The best moment of a lopsided encounter between England and Panama came not from Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, or John Stones. But from a 37-year-old defender with over a hundred caps for his national team.
The seventh goal of the game, a mere consolation, a meaningless occurrence in a match long settled by then.
Try telling that to Felipe Baloy, who will go down in history as the first ever Panamanian to put the ball in the back of the net at a World Cup.
Try telling that to the Panamaniacs (that’s a thing, right?) in the stadium and watching at home, going absolutely apeshit at seeing one of their own score against the bloody creators of this beautiful game at the World bloody Cup. Seeing the crowd throwing all sorts of shapes, losing their minds at that moment, is one of the most charming, delightful moments we’ll see this month.
And yet there are those who rail against the inclusion of these so-called weaker countries in FIFA’s premier competition.
Jimmy Bullard isn’t the only one to hold an opinion like this, so I don’t mean to pick on him, but his tweet Sunday was typical of much of the reaction to Panama’s appearance at this tournament.
The problems with such a take are manifold. No country has a divine right to be at the World Cup. Italy and Netherlands knew the score when the qualification process started almost two years ago. As did the USA, who finished two places behind Panama in the CONCACAF group, failing to even make the playoff spot.
Other World Cup regulars, such as Ghana, did not make it. Neither did Copa America champions Chile, or Afcon winners Cameroon. Sometimes big teams miss out, that’s the name of the game.
This is emblematic of an invisible tension that exists in competitions like this. We consider the World Cup to be the zenith of the sport, where the best of the best duke it out to determine the true number one.
The reality is, in a sporting sense, that’s not completely true. Arguably the 32 best sides in the world are not present in Russia right now. Panama, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are all weaker than the aforementioned national teams.
But does that make their qualification for the World Cup any less worthy? One can argue the relative strengths of the respective confederations, of the difficulty their qualification processes require from their member nations. Yet if we start taking away spots from these confederations, as suggested by Miguel Delaney, when does it stop being the ‘World’ Cup and start becoming the “Cup Of European Nations And Others”?
The group stages of the World Cup will always feature weak teams. Panama are perhaps one of the weakest to ever feature, up there with El Salvador. The Central American nation have appeared at two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1982, exiting without a single point on both occasions. Their last finals appearance included a record defeat, losing 10-1 to Hungary in Elche, Spain.
Did their performance really sour anyone’s experience, aside from their own?
There are many, many reasons to be cynical about the World Cup, and there are legitimate reasons to worry about the expansion of it to 48 teams come 2026. It does however, embody one of the great things about football, in that it is a truly global game. It creates the possibility for amazing moments and memories for nations who otherwise rarely feature on the world stage in any way shape or form.
Few competitions grant the smallest nations the chance to compete with the very best in the sport; where else would you get a country with a population of 300,000 putting it up to a side containing the greatest player in the history of the game? Where tiny island nations can eliminate two states with a combined five World Cups, as Costa Rica did to Italy and England in 2014.
Quality is not guaranteed at the World Cup by any stretch, but that’s not even what makes it so good; it’s the stakes of a short tournament, the national fervour it manages to drum up, and the narrative — so often derided in club football — that it creates from game to game.
If we decide that the World Cup is to be comprised of the ‘actual’ best teams, we would be sacrificing inclusiveness for exclusivity. Although we might gain a greater quality in football terms across the board, we would lose something fundamental as to why it is just so special.
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In the aftermath of Gianluigi Buffon’s likely final ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League, no superlative is too excessive to describe the Juventus legend, the greatest goalkeeper of all time, writes Ste McGovern.
In football lexicon, the word ‘genius’ might just be the most overused phrase of all. We often hear “that was a piece of genius skill” or “that goal was genius”, when such a term should be used as little as possible, reserved for only the finest moments from the finest players.
End Of An Era is another term that gets overplayed. Someone retires, “we’ll never see his like again, it’s an end of era.” A team loses a knockout tie, and it’s “that’s it, thanks for everything, bye forever”, even though it’s not always so clear cut. Eulogies were delivered on behalf of the Spain team after both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and yet they look like one of the top contenders at Russia next summer. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and others from that glorious team are still present. So is the old era dead or is it still ongoing?
