Picture a shipwreck. Bodies strewn, debris bobbing indifferently on the formidable surface. All is apparently still, yet a wave looms. Its cavernous shadow casts further and wider, further and wider, as preying albatross scatter and a crack of demonical thunder detonates with unholy force. The scene fades to black.
Eyes groggily blink open. Coarse sand soaks through the victim’s fingers. A saline backwash rushes over, a discontented shrimp exacting a smarting nip to the cadaver’s nose, and they are rudely awoken. Jolting upwards, they find what seems, at first glance, an island paradise. Palms slump disjointedly at bases, but firm as they reach a cloudless sky; their vast leaves carrying a gentle breeze across the deserted archipelago. A great thud lands to the distant left, and another soon after to the right. Bountiful coconut harvests are dropping with metronomic harmony. The reinvigorated body raises to its feet, strolling with golden particles between its toes as if for the first time. They break into a sprint, free of all worldly tribulations, and touch the forest floor. Evading flailing branches, imperceptible to all cacophonous chirrups and ca-caws, the sprint brings them ever closer to what unquestionably seems the islet’s very centre. They exhale deeply as paces come to a halt. Rough hands are rested on grazed, short-exposed knees and they crouch to regain breath. Unbeknownst, they scramble hopelessly for whatever foothold is possible, but their freefall begins; the trap door is open. Next time awoken, somehow, they are again cast away. These are the eyes of the perennial domestic champion. And so, the plot resets.
Their fellow floating passengers, long forgotten and deemed unlikely survivors, fare little better. As they reopen their gaze, they find themselves only coasting with the inevitable tide; laid out far at sea, with no land in any horizon. Feeble swimmers, they abandon all hope. Their fate condemns them to futile mutiny and disregarded demises.
This term, the role’s indignity falls, primarily, to Cyprus’ Ethnikos Achna, Greece’s Platanias, the Republic of Ireland’s Bray Wanderers, Wales’ Prestatyn Town, Luxembourg’s Union Esch FC, Austria’s SKN St. Pölten, Bulgaria’s Vitosha Bistritsa, Romania’s Juventus București, Turkey’s Kardemir Karabükspor, Israel’s Hapoel Ironi Akko and Russia’s SKA-Khabarovsk. Yet it is one under which they should aim to revel, and flourish. Let their superiors wallow in the filth of Champions League, or Europa League, riches; we all know where the genuine hotbeds of the sport lie.
The diversity of their ineptitude is truly astounding. The Eastern Mediterranean duo, stakeholders in the tumult of infamously compromised economies, hail from politically insignificant provincial villages; Ethnikos in Dasaki Achnas, the successor within the British military territory of Dhekelia to Achna, seized by Turkish troops in 1974 to become part of Northern Cyprus, while the sumptuous, tourist-dominated Cretan coastline plays host to football as despicable as its obesity rate. Bray and Prestatyn typify post-industrial British and Irish coastal economies when also reliant in quaint, suburban existence on tourism – in close proximity to Dublin and Merseyside – while Esch-sur-Alzette, as Luxembourg’s second ‘city’ and traditional footballing hub, evidently did not have room for a third club on its scene after Fola and Jeunesse, seven and 28-time champions. In modernised Sankt Pölten, Sofia-neighbouring Bistritsa, Bucharest, post-industrial Karabük, ancient harbour city Acre and Khabarovsk, dotting from central, gentrified E.U. heartland to the Russian city 20 miles from the Chinese border, economic negligence – either misdirected from national capitals, or deprived from lagging post-Communist progress – has rendered sporting achievement, especially among lesser outfits, of scant regard.
Though the recurrent gaffes prone even of sides in what are deemed the world’s most eminent divisions are relevant, they pale in comparison. As of 26 May, our chosen, vaulted few have accrued but 132 league points from 322 cumulative matches; a healthy return of roughly 0.41 points per game on average, with an overall goal swing of -508 (198 GF, 706 GA) equalling out at a deficit per game of -1.58. Embracing these destitute plains, at least. Esch, for example achieved just a single win and lone draw in the entirety of their 26-match season to be left 18 points adrift at the foot of the Luxembourgish table, while Vitosha went entirely winless, with eight draws amassed towards their total.
In all but the Greek instance, furthermore, titles comfortably followed expectations; Europa League semi-finalists Red Bull Salzburg 14 points ahead with one Austrian Bundesliga round remaining, APOEL Nicosia, Ludogorets Razgrad and F91 Dudelange a win or two’s length away from their closest challengers, Galatasaray extending their record Süper Lig haul to a 21st title, The New Saints celebrating their seventh consecutive Welsh title while relegating closest rivals Bangor City in the process and Hapoel Be’er Sheva adorning an ever-expanding trophy cabinet with their third consecutive Israeli championship. Even in former Communist heartlands – starkly more monetised by nature – if CFR Cluj and Lokomotiv Moscow did upset recent Liga I and Russian Premier League trends, their proximity to Bucureștean, or indeed inner-city, rivals (a point, and two, respectively, in final standings) would serve as a valuable commiseration for Steaua București and CSKA Moscow financiers. Thus, the stranglehold of the exclusive elite is complete. The self-fulfilling prophecy of dominance is unbroken – if not impenetrable, seldom permitting new entrants on a consistent and self-sustaining basis.
Need it be mentioned, a conformity to the erstwhile runs of a great many of these divisions is also evident. In the 2016-17 season, the Cypriot First Division’s two automatically demoted outfits accumulated just 12 points from 52 matches and what we only ponder as Russia’s answer to a certain GPS brand, Tom Tomsk, wound up with only 14 of their own from 30 outings. If devoid of true season-long drubbings, one certainty still applied in rebuttal of newly-promoted entities. Roundly, optimists had throats slit; the aforementioned Cypriots returning all three from whence they came, Drogheda United subjected to a familiar yo-yo in the League of Ireland, two of the three Luxembourg National League inductees immediately dispensed, two of a whole five Bulgarian B Group sides granted licences stripped of these, Adanaspor failing to make an impression on their Super Lig return, and Tom Tomsk and debutants Orenburg – of Siberia and the Ural mountains, respectively – fell to a swift Russian demise. Only by the narrowest of margins did St. Pölten survive the same fate, alongside ACS Poli Timișoara, Hapoel Ashkelon and Arsenal Tula of Romania, Israel and Russia, respectively.
When gazing down the navel of genuine European elites, such discrepancies jut out only in unique instances; North Ferriby in the English semi-professional ranks, the heavily docked Akragas, Rot-Weiß Erfurt and Achilles ‘29 in Italian, German and Dutch third tiers, FSV Luckenwalde in the Regionalliga Nordost, Raon l’Étape in the French step four, Brechin City in the Scottish Championship and a couple in both the amateur Highland/Lowland leagues and Portuguese third divisions. They wouldn’t begrudge remaining nameless.
Humberside, Sicily; equally desirable holiday destinations, but seldom linked, at least by the average travel agent, through financial deprivation. The former, hosting a village outfit whose entire Conference North existence was dependent on Allam family funds, and by November Hull owner Assam’s daughter Eman and her husband Steve Forster had fully wavered. An Ancient Greek colony by trade, the latter, at the southernmost extremity of the island – the ball to Italy’s boot – certainly got kicked around the courts this season, with all fifteen measly points rescinded in procedures concerning the failure to fulfil on mid-season payments of both players and staff. Medievally morphed, central Germany’s Erfurt had carved their reputation as the 3rd Liga’s survivors – the only club to have hosted all seasons since its 2008 inception – but fell to an unappreciated (let’s admit it, inevitable) demise this term; a fate shared by Achilles, whose heel was exposed when surrendering meekly to an amateur reprise and a second successive relegation.
Comparatively, these are petty concerns. Relinquishing influence gained under false pretences, these flagrant manipulators endure the wrath of the system quite fairly. In the Turin-owned – and, since capitalist overhauls, artificially repatriated – Romanians, the far-isolated Khabarovsks, the marginalised Luxembourgers and sleepy Western European ports, lowly standings are validated. They are ineffective, unpopular and alienated; the forgotten men. Yet they do not challenge their circumstances. Who dare argue this not to be a beautiful game?
These are not undeveloped leagues, either. According to 2016 UEFA statistics, Russia and Turkey are the immediate successors to Europe’s ‘big five’ in relation to average top division club revenues; €43.8 and €40.8 million, respectively. External to the European Union, these are the continent’s greatest economic arms. Lucrative investment schemes fund Luxembourg’s rise above post-Soviet states such as Armenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Moldova – albeit at just €0.7M per club – while Ireland, Israel, Bulgaria and Cyprus all perform admirably to exceed their relative size, aided by improving corporate milieus. Romania and Greece perhaps underperform given their stature, but a population diminished by economic migration and a calamitous recession do forgive such facts. The same report – The European Club Footballing Landscape for the 2016 financial year – however, evokes far more than social introspection. Squeezed out of the latter, or often even knockout, stages of elite competitions, the Scottish, Norwegians, Greeks and Ukrainians have all made six-year net financial losses in their premier divisions. Driven by rapid downturns in gate receipts – average revenue, across all 54 UEFA constituent states, increasing 9% in this area only due to ever-increasing exclusivity and stadium redevelopments in England and Spain while 19 states saw attendances fall – and scarce enhancement in televisual demand (29 of the same 54 leagues deriving less than 5% of their income from broadcasting deals as England draw 46% and Italy 51%) it appears the digitalisation of the sport, coupled with the filtration of commercial expertise at the very top, has left lesser states far adrift. The top twelve teams in Deloitte’s annual Football Money League only strengthen their hegemony with the regularity of publication; in the 2016 financial year, over 60% of increased sponsorship revenues enjoyed by this V.I.P. band, along with 50% of growth in commercial income.
By all accounts, then, the accessibility of the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga has fed the deprivation of domestic products unable to compete. While UEFA have enacted an otherwise laudable expansion of reward payments in their two continental competitions – omitting, largely, the impact of fatigue on those regularly involved deep into the competition, alongside other domestic and international cups, à la Real Madrid – their saturation of lesser divisions has pulverised competition to a near-unbreakable divide. While previously exempt from the competition, Armenian, Albanian, Gibraltarian and Latvian Champions League preliminary stage qualifiers can now reinforce their dominance in a ruthless manner; Alashkert streaming to three consecutive titles, Skënderbeu Korçë successful in seven of the past eight seasons, Lincoln Red Imps 15 of the last 16 and FK Ventspils, though not so prolific, only falling from the Latvian top three for the first time in over twenty years in 2017, with six titles between 2006 and 2014 succumbing to greater powers in Riga and Jūrmala. All four nations received 50% of divisional income through exploits of individual clubs on the prestigious stage – only Ukraine and Croatia, of all higher nations, have equal returns.
