Picture the scene. You are down to be the best man at your brother's wedding. All of your friends and family will be there. The ceremony was arranged months ahead and, to top it off, it will be taking place at a paradisiac Caribbean beach destination, thousands of miles from home. But then, at the last minute, something comes up and you are unable to attend.
This sort of situation might rock many families to the core, but not this one. All of the wedding guests are pleased about the prospect of the best man's absence – in fact, they and even the groom himself might rather be with him than at the wedding!
The 'runaway best man' in question is none other than Welsh international Chris Gunter, and the pressing engagement that he cannot get out of is a UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-final against Belgium this Friday, 1 July.
When best laid plans go awry"I think I'm going to be the first best man ever to give a speech over Skype," Gunter told us light-heartedly. "But it's even worse for the others. Although the wedding is on 7 July, everyone had planned to travel out ten days in advance. That would mean them missing the Belgium match and has created a lot of problems."
Even the groom is not immune to the issue and finds himself at the mercy of his fiancée. "It looks like he'll go to Cancun, come back to Lille to watch the game and then head straight back to the Caribbean to carry on with the wedding. At least that was his plan: I don't know how well his wife-to-be will take it," said the Reading player, laughing.
More than just an amusing subplot, what this story tellingly illustrates is how the Dragons' exploits in France have surprised and thrilled everyone in Wales. The 1-0 defeat of Northern Ireland was their first-ever victory in the knockout stages of a major international tournament. This achievement is heightened by the fact that this is their first campaign in such a competition since the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™.
"It really is incredible to see what it's meant to the whole country and how much they're enjoying it," said the 26-year-old right-back. "It's been amazing to see the fans and the atmosphere they've created in the stands. If we players are still not able to grasp the magnitude of what's been achieved, I can only imagine what our fans feel."
The biggest of occasionsThe meeting with Belgium is considered the most important game in Welsh football history. It is small wonder, then, that some 30,000 supporters are expected to make the trip to Lille in order to play their part in what could be a legendary match.
The importance of the occasion is not lost on Neil Taylor, Gunter's fellow Dragons defender. "It's been an incredible tournament, really incredible," the Swansea left-back enthused. "We're 180 minutes from the final and anything could happen now. To be honest, we still can't believe it; the reality hasn't hit us yet but we want to keep going."
Carrying on their dream run will be no easy task, though. Belgium are ranked second in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, boast a star-studded squad and go into the encounter brimming with confidence following their impressive 4-0 win over Hungary in the Round of 16. However, the underdogs will not be short on belief either and will be buoyed by their recent brushes with the Belgians: the countries were in the same qualifying group and their two meetings yielded one draw and a Welsh victory.
"We know Belgium well, as they do us. They're very strong, but anything could happen," said an upbeat Taylor, and Gunter struck an even more confident tone: "They're a really good side, but I think playing against a team like that could even suit us better. It works in our favour for them to attack us because we have the players to exploit any space left in behind."
Optimism and enthusiasm are sweeping across Wales right now, while an entire family are crossing their fingers that a wedding ceremony will have to go ahead without the best man. His absence, considering the circumstances, would likely be greeted even more gleefully than the moment when the happy couple say "I do".
The news shook the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to its foundations and went global within seconds: Lionel Messi has played his last game for Argentina.
“It’s hard for me to assess things right now. The first thing that came to my head – and it’s something I thought about in the dressing room – was that it’s over, that the national team is finished for me,” said La Pulga in the mixed zone following Argentina’s penalty shoot-out defeat to Chile in Sunday’s Copa America Centenario final. “I’ve lost four finals... That’s how I feel. It’s all very sad.”
Visibly downcast, Messi looked as if he had given the decision some thought: “To make matters worse I went and missed my penalty. It was vital that I scored to put us ahead, but I missed it. I think this is the best thing for everyone. That’s it. I’ve done all I can. I’m going without having won a title with the [senior] national team.”
Time will tell if the shoot-out defeat to La Roja really is Messi’s last game with LaAlbiceleste. What is clear, however, is that USA 2016 has been a watershed in his international career.
A fateful miss The now-former Argentinian captain’s announcement overshadowed the match that had preceded it, 120 minutes of football in which Argentina tried everything they could to break Chile down. Yet, as was the case in the 2015 Copa America final, they were unable to do so, despite creating the odd opportunity.
The big difference on this occasion was that Messi, unlike last year, failed with his spot-kick, a miss made all the more telling by the fact that it came moments after Sergio Romero had denied Chile’s first penalty-taker, Arturo Vidal. It was an unexpected blow his team-mates seemed unable to recover from.
