Over its twenty editions the World Cup has produced a myriad of amazing stories, but beyond the thirty-two sides that contest the finals there are thousands more tales to be told by the 171 nations that miss out. The World Cup finals in Brazil began on the 12th June 2014, but the competition began in earnest almost exactly three years earlier, as Belize ran out 5-2 winners in their First Round First Leg tie of CONCACAF qualification against Montserrat. Over the course of the next two and a half years 820 matches were played across six continents in order to determine the sides that would contest the 20th World Cup tournament.
Over in Oceania, the OFC qualifying tournament began in November 2011, with four of the continents smallest footballing nations battling it out to make the final group stage of qualifying. Among those were a side who were already familiar to some, thanks to their record breaking feat in the 2002 qualifying campaign. Before Australia’s defection to the Asian Confederation they were far and away the strongest side in the OFC, and on their way to a play-off defeat against Uruguay, they met American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the United States located southeast of Samoa. What followed was the most brutal footballing massacre in the history of the game, as Aussie striker Archie Thompson helped himself to thirteen goals, and the Socceroos racked up a 31-0 win. Needless to say, the result scarred the American Samoa team in what was only their third World Cup qualifier. Heading into the qualifying campaign for Brazil they were still yet to win a competitive game; they were also yet to make a competitive game competitive, with 4-0 defeats against Samoa and Tonga remaining their greatest achievements. Eccentric American-Dutch coach Thomas Rongen had been appointed as national team manager, having made his name in the MLS and with the United States under-20 side, and hopes were high that they could, at the very least, gain their first qualifying point.
With Nicky Salapu in goal, the unfortunate keeper on that fateful night in New South Wales, The Boys from the Territory approached half-time against Tonga in their first game goalless, already an almighty achievement. Things would get better however when striker Ramin Ott gave American Samoa the lead a minute before half-time. Fifteen minutes from time Shalom Luani, who would later be drafted by Oakland Raiders in the NFL, scored an historic second, and Rongen’s side found themselves quarter of an hour away from history. Two minutes from time Unaloto Feao pulled a goal back for Tonga to give the home side some late jitters and rob Salapu of a clean sheet, but American Samoa held on for an incredible win. As if securing their first international win wasn’t enough, the Polynesian side also created history in their line-up, as central defender Jaiyah Saelua became the first transgender player to contest a FIFA World Cup match. The 20 year old, who identified as Fa’afafine – a third gender in Samoan culture – was assigned male gender at birth, but lived life by “the way of the woman”. Both Saelua and American Samaa gained worldwide attention thanks to the documentary Next Goal Wins, and the centre-back quickly became a role-model around the world. Though she suffered discrimination while training with a local football team in her adopted home of Hawaii, Saelua was quick to extol the virtures of the progressive-minded Samoan region, and her part in the success story of a nation once dubbed ‘The Worst Football Team In The World’ has not only given her a place in the history books, but also cemented legendary status. In 2018, American Samoa won two of their three qualifiers, coming second in the first group stage – a remarkable achievement for a country of 75,000.
When it came to the tournament Oceania were without a representative, as Mexico roundly thrashed New Zealand in the intercontinental playoff to take up their usual place at the world’s top table. The Balkans provided the only newcomers to the tournament as Bosnia and Herzegovina arrived in South America for their maiden appearance having seen off Greece and Slovakia in the qualifiers. Hosts Brazil were nowhere near the vintages of 1958, 1970, 1982 or even 1994, but still came through their group unscathed thanks largely to Neymar, their only truly outstanding player. Spain suffered a case of Holders Yips, being thoroughly taken apart by the Netherlands before losing out to Chile and being eliminated. Colombia, back after a sixteen year absence and looking better than ever, cruised through Group C with three wins, with Monaco’s James Rodriguez ably deputising for injured clubmate Radamel Falcao, while Greece channeled the spirit of 2004 and squirmed into the second round with a 93rd minute penalty against the Ivory Coast.
England wilted in a tough looking Group D with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, though the group will perhaps best be remembered for Luis Suarez’s latest transgression – in a ‘winner takes second’ playoff in the final group game the dentally abundant striker sank his considerable gnashers into the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini for no discernable reason, eventually earning himself a four month ban and a dream move to Barcelona. Still, Uruguay progressed behind surprise package Costa Rica. In Group F, France had a lovely old time sticking three past Honduras and five past Switzerland, topping the group with ease, while Group G saw Argentina and Nigeria play each other AGAIN. On this occasion both sides made it out of the group, at the expense of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran. Germany, and Thomas Muller in particular, gave Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal a shoeing in the opening game of Group G, setting them up for second round qualification, where they were joined by the United States, and Algeria upset the odds in Group H with a display of counter-attacking brilliant against South Korea to finish in second behind Belgium. Fabio Capello’s Russia failed to win a game.
