Thursday, February 22, 2024

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Qatar 2022 - Walking In A Winter Desert Land

Photo by Alex Azabache from Pexels

Walking In A Winter Desert Land may well read like a credible Sun sports page headline (other tabloids are certainly available), as well as riffing on a beloved Christmas classic. However, while next year's World Cup in Qatar is due to be played and wrapped up just before festivities commence, it may indeed attract such headlines given the nature of the now bloated FIFA- created beast and the host country's questionable, at best, human rights record.




Qatar 2022 will at least, in part, be of note for something of a shake-up (not universally welcomed, granted) on the pitch, namely the number of teams taking to it as qualifiers in the apparently reduced near Yuletide heat (in itself probably hardly welcomed by some European visitors).



32 has long been the accepted number of such sides, but the next tournament will prove its last hurrah as 2026 brings with it an expansion to 48. Which has in itself brought debate to how exactly any revised qualification process could work in light of the lack of any official pronouncement on the issue. 



So, as we often like to do at times before tournaments like this, time to wallow in extreme nostalgia! Back we go to 1930 for a perhaps retrospectively novel solution to the problem of who made it to the first ever staging in South America, the difficulty of travel then perhaps making many of the moans heard around the subject today seem a tad redundant in hindsight…



Before the advent of qualifying tournaments and indeed the aeroplane, came an arguably much more civil and undoubtedly less humiliating affair, especially for those used to seeing their countries routinely spanked by the bigger boys. In that FIFA simply wrote to all its member nations inviting them to come along and play, having picked Uruguay as host nation on the basis they'd just defended their gold medal at 1928's Summer Olympics as well as marking a hundred years since the signing of the country's first constitution. The majority of matches were played in the capital Montevideo, and the purpose-built Estadio Centenario would host a sizeable proportion having been constructed in just nine months.



Even with the carrot of no qualifiers necessary, it’s perhaps not surprising that the majority of those countries who did accept the invitation to become part of international football history were fellow South Americans. Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru giving the continent what is still its highest representation in terms of World Cup participation.



Where was the grand old man of football in all this, we might wonder? Having alongside all other invited countries been given a deadline of February 28 to accept the offered invite, the FA Committee rejected the chance for England to go on 18 November 1929, having at that time resigned the Three Lions' FIFA membership!



With a bit of lobbying by Jules Rimet, Belgium, France, Romania and what was then Yugoslavia were persuaded to make the long trip by boat from Barcelona (Belgium), Villefranche Sur-Mer (France and Yugoslavia) and Genoa (Romania). The team from Bucharest picked by no less than their King Carol II- who personally made sure that his players would have time off from their day jobs to play and have employment to go back to when they returned.



Joining them were Rimet himself, the trophy which bore his name and three match referees. Namely, Belgians Jean Langenus (who would go on to officiate in "whatever the heat, in cap and plus-fours" the inaugural final, despite initially failing his first refereeing examination having not even attempted to answer the question- "What is the correct procedure if the ball strikes a low-flying plane?" Answers on a postcard..) and Henri Christophe (eventual assistant referee for the final). Alongside Frenchman Thomas Balvay, all representing Europe in whistleblowing.



There was even time for a bit of rudimentary warming up on board, as Frenchman Lucien Laurent- who would go on to score the first ever World Cup goal in his country's opening win over the Mexicans, would later recall...



“We did our basic exercises down below and our training on deck. The coach never spoke about tactics at all... “



Enough to make at least a sizeable percentage of the fans- who have watched subsequent and more readily officially recognised incarnations of the showpiece the World Cup would become- go weak at the knees!



His recollection of his little piece of history in bagging that landmark first goal in a 4-1 win for Les Bleus also quite literally reads like a relic of a bygone age.



“We were playing Mexico and it was snowing, since it was winter in the southern hemisphere. One of my team mates centred the ball and I followed its path carefully, taking it on the volley with my right foot. Everyone was pleased but we didn't all roll around on the ground– nobody realised that history was being made. A quick handshake and we got on with the game. “



Being played simultaneously on the opening day, 13 July, was the United States against Belgium from the second group, the US winning 3-0 . Only nine other teams joined those playing the opening games in the group stages, the total of 13 the lowest recorded as all but the first group contained just three teams. With Group 1 having four as France found themselves in with Argentina and Chile as well as the Mexicans, the States and Belgium having Paraguay for company in Group 4, whilst Groups 2 and 3 contained Brazil, Bolivia and Yugoslavia and hosts Uruguay in with Peru and Romania respectively.



Only the winners of each made it through to the semi- finals, with no third/ fourth place play- off, which wouldn't become an accepted part of the format until 1934, when Italy would host the second World Cup. Whether or not one could have been played in Uruguay first time out remains a point of conjecture. While it's recorded that one wasn't, the Yugoslavs are said to have refused to play in one following a 6-1 semi-final defeat by the hosts, amid concerns about the quality of refereeing having finished above Brazil and Bolivia only to go out with a comparative whimper (though it remains the country's best performance at a World Cup even after its change into Serbia and then Serbia- Montenegro)...



In theory they would have played the United States, who lost by the exact same score to the Argentines! And so, the scene was set for, relatively unsurprisingly, an all-South American final on June 30, as they met the Uruguayans and went on to lose 4-2. 



Pablo Dorado opened the scoring just twelve minutes in before a twentieth minute equaliser from Carlos Peucelle was added to by overall top scorer Guillermo Stabile, whose goal meant he would eventually finish on eight. He wouldn't take home a winner's medal though, thanks to responses from Pedro Cea, Santos Iriarte  and an 89th minute clincher by Hector Castro!



With their countrymen understandably elated, 93,000 the officially recorded attendance, the following day was declared a national holiday after the now famous trophy had been hoisted aloft that first time, the home win over their local rivals a repeat of sorts of the victory in the Olympics of '28. 



The Uruguayans would triumph on South American soil once more in Brazil in 1950, and now rather poetically have announced a joint bid alongside three of the other first teams to compete in 1930, to host in 2030- Argentina, Chile & Paraguay their intended partners. 




All but the hard heartedly cynical would surely now hope they get it in a triumph for the all too often buried sheer, unashamed romanticism in the beautiful game. Especially after having quite literally played such a big part in getting it off the ground, on what would eventually become a considerably more international stage, all those years ago.


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