Monthly Archives: August 2017

2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers: Group G, H, I

Here’s our final qualifying update as of now, UEFA Groups, G, H, and I.

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted. Additionally, any championships will be in bold italics, and finals will be in italics.

Group G 
1. SPAIN – 16 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Italy, September 5 at Liechtenstein, October 6 vs. Albania, October 9 at Israel
Previous Appearances: 14 (1934, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

While the old dominant Spain of 2008-12 is probably gone, they are still a force to be reckoned with. But they face a tough test right away against Italy; amazingly, the Italians beat Spain at their own game during the round of 16 in Euro 2016, using that passing style and ball control to frustrate Spain. Now that everybody knows their secret, they could be a tough road back. They also have a history of collapsing early, including 2014 as defending champions, 1998, and as hosts in 1982. Nevertheless, they should be in the running for the playoff, at least. They own the tiebreaker over Italy on goal differential, but with that head-to-head matchup on Saturday at Madrid’s Bernabeu, Italy could take the lead with a win.

2. ITALY – 16 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Spain, September 5 vs. Israel, October 6 vs. Macedonia, October 9 at Albania
Previous Appearances: 18 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

Along with Germany, Gli Azzurri are the most successful team in UEFA, having won four World Cups, second most all-time behind Brazil. Trailing Spain on goal differential, their catenaccio defensive style might help them overcome Spain on Saturday. And they have an amazing goalkeeping core throughout the years, from Dino Zoff to Walter Zenga to Gianluigi Buffon. That defensive style might help get them over the top and force Spain into the playoff.

3. ALBANIA – 9 points 
Federata Shqiptare e Futbollit.svg
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Liechtenstein, September 5 at Macedonia, October 6 at Spain, October 9 vs. Italy
Previous Appearances: 0

In a lot of other groups, I’d like Albania to advance to the playoff. But in this group, those two are not going to slip, despite what looks like an easy schedule for Albania. Having to finish with Spain and Italy right in a row means that while they are improved, the rest of the competition is unfortunately too good. And unfortunately, this means that Albania is probably going to be left out. Hopefully 2022 in Qatar will give them an easier group.

4. ISRAEL – 9 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Macedonia, September 5 at Italy, October 6 at Liechtenstein, October 9 vs. Spain
Previous Appearances: 1 (1970)

Israel and Albania present problems for each other as well – with the top two in front of them, it looks like they’re battling for third place. Having already played each other, we’ll have to see how that plays out. Right now, Israel loses the tiebreaker on goal differential.

5. MACEDONIA – 3 points 
Macedonian Football Federation (2014).png
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Israel, September 5 vs. Albania, October 6 at Italy, October 9 vs. Liechtenstein
Previous Appearances: 0

Despite already being eliminated, the schedule doesn’t look as bad as expected. They’d be favored against Liechtenstein, and I could see them drawing with Israel. But with only pride to play for, they can only really look forward to 2022.

6. LIECHTENSTEIN – 0 points 
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Remaining Matches: September 2 at Albania, September 5 vs. Spain, October 6 vs. Israel, October 9 at Macedonia
Previous Appearances: 0

I can’t really say much here – a tough schedule, one player already suspended, no points, already eliminated, and a really small country means Liechtenstein can’t really be expected to do much.

1. Italy
2. Spain

3. Albania
4. Israel
5. Macedonia
6. Liechtenstein

Group H 
1. BELGIUM – 16 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Gibraltar, September 3 at Greece, October 7 at Bosnia-Herzegovina, October 10 vs. Cyprus
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2014)

In a similar situation to Poland, Belgium can qualify by September 3 if the following things happen: they win both matches against Gibraltar and Greece, and the two teams behind them don’t win both games either. They’re favored against Gibraltar, but that Greece game scares me – the latter play a tremendously frustrating defensive style, while trying for one offensive run, and it would be away. In certain ways, a draw would be as good as a win, even if it wouldn’t put them through immediately. Their goal differential is also amazing (+22) that if it came down to that, it would help them if they needed it. It looks like the Rode Duivels are the favorites, but those middle two games (both away) are very nerve-wracking for their fans, and I’d argue with good reason. Plus, they can’t afford an off-day against Gibraltar. There’s too much about this last group that scares me. No longer seen as dark horses or favorites, can the Belgians combine their individual talents and become the great team that I hope they can be?

2. GREECE – 12 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Estonia, September 3 vs. Belgium, October 7 at Cyprus, October 10 vs. Gibraltar
Previous Appearances: 3 (1994, 2010, 2014)

As mentioned, Greece’s defensive style can be very frustrating to deal with, although as a consequence of that, their offense isn’t as strong as it could be. They do have a good goal differential (+7), but have only scored ten overall, and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s would be better, and they’re only one point off of second. With the two teams playing each other twice already (and drawing both times), Greece’s schedule looks remarkably easy. This is why the Greece-Belgium game on Sunday will be a key matchup for both teams (their fans will understand why I’d be rooting for Estonia on Thursday). And Greece is vulnerable – their home leg against Bosnia required a stoppage time equalizer.

Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Cyprus, September 3 vs. Gibraltar, October 7 vs. Belgium, October 10 at Estonia
Previous Appearances: 1 (2014)

As the top three teams jockey for position, Bosnia-Herzegovina also avoids Greece again, although they did lose 4-0 to Belgium early in qualifiers. Additionally, their second match will be moved away from Zenica to Sarajevo; while they’re both considered the national stadiums, I’ve seen people get thrown off their rhythms for less. A draw with Cyprus also isn’t out of possibility, especially away, and Estonia could very well play spoiler.

4. CYPRUS – 7 points
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, September 3 at Estonia, October 7 vs. Greece, October 10 at Belgium
Previous Appearances: 0

Cyprus has the chance to play spoiler to the top three teams, being only five points off of second place, and still very much in it. Don’t count them out, especially with a match at home against rival Greece. Depending on Greece’s result on Belgium, Cyprus could very well seize the momentum, or ruin Greece’s momentum in the process.

5. ESTONIA – 4 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Greece, September 3 vs. Cyprus, October 7 at Gibraltar, October 10 vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina
Previous Appearances: 0

Here’s hoping Estonia can earn at least a draw with Greece, which would give Belgium the momentum. Even if they can’t advance on their own, which is unlikely, they could go the same route and Cyprus and be the thorn in others’ sides. Those middle games should get them points, and let’s see how the other two matches work out.

6. GIBRALTAR – 0 points 
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Remaining Matches: August 31 at Belgium, September 3 vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, October 7 vs. Estonia, October 10 at Greece
Previous Appearances: 0

The smallest nation in UEFA by population, Gibraltar is making their first attempt to qualify for the World Cup. However, given their size, and that schedule ahead of them, it looks like they’ll be perpetual “minnows,” in the vein of Malta, San Marino, or Andorra.

1. Belgium
2. Greece

3. Bosnia-Herzegovina
4. Cyprus
5. Estonia
6. Gibraltar

Group I 
1. CROATIA – 13 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Kosovo, September 5 at Turkey, October 6 vs. Finland, October 9 at Ukraine
Previous Appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2014)

This last group is one of the most wide-open groups left in play – four teams within two points of each other. I seriously may have to flip a coin in this group. As the one team in this group who made the last Cup (2014 Brazil), that might give them the edge, but with everybody battling each other, especially a few of them head-to-head right away, anything could happen.

2. ICELAND – 13 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Finland, September 5 vs. Ukraine, October 6 at Turkey, October 9 vs. Kosovo
Previous Appearances: 0

Iceland pulled off the big upset by beating England in the Euros last year, and they have a lot of talent. But with this group ahead of them, oh man, can they come through? I do think their scheduling will help them, having played Croatia twice already, and having their final match at home against a last-place Kosovo team. Additionally, I think they’re a little better than Turkey this time around. Very narrowly, I could see them winning the group. Plus, I think everybody is rooting for them, so they’ll have the public on their side.

3. TURKEY – 11 points 
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Ukraine, September 5 vs. Croatia, October 6 vs. Iceland, October 9 at Finland
Previous Appearances: 2 (1954, 2002)

Third place finishers in 2002, Turkey haven’t been back since, although they’re still in the hunt, with a very good team in front of them. But with that schedule so front-loaded, especially against fourth-place Ukraine, who they lead on goal differential (and only by one goal), I think they’ll have a tough road ahead of them.

4. UKRAINE – 11 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Turkey, September 5 vs. Iceland, October 6 at Kosovo, October 9 vs. Croatia
Previous Appearances: 1 (2006)

Aside from the Turkey match, which I see them winning, especially at home, I’m not sure if Ukraine has the schedule on their side. True, they get Kosovo, but with all four teams racing to the finish line, no team can afford a slip.

5. FINLAND  1 point 
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Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Iceland, September 5 at Kosovo, October 6 at Croatia, October 9 vs. Turkey
Previous Appearances: 0

The last two teams are easy to write about – they might get a draw with each other, but Finland has always been more into hockey, and so with them already eliminated, they don’t look to play anybody else all that well.

6. KOSOVO – 1 point 
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Remaining Matches: September 2 at Croatia, September 5 vs. Finland, October 6 at Ukraine, October 9 at Iceland
Previous Appearances: 0

Finishing with three of four away, and having to play their home games in neighboring Albania, and with all four teams ahead of them, Kosovo are already eliminated in their first ever qualifying appearance for the Cup. In fact, the only thing I can say is that they were put in this group in order to avoid regional conflicts with Bosnia-Herzegovina in the previous group. Not that it would have made any difference, but it might have helped them a little bit more.

For this final group, I basically am guessing between any of the four teams in front.

1. Iceland
2. Croatia

3. Ukraine
4. Turkey
5. Finland
6. Kosovo

Well, I did it, everybody. All remaining qualifying matches and the teams playing in them have been chronicled. Starting tomorrow with the UAE-Saudi Arabia game, I’m looking forward to these next few days.

Image result for UEFA logo


2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers: Groups D, E, F

Our trip through UEFA continues with groups D, E, and F.

As usual, all photos of crests are courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted. Any finals appearances will be noted in italics, and championships in bold italics. All information is accurate as of August 27, 2017.

Group D 
1. SERBIA – 12 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Moldova, September 5 at Ireland, October 6 at Austria, October 9 vs. Georgia
Previous Appearances: 11 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1974, 1982, 1990, 1998, 2006, 2010)

Serbia has had some issues with fan control, especially with their qualifying match against Albania for the Euros. They were docked three points, and finished last in their group for that qualifying round. But with twelve points, they are currently on top of the group on goal differential ahead of Ireland. That matchup on September 5 will be crucial, as both teams will be favored in their previous one.

2. IRELAND – 12 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Georgia, September 5 vs. Serbia, October 6 vs. Moldova, October 9 at Wales
Previous Appearances: 3 (1990, 1994, 2002)

With a four-point swing over third and fourth place, Ireland can’t afford a slip now. Fortunately, they have a pretty easy first match, before playing a tough match against Serbia, and finishing away against Wales (the latter with more names, but who have been struggling so far). Two crucial matchups in just over a month means Ireland might need other help from ahead of them and behind them.

3. WALES – 8 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Austria, September 5 at Moldova, October 6 at Georgia, October 9 vs. Ireland
Previous Appearances: 1 (1958)

Coming off of a semifinal appearance in Euro 2016, Wales went in as the seeded team in this group, and have some talented players, including Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, and Hal Robson-Kanu. But they’ve surprisingly failed to deliver so far; while they haven’t lost a game, and therefore are ahead of Austria for third, five of their six matches have been draws, including a shock one with Georgia at home. Austria and Ireland will be tough, and that last matchup may be the one that decides the playoff spot in the group.

4. AUSTRIA – 8 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Wales, September 5 vs. Georgia, October 6 vs. Serbia, October 9 at Moldova
Previous Appearances: 7 (1934, 1954, 1958, 1978, 1982, 1990, 1998)

Back in the early days, Austria was one of the strongest teams. With the top four teams all within four points of each other, it should be a really fascinating final two months. They have more wins than Wales, but fewer draws, and therefore more losses. I don’t know if Austria has the big name players, as they couldn’t live up to their “dark horse” status in Euro 2016, finishing last in the group. Marc Janko is one of their better players, but it could be a little bit of a stretch for him to lead them over the top. But don’t count Austria out, as four points can swing very quickly.

5. GEORGIA – 3 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Ireland, September 5 at Austria, October 6 vs. Wales, October 9 at Serbia
Previous Appearances: 0

Despite having two of their last games at home, and earning a shock away draw with Wales in Cardiff, I’m not sure what to make of Georgia. They do have three points, but two of them have come off of draws with last-place Moldova. And with that schedule stacked like that, it could be a long way back. They aren’t favored in any games, although they might slip in a draw, but the question is where it will come if it does.

6. MOLDOVA – 2 points 
Moldova FA.svg
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Serbia, September 5 vs. Wales, October 6 at Ireland, October 9 vs. Austria
Previous Appearances: 0

On the one hand, it’s nice that every team in this group will at least get two points. But it looks like Moldova won’t get anymore, as like Georgia, they have their last four games against the top four teams. Still, they might, just might, get one more if they have a great game, perhaps against Wales or Ireland.

1. Serbia
2. Ireland
3. Wales
4. Austria
5. Georgia
6. Moldova

Group E 
1. POLAND – 16 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Denmark, September 4 vs. Kazakhstan, October 5 at Armenia, October 8 vs. Montenegro
Previous Appearances: 7 (1938, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 2002, 2006)

Poland’s first Golden Generation exited from 1974 to 1982. It looks like they have a second one on the way with Robert Lewandowski already on 11 goals! He had a hat trick against Romania last game, and he is the anchor for them. It’s very possible that Poland can get in by September 4, if the following things happen – both Montenegro and Denmark have either a loss or a draw, and Poland wins both matches. Given that Denmark is one of those teams, they can effectively knock one of the others out by themselves. Even if they don’t get it by then, they’ll get very, very close. This is really their group to lose, as they have a tremendously easy schedule with only Montenegro a potential trap game. Assuming qualification is already secured by then, it may not matter anyway.

