In a week that saw the likes of war-ravaged Syria and relative unknowns Uzbekistan move into the next stage of World Cup 2018 qualifiers, many were shocked to see the success of minor teams on the international stage. Asia is certainly not the only region in the world that shocks are taking place, but the amazing stories of part-time players representing their nations on the world stage are ones I often feel are underappreciated by the media. Sure, everybody knows about the rise and rise of football in the USA, but surely it was only a matter of time before the infrastructure was put in place to help the development of footballers in a nation boasting over 320 million people and the largest economy of any country in the world. FIFA didn’t have to help them then; right now, in their post-Blatter and hopefully post-corruption regime, they have a responsibility to help football reach all corners of the globe if they are serious about their motto (For the game. For the world.). So what do they need to do? Where do they need to go, geographically and ambition-wise?
Firstly, they can start by opening up the media opportunities for these countries. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a great book about the paths of minor nations such as Curacao, Palestine and Eritrea in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup called Thirty-One Nil, by James Montague. This book has changed my perception of smaller nations in football from hopeless semi-professionals to brave, mostly über-positive bands of proud patriots. If only more people knew their stories, surely more pressure would be put on both FIFA and the governments of these countries to expand footballing opportunities for the next few generations. If governments across the world keep complaining about obesity rates in children and adults, why not encourage more sport to be played by providing the facilities? According to the latest worldwide figures, the most obese nations in the world are predominantly found in the Oceanic islands and the Middle East, where FIFA is yet to spend majorly (apart from in Qatar, more on them later) on the development of the most popular sport in the world. Coincidence? I think not.
Secondly, smaller sides need to see more realistic chances of reaching high-prestige tournaments to guarantee the continued interest of the sport in these countries. One thing I learnt from Thirty-One Nil was that despite the geographical position, political beliefs or the backgrounds of these countries, one thing their sides all had in common was an unwavering yet seemingly hopeless ambition to reach the World Cup in Brazil. Imagine what reaching the so-called spiritual home of football would’ve done for the game in disaster-stricken Haiti, barren Afghanistan or underdeveloped remnants of the British Empire such as the Cook Islands. While qualification for the final tournament may seem unrealistic for these sides from our point of view, the players and management believed in themselves and their countries. The reason we are ever surprised by the success of third-world nations in international football is because of how FIFA has built itself, and therefore built football around the world. From their very start, they have acted as more of a brand for European football to act as if it cares about the rest of the world. Based in the tax haven of politically neutral Switzerland, FIFA exemplifies the European, capitalist dream; to have financial safety and success, protect themselves from controversy or scandal and to follow the rules of society. If Gianni Infantino really wants to follow through on his pledge of expanding the World Cup to 40 teams, changing the perception of FIFA outside Europe and possibly South America, the organisation needs to radically change.
If you observe the performances of smaller sides in major tournaments, such as Costa Rica in 2014, Zaire in 1974 or New Zealand in 2010, you begin to realise that more memories are created by smaller sides than the big names. The most memorable performance of a really minor side in my lifetime is that of tiny Tahiti in the 2013 Confederations Cup, not even a country themselves, just a large part of the French Polynesia islands. Yes, they may not have won a game (far from it, losing 6-1 to Nigeria, 10-0 to Spain and 8-0 to Uruguay) but when they did score their single goal, their elation was clear from their pre-rehearsed canoeing-style celebration. For me, that was the outstanding moment of the tournament, simply because it was a team of part-timers who we could all relate to, because they haven’t had everything handed to them on a plate, aren’t paid millions every year and don’t moan when they aren’t played. If more sides like Tahiti are allowed into major tournaments, whether they win, lose or draw, they will create lasting legacies for future generations across the world, helping football grow. It is similar to the argument happening in cricket at the moment, with the ICC (International Cricket Council) deciding to actually make tournaments smaller and less inclusive, effectively excluding non-test-playing nations such as Afghanistan, Ireland and the Netherlands from ever playing against England, Australia or India ever again. A lot of cricket fans are campaigning against the change, and if we let the same thing happen in football we would have to do the same.
