Footballing capstones have thrilled a bantam bunch of Europeans in recent history. Zinedine Zidane, encompassed by thousands of his enraptured compatriots, inspired France’s in 1998; Angelos Charisteas headed Greece into ecstasy on a sunny evening in Lisbon six years later; and Andres Iniesta’s trusted right boot seized Spain’s deep into a nippy night at Soccer City in 2010.
Yet while French, Greeks and Spaniards awoke on those days dreaming of those zeniths, not even the most ardent of Moldovan fantasists could have foreseen their 22-year-old national team’s transpiring in Podgorica on 15 October 2013. Montenegro had, over the previous 18 months, drew 2-2 in Belgium, won 1-0 in Ukraine and tied 1-1 in Poland. The Hrabri Sokoli (Brave Falcons) had, furthermore, triumphed in Moldova less than seven months earlier, were over 100 places above their visitors on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and were captained by £22m Manchester City attacker Stevan Jovetic.
Predictably, it was a one-sided affair. Unpredictably, the victims were the men in red. Despite having a few unfortunate slices of luck in the Montenegrin capital, Eugen Sidorenco’s elegantly-cushioned volley and an Alexandru Antoniuc brace propelled Moldova to an implausibly emphatic 5-2 victory.
“I did my utmost to motivate the players,” Ion Caras, the man who masterminded the Moldovan miracle, told FIFA.com. “I kept telling them that we had a great chance to beat Montenegro in Podgorica. I was sure that the Montenegrin players wouldn’t be right psychologically after the loss to England ended their chances of qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil.
“I think Montenegro underestimated us. I don’t think they knew we were capable of playing in such a manner. We produced a major surprise. My players played very well. Maybe they played the game of their lives. They certainly produced the greatest performance in the history of the Moldovan national team. It’s hard to explain how happy we were at the end of the match.”
We’ve often been criticised because of our low position on the FIFA Ranking. This time everything was different. Being the biggest climbers in the world in October has got us a lot of kind words.
That result, aided by the 3-0 win at home to San Marino it ensued, catapulted Moldova 33 places up to 96th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. It made the former Soviet state the biggest climbers on the planet in October, and returned them to the top 100 for the first time since August 2011.
“When I became coach, Moldova were close to their lowest-ever position on the FIFA Ranking,” said Caras, the 63-year-old who assumed the reins in January 2012. “And we had a very strong World Cup qualifying group ahead of us with England, Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland. We started poorly.”
Poorly enough for Moldova to plummet to 145th in October 2012 – their lowest placement since July 1994, when they were fresh into their existence on the global ladder. That month, though, Caras oversaw a draw that proved a catalyst in his team’s rise.
“The 0-0 draw at home to Ukraine was a very good result for us,” said the former defender. “Individually the Ukrainian players are better than us, but we fought to the death on the field and managed to grab our first point. After that we started to play better and better. We won in San Marino, lost a very close game 2-1 away to Ukraine, and drew 1-1 with Poland.”
Due to those results, and maximum points from two qualifiers last month, Moldova finished just two points behind a Poland side featuring Lukasz Piszczek, Jakub Błaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski and four shy of third-placed Montenegro in Group H. England seized the pool’s automatic ticket to Brazil 2014, while Ukraine earned its European play-off place.
“After our third qualifier we knew we no chance of reaching Brazil, so we began concentrating on developing new, young and talented players,” explained Caras. “Now we’re on the right track. And the result in Podgorica has got us dreaming about reaching the EURO 2016 finals! We’ll wait and see who we get grouped with in qualifying.”
For now, Caras and his charges can revel in their grandest all-time Ranking rise – only six teams have outstripped their 33-place leap in a 2013 month.
“After the Montenegro match I said a few words to my players,” Caras said. “First of all I congratulated them on a deserved win. And then I mentioned that I was sure we’d be climbing the FIFA Ranking. And so it was!
“Every time the FIFA Ranking is published our media puts it all over the sports news and the internet. We’ve often been criticised because of our low position on the FIFA Ranking. This time everything was different. Being the biggest climbers in the world in October has got us a lot of kind words.”