Almost without notice, the qualifying trail for the 2014 started last Wednesday (15 June 2011). The opening game was played at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva on the Island of Trinidad. However, Trinidad & Tobago was not one of the countries participating in the opening game. The match was played here due to the fact there is no suitable stadium on the Island of Montserrat.
Montserrat is a small, British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, and had a population of under 6000 before it was devastated by volcanic eruption in 1995. That means its size is about one third of that of the Isle of Wight, but since the volcano, an exclusion zone covers the southern half of the Island, including the capital Plymouth. Around half the original population has left, either to other Caribbean islands or to Britain, (quick as a flash in an emergency, Britain granted right of abode to those from Montserrat three years after the disaster struck, and citizenship four years later).
Not surprisingly, Montserrat is one of six countries with zero points in FIFA’s ranking system. That means they have not won or drawn a game in the last four years. In their case, this only adds up to four matches – three in a Caribbean Cup qualifying group last October, and one match only in the last World Cup – a 7-1 defeat by Surinam (also played in Trinidad & Tobago). Back in 2004, they were allowed to play their world cup game at home, losing 7-0 to Bermuda. This of course was not useful as they had already lost 13-0 away. Of the 25 games since Montserrat started playing International football in 1991, they have won just twice, both matches in Caribbean Cup qualifiers against Anguilla, in the spring of 1995 (i.e. pre Volcano) – 3-2 in Montserrat and 1-0 away. (This earned them a match against St Vincent & Grenadines in the next round, losing 9-0 and 11-0). It is not surprising to find that Anguilla are also in that six team group with no international point in the last four years. Anguilla did pick up a victory during last year’s Caribbean qualifying, but as the opposition, St. Martin are not FIFA members, this match did not count in the rankings. Also in the bottom six are San Marino (only ever win was a friendly against Liechtenstein in 2004), Andorra (last win was against Macedonia in a 2004 World Cup qualifier, although they had 2 scoreless draws in 2005), American Samoa (famous for losing 31-0 to Australia in 2001, they have lost all 33 games played after beating Wallis and Futuna (another non affiliated nation) in their first ever international), and Papua New Guinea (who have only played one game in the last four years, but have been better, winning their last World Cup match back in 2004)
Not surprisingly, Montserrat were beaten in the game, losing 5-2 to Belize. Belize are ranked 172 in the World. With the bottom ten of CONCACAF’s 35 members in this knock out qualifying round, Belize are the only non-Caribbean side at this stage. Deon McCauley, who at the age of 23 has already played football in Costa Rica and Honduras, as well as his native Belize had the honour of scoring the first goal of the 2014 World Cup. He went on to complete a hat-trick.
This is not the end of the story. There should have been a second leg match in Belize four days after the opening game, after which Montserrat could be named as the first side knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, but a combination of the government of Belize and FIFA intervened.
Even before the match, the government of Belize had stated that the Football Federation of Belize (FFB) were not a properly registered association and could not officially represent the country. This dates back to the last election for the FFB executive and president in December. After the election, the government set up an “independent” Sports Investigation Committee. The sports minister has been quoting from an as yet unpublished report, which apparently says that by refusing to accept nominations from one of its members (the Belize Premier Football League, the country’s leading league),the FBB had broken its own rules. With the alternative candidate banned, the incumbent, Bertie Chimilio had a free run, but anyway he also handpicked the district representatives who were responsible for voting him back in.
A standoff between the government and the FFB appears to have been going on throughout the year, and FIFA who are notorious unfriendly to governments who interfere in footballing affairs,( with the obvious exceptions of dictators like Gaddafi), gave Belize a deadline before its recent congress, to sort out the situation by the end of the month of June. This deadline would, of course have allowed the two qualifying matches to take place, and give Belize a short window to sort the situation out before the next international match.
It was the government of Belize which took the step that brought proceedings to a halt. They wrote to FIFA in the week before the Montserrat match to state that the FBB did not have the right to represent the nation, and could not fly the Belize flag or play the Belize National Anthem at the match. These symbols are considered to be important, when in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup, North Korea refused to allow the South Korean flag or National Anthem to be used at matches between the two Koreas in their part of the peninsular – the matches were switched to neutral China. The North Koreans did play in South Korea as scheduled.
Anyway, the match in Trinidad last week went ahead, even without the sanction of the Belize government, but faced with a letter saying that the Belize government would not provide police or security for the match, FIFA finally intervened and suspended Belize from World Football on Friday. Citing Government interference, FIFA have said that any action taking by the government against the office bearers of the FFB would not be recognised.
Meanwhile, a new association has been formed in Belize, the National Football Association of Belize, and on Saturday it elected its first President. Representatives of all the district associations in Belize were present, along with those from the Belize Premier League and the Super League of Belize. With the exception of the Super League, these are the same groupings as would have voted for the FFB president, (not necessarily the same representatives of those associations). The vote was won by Michael Blease, but no list of alternative candidates has been mentioned.
The Super League appears to be a rival league to the Premier League, but not registered with the FFB. This appears to have been the case for some time, although the FFB have not been taking normal action against an unaffiliated league, as McCauley, the hat trick hero from the opening game is a player with Super League champions, City Boys United. One would normally expect a player with an unaffiliated league to be excluded from international participation.
