In October 2015, the long road towards the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ began for South American sides, a qualifying competition that welcomed heavy hitters Brazil back into the mix. After the opening four rounds of action, Ecuador have sprung a surprise by storming into top spot with a 100 per cent record, while the key men of closest pursuers Uruguay have ensured La Celeste coped in the absence of star striker Luis Suarez.
Brazil and Argentina, for their part, both stumbled early on, but the pair appear to have steadied their respective ships and will no doubt be firm challengers in the race for CONMEBOL's four direct qualifying berths. Likewise Chile, who have kept faith with the now customary bold approach that helped secure Copa America 2015 glory, thoughLa Roja have picked up just one point in their last two games.
Paraguay, who failed to qualify for Brazil 2014, are in fourth and have been showing signs of a resurgence under Ramon Diaz. Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, in contrast, are in need of greater stability to build on the positives of their performances thus far. Venezuela, the only side yet to put points on the board, will need a major upturn in fortunes to keep their hopes alive. FIFA.com brings you a closer look at the early jousting in the region.
Memorable match Argentina 0-2 Ecuador - 8 October 2015Ecuador touched down on Argentinian soil having drawn one and lost six of their seven previous qualifiers there, though they faced an Albiceleste denied the injured Lionel Messi and which lost Sergio Aguero after just 20 minutes’ play. La Tri, showing plenty of determination and fierce tactical discipline, claimed all three points thanks to two late goals via Frickson Erazo and Felipe Caicedo. The defeat was only Argentina’s third ever at home in World Cup qualifying and the first in Buenos Aires – after 40 encounters over 22 years. For Ecuador, it was simply the perfect start to the campaign.
The surprise Reaching the World Cup has been a healthy habit for Ecuador in the past 15 years, though they have never previously enjoyed such a successful start to the qualifying phase, either in terms of results or performances. Following up said first win in Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay were subsequently dispatched at home prior to crowning the year with a victory away over Venezuela. Gustavo Quinteros’s charges have been solid across the board, starting with keeper Alexander Dominguez, and have settled on a style perfectly executed by the likes of Antonio Valencia, Christian Noboa, Jefferson Montero and Caicedo. La Tri have set the bar high and will be determined to keep the momentum going.
Players to watch Throughout football history, South America has provided players of vast technical ability, character and talent who have proved themselves in the world’s toughest leagues. And this edition of the region’s World Cup qualifiers has witnessed several players charging to the fore for their national teams, such as Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa – turning in fine displays for A Seleção and netting a goal against Peru – and Everton’s Argentina defender Ramiro Funes Mori.
Indeed, the latter took the field against Brazil with no previous senior international experience, only to perform so well he was handed a starting berth against Colombia. Another young centre-back showing character and ability beyond his years is Atletico de Madrid’s Jose Maria Gimenez, who is growing into an influential figure for Uruguay boss Oscar El Maestro Tabarez on the road to Russia.
The stats 5 – The number of games Venezuela have gone without a win in World Cup qualifying, their last three points coming in the Brazil 2014 preliminaries, when they beat Peru 3-2 on 10 September 2013 in Puerto La Cruz. Since then La Vinotinto have drawn 1-1 with Paraguay and lost their opening four Russia 2018 qualifiers - their worst start to the competition since the Korea/Japan 2002 edition. For head coach Noel Sanvicente, defensive lapses have been the biggest frustration: “Since I’ve been charge of the national team, I feel like the king of gift-giving”.
What they said “Games like this teach us something that will help us grow as their qualifiers progress – which is that if we can become more aggressive then we’ll improve. I think the qualifiers are all about winning and, though we didn’t have a good start, we’re hopeful of recovering.” Peru coach Ricardo Gareca, speaking after the 3-0 loss to Brazil in Salvador.