2. MONTENEGRO – 10 points 
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Kazakhstan, September 4 vs. Romania, October 5 vs. Denmark, October 8 at Poland
Previous Appearances: 0

Technically, Serbia and Montenegro qualified as one country in 2006, but FIFA recognizes Serbia as the successor. This time, Montenegro has held their own pretty well. However, there is one group where one second-place team is eliminated, and it looks like this will be the group. Leading Denmark on goal differential, both teams have tough schedules ahead of them, having to face Poland at least one more time, with the Brave Falcons, as they’re known, having to do it on the road. As much as I’d love to see it happening, the other second place teams will also have an easier road ahead of them (the way they differentiate is by subtracting points earned against the last place team in the group, which in this case is Kazakhstan).

3. DENMARK – 10 points 
Dansk Boldspil-Union logo.svg
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Poland, September 4 at Armenia, October 5 at Montenegro, October 8 vs. Romania
Previous Appearances: 4 (1986, 1998, 2002, 2010)

In their first three appearances, Denmark made the knockout stages every time, and made the quarterfinals in 1998. Since 2010, though, they’ve slipped, and with that schedule ahead of them, it looks like a tough uphill road. Even if they can overcome Montenegro, I think they’ll face the same conundrum, especially since they’ve already played both matches against Kazakhstan. So, even if they do overtake Montenegro for second, scheduling wouldn’t be on their side. Plus, having to face Romania, who are still within four points of second, can lead to a tough matchup last as well.

4. ROMANIA – 6 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Armenia, September 4 at Montenegro, October 5 vs. Kazakhstan, October 8 at Denmark
Previous Appearances: 7 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1970, 1990, 1994, 1998)

One of only four teams from Europe at the original World Cup in Uruguay, Romania had their best run in the 1990s, but after Gheorghe Hagi retired, they fell off the pace. They have more draws than Armenia, who have also been surprisingly good this time around, and are within four points of third place. I can see them catching Denmark for third, and maybe bumping up to second, but those same point problems emerge. They do get lucky as they are the only team that has already played both their matches with Poland.

5. ARMENIA – 6 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Romania, September 4 vs. Denmark, October 5 vs. Poland, October 8 at Kazakhstan
Previous Appearances: 0

Surprisingly, Armenia is still mathematically in it, with a head-to-head against Romania, which I could see ending in a draw. While they would be underdogs against Denmark and especially against Poland, both of those matches would be at home, and they’d be favored away against Kazakhstan. It’s unlikely that they’d advance, and they’d essentially need a miracle run, but I have a feeling they will definitely play spoiler to somebody else’s chances. And they already have upset Montenegro in stoppage time.

6. KAZAKHSTAN – 2 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Montenegro, September 4 at Poland, October 5 at Romania, October 8 vs. Armenia
Previous Appearances: 0

Like the previous group, every team will earn at least two points, but Kazakhstan can only get to the playoff. They started reasonably well, drawing with both Poland and Romania, but have fallen apart against weaker teams, including Armenia, who they host last. I could see them getting at least one more point (a draw with Montenegro is possible), but it’s too late to get them over the top.

1. Poland 

2. Montenegro
3. Romania
4. Denmark
5. Armenia
6. Kazakhstan

Group F 
1. ENGLAND – 14 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Malta, September 4 vs. Slovakia, October 5 vs. Slovenia, October 8 at Lithuania
Previous Appearances: 14 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

Those middle two games, while both being hosted at Wembley, should make England fans nervous. Although they’ve only allowed two goals in six games, they almost blew the game against Scotland at Hampden Park in Glasgow, needing a stoppage time equalizer from Harry Kane to get them a well-earned point. Without it, they’d still be in first, but only by one point instead of two. Plus, with Wayne Rooney’s retirement, England may be looking for a replacement for him. On paper, England looks to have the most talent. But I can feel some possible strange winds blowing around them.

2. SLOVAKIA – 12 points 
New logo SFZ.png
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Slovenia, September 4 at England, October 5 at Scotland, October 8 vs. Malta
Previous Appearances: 1 (2010)

Slovakia and Slovenia are not the same country, so don’t get them confused, although their flags are very similar. They don’t even border each other (Hungary is right in between them). But they do play each other first in this upcoming round. Even Scotland could be a wrench in their plans. For that reason, I can see Slovenia overcoming them for second, even if Slovakia has more talent than they do. Scheduling isn’t their side, or at least it looks that way. But Slovenia’s doesn’t look that good either.

3. SLOVENIA – 11 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Slovakia, September 4 at Lithuania, October 5 at England, October 8 vs. Scotland
Previous Appearances: 2 (2002, 2010)

Slovenia is one of those teams that always seems to be drawn into a really tough group. They are still only three points behind England, and only one behind Slovakia, so it appears to be a three-team race. But their schedule looks tricky as well, having to play both teams ahead of them, and both of them away. And they’ve already played their matches against Malta, the weakest team in the group. Can they overcome their tough group and advance?

4. SCOTLAND – 8 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Lithuania, September 4 vs. Malta, October 5 vs. Slovakia, October 8 at Slovenia
Previous Appearances: 8 (1954, 1958, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998)

Scotland holds an unfortunate World Cup record – they’ve never been out of the first round in eight appearances, with three of them on goal differential (and all three of them consecutively, even more painfully). Since then, they’ve fallen off the pace, and have always seemed to be a punchline on the world stage. Which is a shame, because they have done better than expected, and had a hard-fought draw with England last round. The question of whether they can break through over Lithuania could make it a four-team race, if Slovakia-Slovenia ends in a draw. That would put four teams within six points of each other, assuming that England beats Malta. But beating Lithuania is the first step. Is Scotland really on the way back up, or do they have to be left out in the cold again?

5. LITHUANIA – 5 points 
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Scotland, September 4 at Slovenia, October 5 at Malta, October 8 vs. England
Previous Appearances: 0

Barring a major comeback from Lithuania, and a collapse from all the other teams, it doesn’t look like there’s much else to say. They’ve never been a great team on the world stage since splitting from the USSR, and while they may play spoilers to others, it would also hurt their own cause with a few draws.

6. MALTA – 0 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. England, September 4 at Scotland, October 5 vs. Lithuania, October 8 at Slovakia
Previous Appearances: 0

What else is there to say? Malta is the weakest team, has nothing to play for, and may not get any points (Lithuania might be their only chance for one). Given how small Malta is, it’s not that surprising. Some teams, unfortunately, are just like that in UEFA.

1. England
2. Slovenia
3. Slovakia
4. Scotland
5. Lithuania
6. Malta

Thursday (August 31) kicks off a six-day run of matches. Who else is excited?

UEFA logo 2012.png

2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers: UEFA, Group A, B,C

UEFA, Europe’s qualifying contingent, is so large that I have decided to divide it up into three separate posts. There are thirteen guaranteed spots – nine winners, with eight second place teams (one left out) going to a two-legged playoff head-to-head. With Russia having already qualified as host, I feel like I don’t need to write much about them, because there are no qualifying matches for them to play.

Places Available: 13 (+1 for host Russia)

As usual, all photos courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.

Group A 
1. SWEDEN – 13 points 
SvFF logo 2017.png
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Bulgaria, September 3 at Belarus, October 7 vs. Luxembourg, October 10 at Netherlands
Previous Appearances: 11 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 2002, 2006)

In what has all the makings of a “Group of Death,” Sweden has been surprisingly effective without star player Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Also, many are surprised to know that Sweden has had some success before, finishing second once, third twice, and fourth once, even though they’ve never actually won before. Having taken the group lead on France on goal differential, they nevertheless face a tough task, playing three of their last four matches away, two of them against a stronger than expected Bulgarian side, and their final one against a reeling, desperate Dutch side who look like a shadow of themselves in 2010 and 2014. On paper, they aren’t a team of superstars, but Sweden is certainly consistent, and is a team a lot of others hate to face.

2. FRANCE – 13 points 
Le nouveau logo FFF.png
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Netherlands, September 3 vs. Luxembourg, October 7 at Bulgaria, October 10 vs. Belarus
Previous Appearances: 14 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

Les Bleus, as they are commonly known, have been one of the steadiest teams in UEFA. Having won in 1998, and finishing runner-up in 2006, they came off a finalist run in the Euros last year, and how amazing it would be if they could get through after what happened in France over the last few years. With three of their last four at home, I think their schedule does them more favors than usual, and with players like Olivier Giroud, Paul Pogba, and Laurent Koscielny, among others, they probably have the best team in the group talent-wise, and were unlucky to lose to Sweden last time out, who own the tiebreaker on goal differential.

3. NETHERLANDS – 10 points
Royal Netherlands Football Association Logo.svg
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at France, September 3 vs. Bulgaria, October 7 at Belarus, October 10 vs. Sweden
Previous Appearances: 10 (1934, 1938, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006, 2010, 2014)

De Oranje could be in trouble. Most of their star players are older – Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt, and Arjen Robben among them, their domestic league (the Eredivisie) isn’t what it used to be, they failed to qualify at all for Euro 2016, and former legendary player Danny Blind (whose son Daley plays on the team as a defender) was fired following a shock loss to a rising Bulgaria team. Now Dick Advocaat (fun fact – his name means “lawyer” in Dutch) is tasked with getting them back to their former glory. Only one “easy” game remains, against Belarus on October 7, and that’s away. Given some of the talent in front of them (and behind them), we could see the Dutch team out for the first time in sixteen years.

4. BULGARIA – 9 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Sweden, September 3 at Netherlands, October 7 vs. France, October 10 at Luxembourg
Previous Appearances: 7 (1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1986, 1994, 1998)

Aside from a shocking fourth place finish in USA ’94, Bulgaria has failed to win a game i the World Cup, and haven’t made a splash on the world scene in over 15 years. But that could change with a new rising crop of stars; if not this year, they could surprise teams in 2022. But just like they upset Netherlands 2-0 in Sofia on March 25, they in turn were upset by Belarus on June 9. And with that schedule ahead of them, they need at least two teams to collapse, if not all three.

5. BELARUS – 5 points
Football Federation of Belarus logo.png
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Luxembourg, September 3 vs. Sweden, October 7 vs. Netherlands, October 10 at France
Previous Appearances: 0

Belarus has a long road ahead of them, and looking at that schedule, I’d say they’re not really going to qualify. Even Luxembourg has given them a good run, getting a draw as the away team. They have upset Bulgaria, but with all three big teams ahead of them, including right in a row, the odds are doubtful of them going anywhere.

LUXEMBOURG – 1 point 
Fédération Luxembourgeoise de Football logo.svg
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Belarus, September 3 at France, October 7 at France, October 10 vs. Bulgaria
Previous Appearances: 0

As the only eliminated team, it would look like Luxembourg has little to play for. But surprisingly, for a last place team, one of their players leads the group in scoring right now. Aurélien Joachim has four goals, and I like their chances at home against Belarus. Depending on Bulgaria’s standing, they may give a good fight. Against the Bulgarians in Sofia, they had a brief lead and only lost 4-3 on a stoppage time winner, so they’re a very scrappy team that you have to find a way to beat.

1. France
2. Sweden

Group B
1. SWITZERLAND – 18 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Andorra, September 3 at Latvia, October 7 vs. Hungary, October 10 at Portugal
Previous Appearances: 10 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014)

Surprisingly enough, Switzerland leads the group over Portugal, who are probably better on talent. They have a head-to-head in Lisbon on October 10 for their final match, but if everything holds up, I could see Switzerland making it in ahead of Portugal, especially because the latter has a tendency to fall apart during qualifying.

2. PORTUGAL – 15 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches:  August 31 vs. Faroe Islands, September 3 at Hungary, October 7 at Andorra, October 10 vs. Switzerland
Previous Appearances: 6 (1966, 1986, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

The reigning European champions still have the best player in Europe in Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. But that was after a very slow start, and many people think they’re undeserving. Plus, considering that they won that match after Ronaldo was injured, does that mean that they’re better without him? Perhaps. One thing that will help them is that they’re in a pretty easy group, with only Switzerland really having a chance to beat them. On pure talent, Portugal is probably better, but as mentioned above, they have this “snakebite” tendency in the qualifiers, oftentimes sneaking in. While Ronaldo had an amazing two-legged playoff against Sweden to get them into Brazil four years ago, they also should start thinking ahead of who can be a suitable replacement for him. This might allow Switzerland to remain on top of the group.

3. HUNGARY – 7 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Latvia, September 3 vs. Portugal, October 7 at Switzerland, October 10 vs. Faroe Islands
Previous Appearances: 9 (1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986)

Back in the early days of the World Cup, Hungary was one of the most amazing teams. But after the 1960s, they never really recovered, and haven’t been out of the group stage in over 50 years. Were it not for the Soviet invasion in 1956, who knows if Hungary would remain one of the elite teams? Plus, they were humiliated against Andorra, losing 1-0 in a shocking upset. While still in it, it looks like their drought will continue, with both Switzerland and Portugal ahead of them.

4. FAROE ISLANDS – 5 points 
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Remaining Matches: August 31 at Portugal, September 3 vs. Andorra, October 7 vs. Latvia, October 10 at Hungary
Previous Appearances: 0

Faroe Islands have been on the rise in recent years, upsetting Greece in Euro 2016 qualifiers twice. The problem is that they’re in a pretty tough group, and even if Hungary slips, the other two teams probably can’t slip that far behind either. Plus, they are only eligible to make the playoff, and they cannot win the group directly. They might have a good matchup against Latvia, and I think they would get a draw with Andorra.

5. ANDORRA – 4 points
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Remaining Matches: August 31 at Switzerland, September 3 at Faroe Islands, October 7 vs. Portugal, October 10 at Latvia
Previous Appearances: 0

Andorra pulled off arguably the shock of qualifiers, upsetting Hungary 1-0 last time out. It was only their second competitive win, their first in thirteen years, and only their fifth win ever. To say they’re on the way up is probably still a stretch, but they have shown dramatic improvements, holding three consecutive clean sheets, earning two wins and a draw. There is every reason to be proud in Andorra, and it’s been an amazing story so far.

6. LATVIA – 3 points
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Remaining Matches: August 31 at Hungary, September 3 vs. Switzerland, October 7 at Faroe Islands, October 10 vs. Andorra
Previous Appearances: 0

As a result of Andorra’s shock victory last time out, Latvia now bring up the rear. And to be honest, I don’t necessarily think they’ll get out from under it. While Andorra has a tougher schedule, Latvia’s confidence might be shot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their last two ended in draws.