No-one was more surprised to hear of Messi’s retirement from international football than Chile keeper Claudio Bravo, the captain of the two-time Copa America champions and the Argentinian’s club-mate at Barcelona.
Recovering from the initial shock, which was clear to see for all those in the mixed zone, Bravo gave his reaction: “To my mind he’s the best in the world. We all know his qualities as a player and, above all, as a person. I hope he carries on playing for Argentina for many more years to come. You don’t win or lose games like this because of just one player.”
A career in blue and white Three of the four finals Messi has lost have come in the Copa America, in 2007, 2015 and this year, and the other at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, where he had the consolation of winning the adidas Golden Ball. La Pulga also represented his country at Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010.
He has, however, won Olympic gold with Argentina – at Beijing 2008 – as well as a youth world title, inspiring them to victory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, where he also collected the adidas Golden Boot and the adidas Golden Ball.
Messi made his senior international appearance in a friendly against Hungary on 17 August 2005. Aged 18 at the time, he was on the pitch for just 47 seconds before being sent off. He has since played 112 times for his country and lies fourth on the list of most-capped Albiceleste players.
La Pulga scored his 55th goal in Argentina colours with an exquisite free-kick against USA on 21 June, moving past Gabriel Batistuta in the process as the country’s leading all-time scorer. Speaking later that day, he said winning the title was all that mattered to him: “I hope we don’t let it slip. We’re all hoping and dreaming that we finally win it. We deserve it for all the work we’ve put in over the last few years.”
At some stage, Messi will explain how much the failure to achieve that objective impacted on his decision, and how much other factors have played a part, such as the criticism he has been subjected to in Argentina and the endless comparisons with Diego Maradona. He may even reveal if there is any chance of him going back on his decision, though it remains to be seen if anyone can make him reconsider.
The fact is that one of the greatest players in the history of the game, a five-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, has decided to step aside from international football. Only time will tell what his place in the history of La Albiceleste will be and the legacy he bequeaths to it.
In winning the Copa America Centenario, Chile underlined their status as the pre-eminent force in South American football, while also extending their dominance across the Americas as a whole. Having had to wait 99 years for their first title, LaRoja took only 12 months to add a second.
Just as they had done in 2015, the Chileans lifted the trophy after seeing off Argentina on penalties. A third consecutive final loss in the space of only two years had unforeseen implications for LaAlbiceleste, with Lionel Messi promptly deciding to announce his retirement from international football.
Featuring all ten CONMEBOL teams and six from the CONCACAF Zone, who will now turn their attentions back to the qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, the centenary edition of the world’s oldest national team competition attracted record attendances.
FIFA.com draws its conclusions from the tournament, which came to a dramatic end on Sunday.
The champions After a slow start, Chile gathered momentum and showed once again why they have become a force to be reckoned with in recent years. Boasting the best group of players in their history, LaRoja answered the doubts raised by their opening-day defeat to Argentina, proving themselves to be a mature, solid team that know exactly what they are about, despite the fact new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has only been in the job for only four months.
Impressive as unit, Chile also had the tournament’s outstanding individual performers, as reflected by the awards. Recovering from a shaky opening game, Claudio Bravo made a vital contribution in the knockout rounds and walked away with the Golden Glove. Alexis Sanchez charted a similar path in making the Golden Ball his, while Eduardo Vargas took the Golden Boot despite going goalless in his first two games. And though there were no accolades for Arturo Vidal, he was every bit as important in inspiring Chile to a successful title defence.
Chile will now look to build on their latest triumph in the South American qualifiers for Russia 2018, where they lie fourth in the table. The next major objective for their upwardly mobile team is to make World Cup history.
Lessons learnedArgentina seem to be at a crossroads, with their excellent run to the final now forgotten following Messi’s decision to retire, a sudden farewell that could have unforeseen consequences for a generation of players scarred by a string of lost finals.
La Albiceleste were solid at the back, conceding just two goals in six games, and lethal up front, averaging three goals a game before the final, though all that has paled into insignificance with the possibility that more players could follow La Pulga into retirement. Only the resumption of the Russia 2018 qualifiers will reveal quite how a post-Messi Argentina will look.
While Colombia fell short of reaching the final and could only finish third, they can be largely pleased with their performance in the USA. Giving opportunities to Colombian league players such as full-back Farid Diaz and midfielders Daniel Torres and Sebastian Perez, Jose Pekerman can take satisfaction from the fact that his squad reached the podium despite being the second-youngest in the competition behind Peru.