FC København, Qarabağ, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Istanbul’s boisterous brethren, when consistently emerging through a desperate broth of lesser domestic victors, have altered the map of UEFA payments. In Denmark, Azerbaijan, Israel and Turkey, revenue from involvements have increased by an astounding 938, 107, 619 and 136 per cent. In comparison, Italy, Portugal and Russia are the only across all 54 states to suffer diminished values, and marginal proportions at this. As administrative prosperity only brings further grand rewards from 2018/19, the trend cannot reverse. The self-fulfilling prophecy finds fewer and fewer caveats.
Unless economic expansion and broadcasting revenue washes over these states with the unbounded optimism propelling post-Soviet economies, there is little to be done. To be placed so tantalisingly close to the pots of UEFA-derived riches is, irreconcilably, more a curse than a blessing. When spared scant mercy, as new arrivals or even as decrepit, underachieving, guards find, recurrent floggings are of little joy. Symptomatic only of divisions with vast financial inequalities between two or three dominant forces and the globular, inseparable remnants, revenues will remain low and authorities reinforced. Leicester City may beg to differ, but since their nostalgic triumph, much has changed. The same mistake will never be made by the establishment again, it seems.
Though it is in the English and Spanish interest to maintain omnipotent internal rivalry, their respective policies – piecemeal, by comparison with the radical formation of the Premier League and announcement of unprecedented TV deals – towards this do not focus on those at the top, but instead those with no hopes of title contention. The former’s drip-fed monetisation of the Championship bolsters their resources by churning unpredictability outside of the modern ‘big six’, ensuring that even the most minor of administrative faults will be harshly punished, while the latter’s gradual dispersion of long-hegemonised broadcasting income will encourage, as evident this season, the reprise of Villareal and Valencia, joined by Real Betis, Eibar and the likes jostling for Europa League berths. These are not empowering or honest – they are patronising, and hints of subterfuge.
The solution to the issue amongst our marginalised underlings is not, as they appear inclined, to restrict their elite. Since 2016, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Montenegro, Ukraine, and most radically Georgia, have all streamlined their top divisions. The only positive result yet visible is Qarabağ’s advancement to the Champions League group stage. The absolute intentions of the ploy are surely to carve out more sustainable livings for each who remained involved in premier competitions, yet a decrease in supporter enthusiasm is surely the internal repercussion. As evident in Scotland, Hungary, Croatia and all three Baltic states, the appetite for three or four turns in domestic competition – as opposed to the two-round structures favoured by 17 nations, including all of the big five – is, if alive at all, seldom proclaimed. Illogical administration, starving constituents of the public zeal so evident as the forerunner to a sustainable financial outlook, is just the first of their concerns.
The lax management of Financial Fair Play, though not the most immediate thought of these sides, by UEFA has done little to ease the brutal monopoly of a select class either. If leniency is the existential dogma, sides of the meteoric rises of the Arabian peninsula’s Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City will, with impatient financiers, examine the length of the law. Either in terms of overdue UEFA payments, breaching break-even restrictions or flagrant over-expenditure, domestic victors past and present in 13 states (Italy, France, England, Portugal, Croatia, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Russia and particularly Turkey) have all been closely investigated. With the exception of Anzhi Makhachkala, FC Rostov, Bursaspor, Ruch Chorzów, Hull City and, interestingly, Karabükspor, all other 27 instrumental outfits remain, if not assured of natural berths, in close contention for Champions League positions.
What separates those weeded out and the survivors, simply, is the matter already addressed. They fought the law and the law won. Institutional orders are now UEFA’s trademark – in upcoming proceedings, it will be fascinating to view how Everton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and if finally due an ownership overhaul West Ham United, attempt to combat the ever-entrepreneurial English big six from lofty placements in Deloitte’s compilations. Even through these challenges, 2018/19 will not cast doubt in UEFA HQ. With ten qualifying places reduced to just six in the Champions League and Spain, England, Germany and Italy each offered a fourth automatic group stage place, the Europa League receives the offcuts. Little will here be done to restore the reputation of the latter; derided by elitist Western Europeans and scorned by inferior victims of the mincer. Shamefully, for UEFA’s long-fostered vision, they are excluding the majority of their constituents. There are no surprises here. Their perpetual subservience to the upper echelons, however, should shock – having left all others with the sole resort of localism. CSKA Sofia, roaring back onto their true arena, had adopted an all-Bulgarian recruitment policy under sporting director and former international Hristo Yanev, and if deprived of continental funds, similarly displaced clubs will have little choice but to retreat from the globalist trends for which England has much to answer. One line they will not cross, however, is the subservience Red Star, Partizan, Steaua and Dinamo Zagreb subjected themselves to as Londoners, Madrilenians and Romans et al, carved up the morsels of continental victory in the early 1990s. Talent will not escape the hands of these new regimes unless explicitly necessary; their defiance, let alone pride, is impervious to competitive embarrassment.
We should not be exposing deficiencies, but embracing them. These are mortal clubs run by mortal servants with no pompous legacies, only exhausted histories. They deserve our deepest respects rather than ridicule. You need not refute the continental drive for impassable dominance, inherent of the heightened and globalised iteration of capitalism we revel in, to mark moral voids in the modern European form. We only need recognise the plight of those left behind, and to pursue it as the major implication of our age – the latter of which, UEFA is evidently incapable of. It is far from inevitable that this should be the case. Whether it takes philanthropic collective action to force an unlikely charitable hand from Nyon, or to raise totemic opponents back to their feet, it is not unrealistic to state that power is in public hands. If the demand returns for the depths of greatness to be spread, with desperate point returns as here viewed raising publicity, UEFA will most certainly act on each lucrative proposition. If those betrayed by the institution in the past are reticent to revamped prospects, it is both understandable and a grand shame. For such rifts to be healed may take yet another generation’s engagement with the global community – an impossibility if forefathers are to repel outsiders. Essentially, the sport – in every single capacity – must decide how its present era is to be remembered. Its inefficiencies, impracticalities and uncertainties are what make it human, but also those which hinder its full potential; a potential that may not be bountiful for all, but can certainly be for so many more.
The foreboding remnants of ancient empires. World-renowned geological and architectural wonders. Richly diverse cultural legacies, both from its long-distant Andean chiefdoms and modern urban endeavours. Few ‘gap yaaaaah’ backpackers or portentous intellectual elites could resist Peru, from its nightlife in Lima to its grandiose constructs in Cuzco and nearby Machu Picchu, or even the floating Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca and the geographical contrasts between oft-disregarded stakes of both the Atacama Desert and Amazon Rainforest.
A hotbed for political fracas, social unrest and still fraught with gross economic imbalances like many other South American neighbours, however, exposure to today’s Peru could bring a stark realisation. No longer is this the Incan centrepiece, the conquistadors’ Spanish requisitioning or another revolutionary achievement of Simón Bolívar, nor largely even the treacherous 20th century conflict zone – let alone the ‘deepest, darkest’ lands popularised by Michael Bond’s famous bear. As the nation now writhes in a seminal self-image, their stage arises to proclaim new visions. Only one small issue; the chief protagonist is detained in an externally-imposed void…
For any outfit to emerge from CONMEBOL qualifiers is, famously, a supreme achievement itself in preparation for any World Cup. Very rarely has any nation stormed to the front of the pack on both this, and the next year the world, stage, and though Tite’s squad may well defy this precedent in Russia, there stands little viability of a repeat performance in Qatari qualies. Brazilian assurances aside, Peruvian aspirations had long been deprived of patriotic glory until this campaign, and the breakthrough tenure of Ricardo Gareca.
The pivot of their three-year campaign, in the notorious altitude of La Paz, arrived in curious circumstances. Only its preceding events, however, could render the ‘victory’ more emphatic. Argentina’s Gareca had only been installed ahead of the 44th Copa América and long-anticipated return to World Cup qualifying ordeals in February 2015, and in his first calendar year had achieved respectable, if lately marred, results; unveiling as the surprise package of the Copa with a third-place finish and defeats only to Brazil and hosts, and eventual victors, Chile, yet unravelling in emphatic WC qualifying defeats to these two and Colombia. Despite posting three points from an interspersing 1-0 victory over Paraguay, in the March 2016 window hope was realistically restored in the midst of André Carrillo’s eventual ten-month internal suspension during contract disputes at Sporting Lisbon and Jefferson Farfán’s injury issues after an injury-time equaliser against perennial tournament bystanders Venezuela and luckless 1-0 defeat to Uruguay. Again, a positive Copa América excursion – the Centenario, hosted in the USA for the first time – in which a first victory since 1985 over the continent’s dominatrix, spelling the end of Dunga’s Seleção reign, was followed with an unfortunate quarter-final penalty exit to Colombia, offered momentum. This time around, there was no reneging on their promise.
Not in the most appealing circumstances, granted, but the insurgency began; nothing, apparently, like a rivalry with bordering Bolivia – unfairly often construed as minnows – to offset discontent. What seemed to have ended in a hard-fought but ultimately deserved 2-0 capitulation to the in-form hosts resulted, amidst a two-month investigation privy only to the relevant FIFA panels, in Bolivian midfielder Nelson Cabrera ruled ineligible for the meeting in the first place, and the customary 3-0 awarded to Peru. Had Cabrera not entered the field as an 82nd-minute substitute, the technicality would not have arisen. The one-time Paraguayan player, however, also breached citizenship regulations – only residing in his adopted nation for four of the five years required – in a subsequent 0-0 stalemate with Chile. The Chileans had less to gain from another 3-0 bestowal from FIFA HQ, and soon Peru – a point to the good – would seize on their historic rivals’ mental fragility.
