Sunday 06 December 2020, 01:00

Legends forged in European qualifiers

  • The UEFA preliminary draw for Qatar 2022 takes place on Monday 7 December

  • sets the scene by reflecting on ten legendary European qualifiers

  • Part one includes a Scottish legend, a Polish "clown" and a Bulgarian miracle

1. Sweden-Estonia, 1933: The first one of them all

The success of the inaugural FIFA World Cup™ in Uruguay in 1930 led FIFA to organise a qualifying competition for Italy 1934. Some 32 teams from three continents took part in the preliminaries, with Sweden and Estonia having the honour of contesting the very first World Cup qualifying match.

11 June 1933, Olympiastadion, Stockholm, Sweden 6-2 Estonia

Goals: Knut Kroon 7’, Lennart Bunke 10’, Bertil Ericsson 13’, Torsten Bunke 43’, Bertil Eriksson 70’, Sven Andersson 79’ pen (Sweden); Leonhard Kaas 47’, Richard Kuremaa 61’ (Estonia)

Sweden forward Knut Kroon went down in history as the first player to score in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match. The home side were 3-0 up inside 15 minutes, with Torsten Bunke adding a fourth just before half-time. Though Leonhard Kaas and Richard Kuremaa pulled goals back for the visitors, the hosts truck twice more to send the 8,000 fans home happy.

The Swedes went on to beat Lithuania to clinch their place at Italy 1934, while Estonia have never come as close to qualifying for the world finals since.

FIFA World Cup Programme - Italy 1934

2. England-Poland, 1973: Ramsey’s men floored by a “clown”

England had to beat Poland at home to qualify for Germany 1974. Despite mounting criticism of coach Sir Alf Ramsey – the man who had taken them to World Cup glory in 1966 – the Three Lions were still expected to get the job done.

Adding to the general air of confidence were the pre-match comments made by the legendary coach Brian Clough, who would later lead Nottingham Forest to European glory. A TV pundit on the night, Clough described Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski as “a circus clown in gloves”, unconvinced by his unorthodox style. As England found out, however, clowns can sometimes make you cry.

17 October 1973, Wembley, London, England 1-1 Poland

Goals: Allan Clarke 63’ pen (England); Jan Domarski 55’ (Poland)

Though England laid siege to the Polish goal from off, Tomaszewski repelled everything they threw at him to keep the game goalless. Ten minutes into the second half, Poland took the lead. Wide man Grzegorz Lato was the architect, breaking clear down the left before squaring the ball to Jan Domarski on the edge of the England box. Domarski struck the ball first time, his low drive squeezing beneath the diving Peter Shilton and into the back of the net.

Though Allan Clarke equalised from the penalty spot a few minutes later and the English resumed their bombardment, they could not find the all-important winner, despite having 35 goal attempts to Poland’s two. The “clown” had had the last laugh.

Recalling the evening, Tomaszewski said: “I remember the last thing [Poland coach] Kazimierz Gorski said to us before the match: ‘You can play for the national team for 20 years and play a thousand games without anyone remembering you. But tonight you have the chance to go down in history’. And he was right. I didn’t have the greatest match of my life that night, no question. But I did have a lot of luck.”

Having been denied by the Polish keeper, England would have to wait until 1982 before returning to the World Cup.

1973 World Cup Qualifier, Wembley Stadium, 17th October, 1973, England 1 v Poland 1, Poland's goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski makes one of his many saves to deny England a goal during their vital World Cup qualifier.

3) Wales-Scotland, 1985: Tragedy follows euphoria for the Tartan Army

Instead of celebrating a result that helped them take a massive step towards Mexico 1986, Scotland was a nation plunged into mourning when the legendary Jock Stein passed away at the end of a dramatic game in Cardiff.

10 September 1985, Ninian Park, Cardiff, Wales 1-1 Scotland

Goals: Mark Hughes 13’ (Wales); Davie Cooper 81’ pen (Scotland)

Having qualified for the previous three World Cups, Scotland arrived in Cardiff needing a point to secure second place in their group and a play-off meeting with Oceania representatives Australia. Standing in their way were Wales, who had beaten the Scots in Glasgow earlier in the group thanks, almost inevitably, to a goal from Ian Rush, and who needed a win to take the runners-up spot behind Spain.

