Full internationals are spread rather unevenly through the season, there are monthly international dates in the autumn, in September, October and November filling up a crowded schedule for the top players who are also involved in league and European club matches, then there are the qualifying games and tournaments held at the end of the season – but without doubt, the fixture dates that European clubs would most like to end is the one set of spring fixtures – which this season falls across the Easter weekend.
The football calendar is strangely static, while Easter is a movable feast – and anyway in football terms it is only within Britain that clubs tend to double up with two fixtures over the weekend. With the inevitability that Easter is either an international week, or between Champions League mid-week dates, the Premier League generally forgoes the idea of playing two sets of fixtures within four days. Oldies like me who grew up watching Southern League football in the seventies remember the Easter weekend as a time for a triple header with games on Friday, Saturday and Monday.
Whether the clubs have one match to play over the weekend, or three, or even now with the Premier League taking an enforced break, this set of fixtures is unwanted by the clubs not just in England, but across all of the main leagues in Europe, where it is an unwanted interruption at a vital part of the season.
While we can understand the top level club’s annoyance at the enforced break and the disturbance to their season, at least the league fixtures stop when the internationals start, and the clubs will be pressurising the national teams not to make many substitutions and not “over tire” their players.
The same is not true in the National League, there are ten matches in the league on the Saturday before Easter, and then a full programme split evenly between Good Friday and Easter Saturday, followed by another full programme on Easter Monday. Despite this, the FA has seen fit to arrange a ‘C’ International on the Tuesday before Easter – and at that a match away in the Ukraine.
England’s ‘C’ International team is an anachronism, (and when did the ‘B’ team last play, anyway?). There was once an England Amateur XI, and this had some value – the best players from the Amateur game, playing against amateurs from other countries. But even fifty years ago, some of the “amateur” players were being paid more than semi-professionals at neighbouring clubs. The FA slowly got to grips with the problem, abolishing the official difference between amateur and semi-professional football. There are still amateur footballers of course, just turn up at any playing field in the country on a Saturday or Sunday and you can see them chasing after a ball hoofed down the pitch.
Still, with the top level outside the football league being entirely semi-professional, a semi-professional National team was formed. This was mainly from the top level of non-League, with a few names appearing from lower levels. In their time, Cheltenham Town supplied a few players to that team, and I recall going to Hayes to see a team including Steve Book, Mark Yates and Neil Grayson beat Italy by 4-1 at Hayes, (Grayson scored the first two goals). At this time, if a team relegated from the Football League remained as professionals while hoping for a return, their players were not picked.
But now, the rules have changed again, and most of the players picked this year are already full time professionals. One has to ask why full time professional players for clubs such as Cheltenham Town can now qualify for international football, but not if they are one level higher? In other words, is the line defining this level now rather arbitrary?
Once we have decided to have such a team, why run it in such a shambolic fashion. With the players all having games on Saturday, they will meet and train briefly on Sunday, travel on Monday, play on Tuesday and return to England in Wednesday. Hardly a chance for them to gel together. They will look like players who have only met, simply because they will have only just met. It is no wonder that the last time I saw the team play, they lost to a Gibraltar National team. Any club team in the National League could have won the match, but a selection of players who met a day or two before the game could not perform.
There was a training camp for potential players in the team, held back in the autumn, but the 16 players that have been selected to go to Kiev do not reflect that camp. Only half of the sixteen were in the 23 training at Warwick University in September, (no prizes for noticing that the ‘C’ players did not even get to use the FA’s much lauded facilities in Burton).
I am expecting that when it comes down to it, Paul Fairclough will be receiving and making plenty of phone calls over the weekend as his squad is worse than decimated by withdrawals of players who choose to put club before country and cry off over the weekend.
If England are to have an International team at this level, it needs to be better run than this. England apparently have three matches in the International Challenge Trophy, playing in Kiev this week, then at home to Slovakia (June 5th) and finally travelling to Estonia in the Autumn. The logic of not playing now and trying to play all three games with a single squad in the summer seems to have escaped the FA, as has the idea of holding a training camp, and then using players from this in the playing squad. Oh, and if they are playing in an organised competition, why is it impossible to find the details on the internet. What purports to be the official web site goes off line without mentioning England’s last result in the last tournament. The FA see fit to mention the squad, and the matches and competition, they even let on that England won that last competitive match (4-2 v Estonia at Halifax). Still, the page says “There are no upcoming fixtures available”, only four days before a game.
