Thursday 17 March 2022, 09:00

Five qualifications that stunned the sport

  • Switzerland surprised fans with direct qualification to Qatar 2022

  • We looks at five teams who unexpectedly qualified for previous World Cups

  • Argentina, England, Saudi Arabia and USA have been victims of huge shocks

Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ is now in the home straight. The draw for the group phase will be made in Doha on 1 April, and just prior to that, each of the confederations will be playing out its decisive matches. And if history has taught us anything, it is that World Cup qualifying is always good for an upset. Contrary to the expectations of many football pundits, 24 March will see Italy and not Switzerland in the UEFA play-off semi-finals. The reigning European champions could only manage draws in their last two qualifiers, against the Swiss and Northern Ireland, causing them to surrender their grip on top spot and miss out on direct qualification for Qatar. The Nati, on the other hand, cruised past Bulgaria 4-0 on the last matchday to book their fifth World Cup ticket in a row. Italy are now on a knife-edge, with North Macedonia looking to upset them this coming Thursday in the play-offs. So what better time to look back at six of the matches that upset the old order and made World Cup qualifying history?

AFC: Korea DPR’s impregnable defence

When qualifying for South Africa 2010 came around, Saudi Arabia could already look back on four appearances on the world’s biggest stage and were expecting to get the better of an inexperienced Korea DPR team. The Green Falcons, however, needed three points from the final Group C match on 17 June 2009 in Riyadh, while their opponents knew that a draw would be enough after previously winning the reverse fixture on home soil. Led by such stars as Yasser Al Qahtani and Nayef Hazazi, the hosts took the game to their opponents from the off and created a number of chances, but Korean keeper Ri Myong Guk made one save after another. A minute before the end, the match became even more one-sided when Kim Yong Jun was shown a red card, but the visiting defence held firm and the resulting draw was enough to see them qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 44 years.

2006 FIFA World Cup Germany(tm)

CAF: Togo squeeze through

Another major tremor on planet football occured in October 2005, with Togo’s win over Congo qualifying them for their first-ever World Cup, despite coming up against a Senegal team that had made it through to the Korea/Japan 2002 quarter-finals. The Sparrowhawks’ success was down to the results of the matches between the two countries – a 3-1 win at home in Lome and a draw away in Dakar. The latter truly was a six-pointer: Togo were on 23 points, two clear of Senegal, and they managed to hold on to top spot in their qualifying group to book their ticket for Germany 2006.

Concacaf: Panama head to Russia

Almost no-one could have foreseen this qualifying outcome. On 11 October 2017, Los Canaleros secured their first-ever World Cup appearance at Russia 2018, and in the most dramatic of circumstances. Merely days after crashing to a 4-0 defeat away to USA, they once again found themselves behind, 1-0 this time to Costa Rica. Undaunted, Panama managed to equalise in the second half before Roman Torres became a national hero two minutes before the final whistle. Despite being a central defender, he converted the crispest of volleys and made all of Panama’s dreams come true. The country’s president declared a national holiday to mark the occasion, with the public and private sectors alike joining with school children to celebrate this landmark event. As the saying goes, ‘one man’s joy is another man’s pain’, and the result meant that USA had to come to terms with not qualifying for a World Cup for the first time in 32 years.

Panama is experiencing the kind of happiness that we’ve never had before. Roman Torres scores the goal that qualifies Panama for the World Cup – that’s something that will be remembered forever.
Roman Torres

CONMEBOL: Cubillas provokes Peruvian rhapsody

South American qualifying for Mexico 1970 was held across three groups, and also earnt a place in the history books as it was the first and indeed only time that Argentina attempted but failed to qualify for football’s showpiece event. They went into Group 1 as favourites against Bolivia and Peru, having appeared at six previous World Cups compared with two for Bolivia and just one for Peru. Things did not go according to plan, however, with Argentina managing just one win in their first three games, necessitating victory over Peru in their final match with a World Cup ticket on the line for both teams. La Blanquirroja, whose team was based around attacking midfielder Teofilo Cubillas, had two wins to their name, and as such only needed a draw. The showdown came on 31 August 1969, with Argentina coming up just short in a thriller. The match ended 2-2, and Peru got the point they needed to secure their Mexico 1970 berth. Cubillas was the hero, but the country took the whole team to their hearts.

UEFA: Polish clown laughs loudest

Over in Europe, the Three Lions suffered arguably their greatest-ever setback during qualifying for Germany 1974. After lifting the trophy in 1966 on home soil under Sir Alf Ramsey, they found themselves on the outside looking in on 17 October 1973, missing out on the World Cup. So what happened? England needed a win in their home game against Poland, and despite Ramsey’s job being on the line, the team were certain that they would get the victory needed. Ahead of the match, legendary English coach Brian Clough described the Polish goalkeeper, with his yellow jersey, red shorts and white socks, as “a circus clown in gloves", but it was Jan Tomaszewski who would have the last laugh. He saved everything that the English threw at him, and then Poland took a crucial lead in the 55th minute through Jan Domarski. A penalty got the home side level, but they failed to find a winner. The statistics after the match showed 35 shots from England, two from Poland – the ‘circus clown’ had truly risen to the occasion on the big stage.

I remember the last thing our coach Kazimierz Gorski said: 'You can play 1,000 times for the national team and nobody will remember you. But tonight, in one game, you have the chance to put your names in the history books.' He was right.
Jan Tomaszewski