FIFA have given Belize only until 10th July to sort out the situation and play the match. It seems this is not good news for Belize, as neither party is close to giving ground. A similar situation involving Brunei was only recently resolvedafter 18 months of suspension from FIFA. In the end, the newly formed National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam was allowed to take over, (which means that FIFA did give in to the local government), although I understand that FIFA are pretending otherwise.
Assuming Belize are suspended, they may not get any thanks from Montserrat if the island gets a bye into the group stage. While it is great for even a small nation to be involved in the World Cup in a small way, it would be a mistake to say they want to go beyond the first match. The top six CONCACAF nations are exempt from the first group stage, so if they get through, Montserrat will have to bear the expense of a six match group with little income from their home games (the game last week had a crowd shown as 100 by FIFA). FIFA have plenty of money to spread about, but they do not use it to support teams in playing their qualification games.
FIFA do not always back officers of National Associations against their governments, as one can see from the situation in Indonesia. Since 2004, the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) has been run by Nurdin Halid. Halid is a controversial character in Indonesia, and has been charged with corruption for his business activities on several occasions, and has suffered two jail terms during his tenure as PSSI president. At the beginning of the year, another business man, Arifin Panigoro set up his own football league in competition to the Indonesian Super League. The Indonesian Premier League started in January with many of the country’s top clubs running teams in this, although under different names to those operating in the PSSI supported league. FIFA did back the PSSI against the rebel league, and promised to enforce bans on players in the league from International football, (so unlike the situation in Belize there). Still, FIFA had threatened to suspend Indonesia from International Football because the government had interfered by appointing a commission to look into corruption within the PSSI.
However, since then, FIFA have had a change of heart and decided that the status quo cannot be supported. Sometime around March, FIFA decided they had rules preventing a convict from being a National FA President, but they have also banned Panigoro and two other candidates. With the election of new officers twice delayed by the PSSI, FIFA gave the PSSI until June 30th to elect new officers or face suspension. The June 30 deadline has been relaxed by FIFA after the PSSI realised that its intended election could not be held, as they had not given the electors 28 days’ notice. The election should take place on July 9th, with FIFA’s deadline to avoid suspension being 10th July. This should allow Indonesia to play their first World Cup qualifying match, scheduled in Turkmenistan on July 23rd.
Anyway, it will be Asia that gets the “honour” of the first teams knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, and they will also lose the most teams in Preliminary Rounds before the main draw takes place on 31st July. There are eight Asian qualifying matches on 29th June, with the first second leg on July 2nd. This match is between Timor Leste (aka East Timor) and Nepal and is being played in Kathmandu. Timor Leste, like Montserrat does not have suitable ground at home, but have reached the dizzy heights of 200th in FIFA rankings, thanks to a draw in Cambodia in 2008. Seven more Asian teams will be knocked out on July 3rd; four Concacaf teams (apart from Belize or Montserrat) will fall during July, followed by another 15 Asian Teams from a second round at the end of the month.
Of FIFA’s 208 members, Mauritania, Guam and Bhutan did not enter, and Brunei could not enter due to their suspension not being lifted until after the local draw had been made. 28 teams are scheduled to be knocked out before the 31st July draw. 175 countries will be in the draw, while Brazil is exempt to the finals as hosts.
ASIA – 43 out of 46 members participate. 23 knocked out in two qualifying rounds by the end of July. The surviving 20 go into five groups of four (six games each). Ten teams go through to round 4, where they are placed in two groups of 5 (eight games each). Winners and Runners-up from these groups go to Brazil. Third placed teams play each other, with the winner in an inter-Continental Play Off. Qualifiers will play a minimum of 14, but as many as 22 games to reach Brazil.
AFRICA – 52 out of 53 members participate. 12 teams knocked out in a First Round played in November. The remaining 40 play in ten groups of 4 (six games each), with the group winners going into a knock out round with the winners going through. So a place can be achieved with only eight games played, and not more than 10. Five teams go through
CONCACAF – 35 Participants, of which five are knocked out in the first round. The second round involves 24 clubs (six exempt) in six groups of four. The six winners and six exempt teams go into four groups of four. Six teams (winners and runners up) go into a fourth round which is a group of all six (ten games each). Three make it to Brazil, and one goes into a play off. If exempt in the first round, a qualifier would still play 14 games. If one of this month’s winners gets through on the Play Off, they will have played 22 times.
Oceania – 11 participants, but non FIFA members Tivalu and Kiribati also take place in the Pacific Games which makes up the first stage. This is the only confederation that does not play home and away, but 10 countries (not including New Zealand) play in a tournament in New Caledonia. They three qualifying from this will have played six games. These three play with New Zealand in a home and away group (six matches) with just one Champion going into an inter-Continental play off. The winners are also Confederations winners and play in the 2013 Confederations cup.
COMNEBOL – The most straight forward. Brazil are exempt, and the other nine matches play a league (16 games each) with the top four going through and the fifth team in a play-off.
UEFA – Europe has 53 participants. The teams are divided into nine groups. Eight will have six teams (10 games), while one will have just five (8 games). The winners all qualify, so one team will qualify after just 8 games. All but one of the second placed teams play off for four extra places, these are European only play-offs. One unlucky second placed team does not get a second chance. For political reasons, Armenia cannot play Azerbaijan, and Russia cannot play Georgia.