Monday, April 08, 2013

Happy Trails #123-121: Islands in the Stream

The first confederation to finish their qualification round has passed the post.

Oceania has, unsurprisingly, crowned New Zealand as their best hope to qualify for the World Cup. The Kiwis will be looking to make their second consecutive Cup, and after shocking Italy and nearly making the round of 16 last time around, they have a great opportunity again here. But first they'll have to beat the 4th place team in CONCACAF (currently that's Honduras, but Mexico's just a point back).

But there will be time to analyze the All-Whites later. This is the time we set aside to bid farewell to the teams whose dreams of glory are now gone (assuming they had dreams of glory to begin with). So join me as we pour out a Mai Tai for those we lost this round.

#123: See ya, Solomon Islands
Shirt badge/Association crestWhy they lost: The confederations' top underdog, underperformed after an opening win against Tahiti. Giving up 6 goals to New Zealand, and then 11 goals to New Caledonia over two matches will do that to you.

What we'll miss: The opportunity to keep talking about the Bonitos (the team mascot and a particularly rough kind of tuna fish) and this...the coolest federation logo in this group of Happy Trails participants

#122: Parahi, Tahiti
Why they lost: Chalk it up to over confidence. After a stunning OFC Confederations title (besting New Caledonia and never having to face New Zealand) Tahiti was riding high coming into the last round of OFC qualifications. But once they started playing away from the magical pitch at Honoria (in the Solomon Islands), things got shaky and Team Fenua, as they are known, were toast.

What we'll miss: The stirring story of how part-time footballers are competing against heavy weights like Spain and Uruguay...wait a second...they're going to the Confederations Cup this summer? Well, then we'll miss telling those stirring stories twice.

File:Emblem of New Caledonia.svg#121: Adieu, New Caledonia
Why they lost: The land of speech, land of sharing fell just short of one of the biggest shocks in 2014 qualifying. They were still alive in the contest (just three point behind New Zealand entering the last two matches), but they needed to get another victory of New Zealand--after pulling a stunning 2-0 victory last June--and a big goal differential victory of Solomon Islands, while Tahiti held the Kiwis to a draw or loss.

But New Zealand won against the Kagus and the dream died there. Still, New Caledonia may be a dark horse to watch in future qualifications

What we'll miss: Trying to explain what in the heck that national emblem is...oh and promising new comers Georges Gope-Fenepej and Caesar Lolohea.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

CAF WIBD: Crocodile Tears

It's been a little while since our last journey down the "Well-I'll-be-darned" street, and while we will be wrapping up most of the qualifying in the next six months, there's still a chance to root for those tiniest of minnows.

We continue our tour of lesser known teams battling for a shot at Brazil 2014 in Africa, by taking a trip  to the tiny state of Lesotho, surrounded by South Africa, crouched in the bottom of their second round group, but still granted an opportunity that other countries don't have: to play the game with the world on the line. (So take that Bhutan and Vanuatu!)

I like her hat better...
Lesotho (aka "The Crocodiles") started their campaign ranked #185 in the world (August 2011) presumably because the Will & Kate royal wedding had finally eradicated glow of King Lesthi III's royal wedding a decade before.  Yet the Crocodiles rolled on to round two by beating Burundi.

As a reward for their positive showing in the first round of qualifying Lesotho got lumped with a couple tough opponents for round 2, including Ghana (fresh from their shoulda-been-semis performance in South Africa), Zambia (hungry to prove themselves and gearing up for what would be their first African Cup of Nations title this winter) and Sudan (I wouldn't want to mess with Omar al-Basheer, would you?).

Sure enough they got thumped in the opener 7-0 by the Black Stars tying their national federation's record for worst. loss. ever.
Ayanda Lubelo of South Africa battles with Leonty Litsepe Marabe of Lesotho
Goal scorer Letsipe Marabe

Since then Basotho fans have been able to cheer their boys in blue & green much more. At home in Maseru they've drawn twice and even notched a much needed goal which lifted them past Sudan into third place.

Still, it might be early to ring the victory bells (or rather, since this is Lesotho the setelo-tolo/jaw harp), there's a long way to go. This is unchartered water for the crocodiles and if young gun Letsipe Marabe is the only guy to get a goal, there's not a whole lot of veteran leadership who can keep the young squad steady if Ghana runs up the score again (hint...they probably will...).

Still, as long as there is a blog like this there will be foolish hopefulness for the underdog. If the Crocodiles can get wins in their next/last three matches (two of which are away from home) they can shockingly, miraculously, eliminate both the continent's champion and their best performer from the past two world cups.

Impossible you say?!? Yeah, probably...but where's the fun in admitting defeat?