Though blissfully unaware of manic Zurich investigations, Gareca’s side demonstrated their pride in dogged, and potentially campaign-affirming, consecutive achievements in Lima. First, and only five days after their La Paz misery, came the dismissal of a stringent Ecuadorian challenge – 2-1 – before in early October the Argentines came waltzing in. Following draws in Paraguay and Venezuela and an opening day defeat to Ecuador, Albiceleste royalty was on display for this event; Dybala, Higuaín, Di María, Agüero, Mascherano, Kranevitter, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Rojo, Zabaleta and Romero. Under-fire coach Edgardo Bauzo had invested his resources entirely in this meeting, yet the vital ingredient, or at least he who would redeem himself as such in later engagements, was lacking; Lionel Messi absent through injury. The Peruvians held them to a 2-2 draw in the Andes, and the rest is very much history. As far as twelve points from an unbeaten final six matches, with impetus from a heroic comeback in Venezuela and 2-1 defeat of a star-studded Uruguay crescendoing into a final round alignment of four results in Sao Paolo, Quito, Asuncion and of course Lima, giving the side a play-off place ahead of Chile by two goals, can be regarded as a narrative deserving of succinct devaluing, that is.
Though not entirely the chief asset of their run – one of four players to bag three of more goals – Paolo Guerrero, with 69 caps and 27 goals prior to the subsequent 18 matches of qualifying, was no doubt the symbolic spearhead of their forays – ensuring a romantic event when his 75th minute free-kick against Colombia won qualification, only dampened by the official recognition of the effort as a David Ospina own-goal. There were few signs of an apparent transition into old age for the rambunctious number nine, or a potential international retirement if World Cup qualification did outlast him; playing every single minute of all but three matches, while promoted to captain in eight of the last eleven ties. As news fed through to high command in Lima of doping-related sanctions imposed by FIFA – a twelve-month ban that would result not only in absence from the pivotal inter-continental play-offs against New Zealand, but from Russia if the rest of the squad made safe passage – specifically involving traces of cocaine, before a 0-0 draw in Argentina in the nation’s penultimate qualifier, the nation was shocked to its core. How could the icon of Peru, a striker who spent the entirety of his senior career abroad but was adored for carrying patriotic spirit to Munich, Hamburg, São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, be accused of such indecency, especially given the uneasy history of doping, CONMEBOL and FIFA? ¡No es possible!
An inevitable appeal followed from the outraged Federación Peruana de Futbol (FPF), with FIFA flexible in retrospect, and perhaps with one eye on Russia, preaching sympathy in what opponents may have deemed a cynical six-month reduction, resulting in expiration on 3 May. What the FPF may not have accounted for, however, was the influence of Wada – the World Anti-Doping Agency – who had initially campaigned to extent the striker’s punishment to two years of international football, and after FIFA’s backtracking pounced. Rather than making a glorious last-minute return to the fold then, the day after the expiration of Guerrero’s ban a tribunal came to Switzerland, with his testimony, arguing for all prior sanctions to be set aside, drawing pleading crowds to Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) headquarters in Lausanne less than a fortnight before all provisional 35-man squads would have to be submitted. Eleven days after the trial began, the conclusion fell against Guerrero, much to the vitriolic dismay of FPF fans. Ultimately, the court’s controversial statement – referencing the ingestion of such banned substances through a cup of regionally habitual coca tea – read “the panel considered that the player did bear some fault or negligence, even if it was not significant, and that he could have taken some measures to prevent him from committing the ADRV (anti-doping rule violation).” Thereby, by FIFA rulings, the ban was to align with the belief of Wada, at an extent between a year and two, and ended in a 14-month ruling. Although six months of that ban have already been served, that is of scant consolation to the 34-year-old.
Either way, it is not Guerrero alone that defines Peru’s ranking as 11th, interestingly, in both FIFA and Elo-determined lists. While it is certainly true that Gareca’s tactics will be altered by the wholly unforeseeable loss – his only other genuine striker, 5 ft 5 in Raúl Ruidíaz, hardly a fitting comparison – a surely unarguable status as CONMEBOL’s fifth, or at the very least sixth, greatest present side remains. While Uruguay are yet to even progress beyond the quarter-finals of the Copa América since 2011’s edition and in the previous four World Cup qualifiers were forced to resort to the inter-continental play-off, with 2010’s semi-final placing merely a virtue of disgraced Luis Suarez duplicity, and Colombia are yet to truly deliver on the promise that a José Pékerman-trained generation including James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Bacca are beginning to relinquish when failing to exploit consecutive Brazil failures in the Copa, few could argue caveats to Peru’s reprise.
As the fallen Dunga, Bauzo, and previous Argentine incumbent Gerardo Martino, can attest, the cost of ill-performance can seldom be afforded across the politically vulnerable, but football-revolving, continent. Few would lament the FPF for lowering their barometer of success this summer, but Gareca will surely ensure the same exacting standards.
A Buenos Aires native from birth to the height of his playing, and indeed managerial, endeavours, the now-60-year-old is alone notable for his stints with four particular clubs; Boca Juniors, Vélez Sarsfield, América de Cali and Independiente. Were it not for the string of more recent playing servants appointed by boyhood club Boca and the outstanding hauls of city patriarch Carlos Bianchi at both the Xeneizes and Vélez – where Gareca was fortunate enough to return, and win three domestic titles – he could have completed a surely unprecedented act in both running and *ahem* walking out for four different clubs in playing and managerial capacities. It was, and soon appears, a poetic prophecy not to be, but securing Peru’s first place at a World Cup since 1982 seems an acceptable compromise on which to settle.
Sacrificing his own position in the eventually victorious 1986 Argentine squad – having to that point accrued 20 caps – in a tumultuous preceding season, with a vitriol-inciting short-lived move across the cultural divides from Boca to River Plate followed by a transfer to the aforementioned Colombian outfit Cali, Gareca’s career could potentially be full of regrets. He, however, was not to know the implications of an admittedly prolific, but internally unfavoured, stint in Colombia’s third largest city, or aware that a scrambled 80th minute equaliser, arriving as a substitute to bolster the ranks of Diego Maradona, Jorge Valdano, Jorge Burruchaga et al. in qualifying for the Mexico-based tournament against, ironically, Peru, would be both his last shot and appearance for his country.
Furthermore, condemning his future employers to the first of eight arduous consecutive World Cup qualification failures, Gareca’s career remains unquestionably fraught with consequential contradictions. Prior to the goal-line finish that confirmed the passage for Maradona’s eventual mastery – ‘Hand of God’ included – at stages such as the Azteca, his opponents would have anticipated a fifth finals appearance of their own. A 1-0 victory in Lima a week earlier had given the relatively stuttering Peruvians – a draw and defeat to a renewed Colombia perhaps connoting changing continental tides – the symbolic result to surely represent South America, after three appearances at the last four global meets, once again, but with the otherwise free-scoring Albiceleste in hot pursuit, only victory at the Estadio Monumental (epic both by name and nature for this occasion) would suffice. Instead, a draw left their fate in the hands of what would amount to two play-off rounds if they were to make an appearance. Offence-obsessed rivals Chile arose and deposed without mercy; 5-2 over two legs.
Los Potrillos (The Colts) symbolised the new grand ambition; a generation of Alianza Lima players, frustrated by their inability to proffer a Primera División, or more colloquially Descentralizado, title, invested in to guide a return to glory. Instead, disaster struck. Bound for a first Descentralizado trophy, they fell to the lowest ebb in the nation’s footballing heritage. On 8 December 1987, 43 people, including 33 team representatives – manager Marcos Calderón, combining responsibilities with second spell as Peru helmsman after a 1975 Copa America title and 1978 World Cup Second Round exit, all four other coaches, all four directors, eight cheerleaders, three referees, six crewmembers, one Navy official and every single one of the sixteen players that had secured a 1-0 win at Deportivo Pucallpa only hours earlier – tragically lost their lives in one of Peru’s worst ever air disasters. Just six miles from their destination – the nation’s main airport, Jorge Chávez International, in the port city of Callao – a crash into the Atlantic could not be recovered by local search and rescue teams as black-market trades had seen the day’s petrol allowance sold off. Much more than a political message, however, the event sent social shockwaves rippling not only through Peruvian streets, but also the worldwide footballing fraternity; the competitive fallout, with bitter Lima rivals Universitario de Deportes swooping in as the Descentralizado pressed on after barely a month’s hiatus, inconsequential in the inconsolable context. A deprived national team would, a first friendly meeting and 3-1 loss to Canada aside, enter international reclusion for the subsequent nine months. The once-chiming bells of patriotic fortune fell silent.
What little hope remained of emerging above world champions Argentina, 1989 Copa America victors Brazil and a Carlos Valderrama and René Higuita-inspired Colombia in forthcoming qualification phases now completely dispersed. Until the late 1990s, even regaining a foothold was challenging enough in a scene of ruthless improvement continuing around them; before Italia ’90, they lost all four matches against Uruguay and Bolivia, in an expanded system in 1994 preliminaries they again went winless from six matches against Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay, albeit salvaging some pride from a final-day draw against the latter. Along came 1998, and for CONMEBOL the abolition of the seedings and group system to be replaced with a straight round robin; Peru thrived, and were it not for a Round 17 4-0 defeat in Chile, would likely have overcome their rivals rather than be ousted on a heavy goal difference deficit, largely imposed by the rampant Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas for La Roja. 2002 represented another step back, however, with 14 measly goals from 18 matches ensuring they finished as lowest scorers, albeit staved from last place by Venezuela and an underwhelming Chile, and 2006 showed scarce progress while placing ninth in somewhat of a low-scoring rat race; *only* eight of nine away ties ending in defeat. 2010, once again flogged on their travels and once again lowest scorers. Their tally dropped to just 11, and unsurprisingly their result to the very wooden spoon; the ultimate ignominy of their existence after everything that had preceded this cause. Bolivia and Paraguay’s anticipated failures paved the way for some form of credible relapse ahead of the first tournament since 1978 on their own continent, but much more was required. Besides, where else was there to go from rock bottom?
A man – no mere mortal, the most famous modern Peruvian exponent – who will appreciate more than most the achievement of the nation is Claudio Pizarro. A diligent serviceman from 1999 to 2016, and at 39 years young still in club action – the sprightly whippersnapper – his 85 caps, I’m certain, would have resulted in many more than the unreasonable 20 goals he achieved had he not been hindered by wider psychological failings. The most prolific foreign player ever in the Bundesliga, and the fifth most successful goalscorer of all, with 192 strikes, Pizarro had every right to emerge as a historic icon of La Blanquirroja, yet was spurned by an unfit system. His tenure was only symptomatic, however. Over 36 years of hurt – the first decade particularly prone to visceral pangs – one can only imagine the number of players who encountered hardship without any sufficient reward, and the careers whose chief regret lay in the fate of their patriotic exploits.