Listen to Episode 4 of Nostalgia Ultras podcast: The Milan Derby
For one man though it is less overstatement and more absolute. Buffon has been a staple of the sport, making it almost impossible to separate the position from the man. Strike up a conversation about goalkeeping with a mate and see how long it takes for the Italian shot-stopper’s name to come up. Not since Lev Yashin has someone come to define the position so comprehensively; he is the goalkeeper.
That much was evident last November when Italy drew 0-0 with Sweden at the San Siro in a playoff for the World Cup. Out of the 359 clean sheets he has amassed thus far, this must have been the worst one he has ever kept. There was the 0-0 versus AC Milan in the 2003 Champions League final that Juventus lost on penalties, but this loss cut deeper than perhaps any. The realisation that there would not only be no World Cup, but no more appearances for the Azzurri must have dawned on him at that moment.
Afterwards there was a lot of talk about how bad this team had been over two legs and the poor decision making of their manager, Giampiero Ventura. But most of the conversation centred around Gigi and the tragic end to a glorious international career that included the greatest prize of all in 2006. He won’t get one last shot at winning it again, for which everyone mourned at full-time.
It was typical of the man that in such a painful moment Buffon’s first action after the match ended was to console his teammates, many of whom will get more opportunities at major tournaments, before congratulating the Swedes one by one. He embraced Martin Olsen, his opposite number, as he fought a losing battle to hold back the tears. It’s easy to be happy for the opposition when it’s, say, Ireland who has beaten you and it has no effect on your progression to the next round of the competition, but he’s shown grace and humility in the face of bad times too.
His reaction to the penalty awarded to Real Madrid in injury time, with the score delicately poised at 3-3 on aggregate, might say otherwise. The physical nature of his confrontation with Michael Oliver was over the top, but let’s not forget his clapping of the Swedish national anthem as Italian fans unceremoniously booed it. He exuded immense character on the night, an aspect of his personality that isn’t mentioned nearly enough.
Buffon commands respect from everyone on the pitch without demanding it. That much was evident in the Sweden game when even the referee gave him a hug. That level of respect has been well earned too; it’s hard to think of anyone who has matched their longevity with such incredibly consistency. The World Cup in Brazil appeared to be a nadir for the Italian legend, a poor overall performance that indicated a career finally on the slide. But the slide never arrived, and he seemed to be better than ever at times these past few seasons as he and his beloved Juve chased European glory.
Heading into the final stretch of the season, and thus the twilight of the great man’s club career, the spotlight refocused on Gigi’s mission to finally get his hands on the famous mouse ears. It would have been a fitting end, but instead it all finished in even more ignominious circumstances at the Bernabeu Stadium tonight. Possibly the greatest player to never lift the trophy, failing to win it should not define him as a player. If there was one footballer whose career was far greater than the contents of his trophy cabinet, then it’s Gianluigi Buffon.
In many ways, the past 12 or so months has been edging closer to the end of a very special era. Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli have retired from international duty. Giorgio Chiellini might not be far behind. Last May Francesco Totti played his last match. Andrea Pirlo did so too later that year. After giving us a lifetime of memories these incredible talents will be gone in a flash.
The era is ending, but there’s still just enough time to appreciate it.
This is an updated version of an article written in 2017.
Did you know that Belgium have reached the final of a major tournament? Don’t worry if you didn’t, because no one ever seems to remember EURO 80, writes Ste McGovern.
General consensus insists that this generation of Belgian players are the best bunch that the small country has ever produced, and that may be proven to be true in due course. But you would be forgiven for forgetting, or just outright not knowing, that Belgium have in fact reached the final of a major tournament before.
That success must be put in its proper context, however.
EURO 1980 is a long forgotten competition, and perhaps with good reason. The football was mediocre, the format was odd, and, well, the Germans won, so as you were. It happened to be sandwiched in between two famous European Championships: Antonin Panenka’s winning penalty for Czechoslovakia in 1976, and Michel Platini’s France in 1984.
Aside from the games involving Italy, the matches were poorly attended as well. Only 4,726 people would witness Czechoslovakia’s 3-1 win over Greece, whereas 46,816 were in attendance to see the Italians play Spain two days beforehand. Looking back at the images now, it is painfully obvious how empty the grounds are for some of the games.
For the first time ever, eight countries would compete in the finals in Italy. They were split into two groups of four. But instead of four teams progressing to the semi-finals, the winners of each group would go straight to the final, while the two second-placed teams would face off for third place. It’s a far cry from this year’s edition, where 24 teams will compete for 16 places in the knockout round.
