x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Heated fights and handballs, 2009 had it all

The year was dominated by World Cup qualifying campaigns but the Middle East unfortunately disappointed.

Thierry Henry's handball deep into extra-time of the Paris play-off forced Fifa to fast-track discussions regarding the possible introduction of two additional officials in time for their South African showpiece.
Thierry Henry's handball deep into extra-time of the Paris play-off forced Fifa to fast-track discussions regarding the possible introduction of two additional officials in time for their South African showpiece.

The international football year started in Africa with Uganda versus Rwanda on January 1 and, as is the case every year preceding a World Cup, the host continent remained at the forefront of football's focus throughout the subsequent 12 months. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa has been the common bond between every goal, every match, every result, every player and every coach; an inextricable link following the beautiful game across the globe.

The first competition of 2009 took place just south of the Emirates border with hosts Oman winning their first Gulf Cup, courtesy of a penalty shoot-out triumph over regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia. But, disappointingly, that was the highlight of the Arab region's worldly excursions. In 28 World Cup qualifiers, only Bahrain - who twice defeated Uzbekistan - managed to claim victory over a team from outside Arabia. Every other side came up short, resulting in embarrassment en route to elimination. Even the Bahrainis fell at the final hurdle, losing to Oceanic minnows New Zealand in a two-legged play-off.

The Middle East's last remaining hope of having a representative in South Africa were thus pinned on Egypt as the Pharaohs faced rivals Algeria for the final slot available next summer. After losing 3-1 in a heated battle in Blida, they fought - the fans, at times, a little too literally - to win 2-0 in Cairo. But with away goals deemed irrelevant by Fifa, a third match was organised. And as if Sudan did not have enough problems, Khartoum was named the neutral host venue.

More than 35,000 supporters and 15,000 armed security forces turned out to watch Algeria win 1-0, consigning Egypt to four more years of Middle Eastern mediocrity while securing Rabah Saadane's Desert Foxes qualification for their first World Cup since 1986. And Egypt's disappointment only deepened when the draw for next summer's final was confirmed; Algeria will play in Group C alongside England, United States and Slovenia. None of them are easy games, but all of which could be deemed winnable.

Especially as the same Egypt squad, that narrowly lost in Sudan, had taken part just months earlier in the Confederations Cup in South Africa and, for the most part, performed admirably. The quadrennial tournament is used as a precursor to the World Cup the following summer and the Egyptians, under the tutelage of Hassan Shehata, began their campaign strongly. The African Cup of Nations champions held their own against Copa America winners Brazil, despite their South American opponents having the attacking triumvirate of Alexandre Pato, Robinho and Luis Fabiano. Only an injury-time winner from Kaka separated them as Egypt's opening match finished 4-3, while in the second game of the group stages, the Pharaohs defeated the world champions Italy 1-0.

It was only a 3-0 humbling from the United States that denied them a place in the knockout stages. The result against the US was a shock not just because Egypt had looked so robust in their first two ties, but also because the Americans had appeared so weak. Bob Bradley's men had conceded six goals in their opening two matches, yet bounced back terrifically against the Egyptians to run out 3-0 winners.

And the US's fine turnaround did not end there. Jozy Altidore, now of Hull City, and Fulham's Clint Dempsey struck either side of half-time to defeat Spain, the world's No 1 ranked team, in the semi-finals. It was the European champions' first defeat in more than 30 months. In the final, the US faced a rematch with Brazil, who defeated them 3-0 in the group stages. This time around though, the Americans appeared an entirely different side, quickly acquiring a 2-0 lead.

Whether nerves took hold, excitement crept in or Brazil were simply too good, the US were unable to hold on and the Selecao fought back in the second half to win 3-2. Bradley's boys were downbeat, but it provides an early indicator that Group C next summer could throw up a surprise or two. England manager Fabio Capello certainly seems to believe so: the Italian has already organised a friendly with Egypt in preparation for the match with Algeria and is in the process of securing a game with Mexico to prime his side for a clash with the USA. Spain, meanwhile, recovered from their semi-final defeat to the United States to win eight out of eight matches from June to December, including four World Cup qualifiers. As a result, La Furia Roja remained one of only two teams - the other was The Netherlands - to secure safe passage to South Africa without dropping a single point in qualifying.

Vincente del Bosque's side will face Chile, Honduras and Switzerland in Group H and get their preparations under way in a friendly against France in March. It will be France's first match since their controversial play-off with Ireland in November; the crucial clash that saw them all-too-literally get their hands on the last coveted European qualifying place for next summer's tournament. Thierry Henry's handball deep into extra-time of the Paris play-off forced Fifa to fast-track discussions regarding the possible introduction of two additional officials in time for their South African showpiece.

And while ultimately it was deemed too soon, Fifa president Sepp Blatter confirmed world football's governing body would conduct an inquiry into utilising five officials as well as the use of video technology. Yet the Irish were not the only nation to feel they had been cheated out of what some reports claimed to be a ?1billion (Dh5.2bn) windfall; Costa Rica also believed they had been dishonestly defeated - an alleged offside goal by Uruguay in the Concacaf-Conmebol play-off denying them a World Cup spot.

And while the Costa Ricans were never likely to be granted late admission to South Africa, it would have been interesting had Chile been suspended from the 19th World Cup, as was threatened by Fifa earlier this year.Having finished second behind Brazil in the Conmebol group, many Chileans were likely still celebrating when Fifa wrote to Chile's FA demanding they take the "necessary measures" to see domestic side Club Social de Deportes Rangers drop legal proceedings disputing the club's relegation from the top division.

Fifa forbid civil or governmental interference in football matters and warned they would consider "imposing a suspension" against the national side. Rangers promptly dropped their case. One South American who was not quite so capable of evading Fifa's wrath was a man who spent years evading defenders' challenges: Diego Maradona. The Argentine legend, having taken the reigns of the national team in 2008, oversaw a dismal qualifying campaign that resulted in la Albicelestes going into their final match with Uruguay in Montevideo needing a point just to claim fourth place in a 10-team group.

They took all three points courtesy of a late Mario Bolatti goal, but the coach's vitriolic voice was heard around the world after he unleashed an expletive-laden tirade directed at the Argentine media who had berated him throughout qualifying. Fifa banned Maradona for two months and fined him 25,000 Swiss Francs (Dh88,541). The ban expires on January 15 meaning he will have comfortably returned to his dug-out by the time his side play a friendly with Germany in March.

Before then, however, there are plenty of other international matches to take place. Oman, who started the year so brightly with their maiden Gulf Cup win, will be hoping to end the year on a high when they close the international year in Singapore on December 31. But inevitably, for the next few weeks, football's focus will remain, much as it will throughout the coming year, in Africa. The African Cup of Nations gets under way in Angola on January 10.

@Email:gmeenaghan@thenational.ae