Next up… In March 2016, Ecuador will square off with improving Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay will contest another edition of a traditional South American clásico, and Copa America champs Chile will host the always competitive Argentina, who will be keen to avenge their Copa final defeat against La Roja. Nor must we forget Peru-Venezuela and Bolivia-Colombia, encounters that will continue to help set the tone for the sides’ qualifying fortunes.
“I think the bad times are important, too. That’s what makes you stronger and better able to aim high. Obviously, it’s great to have the good times but I also think you learn more during the bad.” This was USA captain Carli Lloyd after she had just won the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, scoring a hat-trick in the final – including an outrageous effort from the halfway line – and ending up with the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
The quote, given in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com in the bowels of BC Place in Vancouver immediately after the Stars and Stripes had beaten Japan in the Final, must surely go down as one of the most memorable of our one-on-one interviews in 2015. There were a few more unforgettable moments in 2015 that are worthy of mention, however…
World Cup stars up close and personalWhether a spontaneous admission immediately after a game or reflections offered in a quieter, more relaxed setting, a whole host of big-name stars took a few moments amid their triumphant achievements to answer our questions in the last 12 months. One such stellar interviewee was Uruguayan striking sensation Luis Suarez, whom FIFA.com spoke to just a few moments after Barcelona’s victory at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan, at which he scored five goals to inspire his team to glory. “It’s something that’s excited me since I was a boy, when I used to wake up at six in the morning to watch these games,” said the 28-year-old. “It’s one of the dreams I had yet to fulfil.”
Meanwhile, France’s 1998 FIFA World Cup™ hero Zinedine Zidane revealed which of today's players he really admires; Philipp Lahm, Germany’s World Cup-winning captain from 2014, explained how relaxed he is watching his former team-mates in action; Xavi outlined why he was sure his Spain team would become world champions in 2010; Robert Carlos told us why Brazil, with Neymar in the team, will win another World Cup in the near future; and finally there was Belgium’s national team coach Marc Wilmots, who listed the reasons for the Red Devils’ ascent to the top of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking this year.
The above are but a taste of the numerous exclusive interviews that FIFA.com brought you in 2015. And if these do not pique your interest, we have also had some unforgettable conversations with the likes of Lionel Messi, Oliver Kahn, Ryan Giggs, Jari Litmanen, Gennaro Gattuso, Diego Forlan, Fabien Barthez, Jurgen Klinsmann, Jay-Jay Okocha, Joachim Low, Michael Laudrup, Homare Sawa, Abby Wambach, Christine Sinclair and many, many more.
“I always say that whereas previously I played with the ball, now I play football, and that’s something different entirely.” Curious to know exactly what Carlos Tevez meant when he said this? Then head to our interviews section, where you can find all of our exclusive one-on-one chats from the last 12 months!
All but one of the 54 CAF members took at least the first step on the road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, with the first 13 advancing and eliminated in turn after home-and-away ties in mid-October. The lucky 13 were then joined by 27 seeded teams for 20 more two-legged ties, which took place in November.
After those two rounds, Africa was left with 20 nations standing, which will be drawn into five groups of four teams with the round-robin matches to be played between October 2016 and November 2017. The five group winners qualify for the 21st World Cup in Russia.
Memorable match Chad 1-0 Egypt, N'Djamena, 14 November 2015 Even though Chad had already surprised Sierra Leone in the first round of qualifiers, Les Sao were given no chance when they were drawn against seven-time African champions Egypt in the second. The Pharaohs were overwhelming favourites even for the first leg in the Chad capital of N'Djamena, but at the end of 90 minutes it was the home fans who were cheering after Ezechiel Ndouassel scored the only goal of the game midway through the second half. Even though the North Africans managed to turn things around in the return leg, this 1-0 result will go down as one of the greatest upsets seen in African World Cup qualifying.
Surprise packages While the first round of the qualifiers provided a number of upsets – like Chad advancing or Comoros eliminating Lesotho – the number of surprises in the second round were virtually all restricted to single games. Springing to mind in this respect were Swaziland holding Nigeria to a draw, and Ghana's drawing 0-0 in the Comoros. The only surprise packages in the group phase are Morocco, who eliminated the higher-ranked Equatorial Guinea, and Libya, who overcame Rwanda.