Reflecting on that fateful night, Sir Alex Ferguson, who was Stein’s assistant coach at the time, said the tension was visible on his mentor’s face as kick-off approached. Mark Hughes’ 13th-minute opener for Wales only increased Scottish apprehension. With an hour gone, the former Celtic coach made a brave move, replacing star man Gordon Strachan with Davie Cooper. The Rangers winger repaid Stein’s faith by pulling the Scots level from the spot with just nine minutes remaining.

On hearing what he thought was the final whistle, Stein rose from the dugout to shake hands with his opposite number, Mike England, only to suffer a heart attack and collapse to the ground. After being carried into the medical room at Ninian Park, he was pronounced dead a few minutes later.

Some 12,000 Scots had made the journey to Cardiff that day. Interviewed on television, one of them spoke for a nation: “We’d rather be out of the World Cup and have Big Jock back.”

10th September 1985, World Cup Qualifier, Cardiff, Wales, Wales 1 v Scotland 1, Scottish players Alan Rough (L) and Mo Johnston celebrate at the end of the match as they qualify for the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, At right is assistant manager A...

4) Republic of Ireland-Spain, 1989: Michel’s misfortune, Bonner’s brilliance

Absent from the first 13 World Cups, Republic of Ireland did not make the best of starts to the qualifying tournament for no. 14, collecting just two points from their opening three games – all away from home. Worse still for the Boys in Green was that their next opponents on the road to Italy 1990 were an in-form Spain side that had earned maximum points from their first five games in the group. But with Jack Charlton on the bench, anything was possible. He was, after all, the man who had led them to UEFA EURO 1988, their first appearance at a major international competition.

26 April 1989, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Republic of Ireland 1-0 Spain

Goal: Michel 16’ og (Republic of Ireland)

Spain had handed the Irish a footballing lesson in Seville a few months earlier, the 2-0 scoreline barely reflecting their superiority on the night. Charlton also had to make do without Liverpool striker John Aldridge, who missed the game on compassionate grounds following the Hillsborough disaster, which had occurred just a few days earlier. Urged on by a 50,000 crowd, however, Charlton’s side put their opponents under pressure from the kick-off. They were rewarded in the 16th minute, when Michel, with Frank Stapleton lurking just behind him, inadvertently turned Ray Houghton’s near-post cross into his own net.

Spain did everything they could to equalise, only to find Pat Bonner in unbeatable form between the posts. “We beat a great Spain team that night and there’s no doubt that it was the turning point for us in reaching Italia 90,” said the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper afterwards. “I’d say it was one of the great nights at Lansdowne Road.”

5) France-Bulgaria, 1993: Kostadinov dashes Les Bleus' American dream

With two home games remaining in their USA 1994 qualifying group, France needed just a point to go through. They missed their first chance, losing 3-2 to Israel, but were confident of getting the job done against Bulgaria, who needed to win if they were to qualify.

17 November 1993, Parc des Princes, Paris, France 1-2 Bulgaria

Goals: Eric Cantona 32’ (France); Emil Kostadinov 37’, 90’ (Bulgaria)

Favourites to win, France duly took the lead on 30 minutes, when Jean-Pierre Papin nodded the ball across the box for Eric Cantona to fire home. Five minutes later, the Bulgarians were level, Emil Kostadinov rising high at a corner to remind Les Bleus they were not in the USA yet. With memories of that loss to Israel still fresh, the French appeared more content to settle for a draw than to go for a win, a cautious approach that looked to be the right one as time went by. Then, with just a minute remaining, David Ginola won a free-kick deep in the Bulgarian half, right next to the corner flag.

Instead of keeping the ball and using up a few more vital seconds, the Paris Saint-Germain forward chose to swing in a cross. He overhit it, handing possession straight back to the visitors, who broke forward at speed. Picking up possession on the halfway line, Lyuboslav Penev chipped a delightful ball into the path of the charging Kostadinov, who made light of a tight angle to thrash a half-volley in off the bar and past the helpless Bernard Lama. The time on the clock was 44:58.

“The French were so scared they played with their buttocks clenched,” said Bulgaria captain Hristo Stoichkov. “We knew that’s how they would be and we based our tactics on that. They played for a draw and never went looking for the win. They didn’t deserve to win and we hit them where it hurt most.” Stoichkov would be one of Bulgaria’s heroes on their dramatic run at USA 1994 a few months later.