Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The romance of the underdog

One of the most exciting aspects of a World Cup is the story of an underdog deservedly progressing to the latter stages of a tournament.

I have assiduously followed 5 world cups in my life thus far (the first being 1990 when I was six), 2010 will be my sixth. I would like to outline the romantic story of one team from each of these tournaments who stunned the world and etched a special place in my heart. A bit of nostalgia perhaps but this will really get me into the mood. I promise I will begin my group by group analysis in my next post ;)

1990 Cameroon, and in particular Roger Milla.

Cameroon were in Group B with Argentina, Romania and the Soviet Union. The then little known African team played in the opening game of the tournament against defending champions Argentina and shocked the world with a 1-0 win through an Omam Biyick header. It was made all the more surprising as they had had a player sent off. They finished the game with 9 men but held on for a memorable victory. They had played with strength and verve and everyone sat up and took notice.

In their second game they faced Romania and pulled off an excellent 2-1 victory. Roger Milla scored both goals and after each he celebrated with a dance around the corner post. It was coined the 'Milla wiggle' and it was a goal celebration I cherished. To this day it is probably still my favourite celebration of all time. As a six year old and for the next few years I would run around the house pretending to score goals and then running to an imaginary corner flag and wiggling my bum in celebration. I was enamoured by his celebration and the fact he was scoring important world cup goals at the age of 38, which is old for an international footballer.

Assured of a place in the second round they let their guard slip and the Soviet Union beat them in their final group game 4-0.

Next it was the second round against Colombia, a team that included another one of my favourites, the talented Carlos Valderrama and the man with the craziest hair in football. 0-0 after 90 minutes heralded extra-time and an opportunity for my man Milla to step up again with 2 goals sending Cameroon through to the quarters. This was where his goal scoring exploits at the 1990 World Cup ended: 4 goals, all of them good goals and 2 of them top-notch. He also scored one goal at the 1994 World Cup to be the oldest man (42) to score a World Cup goal. Legend.

Cameroon had hit the quarter-finals against England. This was where their fairytale ended but not without a flourish. England led 1-0 at half time but 2 goals midway through the second half (in which Roger Milla had an important hand in both) put Cameroon in front. Their ill-discipline cost them as they conceded a penalty which Lineker converted to send the game to extra-time. Again they conceded a penalty and Lineker obliged to send Cameroon home. As a 6 year old boy I was clearly delighted that England had made the semis but I was left with a warm glowing impression of Cameroon and the mercurial Roger Milla.

1994 Bulgaria, and in particular Hristo Stoichkov

Bulgaria were drawn in Group D with Nigeria, Argentina and Greece. Their first game gave no suggestions as to what was to come as they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Nigeria. Their 2nd game proved they did actually have a group of quality players as they put Greece to the sword 4-0. The final match really got the heart nice and pumping however as they managed to fashion a famous 2-0 win over argentina!!

Even after these 3 games it was apparent what Stoichkov was all about. He had a massive on field temper, he was someone capable of scoring a lot of goals and had explosive acceleration, tenacity, and a penchant for taking unpredictable shots on goal. In short, he was quite a character.

The 2nd round game saw Bulgaria take the lead against Mexico thanks to a quality finish from Stoichkov. Mexico equalised from the penalty spot and there were no more goals. Bulgaria held their nerve in the penalty shoot-out.

A 2nd round win gave Bulgaria a tasty quarter-final tie with Germany. I have a vivid memory of my watching this game. I can see myself in my minds eye, absorbed, and I remember the pure delight at what happened.

Matthaeus gave Germany the lead early in the second half with a well taken penalty. On 75 minutes Bulgaria were given a free kick from around 30 yards out. Stoichkov took one of the best free kicks you will ever see for a perfect and crucial goal. 3 minutes later Letchkov scored a delightful glancing header which brought delirium to their fans. Bulgaria held on for a magical 2-1 win and a date in the semi-finals.

The semi-finals saw the end of the dream. Baggio scored twice for Italy in the first half and whilst Stoichkov pulled one back from the spot it wasn't enough. They then went on to lose 4-0 in the 3rd place playoff with Sweden but it was a memorable tournament. Even now as I flick my eyes down the Bulgarian starting eleven I well remember about half of them and how good they were. Stoichkov had the honour of sharing the golden boot with Baggio - both players scoring six in the tournament.

[Hristo Stoichkov and Roger Milla were named by Pele in his top 125 footballers of all time in 2004].

1998 Croatia, and Suker in particular

Croatia were drawn in Group H alongside Argentina, Japan and Jamaica. It was only their second appearance at a major tournament (and first at a world cup) since they had got independence from Yugoslavia. Results at the Group Stage were nothing wildly unexpected. Jamaica and Japan were both weak, Croatia managing 3-1 and 1-0 wins respectively. They were also defeated 1-0 by Argentina.