At first, Peruvian football lacked this resounding focus. The sport introduced, as in many other burgeoning post-independence South American states, by British businessmen and returning Peruvian labourers as the patrons of multi-sport facilities in Callao’s ports and Lima’s backstreets had immediately profound impacts on the formative culture of the continent’s mountainous west coast. Lima Cricket and Football Club was the first club to arise, as early as 1859, and hereby claims to be the most historic institution of its kind in the entirety of the Americas. Ciclista Lima Association, Callao’s Atlético Chalaco, Alianza Lima and Cuzco’s Cienciano all followed at the turn of the 20th century and acted as mainstays of the seminal Liga Peruana from 1912, while a flurry of strongly individual outfits sprang up from north to south in the subsequent three decades. In a conflict of identities and interests that rose to the disbanding of the Liga in 1922, however, came the need for central organisation in the form of the FPF and the Primera División. An imperfect structure, certainly, at first the league saw various early casualties, but also gave birth to what would ensue as the nation’s greatest rivalry between Alianza – the elitist institution owned by two-time President, former New York insurance executive and horse racing enthusiast Augusto B. Leguía – and Universitario, representing the intellectuals of the National University of San Marcos, the Americas’ oldest established university. Their competition, alongside Chalaco, drove the national team at this stage, with involvement in the 1930 World Cup and politically conspicuous 1936 Olympics assuring their place amongst the world’s most competitive sides.
Rebuffed, seemingly to salvage some Nazi pride in the latter tournament, their 4-2 extra time victory over Austria’s much-fancied Wunderteam only a day after Germany’s 2-0 exit to Norway at the quarter-final stage was annulled after an Austrian appeal on grounds of a post-match pitch invasion – refused entry a meeting adjudicating on a replay, they ensured this match never took place as, alongside Colombia’s contingent, their protest involved leaving Germany. Though originating from colonial intervention, from this point forth South America’s relationship with European athletics committees – one healed somewhat by the foundation of the World Cup, but undermined by Jules Rimet’s decision to betray a pledge to host World Cups alternately between the two continents with the 1938 event taken to his native France, with Peru amongst ten other Americas nations to withdraw or refuse to enter qualifying – was never again to be one of inequality or prejudice. Peru was a footballing nation founded on its ties with far-travelling tradesmen, but now they stood on their own two feet.
Entering a professionalised era in 1951, their respectable performances in the South American Championships, Bolivarian Games, Pan-American Championship and Pacific Cup – albeit with victories only in the latter, certainly the most politically volatile against the despised Chileans – ensured a relatively seamless transition. As Europe predominated the post-war era, a cultural hiding the South Americans were hardly isolated from, but during which they were overcome by border disputes as opposed to ideological opposition, both the Olympics and World Cup evaded Peruvian grasps. Obdurate figures on the global stage, for all else that occurred, until Rimet’s departure from the FIFA Presidency – thus refusing to partake in 1950 and ’54 qualification campaigns – their return to the fold was rendered challenging in consecutive 2-1 aggregate defeats to Brazil and Colombia, before trailing Uruguay in 1966 preliminaries.
Ten managers had tried and failed to alter this fate since 1945. Twice a World Cup champion with Brazil, Didi – a clean-cut “Ethiopian Prince” who burst onto the post-war Brazilian scene as a long-necked midfielder with supreme offensive ability as the first exponent of the folha seca (dry leaf, or knuckleball) free-kick and the term more popularly attached to international teammate Pelé, ‘The Beautiful Game’ – arrived to remedy this. Overshadowed not only by his nation’s cultural icon but also by Alfredo Di Stéfano in a short-lived move to Real Madrid after his standout 1958 World Cup campaign, the son of Campos dos Goytacazes’ streets started his managerial career in modest circumstances with Sporting Cristal, twice winners of the Primera División but also a growing force in Lima. A Descentralizado title in his first season, and appointment at La Blanquirroja soon followed. Overcoming Argentina in qualifying and translating the relentless 4-2-4 philosophy that incorporated many of the technical assets they had long shared with their Brazilian counterparts to results in Mexico, their quarter-final departure came only at the hands of what are reasonably esteemed as the tournament’s greatest ever side; Jairzinho, Rivellino, Tostão, Carlos Alberto and, of course, kingpin Pelé leading Brazil’s charge. Didi left for lands of plenty, yet thus began the window of national opportunity.
Teófilo Cubillas, just 21 years old in Mexico, exploited titles as ‘Best Young Player’ in Mexico and 1972’s South American Footballer of the Year during a prolific young career at Alianza to burst onto the European club scene with ease; Basel and Porto, bastions of the sport, struck by the prodigiousness of Peru, revived qualities who began exporting en masse. Revenge for a replay defeat to Chile in 1973, after home and away ties could not force a result, was enacted with eventually rampant qualification success for 1978, and with the aforementioned Marcos Calderón helming the latter effort, and Brazilian Tim, in his final managerial position, assuming the mantle in 1982, outstanding rosters and tactical approaches featured heavily, but both times were left devoid of recognition. In Argentina, despite emerging victorious from a First Round group of Scotland, Iran and the Netherlands, their end to the tournament came in a 6-0 defeat to their hosts; as only a four-goal victory would suffice to reach the final, a match still dogged with accusations of bribery by the military junta. In Spain, they were consigned to humiliation with a 5-1 defeat to Poland condemning draws with Cameroon and Italy. The generation of fleet-footed, quick-witted and globally noteworthy Peruvians – a multicultural squad, with influences from the Spanish joined by Italian, East Asian and African ancestries, by historical reason or force – lay spoiled and discarded. Only when hope was crushed in ’86 and the events of 1987 cruelly amassed could the dejection of a proudly visceral land rise.
If to validate their past, Gareca’s contingent – famed wingers Farfán and Carrillo, São Paolo creative livewire Christian Cueva, Flamengo left-back Alberto Rodríguez and Aalborg flank-hugger Edison Flores serving as the eye-catching qualities while captain and centre-back Alberto Rodríguez, Orlando defensive midfielder Yoshimar Yotún and Mexican side Veracruz’s goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and defender Christian Ramos engineer proceedings – will find their task in Russia as imperative to a nation’s psyche. For so long have Peru’s constant failures, entirely dismissive of genuine worldly talents, facilitated social stagnation and typified a corrupted political structure; post-1990 Presidents Alberto Fujimori, Alejandro Toledo, Alan García and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski all fraught with various cases of bribery and moral negligence in their struggling services. In Russia, there is no shirking the ambition invested by opponents, but this is not where Peruvian fault lines lay. Global perceptions must be irked and the nation asserted as a notable force, and the vital factor here is self-confidence. Few stimuli, fortunately, could have underlined this more than Guerrero’s pejorative ruling. Granted, they have procured a World Cup spot from New Zealand and ousted Croatian and Icelandic ambition in friendlies in the meantime. A remodified system professing Farfán and Carrillo as joint marksmen cannot emulate the exploits of a nation’s record goalscorer and icon in what was intended as a fitting flourish, but it can still harness unmatched optimism. They possess support like few others, and a history of turmoil without compare. If no one is to be convinced of their cause, they will happily revert to autonomy. A winning mentality has returned. This is Peru. This is a pulse that will never relent.
A land of relentless, if modest, innovation and integrity, Denmark serves as a welcome addition and an integral aspect of only the second tri-Nordic representation at a World Cup tournament this summer. Encapsulated within their material identity – the slogan En Del af Noget Større, translating as ‘A part of something bigger’, sewn reverentially into their apparel for Russian exploits – an ancient and universally conscious philosophy, coveted throughout national history, will descend upon their first forays into a much-altered international scene since underwhelming 2010-2012 group stage exits.
This summer, competitive admission will be of no small importance for all involved in the Dansk Boldspil-Union’s (DBU) fortunes. On face value, the equation is simple; intermittent modern qualifiers deemed beyond their mid-1990s peak, the oft-devalued Danes aim to affirm internal reform in only their fifth World Cup finals appearance. Delving deeper, however, the idiosyncratic value of Danish sporting, and more so social, toils unveils numerous evident investments that must pay off.
Pre-emptive misconceptions of local destinies will doubtless be rewritten in 2018. Embracing the fulsome assets a politically accountable migration policy allows for, the true ethnic diversity – though paling to the circumstances of many fellow UEFA qualifiers – of a culturally remodifying North Sea peninsula will first come to the fore for a Danish, and arguably Scandinavian, squad on the most prestigious stage conceivable. Near-lifelong English resident Kasper Schmeichel, respectively Albanian and Gambian-derived full-back Riza Durmisi and centre-back Mathias Jørgensen, Ugandan-born talisman Pione Sisto (of South Sudanese heritage) and Guyanese, Tanzanian and Ivorian-fathered strikers Martin Braithwaite, Yussuf Poulsen and Kenneth Zohore each feature in and amongst the DBU’s Norwegian helmsman Åge Hareide’s relatively formative regime as second-generation, or in Schmeichel’s enigmatic case distanced, nationals at the forefront of patriotic selection. Not only that, but theirs forays in elite European club competitions consolidate personal entrepreneurship, and Danish youth institutions, as rivalling any throughout UEFA’s ranks.
Though renewed, the Danish will be far from unrecognisable in Russia. Unapologetic in their reliance on a long-serving spine (consisting of Schmeichel, captain Simon Kjær, defensive midfielder William Kvist, the 77-time-capped Christian Eriksen and cult hero Nicklas Bendtner, who has himself amassed 81 appearances), De Rød-Hvide’s – Red-Whites – legacy from former steward Morten Olsen is in equal respects honourable, both to the heralded coach and his former players, and indicative, perhaps, of a relatively shallow talent pool. Though perhaps reasonable when drawing from minimal demographic capacity – a population of roughly 5.8 million entering as the sixth lowest of all competing nations this summer, while Index Mundi assesses nearly 20% of this as an over-65 demographic – prior minnow achievements render this rhetoric obsolete; amongst those below them this summer by population, 2014 quarter-finalists Costa Rica, two-time victors Uruguay and, fresh from a QF exit in Euro 2016, this year’s debutants Iceland.
