the end of last season, however, this stands as El Essawi’s first experience of top-tier Egyptian domestic management; only operating at three Second Division clubs, and most recently Al-Orouba, a competitive side close to the summit of the Oman Professional League, in the past. What he lacks in experience is not insurmountable, but given the circumstances of the situation he has been handed, a pragmatic perspective has to be adopted.
It would, however, be the ultimate victory for the Egyptian underdog – ironic, given the distinctive shadow that the Sphinx casts over national culture – were El Essawi, and his band of resolute, excelling players, to address the often-derided lack of silverware for all of Ismaily’s entertainment and determination. To honour the shirt, and each of its distinctive connotations, is for now all we can expect of this contingent, and whether that is powerful enough to defy rigid national establishments, well, will be revealed in a hotly anticipated final five months. God’s speed, Ismaily. Go forth and change your nation forever.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!