Though the Peruvians were unable to repeat the third places they achieved at Argentina 2011 and Chile 2015, Ricardo Gareca’s youthful side showed they have a lot going for themselves. For their part, Ecuador will be disappointed they could not kick on after advancing from the group phase for the first time in 19 years, with hosts USA ending their run in the quarters.
No fewer than three big names failed to make it that far, among them Brazil and Paraguay, whose early exits respectively spelled the end for Dunga – who has already been replaced by Tite – and Ramon Diaz. The third was Uruguay, who were hampered by the injury-enforced absence of Luis Suarez. That said, all three are determined to feature at Russia 2018 and be involved right until the end of World Cup qualifying.
USA flew the flag highest for the CONCACAF Zone, which provided two of the quarter-finalists. Guided by the veterans Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, the hosts were hard-working and ambitious, even if their tournament ended in a heavy loss to Argentina in the semis. Mexico suffered an even worse fate, crashing to their heaviest ever defeat in an official match at the hands of Chile in the last eight. Time will tell if that 7-0 rout, which brought to an end a 22-game unbeaten run, will have lasting consequences.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica and Panama will be hoping to pick their form up when they get back to World Cup qualifying action, as will Bolivia, Jamaica and Haiti, who all went pointless in their three group games.
The stat 46,000 - the average attendance at the Copa America Centenario, the highest in the competition’s 100-year history and the second-highest for a football tournament staged in the USA, behind only the FIFA World Cup in 1994, when 20 more games were staged.
What they said “This generation of players deserve a standing ovation for everything they’ve done, for all the effort they’ve put in, and for all the sacrifices they’ve made to represent their country. I’m very happy, and this win is for all the Chileans who have stuck with us, through thick and thin... There’s no limit to what this generation can achieve.” Arturo Vidal reacts to Chile’s Copa America Centenario triumph
We all know that Argentina won their second FIFA World Cup™ in Mexico; that their No10 decorated it with swashbuckling runs; that their No7 dispatched the winner in the Final. But Bilardo’s boys of ’86 created some offbeat stats along the way. Involving playing through the pain, letters and a backstreet sports shop, FIFA.com delivers them to you.
makes Argentina-West Germany the highest-attended World Cup Final in history. Its nearest challenger remains the 1970 decider, with 107,412 watching Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy at the same stadium. La Albiceleste’slast three matches at Mexico 1986 – all at the Azteca – drew capacity crowds of 114,000-plus. The only World Cup games with higher attendances were Brazil’s last four – all at the Maracana – at a 1950 World Cup they hosted. The concluding match of that tournament drew a record 173,850, though it was not actually a Final.
per cent of Argentina’s goals were scored or assisted by Diego Maradona – the second-highest by a player for a World Cup-winning team since 1962. The only other players involved in over 50 per cent were behind David Villa (75 per cent of Spain’s goals in 2010), Romario (64 per cent of Brazil’s in 1994), Paolo Rossi (58 per cent of Italy’s in 1982) and Pele (53 per cent of Brazil’s in 1970). Maradona’s five assists in a World Cup have been surpassed by only Pele (1970) and equalled by Robert Gadocha (1974), Pierre Littbarski (1982) and Thomas Hassler (1994).
metres from England’s goal is where Maradona received the ball en route to scoring what FIFA.com users voted ‘The Goal of the Century’ – and he did it in a mere ten seconds. El Pibe de Oro collected a Hector Enrique pass and combined acceleration, pace, footwork and bodywork to beat Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher, Terry Fenwick, Peter Shilton, Butcher again and slot the ball into an unguarded net.
per cent of Jorge Valdano’s goals during his 15-year international career came at the 13th World Cup. The Real Madrid forward netted four times in seven outings in Mexico, but only three in 16 other internationals.
caps is what Maradona became the eighth Argentinian to reach against Bulgaria. Rene Houseman, Ruben Gallego, Alberto Tarantini, Daniel Passarella, Osvaldo Ardiles, Jorge Olguin and Ubaldo Fillol had done so before him. At 25, he was the second-youngest Argentinian to complete the half-century, over a year older than Gallego had been.