1. Portugal
2. Switzerland

3. Hungary
4. Faroe Islands
5. Andorra
6. Latvia

Group C 
1. GERMANY – 18 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Czech Republic, September 4 vs. Norway, October 5 at Northern Ireland, October 8 vs. Azerbaijan
Previous Appearances: 18 (1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

No other team in Europe has been the model of consistency as Germany. They have appeared in 18 of 20 Cups, and they are definitely the team to beat and the reigning World Cup champions. Even if Czech Republic is a possible trap game, does anybody really expect them not to get in again?

2. NORTHERN IRELAND – 13 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at San Marino, September 4 vs. Czech Republic, October 5 vs. Germany, October 8 at Norway
Previous Appearances: 3 (1958, 1982, 1986)

For such a small nation, Northern Ireland have made the knockout stages in two of their three World Cup appearances, winning the group in 1982 in a shock upset of host Spain that year. Also, they made the round of 16 in the Euros, their debut appearance. Following The Troubles, it would be a great story if they could get back. However, they would have trouble against Germany, and it might be down to that September 4 match against Czech Republic. But that atmosphere at Belfast’s Windsor Park might be enough to get them into the playoff. It’ll come down to them or Czech Republic.

3. CZECH REPUBLIC – 9 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Germany, September 4 at Northern Ireland, October 5 at Azerbaijan, October 8 vs. San Marino
Previous Appearances: 9 (1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1970, 1982, 1990, 2006)

Two-time finalists in 1934 and 1962, Czech Republic are the only serious challengers to Northern Ireland and Germany. But considering the Czechs face both of them right away, it could be over quickly, needing probably at least four points (i.e. a win and a draw). Still, they would put up a good fight, and would be favored in the last two games.

4. AZERBAIJAN – 7 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Norway, September 4 vs. San Marino, October 5 vs. Czech Republic, October 8 at Germany
Previous Appearances: 0

I’m not sure what to make of Azerbaijan. They are managed by former Croatian great Robert Prosinecki, and haven’t done terrible, but they’re in a pretty strong group. Plus, they don’t really have any star players to carry them over the top. Their schedule may be favorable, but I can’t see them breaking through.

5. NORWAY – 4 points 
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Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Azerbaijan, September 4 at Germany, October 5 at San Marino, October 8 vs. Northern Ireland
Previous Appearances: 3 (1938, 1994, 1998)

Norway’s problem is that they lack a goalscorer, and it always seems like it has been. They became the first team eliminated in last place with four points on goal differential. Once having a Golden Generation in the 1990s, they’ve fallen on hard times since then, and would only be favored against San Marino in the remaining matches (maybe a draw with Azerbaijan).

6. SAN MARINO – 0 points
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Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Northern Ireland, September 4 at Azerbaijan, October 5 vs. Norway, October 8 at Czech Republic
Previous Appearances: 0

As one of the smallest nations in the world, San Marino has always had – and probably always will have – the status of “minnows.” They have no points, have scored only one goal and allowed thirty, and are eliminated with four games to go. And unlike some teams, it’s unlikely they’ll get a fluky matchup (maybe Norway).

1. Germany
2. Northern Ireland

3. Czech Republic
4. Azerbaijan
5. Norway
6. San Marino

Stay tuned for UEFA, parts 2 and 3!

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2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers: CONMEBOL

Here we are in CONMEBOL, played in South America. With one team already in (Brazil), and at least three spots available, it should be a fantastic final four matches. Ten teams play in a one round, round-robin format. The top four teams qualify, and the fifth place team will play in a playoff against the Oceania (OFC) winner.

As usual, all photos of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted. Additionally, any championships will be indicated in bold italics and finals appearances in italics.

Qualified teams: 1
Remaining spots: 3
Playoff spots: 1

1. BRAZIL – 33 points 
Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (escudo).svg
Status: QUALIFIED (March 28) 
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Ecuador, September 5 at Colombia, October 5 at Bolivia, October 10 vs. Chile
Previous Appearances: 20 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

The only team to qualify for every World Cup ever played, including their twenty-first appearance this year, Brazil has come back pretty strong under their passionate manager Tite. And the competition in CONMEBOL is tougher than many of the other continents. Whether they have truly fixed all of their problems on their team remains to be seen, but early returns are encouraging. They were the first team to officially qualify, not including host Russia. They cannot finish worse than fourth, so there’s not that much to play for anymore, but they shouldn’t let up if they can afford it, either.

2. COLOMBIA – 24 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Venezuela, September 5 vs. Brazil, October 5 vs. Paraguay, October 10 at Peru
Previous Appearances: 5 (1962, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2014)

I like Colombia’s chances, as a healthy James Rodriguez should lead them as far as he can. They have a much easier schedule than some of the other teams, playing last-place Venezuela, then two matches against reeling teams in Paraguay and Peru. Even that September 5 match against Brazil may not hurt them, with the latter perhaps willing to take their foot off the accelerator a little bit. The only thing is not to get too ahead of themselves: we’ve seen this before, with disastrous consequences (i.e. Andres Escobar).

3. URUGUAY – 23 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Argentina, September 5 at Paraguay, October 5 at Venezuela, October 5 vs. Bolivia
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1986, 1990, 2002, 2010, 2014)

Uruguay don’t look like the best team on paper, but a favorable schedule will help them. Many of their players are still healthy from their fourth place finish in 2010, although they’re seven years older now as well. It’ll be up to them to control their own destiny. Still, given that their first match is the hardest, a rivalry game on the River Plate, and with Argentina reeling, it could be easy street from here on out for the Celeste.

4. CHILE – 23 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Paraguay, September 5 at Bolivia, October 5 vs. Ecuador, October 10 at Brazil
Previous Appearances: 9 (1930, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1998, 2010, 2014)

Chile historically hasn’t been one of the dominant team, their best finish being third as hosts in 1962. But with Alexis Sanchez up front and Claudio Bravo in goal, this Chilean team, currently ranked seventh in the world, could be a major factor in Russia 2018 should they get there. Their last two matches should be tough, and they’ll need some help from other teams in front of them, but right now, they control their own destiny, and only lose the tiebreaker to Uruguay to put them in last right now.

5. ARGENTINA – 22 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: Active
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Uruguay, September 5 vs. Venezuela, October 5 vs. Peru, October 10 at Ecuador
Previous Appearances: 16 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

The two-time champion Albiceleste could be in trouble. If they fall on August 31 against rival Uruguay, and Ecuador win in front of them, their lead for the playoff would be cut to one point. They go head-to-head on October 10 in Quito, with that match potentially deciding the playoff spot against OFC. Lionel Messi’s support has always been tougher internationally, and he was never received as well as Maradona, so this could be his last chance to make an impression on the Cup. It seems like he’s ready to hang them up for his country, as you can tell his frustration is rising.

6. ECUADOR – 20 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Brazil, September 5 vs. Peru, October 5 at Chile, October 10 vs. Argentina
Previous Appearances: 3 (2002, 2006, 2014)

Quietly, Ecuador has been still in contention, trying to grind out their ticket this year. But it looks like they’ll be the odd team out. While they have more talent than the teams behind them, their schedule is probably the toughest of any teams remaining in contention. The back half has been ridiculous, and they are reeling with three big matches ahead of them, two of them away. Although they host Argentina to finish the qualifiers, it may not matter if they fall apart versus Brazil and Chile. And with Peru only two points behind them and potentially on the way back up, even that one might put them at a disadvantage.

7. PERU – 18 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Bolivia, September 5 at Ecuador, October 5 at Argentina, October 10 vs. Colombia
Previous Appearances: 4 (1930, 1970, 1978, 1982)

For Peru to be within two points of sixth and four of fifth is impressive. They could be about to have a resurgence, but like Ecuador, they have a tough road ahead of them, and don’t have a lot of superstar players to carry them through. Still, they have a tendency to play spoiler to other teams, so don’t write them off yet.

8. PARAGUAY – 18 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Chile, September 5 vs. Uruguay, October 5 at Colombia, October 10 vs. Venezuela
Previous Appearances: 8 (1930, 1950, 1958, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)

Paraguay finally made the quarterfinals in 2010, which is impressive given its size. But they’ve underwhelmed since then, and I don’t see them breaking through – there are too many better teams in front of them. I can’t really say much else in this case.

9. BOLIVIA – 10 points 
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Remaining Matches: August 31 at Peru, September 5 vs. Chile, October 5 vs. Brazil, October 10 vs. Uruguay
Previous Appearances:  3 (1930, 1950, 1994)

One of the weaker teams in CONMEBOL, Bolivia has only earned one point in World Cup play, and scored only one goal, and are already eliminated with four matches to play. They certainly deserve a lot of credit for trying, but there’s little else to play for, and I don’t see them playing spoiler on anybody.

10. VENEZUELA – 6 points
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Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Colombia, September 5 at Argentina, October 5 vs. Uruguay, October 10 at Paraguay
Previous Appearances: None

Venezuela is the only team from CONMEBOL never to make the World Cup, and it shows. They’re definitely more of a baseball nation, with numerous superstars in MLB right now but few stars in world football. And with that schedule ahead of them, and already eliminated, La Vinotinto will have to focus on next campaign.

1. Brazil (qualified)
2. Colombia
3. Chile
4. Uruguay
Playoff: Argentina

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Only in a few select moments in our lives can we really ask, “Where were you when…?” Most of the time, it’s for pessimistic or negative reasons, like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination. But seeing the first solar eclipse of my lifetime – it wasn’t total in Bloomington, but at 94% it was pretty close – is one of those good moments.

I wasn’t sure if I would watch it. I got off work at 2 p.m., and wasn’t sure if I was going to make it home. Then I noticed a crowd gathering near the parking lot. Several co-workers were among them. While I didn’t have any photos, the memories will be enough. Seeing the sun in a crescent shape, orange in all its glow, the size of a fingernail, is a moment you never forget. Fortunately, several people brought glasses. I wasn’t sure if I was careful enough, but I think I was. I haven’t had pain in my eyes yet, although they say it’s a 24 hour period. But so far, so good. I don’t want to worry too much. I did my best to look at the ground while it was passing. My dad and his best friend Marc, the latter a big fan of astronomy and all its glory, went down to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, that now will enter the history as an apex of the eclipse, the first one to cover most of the United States in 99 years.

What a moment. And I think this was a good “where were you?” moment. I think that for many of us, it brought us together, even if for a brief moment. I think a lot of us need that in today’s chaotic world. If I plan it right, I hope to see the one hovering over or near Indianapolis in 2024.

1998 FIFA World Cup: France

Another round of expansion was on the cards in 1998, held in France. The field expanded from 24 teams to 32, allowing Asia and Africa to have more of a presence in the World Cup. Nevertheless, for this year, the traditional powers were still dominant. France ’98 would see the rise of three future superstars: one a fresh-faced lad from England, who was perhaps football’s equivalent of Tom Cruise; one was a gap-toothed Brazilian who took the Cup by storm before battling weight problems later in his career, and had problems in the final; one was a temperamental midfielder from the host country, the son of Algerian immigrants who was a maestro on the ball, arguably the greatest player of my generation. It saw a young England forward score a sublime goal off of a miraculous run, only for his team to fall prey to its own penalty woes; it saw an American team come in with confidence, only to have a disastrous crash and burn; it saw a debutante that wasn’t even ten years as a country ride a Golden Boot winner all the way to third place; it saw a Dutchman score a magnificent goal in a quarterfinal, getting his team to within two games of fulfilling their dreams; it saw the first ever superstar referee, who appeared in his first of two Cups, and a second one who also did surprisingly well; it saw the final appearance of a long-maligned team, in one of their most embarrassing performances; and it saw the host country finally rise to the occasion, overcoming political vitriol to ride a multicultural team to its first championship, along with one of the best back lines of all time.

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(The 1998 FIFA World Cup logo. Photo courtesy of Expert Football.) 

1998 FIFA World Cup 
June 10-July 12 

Host: France 

Champion: France 
Runner Up: Brazil 
Third Place: Croatia 
Fourth Place: Netherlands 

Golden Boot: Davor Šuker, Croatia (6 goals) 

In becoming the third nation to host the World Cup twice, France won its bid in 1992. The only other serious bid was from Morocco. England and Switzerland also put bids in, but were withdrawn, England’s as a compromise for a (successful) bid for Euro ’96, and Switzerland because of financial constraints. France was in somewhat of an identity crisis at the time; the rhetoric of far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen was still fresh in people’s minds, as the French team began including more black and Muslim players, some of whom were born in other Francophone territories, like Guadeloupe or New Caledonia. Then-president Jacques Chirac was known to dislike the sport. Additionally, many of the prevailing stereotypes about French culture would be put to the test. For the first time in sixty years, France now had the responsibility to make the tournament great.

Qualification and preparation
Many felt the perfect mix was found this year (myself included) when the tournament expanded to 32 teams. To advance, you had to finish in the top two. Third place didn’t count anymore. And the tournament was better for it. FIFA also introduced a controversial new rule: golden goal, used as a sudden death way to settle knockout stage matches. Basically, first team to score wins. Most purists objected to it.

Defending champion Brazil and host France qualified automatically. Each player had a superstar in waiting. For the defending champion Brazilians, they would be led by a Carioca (Rio de Janeiro native) with a gap in his teeth, who had gone from Barcelona to Inter Milan after the former couldn’t restructure his contract. He was an amazing dribbler, and a prolific goalscorer. He would later become known for his weight gain, especially during his career, but in his prime, it was said that nobody was better than Ronaldo.

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(Ronaldo was set to become the breakout player of the ’98 Cup. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

France’s superstar was a temperamental midfielder whose story embodied how much Les Bleus had changed. He was born in Marseille, the son of Algerian immigrants, and grew up in a notorious slum called La Castellane. While playing the game as a child, he would imitate his hero Michel Platini and didn’t know how to use his head (those that know his story will appreciate the irony later). In fact, he ducked the first time a coach threw a ball at his head in a practice after signing his first professional contract. There was a two-headed monster to his game, a beautiful ferocity that came from social attitudes from within his own country and from parts of the world at large. Many people also gave him cult status for his bald patch in the back of his hair. Just like he imitated his hero Platini, he would soon be imitated by numerous kids the world over. Much like Johan Cruyff was the best player of my dad’s generation, I think my generation’s best player has to be “Zizou” – Zinedine Zidane.

