Increasingly, international breaks are becoming the bane of many football watchers’ fandom, interrupting the club season as they do and too often offering little in the way of entertainment.
But no other form of the game, and few sports as a whole, throw up the kind of narratives, drama and exultation of international football. The triumph and despair, agony and ecstasy that makes football so uniquely gripping is encapsulated best when nations collide.
And the latest round of World Cup qualifiers delivered plenty of interesting lines. We’ve picked out six highlights.
Egypt Qualify For First World Cup Since 1990
The win means that Egypt cannot be caught in their position at the top of their qualification group thanks to a draw between Uganda and Ghana on Saturday.
Impossible not to get chills listening to the commentary of Mohamed Salah's game-winning penalty that sent Egypt to the 2018 World Cup. pic.twitter.com/YFquwbgCpB
— Adam Serrano (@LAGalaxyInsider) October 8, 2017
The Pharoes, despite being crowned champions of Africa four times in the last 20 years, have not qualified for a World Cup finals since the 1990 tournament in Italy, and Salah’s last-gasp winner sent players, staff and fans alike into rapturous celebrations.
Coached by Argentinian former Valencia and Inter Milan boss Héctor Cúper, Egypt were set on their way to the three points they needed by Salah’s first goal of the game around the hour mark, only to be pegged back by Arnold Bouka Moutou three minutes from time.
But Salah kept his cool under unimaginable pressure and the expectations of a nation to fire Egypt to Russia from the spot.
England Among European Nations To Book Russia 2018 Place
They have seldom impressed during this qualification campaign, but England, thanks to a drab, 1-0 win over Lithuania, have secured their place at the 2018 finals by topping Group F ahead of Slovakia and Scotland.
It took a first-half Harry Kane penalty, his 12th goal at senior international level, to overcome the Three Lions’ 120th-ranked opponents at the LFF Stadionas on Sunday, as Gareth Southgate’s men once again underwhelmed.
Despite failing to convince many observers that they will be a threat at the finals next year, producing uninspiring yet often functional performances against opponents they were always favoured to beat, England topped the group with ease, unbeaten through ten fixtures with only two draws.
England join Russia, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Spain as the European nations already guaranteed qualification at time of writing.
Germany’s 100 Per Cent Record
Like England, Germany were expected to breeze through qualification when drawn alongside the Czech Republic, San Marino, Azerbaijan, Norway and Northern Ireland in Group C, but Joachim Löw’s side still managed to exceed expectations.
The reigning World Champions and this summer’s Confederations Cup winners thrashed Azerbaijan 5-1 on Sunday, with Barcelona transfer target Leon Goretzka scoring a double and Liverpool midfielder Emre Can netting his first international goal.
The emphatic victory ensured that Die Mannschaft maintained their 100 per cent record through the entire qualifying campaign, topping the group with 30 points and a goal difference of plus-39.
Germany are, understandably, the bookmakers’ favourites to retain the World Cup next year, ahead of Brazil and Spain.
Syria Still In With A Chance
The plight of the Syrian national team, who are vying for World Cup qualification for the first time ever despite the six-year war ravaging the country, has become one of the feel-good sporting stories of the year.
Unable to host home games in their own nation due to the ongoing hostilities, Syria were within one day of being disqualified from the qualification process when Malaysia offered to stage the Qasioun Eagles fixtures.
Despite playing their home games over 7,000 kilometres from Damascus, the Syrian capital, Syria are unbeaten in their seven fixtures to date in Malaysia, with the latest a 1-1 draw in their World Cup playoff against Australia on Thursday.
Syrian striker Omar Al Somah scored a late penalty to equalise against the Socceroos, keeping Syria’s hopes alive and leaving the tie poised nicely for the return leg in Sydney.
As exposed recently by ESPN, there is a darker side to Syria’s success story, with many professional footballers who opposed the regime of Bashar al-Assad going missing in suspicious circumstances.
But for the public of the country, subjected daily to the horrors of war, the exploits of the Syrian national team offer hope and escapism, no matter how small. They face the Socceroos in the second leg of their playoff on Tuesday.
Argentina’s Struggles Continue
There remains a very real possibility of the best player in the world not taking part in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Argentina’s qualification woes continued against Peru on on Friday, drawing 0-0 in Buenos Aires, leaving La Albiceleste sixth in the South American qualifying table with just one game remaining.
The top four sides qualify automatically, while the fifth-placed team will face a playoff with a nation from Oceania. As things stand, despite his own fine performances, five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi will not be traveling to Russia.
The Barcelona superstar was once again the only Argentina player producing the goods against Peru, creating several clear-cut chances for colleagues, all of which squandered.
Few national teams boast a level of quality comparative to Argentina’s, yet the two-time world champions continue to be weaker than the sum of their individual parts.
At 30, Russia 2018 is likely Messi’s last shot at further immortalising himself on the international stage. But Argentina must win their final game, away to Ecuador on Tuesday night, to secure a top-five finish; if Colombia beat Peru, a point will see Jorge Sampaoli’s men fifth, but the reverse result will mean all three points are required.
USA On The Brink Of Qualification
The USA are closing in on sealing their spot at next year’s finals in Russia thanks to a resounding 4-0 win over Panama at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday.
Bruce Arena’s men haven’t been at their best throughout this qualifying period, going into the game a point behind their visitors in the table, vying for third place and the final automatic qualification spot, with Mexico and Costa Rica unassailable in the top two positions.
The former Sunderland striker bagged a brace, while teenage Borussia Dortmund superstar-in-the-making Pulisic ran proceedings, scoring and registering an assist.
“That kid killed us,” Panama coach Hernán Darío Gómez said of Pulisic. “He did what he wanted.”
The United States travel to take on bottom-placed Trinidad & Tobago in their final group game on Tuesday. A draw should be enough to see them clinch third, but a win would rule out any mathematical possibility of them being leapfrogged by either Panama or Honduras.