football shirts is what a member of Carlos Bilardo’s backroom staff hurriedly bought from a backstreet sports shop in Mexico City just three days before Argentina’s quarter-final with England. Anticipating the searing heat in Mexico, the AFA had ordered their shirts to be made out of Aertex, a lightweight fabric with tiny holes for added ventilation, but only their first-choice, light-blue-and-white striped ones were. After struggling in a 1-0 win over Uruguay in the Round of 16 in dark-blue cotton shirts, Bilardo asked Ruben Moschella to go and find more suitable replacements. Moschella duly bought two sets of shirts, which they were deliberating between when Maradona walked in. “That’s a nice jersey,” he said pointing to one. “We’ll beat England in that.” Hastily-designed makeshift AFA badges were then sewn on, while silvery, American Football-style shirt numbers were ironed on to the shirts.
seconds is, astonishingly, all Jose Luis Brown spent off the field after dislocating his shoulder just after half-time in the Final. El Tata, who had thrown Maradona to the floor to head home the opener against West Germany, explained: “The pain was unbearable, but I told the doctor in no uncertain terms, ‘Don’t even think about taking me off.’ I bit a hole in my jersey, put my finger through it, and used it as a sling.” It was not the only serious injury Brown had to overcome to become a world champion. “I broke the meniscus and cruciate knee ligaments. I barely played in the two years before the World Cup. My knee would swell badly. The fluid would collect there. They would drain the fluid and it would bleed. That’s how it was at the World Cup.” The centre-back was a media-maligned inclusion in Bilardo’s squad, and only found out he would be playing on the day of their curtain-raiser due to Daniel Passarella’s inability to recover from injury. What a warrior!
letters is what makes Julio Olarticoechea the Argentinian with the joint-longest surname to play in a World Cup. The only other to boast a surname with over 12 letters is Roberto Abbondanzieri, who kept goal in 2006. The pair had four times as many letters in their surnames than 1962 defender Vladislao Cap and 1966 forward Oscar Mas. Olarticoechea, a non-playing substitute at Spain 1982, appeared in all seven of Argentina’s games at Mexico 1986, which helped him set the record for playing the most games at a World Cup without losing alongside Brazil winger Zagallo (12). El Vasco, indeed, participated in every Albiceleste game at Italy 1990 except the opening match and the Final, which they lost to Cameroon and West Germany respectively.
minutes is what Argentina were away from missing out on automatic qualification for Mexico 1986 when Ricardo Gareca bundled home an equaliser against Peru. El Tigre was then left out of the squad for the finals.
members of Bilardo’s 22-man squad played their club football outside Argentina. Passarella, Maradona and Pedro Pasculli were in Italy at Fiorentina, Napoli and Lecce; Marcelo Trobbiani and Valdano were in Spain with Elche and Real Madrid; Jorge Burruchaga was based in France at Nantes; and third-choice goalkeeper Hector Zelada played in Mexico – and, more specifically, the Estadio Azteca – for America.
members of Argentina’s squad – more than any other country – were graduates of the FIFA World Youth Championship, now known as the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Maradona inspired La Albiceleste to glory in its second edition in 1979; Nestor Clausen, Carlos Tapia and Jorge Burruchaga suffered first-phase elimination two years later; and Luis Islas kept goal in a 1-0 loss to Brazil, whose side included Jorginho, Dunga and Bebeto, in the 1983 final at the Azteca in which he would lift the World Cup Trophy.
Argentinians were exempted from being given squad numbers alphabetically. Daniel Passarella, Maradona and Jorge Valdano successfully requested the No6, No10 and No11 shirts. Sergio Almiron, a forward, became the third successive outfield player to wear the No1 jersey for Argentina at a World Cup after Norberto Alonso and Osvaldo Ardiles.
The last remaining steps for Africa’s FIFA World Cup™ contenders have been laid out after the draw for the continent’s third round of Russia 2018 qualifiers took place in Egypt.
The event, held at CAF’s Cairo headquarters, threw up some mouth-watering heavyweight clashes, with Cameroon, Algeria and Nigeriadrawn together in Group B, and Group Cpairing Côte d'Ivoire and Morocco. Outsiders Libya and Burkina Faso, meanwhile, will be hoping to upset the odds against the likes of Tunisia and Senegal respectively.
This is the decisive stage of an African Zone preliminary competition that began last October, with the 20 teams still in contention having been drawn into five four-team groups. They will now play each other home and away on a round-robin basis, with all five group winners qualifying automatically for Russia 2018. Matches will take place between October 2016 and November 2017.
Group A Tunisia Libya Congo DR Guinea
Group B Zambia Cameroon Algeria Nigeria
Group C Gabon Mali Côte d'Ivoire Morocco
Group D Senegal South Africa Burkina Faso Cape Verde Islands