Brazil 2014 kicks off seven months today, with most supporters already aware of whether their nation will be at the party or looking in enviously from the outside. For a nervous few, though, the wait must go on a little longer.
Over the next eight days, teams from six different confederations will do battle in play-offs that promise to serve up international football at its most tense and exhilarating. The prize for the victors could hardly be greater, while the prospect of defeat for all those concerned is simply too unbearable to contemplate.
As the first leg matches draw ever closer, and with excitement building, FIFA.com whets the appetite with a look at some classic qualifying play-offs from World Cups past.
The first intercontinental qualifying play-off came about in unusual fashion after prospective opponents in Asia and Africa refused to face Israel during the Sweden 1958 qualifiers. The result was a two-legged tie for the Israelis against Wales, runners-up to Czechoslovakia in Europe’s Group 4, which offered both sides the prize of a first-ever World Cup appearance. The Welsh – led by the brilliant John Charles – ultimately proved too strong, and qualified for their only major tournament to date thanks to 2-0 victories in each leg. But for two of the men involved, this was a tie with even more fateful consequences. After all, had it not been for this play-off, the second leg of which was played on 5 February 1958, Wales manager Jimmy Murphy and striker Colin Webster would have been with their club, Manchester United, and involved in the Munich air disaster just 24 hours later.
There was great poignancy to this particular play-off, with Scotland having set up the tie in dramatic style two months before thanks to a late equaliser away to Wales. The stress of that particular occasion had, however, proved fatal to the Scots’ beloved manager Jock Stein, who suffered a heart attack in the dugout as the game neared its conclusion and died in the stadium’s treatment room. The task of finishing the job that Stein had started therefore fell to his assistant and protégé. Not for the last time in his career, Alex Ferguson rose to the challenge. Goals from Davie Cooper and Frank McAvennie established a commanding 2-0 lead at Hampden, and another clean sheet in Australia guaranteed a place at Mexico 1986 for Ferguson and his mentor’s team.
If the shadow of Stein had hung over Australia’s defeat in 1985, their failure to reach USA 1994 owed to another of the game’s legendary names. Diego Maradona, having been banned from the game for 15 months for cocaine use, returned from international exile to salvage a campaign that had reached a spectacular nadir with a 5-0 home defeat to Colombia. The then 33-year-old’s impact was immediate, with a trademark piece of brilliance setting up Abel Balbo for the tie’s opening goal before a record crowd in Sydney. Aurelio Vidmar later equalised for the Socceroos but, in the second leg, with the fans roaring for Maradona, a solitary own goal by the unfortunate Alex Tobin took Argentina through to a tournament that would have far-reaching consequences for the team and its star player.
12 & 16 November 2005
Australia 1-1 Uruguay agg.
Australia win 4-2 on penalties
So often the play-off bridesmaids, Australia shed a succession of hard-luck stories to finally edge a tie that typified the drama and tension these encounters can produce. The Socceroos had gone for over three decades without reaching a World Cup, losing a succession of play-offs, and the most recent defeat had come four years earlier against Uruguay themselves. This time, however, there was a steely resolve to a side managed by Guus Hiddink and, despite losing 1-0 in Montevideo, a Mark Bresciano goal sent 82,600 fans into delirium and led to a memorable penalty shootout. It was there, with the stakes at their highest, that substitute John Aloisi wrote himself into Australian sporting folklore, blasting the decisive kick past Fabian Carini to end his nation’s long wait.
David met Goliath in this all-European affair, with Russia – population 142 million – fully expected to make light work of a tie against a nation of just two million souls. Slovenia, though, had other ideas, and after snatching a precious away goal in Moscow through Nejc Pecnik, they stunned their heavyweight opponents in Maribor thanks to a solitary, decisive strike from Zlatko Dedic. Russia coach Guus Hiddink, having triumphed in a play-off four years earlier with Australia, was left crestfallen. As for his Slovenia counterpart, Matjaz Kek said simply: “This was a historic match. Slovenia has realised a dream.”
"We've waited 27 years to resurrect something very important to us.” Those were the words of New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert, a member of the Kiwis’ Spain 1982 squad, after his side saw off Bahrain to return to the game’s greatest stage. The Asian side, beaten at the same stage of the 2006 qualifiers by Trinidad and Tobago, had begun the tie as strong favourites, but after a goalless draw at home, they wilted on a memorable night in Wellington. A record crowd, a Mark Paston penalty save and an unforgettable winning goal from Rory Fallon sent the Bahrainis crashing out, and propelled New Zealand towards a World Cup from which they famously emerged as the only unbeaten side.