Time to change the subject.
While the European teams are playing friendlies ahead of Euro 2016, in the Americas and in Asia, World Cup qualification for 2018 is taking place. The expectation, we reach the end of the round, which should mean nine teams having their (generally narrow) hopes of making it to Russia finally dashed. One of these will in fact by decided a few days later by FIFA, but I will come back to this later.
It is best to start in South America, as nothing can be decided there. All ten teams play 18 games in a home and away league, with Ecuador the unexpected leaders with 100% in their first four games, including a 2-0 away win in Argentina in the first game. Ecuador will play at home to Paraguay, who have also made a good start (7 points), and then travel to Columbia who are trying to make up ground after a poor start. Argentina will be trying again to get their campaign off the ground. Although they have not lost again, they drew the home match with Brazil, and were held 0-0 in Paraguay. Argentina’s only win to date is away to Columbia and both are outside the position required to qualify at this early stage. Uruguay with three wins (Chile and Columbia at home, Bolivia away) against only one defeat (in Ecuador) stand second in the table, with Brazil in third. This makes the Brazil v Uruguay game the standout match in this month’s matches. Venezuela sit bottom of the table, the only team with no points (or indeed without a win). They travel to Peru (3 points and 9th out of ten countries) before entertaining Chile.
On to the CONCACAF region. Here they are down to twelve clubs, with 23 of the area’s nations already out. The current round has the teams in three groups of four, the top two from each group making up the final group of 6. This gives a stretched schedule for this round – two games were played last November, two this month and the final pair in August/September.
The matches this week see each team playing their opponents home and away. In Group A, Mexico have won their two games to date, and play Canada who have four points. The first match is in Vancouver with the return in Mexico City. This means that either El Salvador (one point) or Honduras (none) could go out if the results go in the wrong directions. El Salvador get home advantage first in their duals with Honduras.
Group B has Costa Rica (6 points) playing Jamaica (3) with the first game away, while Panama (also 3 points) play Haiti (0) with the game in Haiti first.
Finally in Group C, USA and Trinidad and Tobago both have four points, Guatemala have three while St. Vincent and the Grenadines are pointless. With a 6-1 defeat in the USA and 4-0 at home to Guatemala, St V/D look somewhat out of their depth at this point. The other two groups have zero point teams, but they have goal differences of two and three against. The USA play away to Guatemala before playing the home leg in Columbus, St Vincent will have home advantage first against Trinidad and Tobago as they try to make something out of this section of their campaign
And so to Asia. The current stage is eight groups, all but one of which has five teams, (Indonesia’s expulsion leaves one group of four). This is the last round of matches and the next round is two groups of six. Hence all the group winners and half the runners-up go through.
Only two teams have guaranteed their place in the next round, South Korea and the Qatar all-stars (well, rather too many of them were not born Qatari internationals, you can still buy a certain degree of international success).
Where the AFC and FIFA have got the seedings right, the top seed play two home games, with the second seed as visitors in the final game. Thanks to Indonesia being missing, only games against teams in positions 1-4 count in making up the “second place table” which decides which quartet join the group winners
In group A, it is UAE who have this position, but they are currently three points behind Saudi Arabia. So the UAE are at home to Palestine before entertaining Saudi, the Saudis themselves play Malaysia at home in the first game. Palestine still have a chance of finishing second, by winning both games, but this would only give them nine second place points. More likely, UAE will beat Palestine, and Saudi Arabia will beat Malaysia, setting up the all important Arab derby. Should UAE prevail, then Saudi may still have 13 points in the second place table. If UAE come second, they probably have ten or eleven
Group B will get the headlines in England, with Jordan the second seeds, visiting Australia in the final round. Jordan are two points behind, so a win in Sydney could give them the group. Before the final day, Jordan play Bangladesh (guaranteed to finish bottom of the group), while Australia play Tajikistan in Adelaide. Kyrgyzstan have only a very slim chance of getting second place, and this could disappear before they play their next game. Should Jordan win one and lose one to finish second, (and I am assuming they do not lose to Bangladesh), then they would have ten second place points
Group C is really interesting, as China, where the clubs are splashing big bucks to bring players in, are still underperforming in National terms. Two scoreless draws with the territory of Hong Kong leaves China in third place, while Qatar top the group with six wins out of six, and have already guaranteed their place in the next round. As Qatar started as second seed, they travel to the Chinese city of Xi’an for the final game, and entertain Hong Kong before that. Hong Kong have a three point lead over China, but play only one game. China’s first game this time is at home to the Maldives, while Bhutan have only one game to play when they go to Bhutan. I think China will sneak into second place, but I say it without certainty. If China win both games, they would have 11 second place points, which should be enough. I would not bet on that
If China underperform, I do not know what words describe India’s football team. They sit on three points from six games, with a high chance of finishing behind Guam. Yes, they may finish behind Guam, a tiny American territory. Guam’s coach in English, Gary White (28 games for Bognor Regis, after which he left the country – he has managed the British Virgin Islands and Bahamas before going to Guam). Guam is highly thought of by the FA, who have included him on the elite coach training programme, the highest level. Still, I do not see him mentioned as a possible for jobs in the Premier League. All this comes to little, as despite their best performances in a qualifying tournament, Guam have already been knocked out, with just the visit to Oman to come.