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(Many kids of my generation consider Zinedine Zidane their favorite player. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Zidane had a magnificent team behind him, particularly defensively. Laurent Blanc anchored a back line that included Marcel Desailly, born in Ghana and adopted by his French stepfather, Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram, and Bixente (similar to Vincent) Lizarazu, born in France but of Basque origin. He also had a dominant striker who would become a great player for Arsenal named Thierry Henry. And behind them all in goal was #16, my number, Fabien Barthez. And to cap it all off was captain and defensive midfielder Didier Deschamps. Unheralded at the time, it would be a French team for the ages.

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(A young Thierry Henry in action. Photo courtesy of

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(Didier Deschamps was the captain of the ’98 French team. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

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(Fabien Barthez would be a rock in goal for “Les Bleus.” Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

There was a third player who would be a breakout star. Both in terms of talent and marketing potential, England’s Three Lions would have a posh (pun totally intended) player with movie star looks, and was a dominant player to boot. He had a nasal intonation, with a higher register than expected in his voice. The FA finally began to wise up, and took him and an eighteen-year-old striker named Michael Owen with them. He was David Beckham.

Owen was also seen as a revolutionary in English football. He was surprisingly verbose for a footballer, speaking with a lilt that sounded like a mix of Liverpudlian mixed with Welsh. Most players were not known for being smart, or polite, or anything considered “normal” by social standards, especially for England, but Owen was an exception. Unlike many players, he wasn’t married to a supermodel or a celebrity, and had only seen one movie in his entire life up to that point, and that was only out of professional courtesy. More importantly, the FA realized that their way of thinking – rewarding experience over talent, and keeping all of them past their prime – wasn’t working any more. While injuries slowed him down later, Owen was about to help England as well.

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(A young David Beckham in an England shirt. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

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(A young Michael Owen in action for England. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

In 1970, Africa only had one guaranteed spot. Now, just 28 years later, they had five. In Group A, Nigeria qualified by one point over Guinea, although they lost to Guinea head-to head on the final day. Guinea had never gotten so close before or since. Group B saw Tunisia win by six clear points ahead of Egypt, and clearly over Liberia and Namibia. Cameroon and Morocco were also repeats. The final spot was going to be a newcomer, either the Republic of Congo (not the former Zaire, which changed its named back to the Democratic Republic of Congo during qualification and was drawn in the same group) or South Africa. The final match saw the two teams go head-to-head on August 16 in Johannesburg, with the same number of points coming in. A previous qualifier had a lot of anger in it, and this was the grudge match. Phil Masinga (14′) scored the only goal, who used it to win 1-0 and advance to their first ever World Cup appearance. Having been banned from qualifications not twenty years earlier, and only newly removed from the stigma of apartheid, Bafana Bafana, as they were known, were now jumping for joy.

(South Africa qualifies for their first World Cup. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

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(Phil Masinga scored the goal to send South Africa into the World Cup. Photo courtesy of Sunday World.) 

Asia had two guaranteed spots, and a playoff for a third. Saudi Arabia beat host Qatar in Doha to steal top honors by two points over Iran, who would advance to the third place playoff. South Korea finished ahead of rival Japan by six points. In the head-to-head matchup, Japan had a 1-0 lead at halftime, but Iran tied it right after halftime. Each team scored twice again in regulation to force extra time. In the first Golden Goal rule, Japan finally broke through into their first final, putting aside the Agony of Doha from four years earlier. Two minutes away from penalties, ponytailed winger Masayuki Okano scored the winner, which came off of a deflection. But Iran was still in it, advancing to a second playoff with Australia.

(Japan finally made the World Cup when Masayuki Okano scored. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

UEFA had fourteen spots available, nine group winners, four playoff winners, and the best second-place team. That last distinction, amazingly enough, went to Scotland, who was the best second-place finisher with an amazing 23 points. They finished two points behind Austria. Winning the groups were Denmark, England, Norway, Austria, Bulgaria, the reigning fourth place team, Spain, Netherlands, Romania, and a suddenly beatable Germany, who only beat Ukraine by two points. Netherlands and Belgium had a great rivalry already, and a 3-1 victory for the Oranje helped punch their ticket by one point over the Red Devils. Eight teams advanced to a two-legged aggregate playoff. One of them was guaranteed to be a newcomer, as Ukraine and Croatia faced off. Croatia won 3-1 over the two games to make their debut. Italy beat Russia in their playoff 2-1, winning 1-0 in Naples to advance. Hungary lost to Yugoslavia, in their first appearance after partition, by a combined score of 12-1, including a 1-7 drubbing in Budapest. The final matchup was Ireland against Belgium. In Dublin, the first match ended 1-1. In the second match in Brussels, each team traded a goal. With twenty minutes to go, striker Luc Nilis scored for the Red Devils to get them into the Cup and leaving Ireland out, after two remarkable runs in the previous two tournaments. But this was controversial, after an Austrian referee allowed a throw-in to the Belgians, overruling his linesman in the process. But the Belgians were in for the fifth straight time.

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(The Belgium-Ireland match in Brussels allowed Belgium to get in under controversial circumstances. Photo courtesy of 

In North America, Mexico and United States advanced, with Mexico winning the group by one point. Prolific striker Brian McBride scored twice against El Salvador on the final day, en route to a 4-2 victory. The U.S. came in with confidence, although some would say cockiness. Much of that came from Steve Sampson, their manager. Originally praised during a shocking upset of Argentina in the 1995 Copa America en route to a fourth place finish, his style and tactics were now seen as having worn thin by the American players and media. Controversially, he dropped John Harkes off the squad, and nobody understood why (I’ll let you know in the “Fun Facts” section).

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(Steve Sampson would become a fall guy for the American failure in France ’98. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

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(Brian McBride’s two goals got the United States into the Cup. Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report.) 

The final spot would be the final debutante in the World Cup, the “Reggae Boyz” of Jamaica, who qualified after a pair of draws in their last two matches with El Salvador and Mexico. In South America, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Paraguay all qualified.

The final spot came down to a two-legged playoff between Iran and Australia. The first match ended 1-1 in Tehran. Manager Terry Venables, a former England regular, courted controversy by having his players bring their own drinking water because they felt the country was unsafe. The second match in Melbourne is one of most heartbreaking nights for the Socceroos, perhaps their most tragic moment. Things started well, as their hero Harry Kewell scored to make it 1-0 (32′). Australia dominated possession, and got a second goal (48′) via Aurelio Vidmar. Things looked great in Melbourne. Then one of their own fans spelled their doom. Known for disrupting high profile social events in Australia, from sporting events to Parliamentary proceedings, a practical joker named Peter Hore cut up the Iranian net, forcing a stoppage of play. It would be the break Iran needed.

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(Prankster Peter Hore is escorted away by Melbourne police during the Australia-Iran match. Photo courtesy of The Football Almanac.) 

Kewell committed a foul on the Iranian keeper 72 minutes in. That lit a fire under Team Melli. Four minutes later, Iran was on the board to make it 2-1. Then four minutes after that, Iran kept to their strategy of feeding their star player Khodadad Azizi. He hit the equalizer, allowing the match to finish 2-2. Iran advanced on the away goals rule, denying Australia their first appearance since 1974, and breaking a drought of their own of 20 years. Announcers Les Murray and Johnny Warren openly wept on air. Especially painful for Australia was that they hadn’t lost a game during qualifying. But it wasn’t enough.

(Tragedy ensued in Melbourne as Iran rallied to advance with the final spot. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Two referees would also have their day in the sun. The first would get a late start, a customs officer by trade, only reffing two matches in the group stage, but he did so well that eventually he would be chosen to referee the final. Many weren’t sure because his home country of Morocco wasn’t known as that much of a footballing nation, and he would also die of cancer only four years later at age 45. But he would do a great job for the final. His name was Said Belqola.

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(Said Belqola of Morocco would referee the final, one of the better referees in recent memory. Photo courtesy of

Also making his debut at France ’98 was the first true superstar referee, Italy’s Pierluigi Collina. He was named best referee six years in a row by FIFA, and many consider him the best referee ever. He was fair, knowledgeable, and controlled the game tremendously well. He also had a knack for being the ref in really big games, internationally and domestically. If that wasn’t enough, Collina’s appearance was enough to intimidate even the hardest of players. Collina was completely bald from childhood alopecia, had bulging eyes, a booming voice that was proficient in at least five different languages, and long, bony fingers that he would often sternly wave in players’ faces to get them to calm down. Future England player Steven Gerrard later admitted that Collina terrified him. I’m sure numerous others would say the same.

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(Pierluigi Collina was the game’s first superstar referee. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)

There were now eight groups, A-H, and here’s how they stacked up, in order of who played whom.

Group A: Brazil, Scotland, Morocco, Norway
Group B: Italy, Chile, Cameroon, Austria
Group C: France, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Denmark
Group D: Spain, Nigeria, Paraguay, Bulgaria
Group E: Netherlands, Belgium, South Korea, Mexico
Group F: Germany, United States, Yugoslavia, Iran
Group G: Romania, Colombia, England, Tunisia
Group H: Argentina, Japan, Jamaica, Croatia

It was time to get the competition started.

The competition 
Group A 
Brazil and Scotland opened the competition at Saint-Denis’ Stade de France. The defending champion Brazilians dominated the match early, with midfielder Cesar Sampaio scoring the first goal of the Cup after only five minutes.

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(Cesar Sampaio – #5 in yellow – scored the Cup’s opening goal for Brazil. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

However, Scotland actually gave Brazil a pretty good game. In the 38th minute, Scotland won a penalty and equalized through left midfielder John Collins. It would remain 1-1 at halftime, and Scotland hung in for as long as they could. Unfortunately, Scottish bad luck let them down one last time, when an own goal by Tom Boyd (74′) led Brazil to hold on for a 2-1 victory.

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(Tom Boyd’s own goal allowed Brazil to take the opening match. Photo courtesy of Daily Record.) 

Morocco and Norway faced off in the other match. For a team usually short on firepower, Norway actually pursued the attack. But Morocco scored first when Mustapha Hadji made it 1-0 (37′). But like Scotland, an own goal would hurt the Moroccans, as Youssef Chippo headed one into his own net during first half stoppage time off of a free kick. Forward Abdeljalil Hadda gave Morocco the lead again with thirty minutes to go, but only one minute later, Dan Eggen scored on a deflected header for Norway, atoning for being beat on the first goal. Both teams also had clutch saves from their goalkeepers in the second half to keep it tied. A well-balanced match finished 2-2 and each team had a point.

(All the goals from a fantastic Morocco-Norway match. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Scotland and Norway played next in Bordeaux. Both seen as underdogs in their group, it was a scoreless first half. But only a minute after the restart, Håvard Flo scored on a beautiful diving header to give Norway the lead. For Flo, two of his cousins (brothers Jostein and Tore Andre) also played on the team. It looked like the lead would hold, but twenty minutes later, Scotland equalized through midfielder Craig Burley. Since Scotland hasn’t made the Cup since, it remains their last World Cup goal. And they managed to salvage a point. It should also be noted that they were denied a penalty after the Hungarian referee ruled it was outside the box. Both teams were mathematically still alive.

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(Midfielder Craig Burley scored Scotland’s most recent World Cup goal, equalizing against Norway. Photo courtesy of FourFourTwo.) 

They also got some help from Brazil, who ran over Morocco 3-0. Ronaldo broke through only nine minutes in, and another great Brazilian superstar, Rivaldo, made it two-nil in first half stoppage time. Finally, Bebeto continued his great Cup from 1994 and finished the scoring. There was nothing that could go right for Morocco in that game. And it should have been worse, as Leonardo (who had been forgiven for his elbow on Ramos) looked like he had scored within the first five minutes, but was correctly ruled out for offside.

(Brazil ran over Morocco on my eleventh birthday, June 16. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Morocco got only their second World Cup win in their history, running over Scotland 3-0. Hadda got his second goal, and Salaheddine Bassir added two of his own. Worse, goal scoring hero Burley was sent off for a bad foul (53′). With Brazil and Norway playing simultaneously in Marseille, the Norwegians had to win to advance.

Despite having already qualified, Brazil put in their best lineup. It was a fantastic game, with numerous chances but no luck until the 78th minute, when Bebeto made it 1-0 Brazil. But Norway has always played Brazil well, and they rallied. Tore Andre Flo equalized with seven minutes to go. Still, Norway needed one more goal. And unbelievably, they got it when Tore Andre Flo won a controversial penalty against Junior Baiano, who had a pretty lousy game that day. Up stepped Kjetil Rekdal, who didn’t miss. Norway won 2-1 and stole second place from Morocco. Brazil won the group anyway with six points, and Norway had five, Morocco four, and Scotland one. Morocco and Scotland never made it back after 1998. It was Norway’s first and only knockout stage appearance as of this writing.

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(Kjetil Rekdal scored a penalty to beat Brazil and send Norway through to the knockout stages. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

Group B
Opening in this group was Italy against Chile. New Italian star Christian Vieri made it 1-0 after only 11 minutes, before Chilean forward Marcelo Salas equalized in first half stoppage time. Salas added a second to give Chile a surprising lead, but then with six minutes to go, Italy won a penalty. Looking for a chance for redemption, Roberto Baggio stepped up to take it, and this time he didn’t miss. Still, few remember him for this one, and very unfairly.

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(Marcelo Salas’ two goals gave Chile a well-deserved goal against Italy. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Elsewhere, Cameroon got a late goal from defender Pierre Njanka (77′), which looked like it would hold up. But as would be the story for the Austrians, a stoppage time goal gave them a priceless equalizer, this one (90+1′) from forward and captain Toni Polster. It would have given Cameroon a priceless victory. Many believe they never recovered from this.

In Cameroon’s next match, it was obvious that their Golden Generation wasn’t there anymore as Italy ran over them 3-0. Following an opener from Luigi Di Biagio, Vieri added two more of his own. It didn’t help Cameroon that they had four yellows and a straight red during the game, three of those cards (including the red) before halftime. Salas got his third goal for Chile against Austria, but another stoppage time equalizer (90+2′) from substitute Ivica Vastic put both teams on two points.