Player to watch Islam Slimani is no newcomer to World Cup football, having scored the opening goal for Algeria in their 4-2 win against the Korea Republic at Brazil 2014, and his headed goal in the 1-1 draw against Russia helped Les Fennecs through to the second round. Slimani, who plays his club football for Sporting Lisbon, continued his rich scoring form in the qualifiers, grabbing both goals in a 2-2 draw in the away leg in Tanzania and adding another brace as the North Africans comfortably won the return leg 7-0. Algerian fans are counting on Slimani's goals to secure a third consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals.
The number 13 – The number of countries that have represented Africa at the World Cup finals. The only two countries that have previously made it through to the finals but are no longer involved in the qualifying campaign are Angola (knocked out by South Africa) and Togo, who lost 4-0 on aggregate to Uganda.
What they said “The days of easy World Cup qualifiers in Africa are long gone. Today, all the countries are strong and no team can expect a simple match,” Nigeria coach Sunday Oliseh, who played on the Super Eagles teams that made waves at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.
What's next? The 20 teams left in African qualifying will be looking toward the CAF headquarters in Cairo on 24 June 2016, where they will be drawn into the five groups of four teams. As all but two of the second round ties (Libya v Rwanda and Morocco v Equatorial Guinea) went according to their ranking, all the African powerhouses remain in the running with the goal of reaching Russia and perhaps becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup.
Belgium's national team has enjoyed a remarkable rise, and Marc Wilmots has been there to oversee - and inspire - every stage of the climb. He began his coaching journey with the national team in 2009 as assistant to Dick Advocaat, this at a time when Les Diables Rouges were consistently struggling to qualify for major tournaments. But the pace really began to pick up three years later when he became head coach, determined to lead the country's erstwhile underperforming golden generation to new heights.
Led by the former midfielder, who won 70 caps for his country, Belgium duly qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, where the team reached the quarter-finals, and UEFA EURO 2016. In November 2015 they even climbed all the way to the summit of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, a lofty position in which they will end this year.
FIFA.com talked exclusively with Wilmots, who played for the likes of Schalke, Girondins Bordeaux and Standard Liege, about the reasons of this great success and his goals for the upcoming year.
FIFA.com: Mr. Wilmots, Belgium will end 2015 at the summit of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. What are your thoughts on this achievement? Marc Wilmots: We’re all happy, but it’s not a title. Instead it’s the result of three fantastic years in which we suffered very few defeats and had the second-strongest qualifying campaign on the road to Brazil by taking 26 of a possible 30 points. We then made it to the World Cup quarter-finals and secured 23 of the 30 points available from EURO 2016 qualifying. All in all, it was three years of outstanding work.
How big a part have you played in this success? More than 40 people in the technical department are working on this project and making the national team tick. I’ve been here for seven years after starting out under Dick Advocaat, who helped set us on the right path when it came to our discipline, enjoyment of the game, tactical approach and training methods. We’ve made improvements in many areas and built a young team. The foundation has been laid; Belgium may be small but we now have a completely different playing philosophy based around attacking football.
As for my part in all this, I’ve yet to see a coach score a goal. As a coach you have to choose the right methods and make the correct decisions. I’m a little like Jurgen Klopp: very down-to-earth, honest and always straight-talking. I also spend plenty of time talking one-on-one with my players. We want to build a team that doesn’t just play for itself, so mutual respect is vital. One person is not important. Before it was ‘me, me, me’, now it’s ‘we’. Together we can achieve great things; together we’re strong.
So do you consider Jurgen Klopp to be a role model? I had the same attitude as a player, spurring everyone on towards the finish line. My philosophy is that I want to create seven or eight goalscoring chances in every game. It’s good for morale when you have a coach who (plays positively) and sets his team up to attack; it makes it easier for the players to build up their confidence. Against Italy [in a 3-1 victory last month] we proved that we now belong among the very best. Although we won, what’s important is that we score plenty of goals and concede only a few. That’s a good balance to have.