With the masses that FIFA turns over every year, made clear from the millions of pounds laundered between the accounts of high-ranking officials during the Blatter era. With worldwide brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Adidas and Visa, they continue to make plenty of profits, which allow them to expand facilities across the world. During Blatter’s era, these media stunts and projects were almost exclusively based in Africa, where the Swiss continued to win over the voters in every presidential election, effectively guaranteeing him the job. His advisors clearly told him to make friends in the continent, as their representatives, from Egypt to Ghana to Zimbabwe and far between, were as corrupt as him. If this money, which Gianni Infantino, alongside his board members, no doubt has available to him today, is allowed to be invested in areas such as the Caribbean, Oceania and South-East Asia, where football culture is strong in pockets, then opportunities for interested young people can grow. Look at all the African wonder kids produced as a result of the Blatter era such as Kelechi Iheanacho, Bertrand Traore and Wilfrid Kaptoum of Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Cameroon, and you wonder how many more of that mould would be produced in Barbados, Fiji and Vietnam. Just think of the possibilities for world football, as more tickets, shirts and club branded bras (as Manchester City stock) would be sold across the globe to new captivated fans.
The majority of these investments must be into building new pitches, whether they are 3G or natural, to give the proper facilities to young people in underdeveloped nations. Having played on a 3G pitch just this week, I can’t understand the critics of them, as they feel just like normal grass pitches, can be played on in all weather conditions and can easily be split into different sizes for different age groups. Earlier this year, I read a story on BBC Sport about how vital the installation of indoor 3G pitches has been to the recent success of the Icelandic national team in reaching the Euros, despite having a population similar to that of Coventry. With 30 full-size 3G pitches (7 of which are indoors) and 150 more smaller ones, the small, partly inhospitable island has produced internationally competitive talents such as Gylfi Sigurdsson, Alfred Finnbogason and Emil Hallfredsson, despite having no professional clubs. Practicing on life-like indoor pitches rather than basketball courts or snow-covered grass pitches has allowed Iceland to actually become a side that qualifies for Euros and World Cups. For players in harsh environments such as mountainous Nepal, typhoon-haven Philippines and global-warming affected Tuvalu, 3G pitches would make the world of difference for allowing them to hone their skills and become the best.
In an entirely different approach that FIFA can’t really control, I would recommend that if there is a lack of coaching skills or interest in gaining coaching badges in a country, more foreign coaches need to immerse themselves in these nations. I have long been curious about the lives of British managers in faraway lands, such as Stephen Constantine, manager of India (in two spells, 2002-2005 and 2015-) and Gary White, boss of Guam. They are few and far between on the international stage, but these two and others such as Bobby Williamson (Uganda and Kenya) and Jeff Wood (Gibraltar) have undoubtedly changed the footballing perceptions of people not only in the nations they work in, but also those of people in more developed nations as well. The work they do, in often poor conditions and with little in terms of finances or facilities, is life-changing for their players and backroom staff, future and present, as they learn a lot, and can vitally improve the culture and economic outlooks of a growing country.
One thing is for sure with FIFA, amongst all of these possibilities that I and others suggest, is that if they have any credibility towards sticking to not just their word, but their words that are emblazoned everywhere they go, they have to realise the potential of them. What does For the Game. For the World. mean if they aren’t helping the game reach the whole world? If their members try and say they have been sticking to their word, where is the evidence? In Qatar? This is a country that has quite clearly bought its way into hosting a traditionally summer World Cup in conditions impossible to play for 90 minutes in. Why would worldwide FA representatives vote for an area which they know is synonymous with corruption and having a lack of human rights for workers? A reported 1,200 workers, mainly from Far-East Asia, have died as a result of poor health and safety in building works on the stadiums, yet no word has been said by FIFA that this is in any way wrong. So expansion in oil-rich Qatar is alright despite so many poverty-stricken builders having died, but expansion in less economically developed islands in the Caribbean and Oceania, or coastal nations in South-East Asia isn’t allowed? What kind of organisation is FIFA? This situation reeks of double standards, one rule for the rich and another for the working class. Is FIFA stuck in the pre-war era, or have they just not read their own signs? Something needs to change in FIFA, and something big, for the sake of the continued development of the game in an ethical way.
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!