Oman are second seeds, and finish their games with a match away to Iran, currently three points ahead of them. As India are the first visitors to Tehran over the weekend, I cannot see the positions changing. Turkmenistan play India in Kochi in the final round, but I think the will be fixed in third place before that. Oman may have as few as 8 second placed points.
If you want to see decent football played in Oman, you may as well choose to watch Syria as Oman. Despite the problems that have caused the Syrians to play all their home games in Oman, they have done remarkably well, and we know that the top two in Group E will be Japan and Syria. Japan are at home when they meet in the final game. Syria lost to Japan in Oman, watched by a crowd of 680, but they have won their other five games to date. Japan have also won five games, and not conceded any goals, as their other game was a scoreless draw at home to Singapore. Oman will play Cambodia before travelling to Japan, Japan play Afghanistan (another who cannot stage home games) first, while the other game on the final day sees Singapore travel to Iran to play “away” to the Afghans. Although Japan only lead the group by a point, I expect them to prevail, but as Syria already have 12 second place points (Cambodia have been confirmed in last place), they will get the nod as a second placed team.
Group F is Indonesia’s group and hence has only four teams. Thailand lead Iraq by five points. Like Afghanistan, Iraq are playing their home games in Iran, (a choice I thought was odd, surely they would get a better reception in an Arabian country?). Still, I am expecting Iraq to win both their games, at “Home” to Thailand first, and then to Vietnam which would allow them to finish ahead of the Thais. Still, as we do not take points off the Thai total, (there not being a fifth placed team), Thailand already have 13 second placed points, if that is where the finish. Should Iraq slip up, then they will have 8 points, plus whatever they garner in the last two games, (and they need two wins to go through). Vietnam still have the chance to finish second, by beating first Chinese Taipei at home (should be easy), and then beating Iraq (and assuming Iraq have not beaten Thailand). Still this only gives them ten second placed points.
Taking the groups out of order for once, group H sees North Korea and Uzbekistan fighting over the top places. North Korea only have one game to play, but are a point ahead. This final game is in the Philippines. This is after the Philippines visit Uzbekistan. The second seed in the group, Bahrain are currently in fourth place, a point behind the Philippines. Yemen are assured of last place, barring an unlikely barrage of goals when they travel to Bahrain.
SO finally we come to Group G, the one that is not decided on the pitch. Kuwait have been suspended by FIFA, their games have therefore been postponed, but not already awarded to the opposition. Instead we await a FIFA decision on this. The precedent is that Kuwait’s game in November was also not played, and was then awarded to Myanmar. That result immediately put South Korea (six wins out of six) through as only Kuwait could catch them, the Kuwaitis needing to win all of their last three games to overhaul South Korea. The table still shows Kuwait in second place, but there is no sign of them regaining FIFA recognition in time to play these last two games. Lebanon need to win both remaining games, firstly in South Korea, and then at home to Myanmar to reach ten second place points, which does not look to be enough. However, if FIFA decides to expunge the Kuwaiti result en bloc, then this redraws the table as all points then count. South Korea still win the group, unless Lebanon has won twice, but Lebanon have nine second place points, which increases to 12 with a win against Myanmar – putting them through to the next round. (In the unlikely event of South Korea losing the group leadership because of Kuwaiti being disqualified, they would still be the best of the second place teams).
It appears to me that a team will need 11 second place points to go through, with a possibility of this then being decided on goal difference. If this drops to ten points, then I am sure goal difference will decide. This is good news for Saudi Arabia, Syria and Thailand, all of which expect to go through even if they finish second.