While it was a relatively boring edition of Europe’s premier international tournament, it did have its moments. Ray Wilkins scored one of the best goals ever by an England player against Belgium. He gently lobbed the ball over the defenders and, upon retrieving it, casually struck it on the half-volley into the top corner. He beautifully assisted his own beautiful goal.
The lead only lasted three minutes though, as Jan Ceulemans grabbed an equaliser from a corner in the 29th minute. Afterwards fighting broke out behind the England goal and the police fired tear gas into the crowd. It was a sign of things to come in English football for the decade ahead.
For England the draw was a terrible result and they would end up finishing third in the group, losing 1-0 to Italy and beating Spain 2-1 in a dead rubber. Belgium, on the other hand, were invigorated by the result.
“England had a better side so we were surprised to hold them to a draw,” Ceulemans later said. “It was then that we started to believe in our chances.”
Crucially the Red Devils would follow it up with a win over Spain, Eric Gerets and Julien Cools scoring either side of a Quini goal to win 2-1. All they needed to do in their final game with the hosts was not lose. The emphasis was therefore on Italy to go and win, but having only managed one goal thus far — Marco Tardelli’s winner against the English — it was a step too far. A heroic performance from goalkeeper Theo Custers helped them secure a 0-0 draw. The Belgians went through on goals scored, while Italy would finish runners-up in Group B and go into the third place play-off.
Meanwhile in Group A, West Germany were making hay in what was a difficult group. Aside from whipping boys Greece, they would have to contend with holding European champions Czechoslovakia and Netherlands, who had reached the last two World Cup finals.
The Dutch, perhaps more than anyone else at the time, deserved some silverware to match the elegant and excellent football they displayed over the previous decade. They made a good start, with a 1-0 victory over Greece. The real test would come on matchday two, however.
Knowing that, realistically, only victory over West Germany would give them any chance of making the final, it could not have gone worse for the Oranje. Klaus Allofs opened the scoring after 20 minutes in a dominant first half, although the game was still there for the Dutch. That was obliterated in the second half, when in the space of five minutes Allofs would score two more goals to get his hat-trick.
Netherlands would get two goals back late on, but it wasn’t enough. All they could hope for was the playoff, but a 1-1 draw with the Czechs in the last group game closed that door. It was the end of an era. They would fail to qualify for another major international tournament until 1988, where they would finally win the European Championships in Germany.
The third place playoff, which was scrapped after this tournament, ended in a 1-1 draw between Italy and Czechoslovakia. It went to penalties, where of course Panenka would score the fifth. That didn’t decide it this time, though. 17 penalties would be taken and scored, until AC Milan’s Fulvio Collovati stepped up and missed. It was a fairly disappointing tournament for the host nation, although they would go on to win the World Cup just two years later.
Having won the competition in 1972 — with a World Cup win in 1974, don’t forget — West Germany reached their third consecutive Euros final in 1980. It was a nation used to success, but this was also a young squad, the average age of which was just 24.5. Lothar Matthaus, aged 19 at the time, was their youngest outfield player and had yet to win a cap before the tournament.
“We had a new and very young team,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge later said of the West Germans. “We weren’t favourites to win at all. Everyone thought that if we could make it to third or fourth place in the tournament, then that would be success.”
Belgium had finished third in their home Euros in 1972, but that was out of four teams. On that occasion they lost to West Germany, who they would face in the final this time around. They had been solid, if not spectacular, up to that point, and would need to up their game if they were to spring a surprise.
It didn’t look likely early on, as Horst Hrubesch scored after just ten minutes. The Hamburg striker, who only made it into the squad as a late replacement for the injured Klaus Fischer, latched onto a chipped ball from Bernd Schuster and hit it on the run. That lead would last for over an hour.
René Vandereycken would equalise from the penalty spot and extra time looked likely from there. That was, until Hrubesch popped up again. Back home he was known as the Kopfball-Ungeheuer, or Heading Monster. A charming nickname, but one with good reason. So confident was Rummenigge that Hrubesch would score the winner from his corner, he apparently told a cameraman next to the corner flag to aim his lens at his teammate.
And so it was. With 88 minutes on the clock, Hrubesch headed home the decisive goal to clinch the country’s second European Championship. The 29 year old had only acquired 7 caps before the tournament, but who knows how this game might have gone had he not been called up?