In the second round Brazil required a few strokes of luck to edge past Chile on penalties, with Mauricio Pinilla’s howitzer bouncing off the crossbar and away to safety in the late stages of the game, denying the Chileans a deserved win. Over in Rio, James Rodriguez continued his excellent form with two goals against a toothless Uruguay, including an absolute thunderbastard of a volley that later won Goal of the Tournament. Arjen Robben’s dark arts saw Mexico exit in the second round for the sixth tournament in a row. Having led with three minutes to go, Wesley Sniejder’s equaliser was followed by a 94th minute penalty from Klass-Jan Huntelaar, and the Netherlands marched on to the quarter-finals. There they would meet Costa Rica, who refused to be Greeked by Greece, eventually winning on penalties after a stoppage time equaliser from Sokratis Papastathopoulos had denied them in regulation time. Extra-time was also needed for Germany, Argentina and Belgium to book their places in the quarters, with Algeria giving Joachim Low’s side a run for their money, Angel Di Maria saving Argentina’s blushes against Switzerland, and Tim Howard’s one man brickwall finally crumbling for the United States in the face of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
Having spoiled the watching audience for the best part of three weeks, Brazil 2014 was due a few dud games – they’d warned us with Iran vs Nigeria – and most of the quarter finals were Snooze City. Mats Hummels and Gonzalo Higuain scored the only goals for Germany and Argentina against France and Belgium, while a goalless game between the Netherlands and Costa Rica was lit up by some trademark eccentricity from Dutch coach Louis van Gaal. With the game heading for penalties, van Gaal introduced his substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul – not known for his penalty saving prowess – much to the chagrin of number one Jasper Cillenssen. A few choice words from the Newcastle stopper to the Costa Rican penalty takers later, and the Netherlands were through to the semis. In Fortaleza, the most eye-catching tie of the quarters took place between Brazil and Colombia. David Luiz’s wicked free-kick looked to settle the tie, though James Rodriguez pulled a goal back from the spot, ably-assited by a weapons-grade grasshopper. Brazil held out to make it through, but it hadn’t all been plain-sailing – defensive rock Thiago Silva picked up a booking that ruled him out of the semi-final, while talisman Neymar suffered one crunching tackle too many and would miss the remainder of the tournament.
The Netherlands tactic of boring the opposition to death was bound to come a cropper sooner or later, and after another goalless draw in the semi, Argentina prevailed in the shootout – this time van Gaal had used all three substitutes by the end of extra time.
In the other semi-final the hosts found themselves just 90 minutes away from the final and a chance, once and for all, to put the ghosts of 1950 and the Maracanazo to bed. After half an hour they were 5-0 down. The majority of the 58,000 strong crowd stood agog, unable to comprehend the unfolding destruction. Time and time again Germany surged forwards in numbers, and time and time again Brazil panicked. To rub salt into the wound, Miroslav Klose’s 23rd minute goal saw him overtake Ronaldo, the prodigal son, as the World Cup’s all-time top scorer. The onslaught was tempered slightly in the second half – substitute Andre Schurrle scored twice – and Oscar scored the least consoling consolation goal imaginable. Brazil – BRAZIL – had been humbled beyond belief. 7-1 in their own backyard. Though, unlike that dramatic Alcides Ghiggia goal all those years ago, the fallout from this defeat was less severe. There was no national mourning, just inquests into how the national team was allowed to fall into such a state. The ironic cheers that greeted Oscar’s goal suggested a modicum of gallows humour had found its way round the stadium, whilst many of the home supporters applauded the Germans off the pitch. It may not have been a vintage Brazil, but it still took a special side to take them apart the way Low’s had. Plus, they were playing Argentina next.
Germany and Argentina have the honour of contesting both the best and worst World Cup finals in the modern era. In 1986, the free-flowing Argentina, inspired by the genius of Diego Maradona, had blown West Germany away, before a late fightback from Franz Beckenbauer’s team looked to have sent the game into extra-time, until one final moment of magic from El Diego split the German defence in half and allowed Jorge Burruchaga to score the winning goal. Four years later, it couldn’t have been a more different game. A stodgy and cynical Argentina side kicked the Germans for the entire game, until Roberto Sensini kicked Rudi Voller in the penalty area and Andreas Brehme decided the game from the spot in the 85th minute. In Rio, the game was neither cynical nor sensational, as both sides displayed understandable nerves on the biggest stage of the sport. Gonzalo Higuain missed a golden opportunity when one-on-one with Manuel Neuer, and in extra time substitute Rodrigo Palacio, rats-tail and all, lobbed wide. The game was decided with seven minutes of extra time remaining, as Mario Götze latched on to Schurrle’s cross and slipped the ball over Sergio Romero for the winner. And with that it was over, 1124 after the whole thing had started, Germany were World Champions for the first time.
242 days later it would start all over again as qualification for 2018 kicked off at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Sri Lanka. That day Bhutan, the lowest ranked country in world and without a World Cup qualifying win to their name, would shock Sri Lanka 1-0. The world continues to turn, and the stories continue to be written. Football, eh? Bloody hell.
You can read more about American Samoa’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, as well as a host of stories from across the world, in James Montague’s brilliant book ‘Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football’s Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey’