“I have been carrying it now for nearly 11 years. It was emotionally ... dramatic. Terrible. It was the terrible thing that happened to me. This was the worst thing ever.”
These are the words of Nicky Salapu, speaking in 2012. No, he isn’t a criminal burdened by the weight of his guilt. Salapu was just the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was the goalkeeper in the American Samoa goal in a 2002 World Cup qualifier against Australia. The match has since become part of the folklore for its final score, 31-0. Yes, you read that right. 31-0.
The Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) at the time comprised of two regional powerhouses, Australia and New Zealand. Small Pacific Island nations like American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands amongst others make up the rest of the members. Australia is now part of the Asian Football Confederation, leaving New Zealand as the lone big fish in the Oceania confederation.
The fateful match between Australia and American Samoa was played on April 11, 2001 at the International Sports Stadium in Coffs Harbour, Australia for qualification to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Until the 2002 World Cup, the OFC teams were split into two groups; the teams played against each other once with the group winners advancing to a final round where they would face each other. The winner of the final round would then win the OFC spot to play in a CONMEBOL/OFC intercontinental play-off for the right to advance to the World Cup finals.
Better sense prevails in Oceania
The format ensured that Australia and New Zealand would be pitted against weak opposition and would virtually be ensured of a final round qualification clash for the right to play in the intercontinental play-off. But it also ensured that the small Pacific Island teams would be pitted against mighty opposition.
Australia, fielding largely their second and third string players in most games during the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, racked up a 22-0 win over Tonga, an 11-0 hammering of Samoa and of course the infamous 31-0 decimation of American Samoa, who were participating in a World Cup qualification for the first time in their history and were clearly ill-equipped to take on such mighty opposition.
The fact that they also lost 13-0 to Fiji, 5-0 to Tonga and 8-0 to Samoa in the Samoan derby clearly indicated how flawed the whole system was. The crushing defeats wreaked havoc on the emotional state of their players as their opposition had a field day pummeling the weak rivals into submission.
Common sense prevailed and the OFC, thanks in no small part to the coverage that the 31-0 defeat generated, decided to revamp their whole qualifying structure for the subsequent World Cup and beyond.
The 12 Oceania teams in the fray for qualification to the 2006 World Cup were now going to play three rounds before one of them earned the right to play in the intercontinental playoff. In round 1, the ten smaller nations would be split in two groups, with the top two from each group then joining Australia and New Zealand in round 2. The top two from round 2 would then contest a two-legged playoff before the winner faced the fifth-placed team from CONMEBOL for a spot in the World Cup.
The changed format ensured that there would be no more mismatches like Australia against American Samoa and subsequently no more mockery of a flawed qualification system that ensured routine hammerings.
Other confederations follow suit
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) as well as the Confederation of African Football (CAF) have a similar sensible structure in place to ensure that lambs are not thrown to the lions. Only the South American confederation (CONMEBOL) and the European confederation (UEFA) have no such format in place.
There are no massive minnows in South America – Venezuela are the only team to have never made it to a World Cup finals – and there are only ten teams in the confederation so the CONMEBOL has a legitimate reason not to have a tiered qualification system.
But there is no such justification for Europe.
No hope for the small fish
It is a massive confederation with a whopping 54 teams. Plus, there are several weak teams in Europe; Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Gibraltar to name but a few. Such smaller teams routinely see themselves pitted against continental giants such as Germany and France with no hope of securing anything other than a hiding.
Apart from throwing up mismatched fixtures, the current format also bloats the qualifying schedule. Which is not good for anyone. Not for the players, not the spectators or the sponsors. It gives the players from smaller nations opportunities to exchange shirts with World Cup winners and stories to tell their grandchildren. But there are no larger benefits to be gained.
And there certainly have been voices lamenting the whole process. Thomas Muller, the 2014 World Cup winner and Bayern Munich forward, didn’t hold back in expressing his discontent after the Germans hammered San Marino 8-0 in a 2018 World Cup qualifier last month.
“Matches like the one against San Marino have nothing to do with professional football. I do not understand the meaning of games such as these, more so with such a busy schedule”, he was quoted as saying by ESPN.
He also added that the players from smaller teams resort to defending for the full 90 minutes and they are likely to make rough tackles since they are not very technically skilled, thereby endangering the fitness of the players at the receiving end.
“I understand it for them, especially playing against the world champions. I understand also that they can only defend with tough tackling. Precisely for this reason, however, I wonder if these are not games that lead to unnecessary risks.”
Those who defend the current format talk about the World Cup being an international competition and therefore every country having a shot at it.
And that’s a noble thought. The Andorras and San Marinos of the world should get a shot at a World Cup, no doubt. And they can take part in World Cup qualification; all that the UEFA needs to do is implement a tiered system where the countries low in their rankings play in preliminary rounds before the best among them qualify to face the bigger continental rivals.
In short, have a system like other confederations with wildly mismatched teams have.
There are several advantages of doing so. It would maintain the integrity of the competition; reduce the number of games for players who are already encumbered with an ever expanding fixture list at the club level; and most importantly, give the smaller teams real hope of securing results when they face evenly-matched opposition.
With club football grabbing the majority of eyeballs and international breaks considered nothing more than a mid season nuisance by fans and players alike, it is high time the UEFA officials took decisive steps and did their bit to put some sanity back in the World Cup qualification process.
There might not be any Salapus in Europe but the mismatched fixtures don’t make the football any better.