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(Christian Vieri scored twice against Cameroon in Montpellier. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

Cameroon had a tough match against Chile as well, and were slightly lucky to earn a 1-1 draw. They had two players sent off and finished with nine men, and trailed 1-0 on a Jose Luis Sierra goal (20′). Finally, after 56 minutes, Patrick M’Boma would get the Indomitable Lions on the board, but it wouldn’t be enough. It would, however, for Chile, advancing with three draws. This was because of a late Italy victory, although it wasn’t easy. Italy had a rough start, as an injury to defender Alessandro Nesta forced manager Cesare Maldini to go to his bench after only four minutes. Substitute Giuseppe Bergomi played a decent game in his place. Nesta’s tournament was over. Plus, the upstart Italians couldn’t control the pace in the beginning, before Vieri got the scoring off a header from a free kick. Later, Baggio added a second off the bench, which was necessary, because another stoppage time goal helped Austria get on the board, this one on a penalty from Andreas Herzog. However, it wouldn’t be enough for Austria this time, as they went home with two points, while Italy won the group with seven.

(The goals in the Italy-Austria match. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Group C 
Now it was host France’s turn to show what they could do. In Marseille against South Africa, they ran over the newcomers 3-0. Also forced to enter early in the match for Stephane Guivarc’h, Les Bleus would get their first goal that year from lesser-known forward Christophe Dugarry.

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(Christophe Dugarry opened the goal scoring for France. Photo courtesy of

It took a while for France to get a second, and it would come off an own goal by South Africa defender Pierre Issa (77′). Henry added the last in stoppage time, and it was too easy for France. Saudi Arabia couldn’t gain any momentum from their previous Cup, losing 0-1 to Denmark on a goal from defender Marc Rieper, not even ten minutes after he himself was booked.

Still, South Africa earned their first point in their history with a 1-1 draw with Denmark in Toulouse on June 18. However, it was an ugly game, with Denmark having only nine men left, and South Africa with ten. Two of them, one for each side, came within two minutes of each other. Colombian referee John Toro Rendon was criticized for letting the game get away from him. Ultimately, Benni McCarthy gave Bafana Bafana their first goal and point. They almost pulled off an upset victory late in the match, as Quinton Fortune just barely hit the post.

(An ugly match ended 1-1, with South Africa earning their first point. Video courtesy of Dailymotion.) 

France faced Saudi Arabia next. Unfortunately, the latter were out of miracles as the hosts ran over them 4-0 in Saint-Denis. The match wasn’t eve twenty minutes old when Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Khilaiwi was sent off. Still, it took a little longer for France to get started (37′), when Henry finally broke through. After David Trezeguet made it 2-0, France looked to be sitting pretty. But only three minutes later, France had one of its few moments of trouble, as Zidane was sent off after a tussle with captain Fuad Anwar, after which Zidane reportedly stepped on Anwar’s side. He was the first French player ever sent off in a World Cup.

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(The foul that got Zinedine Zidane sent off against Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of The Mirror.) 

Henry later added a second, and five minutes from the end, Bixente Lizarazu added a fourth. Saudi Arabia was now eliminated with one match to play, and France was through no matter what.

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(Thierry Henry scores one of his two goals versus Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

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(Defender Bixente Lizarazu scores France’s fourth goal. Photo courtesy of 

Despite having already advanced, France wanted to keep their foot on the accelerator. This was also Collina’s first match as referee. An early foul allowed a France penalty (12′), which was converted by Youri Djorkaeff. But then the French defense finally broke half an hour later. Following a quick restart, Brian Laudrup won a penalty after Vincent Candela tripped him up. Michael Laudrup, Brian’s brother, converted, and it was 1-1 shortly before halftime. Later in the second half, France broke through with the winner. Although he was known more for his defense, Marcel Desailly helped keep a French attack alive, allowing the winner to be played back to Emmanuel Petit, who fired a rocket shot past the great Danish keeper Peter Schmeichel. Denmark almost had an equalizer. Midfielder Stig Tøfting fired a shot which Barthez saved, although it looked like he caught the ball with one of his hands behind the line. There was no call, and ergo no goal. France advanced with a 2-1 and a perfect nine points in the group.

(Highlights of the France-Denmark match. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Now South Africa needed a major victory over Saudi Arabia to advance. Still, the Saudis had their best game. Shaun Bartlett (18′) gave South Africa their first lead, but two Saudi penalties gave them the lead, and it looked like Saudi Arabia would salvage pride with a win. But then they gave a silly penalty away, and Bartlett got the equalizer. It wouldn’t be enough, but they still earned two points in their debut, not a terrible result. Denmark’s four points were enough to give them second.

(South Africa and Saudi Arabia fought to a 2-2 draw. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Group D 
Spain had come in as a major favorites in the group. But it would quickly become a Group of Death. Along with that, Spain has had a tendency to underwhelm over the years. Paraguay and Bulgaria had a scoreless draw, with a great game turned in by goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert of Paraguay. Chilavert was a free kick master, and could score them as well as he could stop them. In 74 caps for La Albirroja (The White and Red), he scored an amazing eight times. Also, like many goalkeepers, he was eccentric: politically outspoken, critical of his outfield, and he himself had a temper, once reportedly throwing a punch at Diego Maradona.

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(Jose Luis Chilavert was Paraguay’s star player, adept at both shot saving and scoring. Photo courtesy of Washington Post.) 

Spain’s reputation for chokers was proven true against Nigeria. It started off well, as a Fernando Hierro strike catapulted them into the lead. But only three minutes later, midfielder Mutiu Adepoju equalized for the Super Eagles. Only two minutes after halftime, it was 2-1 Spain, as Raul scored for La Furia Roja. But in five minutes, things changed. With seventeen minutes to go, Nigeria’s Garba Lawal attempted to cross it. Spanish goalkeeper  – and captain – Andoni Zubizarreta got a hand on it, parrying it…right into his own net. It was a costly own goal.

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(The own goal that doomed Spain in Group D. Photo courtesy of TresCuatroTres.)

Five minutes later, Nigeria would record a shocking 3-2 victory when Sunday Oliseh smacked one past Zubizarreta from a ridiculous length, after a throw-in was played back to him. Spain was now on the ropes after their first game.

(A goal by Sunday Oliseh gave Nigeria an upset victory over Spain. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Nigeria continued its luck with a 1-0 victory over Bulgaria, the only goal scored (28′) by Victor Ikpeba. Spain’s slow demise seemed to continue as they had a nil-nil draw with Paraguay.

Against Bulgaria, Spain was able to help their own cause, beating Bulgaria 6-1. It seemed like everything that could go wrong for Bulgaria, the fifth goal coming on an own goal. Fernando Morientes added two of his own. Spain was still alive.

But their run would end early, as Paraguay got their necessary win over Nigeria to advance. After two slow starts, Celso Ayala got Paraguay on the board in the first minute. After a Wilson Oruma equalizer (11′), before two second half goals helped Paraguay through, one from Miguel Angel Benitez, and one from Jose Cardozo. Once considered heavy favorites, Spain was now hanging their heads in shame.

Group E 
Four years later, South Korea would have a run for the ages as co-host. But at the time, they were still considered minnows. So it was considered a major shock when they went 1-0 up on a 27th minute free kick goal by 하석주 (Ha Seok-ju.) Despite a potential deflection off defender Duilio Davino, Ha was credited with the goal. But only two minutes later, Ha was sent off for a foul on the touchline. From hero to goat in the blink of an eye. Still, South Korea kept that shocking 1-0 lead into the locker room.

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(하석주 – Ha Seok-ju  – is sent off for a foul, just two minutes after putting South Korea in the lead. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Only five minutes into the second half, though, Mexico had equalized via Ricardo Pelaez. Then two late goals from the brilliant Luis Hernandez gave Mexico their final 3-1 margin of victory.
(Highlights of the South Korea-Mexico game. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

Pierluigi Collina was the referee for the Netherlands-Belgium game, a rivalry match known as the “Low Countries Derby.” Four years earlier, it had also been played, with Belgium winning 1-0 in a slight upset. This time, the Dutch were the more attacking side, with the Belgian attack unable to get started. Still, they weren’t able to break through, and Patrick Kluivert was sent off with ten minutes remaining for a reckless elbow on Lorenzo Staelens. The match ended 0-0, with the underdog Belgians earning a measure of pride.

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(Patrick Kluivert is sent off for a bad elbow on Belgium’s Lorenzo Staelens. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

But Belgium’s fans would have a reason to be frustrated, as for once, they had a lead and sadly blew it. Against Mexico, each team had a player sent off, before Marc Wilmots scored two goals on either side of halftime for the Rode Duivels, and they were up 2-0. But after Gert Verheyen was sent off, Garcia Aspe scored a penalty for Mexico to make it 2-1. Seven minutes later, Cuauhtémoc Blanco scored the equalizer. I know many Belgian fans are still furious with Verheyen to this day. Still, the Belgians weren’t dead yet.

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(With five goals in two Cups, Marc Wilmots is Belgium’s all-time leading World Cup scorer. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Netherlands did a lot to help their cause by walloping South Korea 5-0. More amazingly, five separate players scored for the Netherlands. In order, they were: Phillip Cocu (37′), Marc Overmars (41′) Dennis Bergkamp (71′), Pierre van Hooijdonk (80′), and Ronald de Boer (83′).

Still, the Belgians could take some solace in knowing that the Dutch also blew a 2-0 lead to El Tri. After being staked to the 2-0 lead after 18 minutes, a furious Mexican rally paid off with two goals in the last fifteen minutes, the last coming deep in stoppage time from Ricardo Pelaez. The Belgians could still keep themselves in it with a win, and it looked like they would when Luc Nilis (7′) was able to shoot home a rebound. But frustratingly, they allowed a South Korean equalizer (72′) through 유상철 (Yoo Sang-chul), defender and captain of the Korean team. Yoo was able to slip behind the Belgian defense and slide the ball past reserve keeper Philippe Vande Walle. The Belgians, frustratingly, were going home, despite being one of only two teams that year (France was the other) not to lose a game. Even more frustratingly, Korean manager Cha Bum-kun (차범근) was fired after the defeat the game before.

Group F
In hindsight, though, at least the Belgians earned three points. The U.S. couldn’t make that claim, their high confidence with little payoff. Opening at Parc des Princes in Paris against Germany, captain Thomas Dooley accidentally revealed the final scoreline. The Germans were sliding downhill, but against the U.S., they were their usual selves, winning 2-0 over the Stars and Stripes. After only ten minutes later, Andreas Möller swept them into the lead, and Klinsmann added the second. The Americans would be seeing a lot more of him in the years to come.

The Yugoslavia-Iran match was surprisingly close, before Siniša Mihajlović was able to get the Yugoslavians the victory 73 minutes in. The next matchup was U.S.A.-Iran in Lyon on June 21. Needless to say, the atmosphere was charged. Iran and United States had been at odds since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and now it was a major propaganda tool for both sides. Things started relatively calmly, with both sides posing together for a photo and the Iranian team presenting white roses. For once, it looked like the civility that Jules Rimet was hoping for when the competition was created would prevail.

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(Members of the U.S. and Iran teams pose for a photo before their match in Lyon. Photo courtesy of FourFourTwo.) 

In truth, the game was relatively clean. Each team combined for only three yellow cards, and no reds, and Swiss referee Urs Meier won a lot of praise for not letting it get too out of control. But the United States wound up with egg on its face, giving Iran its first and so far only World Cup victory, 2-1. Midfielder Hamid Estili opened the scoring shortly before halftime, and then Medhi Mahdavikia scored with seven minutes to go to make it 2-0. The United States managed to avoid the shutout when Brian McBride scored, although it was unsure for a moment if the ball crossed the line, and if so, who should get credit for it. Even if the match was more diplomatic than expected, the United States had been embarrassed and were eliminated with one match to play.

(Iran beat U.S. 2-1 in Lyon. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Germany was struggling more than usual, and it showed. Yugoslavia had them 0-2 on the ropes after only 52 minutes, and it looked like they might pull off an upset of their own. But Siniša Mihajlović turned from hero to goat when he scored an own goal (72′), and six minutes later, Oliver Bierhoff scored the equalizer to finish the scoring. Both teams earned a point, but Germany had been on the ropes. What was happening to the DFB?

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(A goal from Oliver Bierhoff saved Germany from defeat in Lens against Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.)

Germany came back stronger to win 2-0 against Iran in the final game. After a scoreless first half, Bierhoff and Klinsmann scored in a seven minute time frame early in the second half to help a weakened Germany nevertheless win the group. In the other match, an early goal from right back Slobodan Komljenović would be the only one necessary, allowing Yugoslavia to advance in second. For the United States, their humiliation was complete. They lost all three games, scored only one goal, and out of all 32 teams, they finished dead last. Needless to say, Steve Sampson was soon out as manager (although he resigned before they could fire him).

Group G
Against conventional wisdom, David Beckham would be left out of the starting lineup for the first two matches in this group, and wouldn’t play at all in the first one. But opening against a weakened Tunisia side, it wouldn’t really matter that much. Alan Shearer, the pride of Newcastle upon Tyne, opened the scoring (42′) for the Three Lions, and one minute before time, Paul Scholes added a second. Owen came off the bench with five minutes to go, replacing forward Teddy Sheringham. It would be a rematch of four years prior in the other match, with Romania once again beating Colombia, this one by a 1-0 score. During stoppage time in the first half, the only goal was scored by Adrian Ilie. Although he was still active, Hagi would be in his last World Cup and wasn’t as effective.

Romania-England featured the beginning of Michael Owen, and saw Beckham make his debut as a first half sub. After a Viorel Moldovan goal (46′) opened the scoring for Romania, Owen rallied back to score the equalizer (81′), and it looked like England had their point. But in the final minute of regulation, Romania broke through, using right center back Dan Petrescu to win the game, getting revenge on his Chelsea teammate Graeme Le Saux. Owen hit the post in stoppage time, almost allowing England an equalizer. England looked to be in trouble, and now manager Glen Hoddle would swallow his pride and play Beckham in the final match. There was everything to play for, as Colombia won 1-0 on a late goal by substitute Leider Preciado.

Having Beckham in the starting lineup paid dividends for the Three Lions. Twenty minutes in, they got a goal from an unlikely source, defender Darren Anderton of Tottenham Hotspur. Normally a midfielder, Anderton had been rotated back for this competition, and it benefited him. Nine minutes later, the phrase “bend it like Beckham” was born.