I’m a little like Jurgen Klopp: very down-to-earth, honest and always straight-talking.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots
As a player in the Bundesliga you earned the nickname Kampfschwein (‘War Pig’). I don’t mind that nickname as the fans meant it very positively. We need to have that same team spirit and willingness to push past the pain barrier. As long as my players do that then I’m satisfied. I have no problem as long as they give their all.
Does this mean Belgium are now among the best in the footballing world? Our aim now is to reinforce our position. We want to be at the major tournaments every two years. We must aim to reach the quarter-finals at the World Cup and the semi-finals at the EUROs. Doing that would be a fantastic achievement.
Could Belgium pull off the greatest coup of all at UEFA EURO 2016? I’m no dreamer. There are plenty of people creating hype around Belgium. I look at where we were three years ago and what we’ve achieved since then. There’s no doubt that we have big ambitions; our aim must always be to reach the final. We always want to leave the pitch as winners. I think we’re among the five or six strongest teams in Europe. Although our team are still very young, we want to taste success – and that includes the coach! While we’re going to EURO 2016 full of confidence, we also know that anything can happen at a tournament. Hitting the woodwork, poor decisions – there are so many factors that you simply can’t predict.
You have plenty of remarkable young players within the team. Where have they come from and what’s changed?Many of our young players rose through the ranks in France, Italy or the Netherlands. Belgian clubs have now changed their approach, believing more in themselves and having realised that they could compete with the other teams in the Champions League even if their budgets are not so large. We have put our faith in this young generation; although that wasn’t the case before, that’s just the way it has to be. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t give youth a chance. The Belgian league is perfect for spending the first two or three years playing and learning; after that, you can move elsewhere. Many of my current group of lads now play for many of Europe’s top clubs. That’s a remarkable improvement.
There’s no doubt that we have big ambitions; our aim must always be to reach the (EURO) final.
The U-17s won World Cup bronze recently. Is that where the next generation of talent will come from?You can achieve great things if the belief is there. That’s something that has changed in Belgium over the past few years, not just in football but also in tennis, for example. Everyone believes in their own ability. There’s now a patriotism in Belgian sport that not only provides athletes with a confidence boost but also brings the public a great deal of pleasure.
You were still young when appointed head coach of the national team, a role that is usually the last step in a coach’s career trajectory. Do you still want to manage a club at some point? Definitely – it’s just a matter of when and where. I’ve already been here with Belgium for seven years. I’m open to everything. I’m someone who enjoys a project and always thinks long-term: what do you want to achieve in five years or so? That’s what it’s all about for me. If a job didn’t involve some kind of project, I wouldn’t do it. I can’t accept a role just for the money – I’ve got to have a goal.
How great is the difference between coaching at club level and with the national team? Being in charge of a club is a completely different job. There’s far less that you can do as national team coach: there are only one or two matches every three months and you can’t afford to make a single slip-up. At club level you have a game every three days, which means you can soon forget about one defeat. You always have the players together, whereas at international level you have to look at who’s playing where for their clubs and which tactics their coaches are using that you may need to incorporate.
The FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala is just a few weeks away. Who will win the award: Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar?It’s impossible to pick the best from three top players like them. Ronaldo has been in remarkable form for Real for years, always scoring goals, never injured. Messi’s in a similar position, even though he recently had his first extended spell on the sidelines through injury. Neymar has got even better and now seems almost unstoppable. They’re simply playing on another level altogether. The best way to decide the winner of the Ballon d’Or would be to draw one name out of a hat – all three are exceptional.
Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Jorge Sampaoli have been nominated as FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men’s Football. How would you describe the three contenders? I don’t know them; I can only look at how their teams play. It’s hard to pass judgement as each coach has to work in different circumstances. I can’t give an opinion on another coach when I don’t know how they go about their work.