The second round saw Croatia achieve a narrow 1-0 win over Romania.

The quarter-final was where the fairytale really took flight. A comprehensive 3-0 win over Germany in a quarter-final was almost unheard of, especially from a decent but unfancied team like Croatia. Absolutely magic.

In the semi-final they lost narrowly to France. Suker had put Croatia in the lead but 2 goals from French defender Thuram was enough.

Croatia weren't finished yet though. In the third place playoff they overcame Holland 2-1 to finish 3rd. What an achievement for Croatia. Suker also got the golden boot with six goals - I was so happy every time he scored. He was such a clinical and natural goalscorer. Loved it.

2006 Senegal

You may be surprised that I haven't picked South Korea or Turkey who both made the semi-finals. The reasons for this are: I believe South Korea didn't deserve to be there - they had multiple refereeing decisions unfairly and blatantly go their way against Italy and Spain at the very least. (Being held in South Korea, at minimum the ref was influenced subconsciously). Turkey were exciting and a revelation. Hasan Sas was one of my favourite players at the tournament but a number of other of their players excited me also. They faced a few of the weaker teams on their way however, plus I'm not a fan of Turkey since Galatasaray fans killed two Leeds fans prior to a UEFA Cup game in 2000, but I'm not going to re-litigate that.

Senegal played World Cup holders France in the opening game of the tournament and shocked the world to win 1-0 evoking memories of Cameroon's opening game win against Argentina in 1990. France included players born in Senegal such as Patrick Vieira. They not only held the World Cup but also the European Championships and had players in their squad who were the top scorers in the preceding season in Serie A (Trezeguet), Premiership (Henry) and Ligue 1 (Cisse). Senegal had a team of almost unknown players - they played an excellent game and I was thrilled when Papa Bouba Diop put his name into world cup folklore by scoring the goal that won the game. They rounded their group off with a 1-1 draw against Denmark and a thrilling 3-3 draw with Uruguay.

Second round saw an entertaining match against Sweden. Operating under a golden goal system (whereby the first team to score a goal in extra-time won) Henri Camara scored a beautiful long range effort in the bottom left hand corner, after normal time had finished 1-1.

Their World Cup dream was over however in the quarter-final against Turkey. Another exciting game (it just so happened that every game Senegal played was an absolute delight of a match to my eyes) and this time the Golden Goal favoured the opposition - Ilhan Mansiz scoring the goal just minutes into extra-time.

Senegal had charmed the world and still remain only the second African team to make a World Cup quarter-final.

2010 Australia

2010 doesn't have an obvious romance choice. The only somewhat unexpected quarter-finalist was Ukraine. But they only had to finish ahead of Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in Group H. They then beat Switzerland on penalties in the following round after a dour 0-0 over 120 minutes.

My choice is Australia. Australia had their work cut out to qualify from a group containing Brazil, Croatia and Japan. Brazil are Brazil, Croatia were a strong team exuding quality all over the park and Japan had been talked up as a difficult team who could well be able to beat the Australians. They (the Aussies) had also charmed me with their qualification in a highly charged home and away playoff against Uruguay through a penalty shoot-out.

Australia, playing in their first World Cup in 32 years, opened up with an excellent 3-1 win over Japan. Japan took the lead in the first half. Cahill prodded the ball home to equalise on 84 mins. 2 or 3 mins later he scored a stunning long range effort only for Aloisi to wrap it up in the dying seconds with a fine solo effort. First goals ever for Australia at a World Cup and first win. Even as a pommie born Kiwi, damn it felt good.

This was followed by a creditable 2-0 loss to Brazil. In the last game against Croatia Aussie only needed a draw thanks to Japan's draw with Croatia. It was a full-blooded highly entertaining match with both sides throwing everything they had into the game. Srna scored a brilliant free kick in the opening minutes and Moore equalised with a penalty later in the half. In the second half Kovac regained the lead for Croatia after a mistake by goalkeeper Kalac who had strangely been picked ahead of Schwarzer due to his extra height. With just over 10 minutes to go Kewell calmly slotted home to the delight of the Aussies. This game was also famous for referee Poll failing to send Simunic off after giving him a 2nd yellow, waiting till his 3rd to give him his marching orders!

Aussie were through to the second round and a date with Italy! Australia competed well. Italy's Materazzi was given a controversial red card and then in the dying seconds of the game, locked up at 0-0, Grosso won a controversial penalty for Italy which Totti slotted home.

It was heartache for the Australians but they had proved to the world that they were a team of substance and not to be taken lightly.

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