Before being deposed amidst failure to reach an expanded Euro 2016, Olsen had, in the context of the modern era, maintained patriotic pre-eminence for an inconceivable age. So fleeting was the ultimate closure of his managerial reign, when ousted by Sweden, or more noticeably Zlatan Ibrahimović, in an underwhelming late-2015 qualification play-off, that the 45 years, albeit intermittently, spent in various guises pivotal to the DBU struck onlookers as both unduly abrupt and insincerely emotional. Though deprived of a fitting send-off, the then-66-year-old would nonetheless recognise, given all of his service, the priority of the nation above any one individual. Results long since awry, and questions of succession ever-intensifying, the incomparable incumbent was dethroned, chiefly, with the dignity he deserved.
Not a single figure involved in Danish football would forego the service Olsen had extended, however, when recounting where his reign was upended. Captain, as for roughly half of his 102-cap international career, of the nation’s first ever World Cup squad in 1986, in addition to only the nation’s second and third European Championship contingents of 1984 and ’88, in his first managerial task leading Brøndby to consecutive Danish league titles, and almost the 1990-91 UEFA Cup final, with a squad that featured through four members – John ‘Faxe’ Jensen, Kim Vilfort, Kim Christofte and Mogens Krogh – in the renowned events of Euro 1992 and since the very turn of the millennium permanently entangled with every act the DBU persevered through, he had long since been cemented as the absolute national pinnacle. Never equipped with the technical prowess of the trailblazing Finn Laudrup, and alienated by era, moreover, by the striker’s finely-tuned and inherently privileged offspring – brothers Michael and Brian – alongside fellow profiteers of Laudrup Snr’s pioneering early-1970s exploits in Ajax midfield alumni Jan Mølby, Jesper Olsen and Søren Lerby and fellow one-time Manchester United full-back John Sivebæk; even in spite of his disadvantaged physical qualities, the Vordingborg-born defensive midfielder remained steadfast as an imperceptible, straight-laced icon of patriotic tradition throughout. Even today, fascination around the innermost contextual factors of such a career ensure its enduring appeal.
Belying the relationship Olsen grew with son Michael as manager, and later colleague, of arguably the nation’s finest ever product, Finn Laudrup affirmed a reputation as the total antipathy to Olsen at a time of great change within Scandinavian, and even European, football. A prodigy born into post-war Frederiksberg – the affluent enclave of Copenhagen, formerly a flagship Danish Royal residency – Laudrup had joined local 2nd Division outfit Vanløse as a 17-year-old and impressed sufficiently not only to be able to surrender his right to national team recognition by becoming a professional overseas, but also to trust his promise; having just turned 23, signing for Austria’s historic and highly respected Wiener Sport-Club. Firing them to consecutive runners-up finishes in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 Austrian Football Championship, he returned an icon to grace the gentrified Danish capital in the form of Brønshøj, a relatively lucrative stint as player-manager of an ambitious yet relatively unknown nine-year-old Brøndby and a four-year employment at Kjøbenhavns Boldklub (KB), where coincidentally 1st Division titles were won two seasons prior, and a season hence, from his involvement, and followed by Michael at the latter outfit, his legacy was sealed.
As aforementioned, Olsen lacked the testimony of an outstanding goalscoring contribution, and furthermore the background, to ever dazzle the realms of professionalism. Tucked inside the various southern archipelagos at the base of the nation’s largest island Zealand, the sleepy ferry town of Vordingborg – though then harbouring a second player of national team pedigree in Birger Pedersen, who made his debut only two matches earlier in 1970 – remains far more famous for its ties to national stately history in the formation of its imposing Castle as the foremost defensive fortress of expansive 12th century tendencies. Plying his trade as a local amateur until B 1901 – now Nykøbing FC – elevated him to 1st Division football as a winger-turned-midfielder at the relatively delayed age almost of 21, certain talents were not left externally unnoticed and, when recommended by Rød-Hvide teammate Benny Nielsen, by 1972, Cercle Brugge recruited his services.
In a similarly amateur Belgian First Division, where he would eventually entertain 12 years of his playing career, the fundamental principles of Olsen’s approach flourished while employed in a flexible variance of positions; following Nielsen to reigning champions Racing White Daring (RWD) Molenbeek in 1976 before, again in a delayed pursuit of Nielsen, joining Anderlecht in 1980. Professionalisation was now in full flow, both in his native and adopted homelands. Entrusted with a retracted libero role in triple-title-winning manager Tomislav Ivić’s seismic strategy, he played a key role in the club’s 1983 UEFA Cup final victory before a missed spot-kick, when stepping up first, in the deciding penalty shoot-out of the subsequent season’s final against Tottenham proved decisive. Nonetheless promoted to Brussels-based captaincy in a squad that would feature closely in Belgium’s captivating 1986 World Cup campaign, his seemingly unperturbed consistency – even at the age of 36 – saw the Danish captain close out his playing days, still in elite-quality fashion, with third and second-place finishes for Köln in the final years of an exclusively West German Bundesliga.
Whereas Laudrup’s 19 caps – the first achieved only three years before his seldom-concurrent teammate entered the fray – were splintered by overseas professional commitments (at the time opposing DBU selection requirements), and fame evidently employed to gain his sons a foothold in the sport (pivotal in enabling the elder Michael with youth coaching at former employers Vanløse and, more inconspicuously, for Brøndby when player-manager in the south-west suburbs of Copenhagen), then, there is little comparison to be had between the two. Despite their ideological diversions – one bullishly challenging policies, the other teetering around the edge of such parameters from emblematic honours – however, a single and irrevocable status adjoins them; the innovative pursuit of long-bereft global relevance, still unfolding today, at club and national level placing them forever in the fulcrum of their homeland’s history. Only one, however, could ever court post-retirement favour.
Once the conceited and self-effacing, albeit idealistic, DBU selection policy had been modified with Laudrup’s high-profile extortion serving as a catalytic act and culturally pivotal brand Carlsberg investing heavily in the transition, in the early 1970s, the adaptation undertaken by top-class Danish clubs was understandably gradual, and unfortunately saw the casualty of many. Twice national champions, B 1909 (named after the year of their formation) never again held aloft the 1st Division trophy after their 1964 triumph, and fellow Odense outfit B 1913 failed to ever amount to more than consecutive second-place league results in 1962 and ’63; when both merging with Dalum IF in 2006 to form FC Fyn, little of the conglomerate’s desired success arose, and by 2013 the outfit was disbanded. Similarly, Copenhagen’s B 1903 and aforementioned KB – stalled on seven and fifteen Danish titles, respectively, since 1980 – resorted to a merger in 1992, as the Danish Superliga was formed. Perhaps inherent when bestowed by prolific forefathers, their shared vision achieved unrivalled modern success – not only retaining, but expanding public backing, targeting annual continental qualification and most pivotally seizing upon the redevelopment of the national stadium to gain permanent accommodation at the Parken Stadium – all under a now immediately familiar guise; FC København.
What sacrifice was this? Forcibly evicted from amateur roots and left to fend alone for the first instance in their history, these clubs – traditionally multi-sport, community-focused organisations such as Denmark’s oldest KB, having been formed in 1876, and Akademisk Boldklub Gladsaxe (AB), an 1889 institution originally representing Copenhagen’s universities, who fell from nine-time champions to recent yo-yoing between 1st and 2nd Divisions – would scarcely compete for national honours ever again. The reticence, and ultimate demise, of some while cynical Brøndby were fired to 1980s dominance, the DNU considered, would prove a small price to pay for eventual continental engagement. Once again, reminiscent of their entry into Olympic Games previous, they were at the top table of international competition; cemented with 1986’s qualification, and furthermore with group stage victories against the established forces of Uruguay, Scotland and ’82 runners-up West Germany before being blown out the water by Spain’s Emilio Butragueño in one of only seven individual four, or more, goal returns in a single World Cup match to date.
Internal instability was the next issue to be remedied. Revealing of the theory behind granting København ongoing occupation of Parken Stadium, the DBU desperately need to reconcile and uncover reliable hope in traditionally inferior, but eminently investable, outfits. As championship rebranding demonstrated the path relevant powers could not now renege on, the unstoppable drive of European, poignantly post-Communist dissolution, capitalism caught up; after Brøndby had ended triumphant in five of the final seven years of the 1st Division’s utmost structural position and Olsen departed as coach, Lyngby, København, Silkeborg and Aalborg (AaB) were awarded the first four league honours of a revamped era. Admittedly, near-terminal economic factors had debilitated the overly-ambitious Drengene Fra Vestegnen (boys from the western outskirts) with Interbank’s purchase of the club in 1992 collapsing after an unexpected European Cup qualification exit and a backup Hafnia Insurance bid marred by bankruptcy; only in 1996 was footing truly regained.
In the intermittent two decades, the shared ambition of global investors has only found more profound influence on the fate of Danish club football. Amidst Londoner Matthew Benham’s statistically-literate chairmanship at regular Europa League fare FC Midtjylland and Mancunian coach-turned-philanthropist Tom Vernon’s takeover at similar continental over-performers FC Nordsjaelland, while rumours swirl of both Brighton & Hove Albion’s Tony Bloom and Aston Villa’s Tony Xia’s aspirations of salvaging Lyngby from potential administration this term, they are assured of multinational relevance, with each an invaluable encapsulation of the appeal of a relatively stable competitive field.
The predominant force, meanwhile, of the 21st century, København – with 11 of 17 post-millennium titles achieved – have buttressed their ties with the national team through increasingly recurrent Champions League appearances and astute managerial appointments. In 2000, Roy Hodgson, then prised for his former involvements in central and northern Europe with Malmo, Inter Milan and the Swiss national team, set the cycle of championship achievements into motion; following his swift avail, Swede Hans Backe and former Norwegian international Ståle Solbakken advancing club philosophies over the subsequent decade. Reneging on such expectations during the latter’s misjudged spells with Köln and Wolverhampton Wanderers, finally his return fell into place in 2013; two more Superliga crowns emphasising potential stagnation in domestic affairs, but 2017-18 falling flat in what may prove an unenviable end to Solbakken’s second five-year managerial tenure.