Who’s your favourite to win the award? If it comes down to success then it has to be Luis Enrique for winning the treble. That’s superb.
What qualities does a coach need to be among the best in the world? Although winning titles is obviously important, it is not always necessary. You need the right people around you, the right players and the right amount of quality, plus a talented sporting director to make good purchases. Rather than the coach, it’s the many people in the background who make the difference.
Coaches have to work hard to create a good atmosphere within a team. What role can an individual award play in that process? While a coach contributes five to ten per cent – he has to hire the right people, promote team spirit and make the right decisions in each match – it’s the players who are out there on the pitch. They need to enjoy their football and be tactically astute.
In 1995 George Weah became the first – and to date only – African to win the highest individual award there is in world football: The Ballon d'Or. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Liberian icon looks back at his remarkable career.
Whenever football fans name the best players never to have played at the World Cup finals, Weah is one of the first to be mentioned. Although the big striker played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe (Monaco, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea), he had the 'misfortune' of being born in Liberia – a country without a strong footballing pedigree. Weah sees it very differently.
“I am very proud to be Liberian. I love the country and I love the people," he insisted. "Of course I would have liked to have played at the World Cup, but I achieved so much in my career as a footballer that I can't have any complaints. The only thing that is disappointing, is that so many other Lone Star players never got to play at the World Cup and did not have the personal success I had.”
After winning the Liberian league with Mighty Barrolle and Invincible Eleven, Weah had a short stint in Cameroon, before joining AS Monaco in 1988. At the time the French club was coached by Arsene Wenger. It was the start of a relationship that has lasted to this day, and when Weah won the World Player award he called Wenger onto the stage and gave him the award, saying he deserved it more than he did. It was the mark of a footballer who, despite winning just about every individual award there is, has always put the team's interests before his own. That famously even went to financially assisting his cash-strapped country for some of their World Cup qualifying matches.
After playing at Monaco for four seasons, he joined PSG and stayed with them until 1995, which was the pinnacle of his career. Although his club did not win the French Ligue 1 title, they won the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue, and Weah picked up a slew of individual honours including the African Footballer of the Year, Champions League top scorer, European footballer of the Year and of course the two global awards existing at the time: the Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Of course I would have liked to have played at the World Cup, but I achieved so much in my career as a footballer that I can't have any complaints.
George Weah, FIFA Ballon d'Or winner
“When I started out, my dream was to play professional football," Weah reflected. "That was my dream. I did not dream of winning the Ballon d'Or or FIFA Player of the Year award. I wanted to play professionally and achieve as much as I could.
“It was really about the love for the game. But then of course winning the awards was very special. I think it was recognition for all the work that I put in during my career. And I was particularly proud because I think it was important for my country. They celebrated with me and it put Liberia on the map.”
After his success in 1995, Weah moved to AC Milan, where he won two Scudettos and scored what is often considered one of the great individual goals of all time in 1996 against Verona. He added the FA Cup in England with Chelsea as he wound down his football career at the turn of the century and retired in 2003.
A new career Already a leader and legend in his country, Weah turned to politics after hanging up his boots. In December 2014, he won election for a place on the Liberian Senate – becoming the first sportsman elected to the legislature in the African country. Asked if it was easier scoring goals than running a country, Weah laughs. “Whatever you do in life, you have to do it with commitment and perseverance.
"That was my approach on the football field and that is my approach now in politics. I am committed to helping my people and my country, just as much as I was committed to helping my team when I was a player.”
Although no longer in active football, Weah remains connected to the sport and the Liberian national team. Several of the players who played with Weah in the Lone Stars when they came within one point of qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup are now coaching the country's various national teams and Weah often meets with them.
“I will always be involved in sport, and I am the chair of the Sports Commission. Sport is so important to people. It can help people. I am where I am today because of football, and if I can give back something to the people of Liberia, then I want to do that.”