A funny thing happened on the way to Russia 2018. Normally that’s the start of a joke but there are many countries this week that are finding it no laughing matter. There are some powerhouse teams that got in by the skin of their teeth at the last moment (hello Argentina); some favourites that fell completely out of the picture (yes, looking at you United States & Netherlands); and some, well some well renowned teams that still have a chance to make it to Russia but their level of play has been sorely lacking… yes Italy, I could only be talking about you.
We will begin with Argentina, the 2014 World Cup finalists who have struggled recently. When Lionel Messi had retired from international play there was some concern of how this team might operate without him. But since the best player of the last decade (as many refer to him as) has come out of retirement, there has been incredible pressure placed on him and the team to win the greatest trophy of them all.
Unfortunately, Argentina continued to struggle to qualify and was on the outside looking in heading into the last qualification match vs Ecuador. Somebody much smarter than I had said that Messi did not come out of retirement to not make the World Cup. Lo and behold, they do advance behind Messi’s hat trick as the 3-1 victory is enough for the Argentines to leapfrog Columbia and Peru who tied 1-1 on the same day. Columbia and Argentina now join Brazil and Uruguay as the South American contingent while Peru faces New Zealand in a home-and-home series to determine one more entry.
From one finalist struggling, we head to another. The Netherlands had the slimmest of chances to advance on the final day, needing to beat Sweden by something ridiculous like 7-0. Their 2-0 victory therefore fell well short of that mark and their failure to qualify for the World Cup sparks numerous questions as the team also failed to qualify for Euro 2016. The Netherlands regarded by many as the best country in history to have not won a World Cup will need to wait at least four more years for another opportunity. It appears a rebuild may be necessary for the Dutch as their team hasn’t come close to playing to the level they are capable of.
Speaking of playing sub par; the Unites States have struggled in what should be one of the easiest qualification groups. After a convincing 3-0 victory over Panama, the US at least had their fate in their own hands. All they needed to do was draw against tiny Trinidad & Tobago. Regardless of the poor weather or field conditions, their 2-1 loss was still shocking and they too will not be booking a trip to Russia.
Not even minutes after the match did the blame game start on social media. Fans targeting everyone and anyone associated to the team including former coach Jurgen Klinsmann to current bench boss Bruce Arenas and of course, to the players themselves. In truth though, all parties should be looking inward to see what they themselves could have done better as this should have never happened. It is too early to tell if the US failure will impact MLS in any negative way. For a league always looking for respect from its neighbours, having the US fail will be considered a step back by those very same neighbours even though there really shouldn’t be any direct correlation.
Italy on the other hand should not be getting any respect for their recent performance either despite still having a decent chance of advancing. The Azzurri have made it to the final round of qualifications but their play has been uninspiring and downright awful. Italy plays its best soccer when the team plays with emotion. Look at Fabio Grosso’s goal against Germany in the 2006 semi-finals or Marco Tardelli’s goal in the 1982 Finals for proof.
This year’s squad is very different. Losing to a formidable team like Spain isn’t the end of the world, but that 3-0 defeat showed they were outclassed and not on the same level. Follow that up with a 1-1 tie to Macedonia and you know the Italians are exactly where they deserve to be and that is teetering on the brink of elimination. They will find out on October 17th who their home-and-home opponent should be. Although Italy should still advance, if they continue to play like they have, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the Azzurri not need a ticket as well.
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