It was in the very midst of Danish domestic revolution – Odense and Copenhagen, the chief footballing harbours, sacrificing history for finance – tangibly, that the Premier League, unified Bundesliga and Champions League arose from the socially muddied waters of an FA-suffocated English First Division, solely West German capitalist luxuries and a tired European Cup. Less so the political implications of war-torn Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Swedish-hosted Euro 1992, nor even a Boris Yeltsin-helmed Commonwealth of Independent States’ qualification and a reunified Germany’s first international competition, the undertones of Danish victory – regularly emphasised as achieved amidst the elimination of 1990 World Cup semi-finalists England, pre-tournament favourites France, star-studded Euro ’88 victors Netherlands and remodified reigning World Champions Germany – were roundly of underestimation and a lack of external comprehension. A cohesive unit like no other stage in their professional history (only seven of Richard Møller-Nielsen’s squad plying their trade outside of the Superliga, while in the fallout of a group stage exit bereft of consolation four years earlier Jan Mølby had ended his international career at the age of 27 and Michael Laudrup, then of Barcelona and perceiving himself above the coaching of a figure to have never managed outside of Denmark, refused to attend the tournament), elevated by the overseas forays of Peter Schmeichel, Brian Laudrup and old hand Sivebæk, it was irresistible momentum and ambition that guided their path across the North Sea; their only defeat of the tournament arriving against their hosts and eternal rivals, in the most socially critical tie of their campaign.
As Superliga clubs reached unprecedented heights in continental competitions, the repercussions of Swedish-based merriments extended gratefully to the form of each interested party. Only two years later, Odense defeated Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup third round – regardless of Los Blancos’ state, a timeless accomplishment – with a second leg fightback at the Bernabéu, while only a season later Brøndby fell at the same quarter-final hurdle to an agonising 119th-minute Tenerife second leg winner. Meanwhile, similarly in 1995-96 a convoluted controversy (immediately comparable to Yugoslav politics) saw Aalborg awarded the first ever Champions League group stage berth of a Danish club; qualification victors Dynamo Kiev accused of intended bribery by referee Antonio Jesús López Nieto against Panathinaikos, and though succumbing to the wooden spoon in their group, achieving the nation’s first victory in the competition against the Greek outfit.
Not until 2010 had the nation produced a knockout-stage Champions League performance; København emerging above Rubin Kazan and, yet again, Panathinaikos, to face a narrow last-16 elimination at the hands of reigning Premier League champions Chelsea. At a present standstill, again it appears that revolution is not the Danish way.
Evidently, permanent innovation serves as somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy throughout Denmark’s identity. Though always challenging the parameters imposed by population size, economic consolidation and geographical imposition, the national populous cannot be expected to apply a constant introspection, nor opt to plough on regardless of infiltrating factors. As Olsen’s national team profited from his own previous tenure at Ajax and the post-1992 academy alumni of various cities – Dennis Rommedahl, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Thomas Helveg, Martin Jørgensen, Thomas Sørensen and Christian Poulsen each plying their trade in Europe’s elite divisions – their destiny ultimately unravelled into an unerring and unfulfilling series of qualification successes followed by failures. Never relinquishing honour in their entrances – when ousted at the group stage, not finishing bottom at either the 2010 World Cup or 2012 European Championship, while succumbing to simply superior outfits in England and the Czech Republic at WC 2002 and Euro 2004 – the line toed was nonetheless a fine one; as evident in the first six-year tournament absence, public frustration rising.
Naturally, admissions of inferiority to the rampant ilk of German, Dutch and Swedish neighbours ensured expectations remained grounded. 1992, and its protracted rousing influence, were not memories for Olsen to shirk. Once exposed and inclined to silverware, it required a skilled handler to content this deprived magpie.
One would dare to suggest that the events of that particular summer will never again repeat themselves. The back-pass rule – made such a close ally of the underdogs, immortalised in video of Schmeichel engaging in a farcical ploy – was banned by FIFA as a result of the tournament’s controversy, the Championships were never to be restricted to eight nations again and three points were to be awarded for a win henceforth. Yet these are mere constitutional practicalities; the true alteration caused by one glorious Swedish midsummer was that of an establishment’s psychology. Every entrant, only emphasised by the mushrooming of nations in Communist dissolution, was now relevant. Though Greece and, more recently, Portugal rose from lesser ranks to seize European glories, their victories were not met with even a modicum of the early 1990s’ suspended disbelief.
Perhaps the DBU has never managed to emerge unscathed from this predominating curse. Cleansing the walls of Olsen’s service, though without compare in its cultural contribution, was an unavoidable task. A decaying leadership nucleus spurning the enviable qualities of era-defining Messrs Eriksen, Schmeichel Jnr., Cornelius, Jørgensen, Sisto, Kjær, Schöne and potentially youngsters Dolberg and Christensen was the observation of many, and elimination to Albania in Euro 2016 qualifying vindicated these unwanted, but warranted, views.
Reverting to the inexhaustible qualities of a regional fraternity was not an unlikely approach; Hareide, as the only man to have held league titles aloft in Sweden, Denmark and his native Norway, the ideal candidate with an extensive knowledge of the region at both club and international levels. If an admission of internal talent vacuums while Solbakken helms København and German Alexander Zorniger chairs Brøndby, it was far from the most alarming.
Jess Thorup – an outstanding Superliga coach after directing long-term employers Esbjerg to promotion from the 1st Division and a 4th-place league finish and Danish Cup win on their return to the top flight, a former DBU employee with credit for guiding the under-21s to the 2015 European Championship semi-finals, and at the age of 45 potentially a reinvigorating lifeblood to a stagnated Danish men’s team – was overlooked for the role in late 2015, having opted to step outside of the national team structure to steward Benham’s Midtjylland ambition.
Unfolding as a sage appointment in the meantime, the Norwegian’s professorial stance, aided by Rød-Hvide record goalscorer Tomasson as assistant manager, requires little interrogation; inheriting an outfit nearly devoid of a protagonist above Olsen, he has continually professed talisman Eriksen as the underpinning asset of a direct, free-flowing 4-3-3 philosophy certain to examine conspicuous French, Peruvian and Australian defences with pace, guile and six-yard-box efficacy. In this group of counter-attacking entities, surely Didier Deschamps’ outfit will resort to enforcing possession and drop explosive, but tactically stricken, forwards they would typically overcompensate on – much to Hareide’s pleasure, I’m sure. Few would offer Bert van Marwijk’s Socceroos great scope for progression, while Peru’s long-overdue World Cup reprise will be a stage few in Ricardo Gareca’s squad will wish to spurn. Nonetheless, given assertive prior pedigree, the surprisingly swift tactical assurance of ideological reformation and the sheer will in this instance to repair prior wrongdoings, it would be churlish to regard the Danish as outsiders to escape group stage pitfalls, and not inconceivably defeat the winner of a wide-open Group D; Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland all likely to be bruised after vying for first-round honours.
Reconciling with Aarhus-based kit manufacturers Hummel after a 12-year absence and in doing so publicly investing in the values typified by the wholly admirable Roligen fanbase, the distinctions that elevate this to the first nationally provocative sporting appearance for many years are multifaceted. The complexities of Danish football, though often chronologically aligning, serve as the intrinsically fascinating contexts of each endeavour. Seldom, even, have they strayed from the guiding poetic ethos of Hans Christian Andersen, mired in introspection. If still to surpass expectations and realise the ambitions of an irrefutably skilled modern elite, engaging the unburdened and unbounded spirit of their forefathers would hardly go amiss. Otherwise, etching the strands of a new history serves as the constant prospect. Ever approximate, who is to know when it eventually arrives?
Given their 21st-century individual pedigree, you would scarcely consider Senegal’s qualification for this summer’s World Cup as only the second such accomplishment in their 54-year FIFA affiliation. A much-delayed reinforcement this may represent, but under a veteran – and indeed captain – of their iconic 2002 campaign in Aliou Cissé, a second rising, yet in this wave with sustained results, presents an enticing national prospect.
In the eternal words of Chris Martin; ‘nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be so hard’ – the Scientist coincidentally released only five months on from their quarter-final ‘Golden Goal’ exit at the hands of Turkey in Osaka. From a dire post-2002 hangover, however, finally the West African state has emerged.
At first, the fearless squad fractured. Manager Bruno Metsu – after the campaign in Japan and South Korea returning to the nation as a relative idol, and affirming this status by converting to Islam and undergoing a name change, to Abdou Karim – departed, in private citing frustration with the Fédération Sénégalaise de Football’s (FSF) inability to heal domestic disenfranchisement. In his place, fellow Frenchman Guy Stéphan (now Didier Deschamps’ Les Blues assistant) floundered, leaving decade-long national assistant Abdoulaye Sarr to steward a tumultuous 2006 Africa Cup of Nations assignment. Truthfully fortunate to escape their group after narrow defeats to the regionally hegemonic duo Ghana and Nigeria, Sarr saw his side screech to a semi-final berth in a hell-for-leather knockout tie against Guinea – yet, amidst all that had preceded, an eventual fourth-placed result demonstrated some remaining resolve in an era without its earlier figurehead.
Sarr made way for journeyman Pole Henryk Kasperczak in the fallout, yet even the figure now roundly esteemed for his influence in modern Tunisian, Malian, French, and of course Polish, football could not break the administrative and egotistical shackles that pervaded Les Lions de la Téranga; midway between their group stage opponents’ definitive World Cup appearances, turfed by Angola and South Africa at the 2008 AFCON. Spelling the end of Kasperczak’s hopes and a Metsu-protégé insurgency through former striker Amara Traoré, who despite travelling to East Asia in his nation’s formative five World Cup runouts did not play a single minute, and the election of Green politician and Dakar outfit US Gorée’s president Augustin Senghor as FSF President in 2009, eventually the cost of continental embarrassment would prove the stimulus for long-overdue reform.