On a breakthrough, Preciado was called for a foul on England’s Paul Ince. Beckham stood over the ball for the free kick. He curled it around the wall and beat goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon for a 2-0 lead. That would be the final score, as England survived to get through to the round of 16. Colombia would have to wait until 2014 to get back.

(David Beckham’s free kick against Colombia was the birth of his legend. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

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(Beckham celebrates his goal. Photo courtesy of

In the final match, Romania took their foot off the gas just a little bit, drawing 1-1 with Tunisia. But it was enough to win group honors, with England taking second. It was actually a fairly fought match, with Tunisia taking a shocking early lead on a 12th minute penalty from Skander Souayah. It would take an equalizer from Moldovan (71′) to settle things.

Group H
Many justifiably felt Argentina got an easy group, with three newcomers playing alongside them – Croatia, Jamaica, and Japan. But Japan gave them a good run in their first match, only winning 1-0 on a goal from Gabriel Batistuta (28′). Aside from Argentina, the group was pretty wide open, and any of the other three teams could have taken second. Croatia started strongest, winning 3-1 over Jamaica. It was 1-1 at halftime, before Croatian midfielder Robert Prosinecki scored what would prove to be the winner. In the process, he became the only player to score for two separate countries in the World Cup, having played for a united Yugoslavia in 1990. Later in the match, Davor Šuker gave them an insurance goal. He would go on to take the Golden Boot honors for leading scorer, en route to six for the tournament.

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(Robert Prosinecki became the only person to score for two separate countries in the World Cup. Photo courtesy of

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(Davor Šuker in action for Croatia against Jamaica. Photo courtesy of Augusta Chronicle.) 

Croatia secured their spot in the knockout stages by beating Japan 1-0, with Šuker (77′) scoring the only goal of the match. Against Jamaica, Argentina ran over them 5-0, with Ariel Ortega scoring the first two (31′, 55′), and then Batistuta got a hat trick in only ten minutes in the second half. It was a disaster for Jamaica, having midfielder Darryl Powell sent off right before halftime. Surprisingly, there was little to play for in the final games, with both Argentina and Croatia already through and only playing for seeding at that point.

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(Against Jamaica, Gabriel Batistuta had a hat trick in only ten minutes. Photo courtesy of 

It would be Argentina winning the group, winning 1-0 over a strong Croatia team. The only goal came in the 36th minute via defender Mauricio Pineda. With only pride to play for, Japan-Jamaica ended 1-2. Two goals from Theodore Whitmore were enough to get the Reggae Boyz their first point, while Masashi Nakayama scored a consolation goal for Japan. They also lost three games, but allowed one fewer goal than the United States, hence why they weren’t last officially. Jamaica, sadly, has never been back as of 2018 (having been eliminated before the Hex this year), so that victory is their only real moment in the Cup.

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(Masashi Nakayama scored the first goal for Japan in their World Cup history. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

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(Jamaica got its only World Cup points and win with a pair of goals from Theodore Whitmore. Photo courtesy of FIFA.) 

Advancing to the round of sixteen were the following teams: Brazil and Norway (A), Italy and Chile (B), France and Denmark (C), Nigeria and Paraguay (D), Netherlands and Mexico (E), Germany and Yugoslavia (F), Romania and England (G), Argentina and Croatia (H).

Knockout stages 
Round of 16 
The first knockout stage matches opened on June 27, with two matches taking place. The first one in Paris saw defending champion Brazil run all over Chile, winning 4-1. Ronaldo had two goals of his own, as did midfielder Cesar Sampaio, and it was 3-0 Brazil by halftime. Brazil looked to be sitting pretty again. For Chile, it would become a recurring theme to lose to the Seleção in the knockout stages. Earlier in the day, Italy beat Norway 1-0, when Vieri’s 18th minute broke through. It was Norway’s best finish to date, and also their last appearance to date.

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(Ronaldo scored twice against Chile, continuing his amazing tournament. Photo courtesy of FIFA.) 

Host France had to survive a scary match in Lens against a surprisingly good Paraguay team in order to advance. With Chilavert in goal, most of France’s star players were failing to come through in the clutch, especially with Zidane still suspended. But Fabien Barthez was equally up to the task for France, and Paraguay’s offense couldn’t score either. Six minutes from penalties, it would be defender Laurent Blanc breaking through for the first Golden Goal in the World Cup. France’s run would continue.

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(Laurent Blanc won the game for France in the 114th minute. Photo courtesy of

The next match saw Nigeria face Denmark in Saint-Denis. Nigeria was only beaten 1-4 in a slight upset, but Denmark made it look remarkably easy. Already up two goals at halftime, not only did Ebbe Sand score a third, but he did it only sixteen seconds after coming off the bench, playing the ball off his head and faking out defender Taribo West. It wasn’t quite his first touch of the game, but very close. Denmark made the quarterfinals for the first time ever.

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(Denmark’s Ebbe Sand scored only sixteen seconds after entering the match as a second half sub. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

It looked like Germany might go home before the quarterfinals, as a scoreless first half soon saw them fall behind right after the restart to Mexico (Hernandez 47′). Mexico was within 16 minutes of the last eight when Klinsmann hit the equalizer, saving some of his best for last. With only four minutes remaining, Oliver Bierhoff got to play hero again, scoring to win the match 2-1 for Germany and send them through to another quarterfinal. Mexico’s best team since 1986, at least in my opinion, had blown it.

Netherlands-Yugoslavia had a dramatic finish of its own in Toulouse. Dennis Bergkamp scored first for the Oranje (38′), and that 1-0 score held up through halftime. But only three minutes into the second half, Slobodan Komljenović scored in his second straight game, leveling the score at one apiece. Neither team could find that breakthrough until second half stoppage time. It was then that midfielder Edgar Davids, born in Suriname (a former Dutch colony), scored the winner. It was enough to put Netherlands in the quarterfinals for the second straight Cup.

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(Edgar Davids scored the winner for the Netherlands against Yugoslavia in stoppage time. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Romania’s run ended with a 0-1 defeat to Croatia, with Šuker hitting the winner right before halftime on a penalty. The final match of this stage saw old rivals Argentina and England face off. It was another classic match, one fraught with controversy. And any good will Beckham had with the fans would be eroded.

Before the first ten minutes were up, it would be 1-1. After only five minutes, Argentina went into the lead on a Batistuta penalty. But only four minutes later, the scores were level, also on a penalty, scored by Alan Shearer. It would be that kind of night for Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen. Only seven minutes later, it would be Michael Owen’s finest moment. He took the ball on a pass from Beckham, getting there before defender Jose Chamot. Once Owen got the ball, he never stopped, racing into the box, and poking it past keeper Carlos Roa. It was England’s answer to Maradona’s “Goal of the Century.” Although injuries forced him out in his prime, Owen never looked better.

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(Michael Owen gives England a 2-1 lead after only 16 minutes. Photo courtesy of FourFourTwo.) 

(Beckham’s pass that led to Owen’s goal. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

It was David Beckham that gave Owen the pass. Let people remember that for later in this writing. Unfortunately, England couldn’t hold it, allowing an equalizer to right back Javier Zanetti (45+2′). The halftime score was 2-2. If people thought there were fireworks in the first half, it was nothing compared to what was coming.

Only two minutes into the second half, Beckham and Diego Simeone went for the ball. On a diving header, Beckham was knocked down by Simeone. As he started getting up, Beckham flicked his legs forward. Even if it was a dive (and it probably was), Simeone went down. And it was right in front of referee Nielsen. Captain Alan Shearer attempted to discourage any further violence, and it worked. Nielsen pulled out a yellow card – for Simeone. Then he pulled out another card for Beckham. It was red. And just like that, Beckham was off. England would never recover after that.

(David Beckham is sent off against Argentina. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

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(Referee Kim Milton Nielsen of Denmark sends off Beckham. Photo courtesy of GQ Magazine.) 

Both teams had their chances in regulation, but nothing came of them until late. With only a few minutes left in regulation, England had won a corner kick near the Argentinian box, which Darren Anderton raced to take. Anderton swung the ball in, and it looked like Roa couldn’t clear it. Center back Sol Campbell was there to put it in. GOAL!! Or was it? Suddenly, there was a late whistle. And Argentina didn’t give England a chance to break their celebration, restarting right away. England players were literally shoved back onto the pitch to get back. Anderton made the run of his life and was able to clear it out in the England box, giving Argentina a corner of their own. Anderton made two great plays in that sequence, but nobody remembers them. And Nielsen’s call was correct, as Alan Shearer nudged Roa off the ball with his elbow.

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(While it looked like Sol Campbell had scored the winner for England, it would be correctly disallowed. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

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(Alan Shearer – top right of this photo – put his elbow in the face of goalkeeper Carlos Roa, disallowing the Campbell goal. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.) 

Neither team scored again in regulation or in extra time. Once again for England, they would have to face penalties. Two years earlier as host of Euro ’96, they had lost on a miss by Gareth Southgate. We already know the history of Italia ’90. Could they break through now against their most bitter rival?

Argentina went first, scoring through Sergio Berti. Shearer went next and made it 1-1. Then England keeper David Seaman made the save on Hernan Crespo. It looked like England had the edge. But then Paul Ince missed as well. Juan Sebastian Veron and Paul Merson converted, as did Marcelo Gallardo and then Owen. It was 3-3 with one kick to go. Center back Roberto Ayala scored for Argentina. It was up to David Batty for England, but it was an odd choice. He had never taken a penalty in his life in a major competition, and reportedly didn’t even take them in practice. It was almost too easy – for Roa, that is. Batty predictably missed his penalty, Argentina went through, and once again, England were out on penalties.

The backlash on Beckham continued for a while. Various people hung him in effigy, which actually earned many people free drinks in pubs for over a year. But Beckham would be back four years later, in his own tale of redemption. But we’re not there yet.

The first quarterfinal matched up Italy against France. Arguably the most underrated rivalry in the game, many French players spent their club careers in Serie A. In fact, much of Zidane’s frustration in 2006 came from old issues with Juventus, his current club at the time. Now back in the lineup, Zizou couldn’t find a breakthrough, and Italy was denied on a great save by Barthez on Vieri. It would go to penalties. Zidane led off and scored. What many people forget is that Roberto Baggio got another chance in 1998. This time, he converted. It looked like Italy was in the driver’s seat when Gianluca Pagliuca saved the shot from Lizarazu. But Demetrio Albertini gave that advantage right back, when Barthez saved his shot. Trezeguet and Henry each scored for France, as did Alessandro Costacurta and Vieri for the Azzurri. Blanc converted the fifth penalty for France. To force sudden death, it came down to Luigi Di Biagio. He ran up, and had Barthez beaten and off his line…only to watch it crash off the crossbar and out. For some reason, Baggio never escaped the criticism, but it seemed like Di Biagio did. It’s a weird game, isn’t it? Les Bleus were back in the last four. And Italy went out on penalties for the third consecutive Cup.

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(Luigi Di Biagio missed the penalty to knock Italy out of the competition. Photo courtesy of 

Brazil versus Denmark in Nantes was a fantastic game. “Danish Dynamite” started the festivities when Martin Jørgensen scored after only two minutes played. But after only ten minutes, Bebeto leveled the score at 1-1, and then Rivaldo, himself a future superstar in the making, scored the go-ahead goal (25′). That 2-1 scoreline held up through halftime. Five minutes into the second half, Denmark had made it 2-2 through Brian Laudrup. An exciting game reached its climax when Rivaldo’s second goal (59′) won the game for Brazil. The defending champions were back in the semifinals.

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(Rivaldo’s second goal sent the Brazilians into the semis. Photo courtesy of ESPN.) 

(Brazil-Denmark highlights. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

20 years after their controversial final in Buenos Aires, Netherlands-Argentina met up in Marseille. This time, the Dutch prevailed 2-1, heading to the semifinals for the first time since that fateful meeting. Patrick Kluivert opened the scoring (12′), before Claudio Lopez (17′) equalized shortly after. Each team finished with ten men, having a player sent off in the final ten minutes, including Argentina losing Ariel Ortega with only three minutes to go. It would come down to the final ninety seconds, when captain Frank de Boer crossed the ball down the field, one of the most beautiful crosses in the Cup’s history. Waiting for it was Dennis Bergkamp, who was attempting to get past defender Roberto Ayala, who didn’t want to foul him inside the box. Bergkamp took the ball off his right foot, got a weak touch, then tried to send Ayala the wrong way. And Ayala took the bait. Moving slightly to his left, Bergkamp controlled the ball off the bounce and smashed it past Carlos Roa. DOEL, NEDERLAND!! DOEL, NEDERLAND!!! Legendary Dutch announcer Jack van Gelder went berserk, his voice breaking as he cried out, “DENNIS BERGKAMP!!” over and over again. For technical precision, as well as the clutch factor, it gets my vote for the best goal of the entire Cup.

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(Dennis Bergkamp’s wonder goal sent Netherlands into the semifinals. Photo courtesy of

(Jack van Gelder makes his famous call of Bergkamp’s winner. Video courtesy of YouTube.)

The last quarterfinal saw the Germans lose in an upset for the second straight Cup, losing 0-3 to Croatia. Manager Berti Vogts complained about Germany being “punished” by Norwegian referee Rune Pedersen for being too successful in the past, but Croatia were magnificent that day. Germany’s problems started when defender Christian Wörns was sent off with a straight red (40′). A few minutes later, in the first half stoppage time, left wing back Robert Jarni scored. Two more goals in the final ten minutes, the first from Goran Vlaovic, and the second from Davor Šuker, left the Germans shaking their hands in frustration.

Brazil and Netherlands faced off in the first semifinal, and it was scoreless in the first half. Right after the break, Ronaldo opened the scoring for Brazil, his fourth of the competition. Brazil could feel their foot on the finals once again, until Patrick Kluivert equalized with three minutes to go. Neither team could find an extra time winner, and penalties were needed again. Although the Dutch had a great keeper of their own in Edwin van der Sar, nicknamed “ijs konijn” (“ice rabbit”), penalties were his weak spot. Unfortunately, van der Sar wasn’t able to overcome his yips about them, as Brazil scored all four. Once Philip Cocu and Ronald de Boer (Frank’s brother) had penalties saved by Taffarel, the Brazilians were playing for the second straight year in the final. The Dutch dream of winning the Cup would have to wait again.

