EDITORIAL: Long, winding road to Russia
The Jakarta Post
Millions on the planet of football looked set to bid adieu to Argentina from the World Cup for the first time since 1970 on Tuesday evening. Battling not only the boisterous crowd of Quito but also the high altitude, Argentina fell one goal behind after only one minute, bringing the two-time world champions and runner-up in 2014 closer to an unimaginable elimination.
How could a World Cup without Argentina, home to the world’s best soccer talents, be? More specifically, what would a World Cup look like if five-time FIFA best player Lionel Messi gave the soccer fiesta a miss?
Only when the “Messiah” scored a hat trick on that eventful night to lead La Albiceleste (white and blue sky) to the World Cup finals in Russia next year could we understand why history beckons for Argentina. Soccer “owes the World Cup” to Messi, says Argentina’s manager Jorge Sampaoli to underscore why his team deserves a place in the quadrennial tournament.
Argentina has featured in all the World Cup finals since 1974, lifting the trophy in 1978 and 1986 and finishing second in 1990 and 2014, making it one of the most successful teams apart from regular finalists like Brazil, Germany and Italy. The latter, however, will have to go through a playoff to make it to Russia.
The drama that unfolded in Quito was part of the action-packed matches across the globe that will now determine the course of the World Cup finals next summer. Iceland and Panama will make their historic debut, while the Netherlands, which finished third in 2014, and the United States, which has qualified for every tournament since 1990, are out. Another major casualty is no other than Chile, the reigning South American champion, which suffered a defeat to Brazil while it needed only one point to qualify.
Another piece of history will be carved out when New Zealand faces South American fifth-placed Peru in the playoff next month. The All Whites are bidding for their third appearance, while the Peruvians are out to make a comeback in the finals after 36 years.
In the Asia Confederation, regular finalists Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have secured their tickets to Russia, with Australia needing a win over Honduras to follow suit in a two-legged playoff. Five more finalists will come from Africa, with Egypt and Nigeria already clinching the berths.
The long road to the World Cup finals will be completed next month, and the soccer extravaganza will be ready in eight months. As in the past, however, the established forces will be seeded thanks to their consistent performance and, as a consequence, will face a relatively easy path compared to their minnow opposition.
There may be several major upsets in the early stages of the World Cup, but history shows no outsider has ever emerged as a surprise winner. The trophy has rotated among only eight nations since the tournament began in 1930. Nobody wants to miss the event, though. Summer in Russia will get warmer than ever as the World Cup kicks off.
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