An energetic, aspiring and astute figure, now of 53 years, Senghor has led – after 2017 into a third four-year term – with forthright internal assessment and worked closely with handpicked recruits to render accomplished performance now a formality. Meanwhile, Senegal has gained an apparent foothold in the relevant power bases of the sport; Senghor himself appointed to the FIFA Football Stakeholders Committee, while former U.N. humanitarian lead Fatma Samoura’s 2016 appointment as FIFA Council Secretary General (the first ever female or African-hailing candidate to assume the role) gained her commendation as first in Forbes’ ranking of the ‘Most Powerful Women in International Sport’ for 2018 and many more follow on various Confederation of African Football (CAF) committees. Within these spheres of influence and pointing to 2018 qualification as a catalyst, Senghor’s seemingly all-encompassing ‘Horizon Foot 2021’ campaign will act as the flagship legacy of his highly sustainable premiership, citing the expansion of professional referees and administrators alongside "the goal of a football that is practiced by everyone, everywhere and all the time on Senegalese territory" as fundamental intentions.
Nonetheless, the era has not been without its depreciations, either in early stages or in recent times. Traoré – not Senghor’s candidate, it must be noted – failed to even qualify for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations before losing all three group stage matches in 2012 to minnows Zambia, Equatorial Guinea and Libya, while the famously diminutive former Bordeaux and France midfielder Alain Giresse (recruited on a remit of Mali’s third-place finish at the latter tournament) inherited a side that again failed to qualify for AFCON in 2013 before falling on his sword with an underwhelming 2015 group stage exit condemned with an all-too-costly 2-0 defeat to Algeria. Amidst Senghor’s drive to revive a social pulse in the sport, also, unforeseeable strains have blighted the nation; five years after October 2012’s fan riots in a home AFCON qualifier lost against the Côte d’Ivoire, a friendly at Paris’ multi-purpose Stade Sébastien Charléty marred as fans streamed across the athletics track and repeatedly disrupted proceedings before an 88th-minute abandonment, and the 2017 Senegalese League Cup final witnessing eight unbearable deaths and injuries to a further 60 present as US Ouakam fans within Dakar’s Stade Demba Diop hurled stones at rival Stade de Mbour supporters and caused a stampede that led to an entire concrete wall’s collapse at the loosely-policed, 30,000-capacity ground. Far from apathetic to the issue, it only initiated greater urgency from Senghor in his ideals for the administration and drew stern words; ‘I would like to reiterate our firm will to banish this blind violence from our stadiums and our football’, condemning it as the ‘antithesis of sportsmanship and the values of fraternity’.
In regards to senior competitive performance, however, in Cissé he has found a kindred spirit. The dreadlocked, often exaggeratedly bespectacled former defensive midfielder (and occasional centre-back) is no gimmick, despite what some may deem a nostalgic tint; willing to graft as under-23 assistant and later manager, through playing droughts and strict selection constraints, before being rewarded with the senior coach’s post at the age of just 40. Let alone his international or managerial exploits, Cissé’s career is unrivalled in many respects; boasting 35 caps over six years of service, he achieved more international recognition than regular game time – in terms of league appearances – at five of his seven club sides, with PSG and Birmingham City the only exceptions to this contrite, dissent-marked and highly tumultuous rule. Averting the Lions of Teranga from tactical missteps and miscalculations against their closest rivals, he has only bolstered consistency as his regime has matured, while facing only a single major schism en route, the form of his African Nations Championship (domestic-based-only player laws applied) outfit asserting the need for Senghor’s pyramid-based domestic reforms, at the very least. While frustrated on a variance of occasions – failing to shake off obdurate Burkina Faso in World Cup qualifying, perhaps fortunate to seal a 2-0 victory in South Africa – that which guaranteed safe passage to Russia – after trailing Bafana Bafana 2-1 in an original meeting annulled after referee Joseph Lamptey’s life ban, and in friendlies held by the ever-rising Uganda and earlier ambitious Madagascar – Cissé’s band of notable European-employed talents has rarely relented in its aspiring, constantly self-affirming drive.
Though Cissé and Senghor serve as ground-breaking accomplices, certain frameworks cannot be overlooked. Breaking from colonialism in 1960, the first ethnic autonomy in the region’s history – at least politically formalised – after centuries of Ghanaian, Dutch, Portuguese, French and briefly British jostling for regional influence was achieved, but scarce cultural individuality at first present. Naturally, the Atlantic port of Dakar – after the disconcertingly Franco-furnished Saint-Louis in the nation’s north west an exclusive harbour of financial bestowal, given its instrumental role in barbaric slave trade traditions – played host to football’s fledgling inroads into local culture, yet not in significant values until the nation’s induction as a constituent region of 1895’s remodified French West Africa, the city’s exonerated status as the colonial multi-nation’s capital in 1902 and first representation in French parliament by a genuine local (Blaise Diagne) in 1914; now one of five residents at the Stade Demba Diop, Association Sportive et Culturelle (ASC) Jeanne d’Arc the first club founded, in 1923. Ploughing a lonely amateur furrow until, joined most notably by Foyer France Sénégal, the post-war inception of the French West African Cup, it was in this competition – in its first iteration open only to Senegalese outfits – that the sport’s formalised local ranks, particularly within Senegal itself, found just cause. Certainly demonstrating the fertile plains of the alluringly waterway-laden nation as culturally able amidst the continent-wide exertion of economic pressures on colonial landlords, aside from the aforementioned 1947 competition, between Foyer, Racing Club de Dakar, ASC Jeanne d’Arc, US Gorée and Réveil de Saint-Louis’s exploits six titles in the tournament’s 13-year tenure evaded Ivorian, Guinean, Beninese, Malian, Burkinabe, Mauritanian, Nigerien and later Togolese clutches.
Fostered in far closer proximity by the French than perhaps the ethnically divergent and militarily respected North African fraternity of Morocco, Tunisia – both granted independence in 1956 – and Algeria (1962, after eight years of bitter conflict) were, West Africa’s cultural talents were degraded on grounds of European distortions of ethnic intellect at a great ultimate cost. Surpassing many of their pre-dissolution kin in spite of formative political wrangling, Senegal harnessed their eminent colonial subsidising and bounded onto the international stage with relative ease; through President Léopold Senghor forging close reverential ties with former Paris-based literary classmate Georges Pompidou especially.
In many more respects, however, was President Senghor’s – no relation to his similarly presidential namesake today, though handily honoured in the national team's eponymous stadium, opened in 1985 – 21-year reign renowned as regionally iconic. Establishing an ethnographically conscious socialist interpretation (Négritude), his intellectually esteemed and pioneering service was mirrored by that of proliferated cultural bonds, and within this a number of shackle-free clubs. Foyer – now renamed ASC Diaraf – led the cause as, inherent of representing the Serer ethnoreligious group of which Senghor was a descendent, their social appeal proved pivotal to five victories in both the formative Senegal Premier League and FA Cup prior to the President’s 1980 resignation. Unable to yet translate this to continental fortune while internally unhinged neighbours revelled – from its 1964 inception, the CAF Champions League (then the African Champions Cup) rewarding five formerly French outposts in West Africa, hailing from Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Guinea with titles on eight occasions before a post-1980 North African impasse – Senegal’s chagrin is yet, even today, to relent.
Five semi-finals – the last of those all the way back in 2004 – in over 50 arduous years of disdainful elimination has not even corrected prospects, serving a fairly damning indictment for the national scope for self-fulfilment. Fortunate anomalies defy the establishment in no other instances, either; only twice since 1980 have representatives reached the quarter-finals (and exited here both times, in 1990 and 2000) of the CAF Confederations Cup (then known as the Cup Winners’ Cup), while progressing beyond the second round only once in twelve entrances into the now-abolished CAF Cup (ASC Jeanne d’Arc, but facing little genuine quality en route to defeat in 1998’s final). No happy coincidence adorns such despondency, then.
Regardless, fixation on international prospects only heightened in a socially advancing 1980s and ‘90s era. Few greater statements complying to the Lions of Teranga’s erstwhile reliance on now-eternal migratory routes, after progressing evident in consistent AFCON qualification, could have been delivered but at the 2002 World Cup. It was only fate, then, that aligned for 21 of the Nord-born Metsu’s 23-man squad based in France’s top two tiers to face off, effectively, with their employers and club-mates in the very first tie of the Orient-based summit. To a cynic, they may have lined up as second-generation independent citizens, with all of the advantages of post-imperialism (literally) at their feet, but there was no love lost on the nation’s greatest stage. Papa Bouba Diop’s scrambled close-range, second-time finish – long before the days of cult hero status in Portsmouth – beyond Fabian Barthez may have sealed victory, but were it not for a misfiring David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry enacting just punishment to a highly suspect Senegalese defence, the tale may have been oh so different, and potentially the unfolding perspective and priorities of the FSF far removed.
Their tournament had not peaked at its first hurdle, however; there are 1-1 and 3-3 group stage thrillers with an admirably experienced Denmark and a Serie A-smattered Uruguay, and furthermore a ‘Golden Goal’ elimination of dark horses Sweden, not to be admonished also. Retrospect guides us so favourably in these exploits, but at the time who could have blamed those in the seats of power for investing their hopes in 21-year-old El Hadji Diouf, who had so coolly assisted Bouba Diop’s sliding finish in Seoul, and 19-year-old Souleymane Camara, among those who had only emerged in the late ‘90s? Enragement with every being and object he came into contact with in England could not have been foreseen for the eventual compulsively volatile quality Diouf morphed into, nor the barren existence of Camara’s Ligue 1 career when side-lined by both Monaco and Nice. 2002 slipping further from their grasp, players, fans and media resorted to deliberate dissent, aforementioned violent stampedes and degenerative slander, respectively, directed at doomed stewardship – the imperative factor, akin to the estrangement of a fleeting and retrospectively idolised father, remained Metsu’s exit.
Few could have even conceived the shaggy-haired Frenchman steering his adopted nation to an ecstatic month-long Far East residence when drawn against Egypt, Morocco and Algeria (alongside Namibia) in qualifying, but the Lions’ resistance to gain three opening draws certainly set the psychological cat amongst the pigeons for their lauded adversaries before narrow eventual World Cup induction. In conditions perhaps conducive to immediate uncertainty – an unprecedented logistical task, let alone geographical and cultural alienations that the contrasting environments of the Republic of Korea and Japan posed – the tournament served, in all assessments, as a foundation for the nation’s exploits, but saw sustainability sacrificed while unable to opt for a truly investable managerial successor. Though not wishing to undermine the role of effective administration in this, but it appears they finally have found one.
Equally, as victory over world and European champions France enshrined their status as the inflictors of perhaps the greatest of all World Cup shocks, the ramifications of destabilising one’s own national base is evident as intensely profound. Returning ‘home’ was not a process from the copybook in this instance, with only one squad member – unused goalkeeper Kalidou Cissokho – plying their trade domestically, and even if players did reach family and friends with countless tales, their experience would have been reduced to somewhat of a snapshot of patriotic elation; a standard to which they would never return after mentor Metsu’s departure. Often evident in such instances, it may require the full exodus of such tainted individuals to even begin to rewrite the inevitable. After dispiriting failure in qualification for the much-coveted 2010 World Cup, the deadline was no longer avoidable.
It is by no means coincidental that Cissé and Senghor now profit – yet equally the forthcoming crop was not entirely theirs to harvest. Nurtured, undoubtedly, the likes of Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibaly and Cheikhou Kouyaté have been, but their individual entrepreneurship is not to be sniffed at in such circumstances. At this summer’s tournament we may – and certainly hope to – view the peak of the contingent’s powers; an even more enticing prospect when extended to the versatility of talent encapsulated by the seemingly resurgent M’Baye Niang, modern Midlanders Badou Ndiaye, Mame Biram Diouf and Alfred N’Diaye, revitalised Toffees Idrissa Gueye and Oumar Niasse, and the former Premier League lot of Papy Djilobodji, Diafra Sakho and Henri Saivet. Providing Cissé can strike an acute balance in his selection policy – likely the most demanding of his entire managerial career, past, present and future – prioritising his core principles, Senegal surely possess every opportunity of emerging from their group, yet I hesitate to endorse their possibilities as endless.
Just as their club outfits have discovered with constant CAF rule repairs – designed to fine-tune continental competitions with meritocracy and diversity as a guiding ethos – pre-emptive accomplishment can easily be impeded with the ramifications of commercial subservience. Whether merely administrative or indicative of a global corporate trend, the distance between competitive capacities of economically-fuelled organisations and lesser entities in the sport’s international spheres is rife on recent appraisals. Divulging directly into the backgrounds of each of Cissé’s present diaspora, whose general ambition differs only with predecessors in the regional diversity of residencies, these are inescapable footholds of which to harness or become encamped in. Invested in aforementioned English dwellings, Italian, German, Turkish and Benelux conurbations, in the instance of the long-since-unfavoured Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé heavily monetised Chinese franchises, and still an amiable many French sites, a diaspora – several of whom only qualified through parentage – of enviable offensive riches cites Koulibaly as its instrumental exception.
The Lorraine-born centre-back, effectively only rising to continental prominence at the age of 25, now not only has the opportunity to affirm his reputation on a global scale, but also to single-handedly dispel the myth of Sub-Saharan defending. A chartered course, fostered from its base in Eastern France – Metz, to be exact, where the club’s flirting with the Ligue 2 relegation zone ended in an exit in the academy product’s second and final senior season – did not have to travel far to reach new heights in Genk, where Europa League qualification adorned domestic overachievement. Pursued by Neapolitan scouts, after another two seasons he would experience imperative elevation under Rafael Benítez and, even more noticeably, Maurizio Sarri. The ideological exchange would soon be evident in his rising prestige; never particularly perfecting the robust role of a direct and abrasive Benítez squad, his decidedly un-European lithe physical stature and composed presence – even at a towering 6 ft 4 in – served the inheriting Sarri’s philosophy perfectly. Contributing far more efficiently to offensive moves from his relatively restrained new stance – in Serie A, increasing his average number of passes played every match from 54.8 under the Spaniard to 86.2 in this, their title-chasing 2017-18 season (the 2nd highest in their squad, behind Jorginho, and only bettered by three Manchester City players, Nicolas Otamendi, Aymeric Laporte and Fernandinho, in the Premier League) – in doing so he has revolutionised the apparent punt-and-hope status quo of recurrent Cameroonian, Nigerian, Ghanaian and indeed Senegalese vanguards at past World Cups. Enhancing his pass completion rate from 86.7% in 2014-15 to 91.3% amidst ever-increasing demands in the past ten months, Koulibaly has cemented himself as Napoli’s offensive fulcrum in a role indicative of present tactical trends, but foremost as one of the global sport’s pivotal, yet wholly unlikely, modern practitioners.
Rewarded for enduring drive and characteristic fearlessness, Koulibaly and Mané, trailed by those who will themselves recognise as a meritocratic move away from their true potential in Gueye, Kouyaté, Hannover centre-back Salif Sané, Amiens striker Moussa Konaté and Anderlecht centre-back Kara Mbodji – a former Genk teammate of Koulibaly’s, and potentially a significant blow to Cissé this summer while yet to recover from an unavoidable December knee operation to add to his sizeable 56 caps – Senegalese football has much to pride. Individual symbolism, with the Napoli and Liverpool duo hailed for respective contributions to historic Serie A and Champions League campaigns, rightfully serves as a major factor in enthusing future domestic progression. Equally, however, it cannot be expected to unveil as eternally profitable.
It is too high-stakes an operation, firstly. Let alone the exacting scouting procedures in place across Central and Western Europe or Scandinavia – regions where the current crop has prospered – and requirement for high-class and fully-equipped youth facilities in West Africa itself, there should now be left no doubt as to the importance of proactive, progressive administrative tendencies. Perhaps at a dearth in Senegalese establishments, especially at a stagnant club level, hopes nonetheless remain of a successor able to replicate and exceed Senghor’s sustainable vision. If searching so desperately for encouragement, just recognise the recent economic and political advancements made; growth rates above 6% achieved now for three consecutive financial years (World Bank), while scoring 75 of 100 on social organisation Freedom House’s annual ‘Freedom in the World’ tables in 2018, a rating they have held since 2012, when opposition candidate Macky Sall became only the second non-Socialist Party President in the nation’s history by defeating the constitution-contravening 12-year leader Abdoulaye Wade. If a matter of interest, this summer’s hosts score just 20 on the same socio-political algorithms – meanwhile, the West Africans have hosted just one major international event in their history, 1992’s AFCON.
Looking, finally, ahead to upcoming prospects, an admirable contingent will certainly leave the tactless ploys of some regional predecessors a distant memory. Of upmost relevance, maturity weighs heavily over Cissé’s squad. Regardless of their manager’s untested – unblemished – status, and perhaps benefiting due to this, the very standing of six – ideally, were Mbodji to make a timely recuperation – potential members of their 23-man contingent as either within five caps of, or indeed having achieved, 50 senior international appearances encourages retorts to those who accuse the nation of lacking prestigious expertise. Unless the 42-year-old Cissé is provoked into a dramatic change of tack, Moussa Wagué (23 years his junior) is set to be the sole teenage representative, and the only remnant of 2015’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup semi-final finish for Les Lions. Few could have considered the impact of political stability on such pragmatism – not elevating those unprepared for such a stage, regardless of youthful prodigiousness – even months before Metsu’s millennium-greeting appointment. Then again, nor could they have estimated the true extent of global recognition for the nation’s vindicated exports. Count your blessings, indeed…
Were it only to be for the physical, and irrefutably psychological, demands of a post-season World Cup environment to curtail Senegalese aspirations, as potentially professed, it would be roundly regretted as a grand shame to the largely disregarded talents of Group H, and the tournament as an entirety. The mere expectation of results, after all, disavows the geographical and cultural acclimatisation not only to host nation Russia, but to the quadrennial tournament itself; Cissé, perhaps, aside, unprecedented for all involved. Inevitably, as the price of success in the sport forces eternal recompense, Mané, especially in a system as physically exacting as Jürgen Klopp’s, will prove the talisman to foot a personal bill; even if omitted from their first pre-tournament friendly in Luxembourg on grounds of exhaustion, enjoying only 13 days of respite between Liverpool’s Champions League Final in Kyiv and a final warm-up challenge, somewhat closer to Russian climates, in Croatia. Koulibaly, having almost racked up a record of minutes played of any season in his senior career, will likely suffer a similar fate; coaches powerless to prevent their players fatiguing on the stage least so acceptable. Logic dictating pragmatism, the only solution is to resort to squad depth – not an overly concerning prospect for most helmsmen penetrating Russian borders, and nor one Cissé would admit as an issue, I’m sure. Protection of one’s players – or indeed those that a nation’s hopes rest on, in this instance – can only extend so far, however, and those involved in the Senegal set-up are only too aware of the limitations imposed upon them. If they are to execute Cissé’s ideals – regularly tending to vary tactics to counter opponents, but typically relying on a lone genuine striker, whether mobile like Niasse and Diouf, more of a direct target in Sakho or an all-round serviceman like Baldé, and a midfield balance of two/three ‘water-carrier’ models and a pair of pivotal, explosive wingers with the ability to drift inside and shoot – they will have to expand from the individual tactical exclusivity that pervades the squad. Perhaps it comes with the territory of quality coaching from a young age, but the philosophical diversity at their current disposal is minimal, and truthfully at this juncture irreversible.
Metsu would not have allowed for such questions, however. Passing away in late 2013, roughly 18 months after being offered the then-vacant Teranga managerial reins, as a victim of colon cancer, the ever-lauded Frenchman would be buried, after Dakar’s hosting of a second funeral – the first, in Dunkirk, close to his birthplace – attended among others by Diouf and dear friend Cissé, in the city’s port district Yoff. His memory only endures longer for this horrendous national grief, while resting in his adopted homeland – the site of less than two years of a 40-year affair with the sport – delivers reverence so aptly. Senegalese football would never operate in quite the same way afterwards, but opting to pay homage through reinvention was the long-overdue reform for partial re-enactment, as now apparent. This exact tournament is their chance to distinguish a new identity and seize the day.
They need not fear Poland, Colombia or Japan, then. When interviewed by FIFA, the gaffer only confirmed this conclusion:
“Although the group does look very tight, when compared to others, we’ll aim to take advantage of any opportunities that arise with great determination, while playing our usual game.”
He is only too aware they control their own destiny in Russia. With nostalgia, there are also heightened expectations of what the nation is capable of in this edition, and rightfully so. Their opponents are fearsome and possess some of the finest managerial assets present at the tournament, but each is far from unbeatable, and none are of the true gilded elite. Given the abundance of issues that remain to be settled, anything could happen. If only we had heard such prophecies before…
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!