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(Ronaldo celebrates his goal versus Netherlands. Photo courtesy of 

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(A header from Patrick Kluivert equalized the score, although Brazil won on penalty. Photo courtesy of 

France met Croatia in the other semifinal. If the experts predicted France to go far, Croatia wasn’t that high on their radar. One minute after halftime, Davor Šuker opened the scoring for Croatia, and it looked like they had a foot in the door. But not so fast. One minute after that, unheralded right back Lilian Thuram hit the equalizer. Twenty-three minutes later, Thuram hit a second that proved to be the winner to send France through to the final for the first time ever. But one player would miss the final. On a Croatia free kick (76′), Laurent Blanc got in a scuffle with Croatia’s Slaven Bilic. Admittedly, Blanc did touch Bilic on the face, but it was closer to the chin. Bilic grabbed his eye and took a pretty obvious dive. Unfortunately, the Spanish referee fell for it and Blanc was red carded for the final. France appealed to FIFA to overturn it, but they were unsuccessful. Still, it was planning to be a marquee matchup: the hosts against the defending champions, which had never happened before.

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(Laurent Blanc was sent off for a dive by Slaven Bilic. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

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(Unheralded Lilian Thuram scored twice to put France in the final. Photo courtesy of

Third place game 
Netherlands and Croatia, two teams with unsure expectations, would play in the third place game. A well-fought game was decided nine minutes before halftime, with Croatia winning 2-1. All three goals were scored in the first 36 minutes, with Prosinecki (14′) and Šuker (36′) overcoming a Dutch goal from Boudewijn Zenden (22′). For Vatreni (The Blazers), their first appearance was an incredible success. Unfortunately, subsequent appearances haven’t been able to be as great.

(The surprising Croatian team took third place in their World Cup debut. Video courtesy of YouTube.) 

Many people were excited for the Ronaldo-Zidane matchup. Unfortunately, Ronaldo almost missed it. On the morning of the match, teammate Roberto Carlos frantically called for a doctor, fearing that Ronaldo was dead. He had reason to worry: Ronaldo was convulsing violently on the floor. The doctors were able to get him to calm down, but the original lineup had Ronaldo left out. Then conspiracy theories started. Some hold to this day that his corporate sponsor Nike forced him to play, putting his health at risk for a corporate brand. It’s not necessarily true, but it wouldn’t be impossible either. In any event, a new team sheet released thirty minutes later would have Ronaldo back in the starting lineup. According to the laws of FIFA, everything is legal as long as it’s done within a certain time limit, and Brazil met it. Ronaldo would play. But as it turned out, he was a non-factor, turning a potentially explosive final into one giant anticlimactic one.

Still, it wasn’t just Ronaldo’s fault that day. The entire Brazil team didn’t play up to their potential. And French manager Aimé Jacquet noticed something: Brazil tended to be more relaxed on corner kicks. Twenty-seven minutes in, the French found the hole and exploited it. Midfielder Emmanuel Petit swung in a corner from the right of the goal. Zinedine Zidane was waiting, and got his head on it. C’est un but français! Jacquet had guessed right, and France had the lead.

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(Zinedine Zidane’s header gave France the lead after 27 minutes. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail.) 

Only minutes later, Dunga fed Ronaldo on a through ball. He got there, but Barthez beat him to it. They collided, and both would require medical attention, but both stayed in, and neither was booked by Said Belqola.

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(Ronaldo and Fabien Barthez collide in the first half of the final. Photo courtesy of 

As the first half neared its end, France won another corner, this time on the left side of the box. During first half stoppage time, the ball came in. Deux pour Zidane! Zizou had his second, and France went in with a 2-0 halftime lead. Their defense was spectacular, holding Rivaldo and Leonardo in check all game.

The only downside of France’s victory was that they had to play the last 22 minutes minus one men. Marcel Desailly was given a second yellow by Belqola after a bad foul on Cafu, but few people had a problem with this. Belqola was praised for doing a great job in the final. Still, Brazil couldn’t do anything about it. That’s how inept they were in that match, and I think I’m being pretty generous with my word choice.

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(Marcel Desailly was sent off for a bad foul on Brazil’s Cafu. Photo courtesy of 

France’s coronation was almost complete. This time, Petit would get himself on the score sheet, adding a goal of his own in second half stoppage time. Numéro trois! Brazil did manage to tie a record in this final, shared by Italy in 1970 (ironically against Brazil) – the largest margin of defeat in the World Cup final. France’s “champagne football” could finally pop the cork after sixty-eight years of trying. Using a stout back line, and a magnificent striking force, Les Bleus could finally call themselves champions.

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(Emmanuel Petit put the finishing touches on France’s dominating World Cup. Photo courtesy of 

(Highlights of Brazil-France. Video courtesy of Dailymotion.)

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(Zinedine Zidane and the French team lift the trophy. Photo courtesy of FIFA.)

Fun Facts 
One year after the World Cup, England manager Glen Hoddle, England’s most successful manager in recent memory, was fired. A born-again Christian, Hoddle made controversial remarks where he believed that those living with disabilities were suffering for “sins” in past lives.

Fabien Barthez is also known for dating supermodel Linda Evangelista.

Brazilian midfielder Emerson lost his chance to play for Brazil in 2002 after dislocating his shoulder during a practice session. He was goofing off by pretending to be a goalkeeper, and hurt it because he didn’t know how to fall properly.

Norwegian player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would hit the dramatic winner for Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final the next year. Pierluigi Collina was the referee in that match.

Lothar Matthäus is the only outfield (i.e. non-goalkeeper) player to appear in five World Cups. This was his last one. Mexican goalkeeper Antonio Carvajal (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966) is the only other player to do it.

Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids, who scored their winner in the round of sixteen, was known for wearing sunglasses on the field, due to side effects from glaucoma.

Argentinian goalkeeper Carlos Roa was a Seventh-Day Adventist, and refused to do anything on a Saturday.

Scotland made their last appearance to date so far. They have a record of their own: most appearances (eight) without ever making it past the first round.

Speaking of records, Masashi Nakayama of Japan has two records of his own: record for the fastest hat trick in history (three minutes, three seconds) and scoring a hat trick in four consecutive J-League games.

It turned out that John Harkes was dropped from the ’98 U.S. squad because he had an affair with Eric Wynalda’s wife, and not for performance reasons, as initially thought.

France was so dominant that Thierry Henry didn’t even play in the final.

As a result of his winning goal versus the United States, Iran’s Medhi Mahdavikia was exempted from military service.

Sol Campbell would later leave Tottenham Hotspur and join archrival Arsenal on a free transfer. Even many Arsenal fans were shocked and upset, because of how he did it.

Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel once broke his jaw while screaming at his defenders at Manchester United.

Final Thoughts 
Much of the political rhetoric was tempered as a result of France’s win. It seemed only appropriate that they would win a trophy designed by their fellow countryman as a way to establish friendliness on the pitch. Even Jacques Chirac would wear a Zidane jersey during the celebration along the famous Champs-Élysées. But France’s reign would end just as soon as it began, as 2002 ushered in a new era of football. And it allowed Ronaldo new redemption, which he would gladly take.

References and Sources
Getty Images.
Bleacher Report.
The Football Almanac
GQ Magazine. 
Washington Post.
The Mirror. 
Daily Record 
Daily Mail. 
Sunday World
Augusta Chronicle.
World Cup’s 50 Greatest Moments (documentary)
World Cup’s Most Shocking Moments (documentary)
Soccer Men
(Simon Kuper)
Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer (George Vecsey)
Soccer’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Clumsy Keepers, Clever Crosses, and Outlandish Oddities 
(John Snyder)
Soccer’s Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves, and Fantastic Free-Kicks 
(Jeff Carlisle)
¡Golazo! The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America 
(Andreas Campomar)
The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet’s Biggest Sports Event 
(David Hirshey, Roger Bennett)
The Mammoth Book of the World Cup 
(Nick Holt)

2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers: CONCACAF

We’re in the fifth and final qualifying round of CONCACAF (North American) qualifying. Six teams remain, known as “The Hex.” The United States is among them, and still has a chance. But will it be enough to get them through? Keep an eye out on Asian qualifiers, too, because if the U.S. is forced into a playoff, they would play that winner. Let’s see where we stand, only about two weeks away from important qualifiers.

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.

Spots clinched: 0
Guaranteed spots: 3
Playoff spots: 1

1. MEXICO – 14 points 
Mexico FA.svg
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Panama, September 5 at Costa Rica, October  vs. Trinidad and Tobago, October 10 at Honduras
Previous Appearances: 15 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

In what is often seen as a weaker confederation than most, Mexico has risen to the top once again. Having played both of their matches against their rivals in America, emerging with a win and a draw, they look to be in the driver’s seat. Incidentally, they may help the U.S. in their next match, hosting Panama at Estadio Azteca. Should they win, not only would they be on the cusp of qualifying, they’d give the U.S. an extra lifeline. Even a draw wouldn’t be terrible. Then they have a tough away match against Costa Rica. The top three teams are all trying to knock each other out, but may have the opposite effect. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

2. COSTA RICA – 11 points 
Costa Rica football association.png
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at United States, September 5 vs. Mexico, October 6 vs. Honduras, October 10 at Panama
Previous Appearances: 4 (1990, 2002, 2006, 2014)

Coming off of a quarterfinal berth in 2014, and with superb goalkeeper Keylor Navas waiting for them in the wings, Costa Rica controls their own destiny. But even if the other teams – United States and Mexico – aren’t looking forward to playing them, it’s not like they’re looking forward to it either. Even though they beat the Stars and Stripes 4-0 at home, America is looking to return the favor, and then they host a resurgent Mexico side. This is going to be a magnificent final two months. Plus, we’ll know by October 10 when everything is settled.

3. UNITED STATES – 8 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Costa Rica, September 5 at Honduras, October 6 vs. Panama, October 10 at Trinidad and Tobago
Previous Appearances: 10 (1930, 1934, 1950, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)

The U.S.’s streak of seven straight appearances could be in jeopardy. They’ve been struggling, despite having a potential future superstar in the making in Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund. Most of their core players are still there, but are older, and it’s been said that Bruce Arena has a hard time managing his players. To get to the World Cup, it’s said you usually need at least fourteen points. Fortunately, I think the schedule is easier enough for the U.S. this time – they’d be ahead of the two teams on the road, and their first game is probably their hardest. The match against Panama would probably be the turning point, because it could come down to those two teams for the playoff spot. They should finish at least fourth, because Honduras has a tough road ahead of them, and I think Trinidad and Tobago loses out on talent. But we’ll have to wait and see.

4. PANAMA – 7 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Mexico, September 5 vs. Trinidad and Tobago, October 6 at United States, October 10 vs. Costa Rica
Previous Appearances: 0

Seen more as a baseball nation, Panama has taken great strides in football, and would be in the playoff. But when you look at that remaining schedule, they have the toughest remaining matches, with their only remaining winnable match a home match against Trinidad and Tobago on September 5, and they have to play both Mexico and United States away. With Honduras only two points behind, the Red Tide have no room for error. Fortunately, it looks like they may have some help in front of them from the schedule makers.

5. HONDURAS – 5 points 
Honduras FA.svg

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Trinidad and Tobago, September 5 vs. United States, October 6 at Costa Rica, October 10 vs. Mexico
Previous Appearances: 3 (1982, 2010, 2014)

The bottom three teams are all running into the same problem – most of their remaining matches are against the top three teams. Honduras has a got chance to get the playoff spot on September 1, their last “easy” match. Then, they play the top three teams, and in ascending order. They do have two of them at home, but they lost 6-0 to the United States earlier, and 3-0 to Mexico. I think Trinidad and Tobago has a shock draw in them, and so, I think Honduras’ run may come to an end.

6. TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO – 3 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Honduras, September 5 at Panama, October 6 at Mexico, October 10 vs. United States
Previous Appearances: 1 (2006)

Of the bottom three teams, T&T’s schedule is probably easiest, but still not that easy by any means, playing the two dominant teams last, back-to-back, that first one on the road. And I don’t think they have the talent – at least on paper – to get them to fourth or higher.

Qualifying automatically
1. Mexico
2. Costa Rica
3. United States

4. Panama

Fans of the USMNT, keep your fingers crossed. As Eve Harrington once said, “Buckle up. It’s about to be a bumpy ride.”


2018 FIFA World Cup qualification: CAF

Our next qualifying group is the Confederation of African Football (CAF). We are in the third and final round of qualifiers. There are five groups of four teams, and to make the World Cup, you have to win the group – no second place here. Here’s a breakdown of each group. All five spots are still available, and every team has four matches left.

All photos are courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.

Available spots: 5
Clinched: 0

Group A 
1. DR CONGO – 6 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Tunisia, September 5 vs. Tunisia, October 2 at Libya, November 6 vs. Guinea
Previous Appearances: 1 (1974 – as Zaire)

I’ve always held a soft spot for the DR Congo. They have gone through a lot of political turmoil over the years, had a name change, then changed it back again, and in fact are the largest Francophone nation by area. They currently lead Tunisia on goal differential, which is important, because they have two games against each other, home and away, in four days. Even more importantly, that first game on September 1 is away, so they would need at least a draw to seize the momentum against a stout Tunisian defense. I think on pure talent, DR Congo is the best team in this group, with players like Chancel Mbemba, Dieumerci Mbokani, and Yannick Bolasie. But they might have a tough road ahead of them.

2. TUNISIA – 6 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. DR Congo, September 5 at DR Congo, October 2 at Guinea, November 6 vs. Libya
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)

Nicknamed the “Eagles of Carthage,” Tunisia might have an advantage heading into their head-to-head matchups with the DR Congo’s Leopards. They don’t look like the best team on paper, but they have a great defense so far. To be fair, though, the other two teams below them aren’t favored that much.

3. GUINEA – 0 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Libya, September 4 at Libya, October 2 vs. Tunisia, October 6 vs. DR Congo
Previous Appearances: 0

Because each team has only played two games, Guinea can still do some damage. They have a match in Conakry against a struggling Libya side – I expect them to get at least four points out of it, if not more. They’re not really favored to advance, but they could still play spoiler.

4. LIBYA – 0 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Guinea, September 4 vs. Guinea, October 2 vs. DR Congo, November 6 vs. Tunisia
Previous Appearances: 0

Libya is in a state of flux, having fired Spanish-born manager Javier Clemente, and having played well below their potential. I can’t really see them doing any damage, having to play all of their matches at neutral sites for safety concerns, and having at least two and perhaps even three in front of them.

Group B 
1. NIGERIA – 6 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Cameroon, September 4 at Cameroon, October 2 vs. Zambia, November 6 at Algeria
Previous Appearances: 5 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014)

What a group this is! Of all continental confederations, this is really the Group of Death. This means that at least two teams are going home that have made the last two World Cups, and if Nigeria can’t hold it, it could be all three, should Zambia win the group. But with a four point lead on Cameroon, I think the group is theirs to lose. Cameroon and Algeria seem to be on a downward slide, and Zambia doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere.

2. CAMEROON – 2 points
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31, at Nigeria, September 4 vs. Nigeria, October 2 vs. Algeria, October 6 at Zambia
Previous Appearances: 7 (1982, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014)

The Indomitable Lions have two tough matches against Nigeria coming up, so they probably have to win one, or perhaps both, to really have a chance. Two draws would still put them four points behind, and a loss would almost doom them. Can Cameroon put the pressure on Nigeria, or will they be left out this time?

3. ZAMBIA – 1 point 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Algeria, September 5 at Algeria, October 2 at Nigeria, November 6 vs. Cameroon
Previous Appearances: 0

Nicknamed the Copper Bullets, Zambia is in third right now, but they have several matches coming up against big teams. As amazing as it would be if Zambia could upset all three teams, I don’t see it happening, because they’re still behind.

4. ALGERIA – 1 point 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Zambia, September 5 vs. Zambia, October 2 at Cameroon, November 6 vs. Nigeria
Previous Appearances: 4 (1982, 1986, 2010, 2014)

Algeria needs some help to qualify, but I don’t thin they’re going to get it. They made the round of 16 in Brazil 2014, losing a very good match to Germany. But it looks like they are going to fall short, because I think Nigeria and Cameroon are slightly favored.

Group C 
1. IVORY COAST – 4 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Gabon, September 5 vs. Gabon, October 2 at Mali, November 6 vs. Morocco
Previous Appearances: 3 (2006, 2010, 2014)

The Elephants hold the lead in what has actually been a pretty tight group, and has advanced to the last three World Cups, coming close to being in the round of sixteen at least twice. But they lack a clutch factor to get them over the top. Fortunately, they probably have the most talent of the group, and only have to play their toughest competition, Morocco, one more time, and that’s last. One part is that many of their best players like Didier Drogba have retired, so is their Golden Generation over?

2. MOROCCO – 2 points
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Mali, September 5 at Mali, October 2 vs. Gabon, November 6 vs. Ivory Coast
Previous Appearances: 4 (1970, 1986, 1994, 1998)

Once a mainstay of several World Cups in the 1980s and 1990s, Morocco has fallen off the pace since 1998, and might have a twenty-year drought if they can’t break through. But they have an easier group, and with Ivory Coast getting older, and less to back them up, it could be theirs to take.

3. GABON – 2 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Ivory Coast, September 5 at Ivory Coast, October 2 at Morocco, November 6 vs. Mali
Previous Appearances: 0

Gabon has a fantastic player in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund. The problem is that he can’t carry them by himself, so who does he have to back him up? In only nine caps, Mario Lemina has already scored twice and plays for Southampton in the Premier League, so he has a pretty good chance to influence play. But without any goals, they can’t get anywhere, obviously.

4. MALI – 1 point 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Morocco, September 5 vs. Morocco, October 2 vs. Ivory Coast, November 6 at Gabon
Previous Appearances: 0

While they did earn a scoreless draw against Gabon on November 12 of last year, they have a long road ahead of them, facing Morocco twice, and Ivory Coast again, and they also have to go away to Libreville (potentially) to play Gabon. I think their run ends here, although they deserve credit for going this far.

Group D 
1. BURKINA FASO – 4 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 at Senegal, September 5 vs. Senegal, October 2 at South Africa, November 6 vs. Cape Verde
Previous Appearances: 0

So much of this depends on South Africa and Senegal behind them. With two matches in four days against Senegal, and another one away at South Africa, scheduling doesn’t appear to be on their side. But it’s not like the other teams want to play them, and it’s very possible that the Stallions can ride on to the World Cup.

2. SOUTH AFRICA – 4 points 
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Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 at Cape Verde, September 5 vs. Cape Verde, October 2 vs. Burkina Faso, November 6 at Senegal
Previous Appearances: 3 (1998, 2002, 2010)

The 2010 Cup host has come close a few times, but close isn’t good enough in this game. Still, I think Bafana Bafana has an easier schedule because they get Cape Verde twice, and then a key home match against Burkina Faso; whoever wins that match should seize momentum, heading into an away match against Senegal, who has played spoiler before.

3. SENEGAL – 3 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 2 vs. Burkina Faso, September 5 at Burkina Faso, October 2 at Cape Verde, November 6 vs. South Africa
Previous Appearances: 1 (2002)

In Senegal’s one and only appearance in 2002, they made the quarterfinals in a shocking upset of France. Since then, they’ve been down a little bit but should hopefully be on the way back up. They could play spoiler to the other two teams ahead of them, but they run the risk of having the same thing happening to them. It’s going to be a fantastic finish in this group.

4. CAPE VERDE – 0 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. South Africa, September 5 at South Africa, October 2 vs. Senegal, November 6 at Burkina Faso
Previous Appearances: 0

Cape Verde has come close in the last few years, but have no clutch factor. They were almost in the final round last year, but were disqualified for fielding an ineligible player, leading Tunisia to take their place. Since then, they’ve slipped, never really regaining their footage. With all the other teams ahead of them, it’s a long road back up for the Blue Sharks.

Group E 
1. EGYPT – 6 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest

Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 at Uganda, September 5 vs. Uganda, October 2 vs. Congo, November 6 at Ghana
Previous Appearances: 2 (1934, 1990)

Egypt looks to be the favorite in the group – Ghana looks to be on a downward slide, Congo are going nowhere, and Uganda are still on the way up, but may not be there yet. But with the last team mentioned currently sitting second right now, and their two-legged matches en route, they can’t afford a slip up. On paper, Egypt looks to be the favorite to make their third World Cup. But Uganda and Ghana still have a chance to catch them.

2. UGANDA – 4 points
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: August 31 vs. Egypt, September 5 at Egypt, October 2 vs. Ghana, November 6 at Congo
Previous Appearances: 0

“The Cranes,” as they’re known, have been very surprising – and that’s in a good way – since the beginning of qualifiers. They ran over Togo 4-0 on aggregate to get this far, and are ahead of Ghana, quarter-finalists in 2010, and making an appearance in each of the last three Cups. Their schedule is tough, facing Egypt in their next two matches, but after that, if they can win at home in Kampala, and emerge over Congo in a match where they’d be favored, they can still be in it. But they’d need to win at least once against Egypt in order to have a real chance.

3. GHANA – 1 point 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Congo, September 5 at Congo, October 2 at Uganda, November 6 vs. Egypt
Previous Appearances: 3 (2006, 2010, 2014)

There’s been a great rivalry developing between Ghana and Egypt over the last decade. For most of it, Ghana has had the upper hand. However, it looks like the pendulum has swung the other way. Ghana still has a good chance to catapult over Uganda, with a pair of winnable matches in four days against Congo coming up. But the last two games may not be enough to get them through, particularly that head-to-head matchup at home against Egypt. That grudge match could decide the spot. I’m looking forward to that game.

4. CONGO – 0 points 
Shirt badge/Association crest
Status: ACTIVE
Remaining Matches: September 1 vs. Ghana, September 5 at Ghana, October 2 at Egypt, November 6 vs. Uganda
Previous Appearances: 0

Unfortunately, I can’t see Congo (not DR Congo) rising above last place, because the other three teams are just too good. They might play spoiler in one match against Ghana, but I can’t see them doing much else. Also incidentally nicknamed Les Diables Rouges (the Red Devils), I think Congo’s run ends here.

My predictions
Group A: DR Congo
Group B: Nigeria
Group C: Ivory Coast
Group D: Burkina Faso
Group E: Egypt

These two home-and-home legs will definitely be a test. I’m excited to see how they pan out.

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My Oscar winners: August 2017

My winners in the “big six” categories, as of August 16, 2017.

Best Picture: Dunkirk 
Best Director: Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk 
Best Actor: Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour
Best Actress: Annette Bening – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool 
Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project 
Best Supporting Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer – Mother!

Indiana, we’re all for you.

It’s here again, everybody. August 16 – exactly two months after my birthday; the date of death for Babe Ruth, Bela Lugosi, Margaret Mitchell, and Elvis Presley; the date of birth of Oscar-winning actor Timothy Hutton, filmmaker James Cameron, explorer T.E. Lawrence, and writer Charles Bukowski. On this date in 1954, the first issue of Sports Illustrated was published, Cyprus won independence from the UK, and Pete Best was fired as the drummer for The Beatles. And it also marks the official move-in day for Welcome Week 2017 at Indiana University.

I wanted to capture as many photos of the campus experience as I could. I’m pretty sure I got a photo of all the residence halls, or at least a sign, and if I missed one, I apologize. Maybe this can be a photo album for any potential applicants. And in just over two hours, I ended up with 102. Considering I left late, I made really good time.

Forest Quad, Southeast. 

For any new students that are reading this, there are three primary neighborhoods on campus: Southeast, Central, and Northwest. The furthest southeast is Forest Quad, right off of Third Street. I got a good start to the photos, walking downhill on Third before stopping in to Mother Bear’s.

Once I finished lunch, I hit the main southeast part of campus. Although theatre was one of my majors, I actually didn’t live at Read during that time, which is right across from both the theatre department and the Jacobs School of Music. But I bet I had numerous friends who did, so I hope they enjoy reading this, too. Crossing the street at Read leads to the arts part of campus, through the IU auditorium, the Showalter Fountain, and the Art Museum, currently under renovation.

20170816_135659.jpgRead Quadrangle, Southeast. 

From there, it was another view heading right on Seventh Street from Read. Although I didn’t get the best photo, the next stop was Willkie, used by many upperclassmen, and frequently by education majors. It was named after 1940 presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, himself an IU grad. While I didn’t get the best photo, I think I got another one. Along the road on Seventh were numerous cars. Being a pedestrian today required me to be very careful. 20170816_140522Willkie Quad, Southeast. 

Traffic along Seventh Street en route to Willkie, which you can see on the upper right corner of this photo. Also, apologies for my finger being in the way.

Once across the street – which wasn’t as easy as it looked, I made it up the sidewalk near Teter, which begins the Central neighborhood. Most of the residence halls (as a former Orientation Leader, that is technically the proper word to “dorms,” by the way; that OL spirit never leaves you) will be situated between Seventh and Tenth Street. Use both streets as the boundaries of each neighborhood.

A “Welcome to IU” sign connected to Teter.

Connected to Teter were both Ashton and Union Street; the latter is one of the newer residence halls on campus. On the other side was Eigenmann Hall. If it’s not the tallest, it always seemed like the tallest.

Ashton Hall on the right, behind the trees. I at least got the sign. 

Union Street, right across the street from Eigenmann. 

20170816_141808Eigenmann Hall, Central Neighborhood. 

Crossing back the other way, I got photos of Wright quad. Officially, it was my first home away from home, as I lived here during my OL summer in 2007. In fact, it’s been ten years since that incredible summer. I may have graduated, but I’m proud to have been a part of the FYE (First Year Experience) tradition.

FYE, once known as Orientation, was an integral part of my IU experience. 

Wright Quad, Central.

Welcome to Wright.

Next up was the Wells Library; for me, it’s the main hub of the campus. Numerous hours were spent in that building. Other buildings are important, but for most schools, the library is the most important building on campus.

The Herman B. Wells Library.

The new SPEA building add-on.

I may have been out for six years, but I’m still a Hoosier through and through.

The first of a series of photos as part of IU’s bicentennial campaign.

Next up was a series of photos on Tenth Street, with a new add-on for the SPEA (public and environmental affairs). Along the lampposts were flyers for the IU bicentennial campaign, set to take place in 2020. 20170816_143107




The next stop was my home for two years, Collins Living Learning Center. One of my favorite bits of IU trivia is that it’s technically considered the beginning of the Northwest neighborhood, or at least it was when I was there (using Tenth as the boundary line, they had two parts behind the Geology building, which is on that line). I always felt like Collins had the best festivities; music from ABBA was blaring from the speakers, and for its size, it has an amazing culture to it.

Collins LLC, my home for two years. 


Heading back the opposite way on Tenth Street, there was a new sign connected to the Woodlawn Fields, which said “Indiana University” across it, made out of the limestone. It’s an amazing addition to campus.

The new sign on Tenth Street at Woodlawn Field. 

It’s hard to get to the Northwest neighborhood, with an uphill climb to get there on Fee Lane. I didn’t stay there too long, but I got a photo of the three main residence halls there: Foster, McNutt, and Briscoe. Foster is known for its Global Living Learning Center (and has a great dining facility, in my opinion), and McNutt is popular for aspiring business students. Briscoe is the furthest from campus, but the closest to all the athletic facilities: Armstrong Stadium (soccer), Memorial Stadium (football), Kaufman Field (baseball), and Assembly Hall (basketball). It was a fitting finish to the atmosphere. I was even able to help new students get to the library while walking down Fee Lane, proof positive that I still have that OL spirit in me.

Foster Quad, Northwest. 

McNutt, Northwest. 

For all my Briscoe and SPEA friends out there.

For the rest of the week, there will be festivities, meetings, and walks around campus as summer vacation ends. One student I helped out asked me if I had any advice for freshmen. I had three: 1. Enjoy it, but take it seriously, too, because it’s the last step before you go out in the world; 2. Responsibility is earned, not just given; 3. Take deep breaths. It may not be the best, but it’s a start.

Here’s to the rest of Welcome Week 2017. Another school year.

“Never daunted, we cannot falter,
In the battle, we’re tried and true. 
Indiana, Our Indiana
Indiana, we’re all for you.”

Welcome Week 2017 is upon us.