Every four years, the intercontinental play-offs mark the final chapter on the road to the FIFA World Cup™. The play-offs typically bring a special flavour, where the meeting of diverse footballing styles and the last-chance saloon nature of the contests are just some of the added sub-plots.
This week is sure to be no different as New Zealand meet Peru, and Honduras tackle Australia for two final tickets to the 32-nation Russia 2018 field. Ahead of those matches, FIFA.com takes a look back at some of the defining moments of intercontinental World Cup qualifiers, where long droughts and tight contests have proved to be a theme.
In modern terms it might seem a meeting between Israel and Colombia has a clear favourite, but matters were very different as the 1980s drew to a close. Colombia’s absence from the World Cup had stretched to 28 years, while Israel had featured more recently than their opponents (Mexico 1970). Some of Israel’s greatest-ever talents lined up including Avi Cohen, Ronny Rosenthal and Eli Ohana, but magic was also brewing for Los Cafeteros.
A new generation of Colombian players led by iconic midfielder Carlos Valderrama earned a 1-0 home win, followed by an equally tense scoreless draw in Israel. Colombia proved to one of the key attractions at Italy 1990 reaching the Round of 16, only to be eliminated by a team enjoying their own breakthrough moment, Cameroon.
Republic of Ireland-Iran (2-1 agg), 2001
Undefeated in ten qualification matches, Republic of Ireland finished ahead of the Netherlands, but missed automatic qualification behind Portugal thanks to goal difference. Thus a fourth consecutive play-off loomed, this time against an Iran side chasing a second successive qualification.
Republic of Ireland won 2-0 at home, but a nervy 1-0 defeat at Tehran’s intimidating 100,000 Azadi stadium was enough to book a return to the world stage after eight years. The Irish impressed at Korea/Japan 2002 despite a disrupted build-up, drawing with Germany and losing only on penalties against Spain in the knockout stage.
Australia-Uruguay (1-1 agg, 4-2 pens), 2005
Australia’s 32-year absence from the World Cup had been marked by several heartbreaking near-misses. Quirkily their 2005 play-off reprised the same contest of four years earlier when Uruguay were 3-1 victors. Coached by Guus Hiddink, the Socceroos were older and wiser than in 2001, and a 1-0 defeat in Montevideo kept the tie alive. Mark Bresciano equalised early in the Sydney-based second leg, in a contest that remained on a knife-edge throughout.
John Aloisi created an iconic moment with his winning penalty, while giant goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer made two spectacular blocks in the shoot-out. It took a last-minute winner for eventual winners Italy to edge the Socceroos in their Round of 16 tie in Germany. But qualification helped energise Australian football, and it was a priceless boost that still resonates today.
Trinidad and Tobago-Bahrain (2-1 agg), 2005
Sixteen years earlier Trinidad & Tobago saw their World Cup hopes dashed on the final day of qualifying with an infamous defeat against USA in a match they only needed to draw. Many thought another such opportunity may never return, but T&T’s golden generation under the captaincy of Dwight Yorke and the Dutch master coach Leo Beenhakker achieved maiden qualification.
Held 1-1 at home by Bahrain, T&T edged a win in Manama thanks to Dennis Lawrence’s lone headed goal. The Caribbean nation lost narrowly against England and Paraguay at Germany 2006, but picked up a draw against Sweden. In doing so, T&T thus became the smallest nation to reach a World Cup, an achievement that could have been claimed by Bahrain. It is a landmark only recently eclipsed by Iceland’s qualification for Russia 2018.
New Zealand-Bahrain (1-0 agg), 2009
New Zealand ended a 28-year drought from the World Cup following two intensely fought play-off matches. Current New Zealand forward Rory Fallon, whose father Kevin was assistant coach for the All Whites’ Class of ’82, grabbed the headlines with the winner in Wellington.
But Mark Paston’s second-half penalty save was equally pivotal on a night often described as the ‘greatest in New Zealand football’. It was a case of double pain for Bahrain after they missed out at the same hurdle four years earlier. The Kiwis went on to remain undefeated at South Africa 2010, drawing all three group matches including against reigning world champions Italy.