Modern football is a dispiriting compromise of safety nets and second chances: the big teams are protected by seeding, play-offs, larger tournaments and consolation prizes like the Europa League (even if that is often greeted with an enthusiasm previously reserved for Bullseye contestants who were eyeing the speedboat and ended up with just their Bus Fare Home). The delicious cut-throat element of football has all but gone. For the big international sides, qualification for major tournaments has become such a formality that even Steve McClaren almost managed it.
This was not always the case. A prime example is the qualification campaign for USA 94, the last before Uefa introduced play-offs. The final night of qualifying fixtures, 17 November 1993, was a sensory overload of authentic drama that included death, 'murder', robbery, illegal aliens – and Jack Charlton almost chinning Tony Cascarino. It was a night that defined the lives of Paul Bodin, Davide Gualtieri, Alan McLoughlin, David Ginola, Emil Kostadinov and Santiago Cañizares. It also sparked one of football's most enduring feuds.
Few dates in the football calendar have had such a brilliant ensemble cast. So many teams were fighting for their lives going into their last game, knowing that one false move and they would not be going to the World Cup. The only European sides to have qualified were Greece, Russia, Sweden and Norway, plus the holders Germany. The other eight places would be decided in nine fixtures; even Sky's red button would not have been big enough for a night like this. In these parts it is remembered as the night no British side qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1938, but that is only part of an amazing story. Holland, Spain, England, Italy, France and the European champions, Denmark, all had alarmingly good views from the precipice.
Italy's night on the precipice
We could start anywhere, but in the interest of chronology let's go for Group One, where Italy, Portugal and Roy Hodgson's Switzerland were competing for two places. Switzerland started the night in third but knew that a 2-0 win at home to Estonia, the group patsies, would guarantee qualification. That's because Italy and Portugal were meeting in Milan. They were level on points and goal difference, but Italy had a crucial advantage by virtue of having scored more goals. With Switzerland 99.94% certain to take care of business, it meant that Portugal had to win; Italy needed only a draw. The margins were thinner than a self-loathing supermodel: had Portugal won 4-0 at home to Estonia rather than 3-0 in their previous fixture, they could have settled for a draw in Milan.
In Zurich, Switzerland cruised to a 4-0 win as expected. "This is the greatest day of my life," said Hodgson, doubtless to the delight of his wife. "It has crowned my coaching career." The real drama occurred in Milan. Italy had not even had to qualify for a World Cup for 12 years (they were holders in 1986 and hosts in 1990); now they were in danger of failing to qualify for the first time since 1958. Portugal, managed by Carlos Queiroz, were a smooth side who included Paulo Sousa, a young Rui Costa and the waspish genius of Paulo Futre. They played tiki-taka – or, as it was known back then, possession football.
Portugal dominated possession in the first half, although Italy's largely Milanese defence were superb and the goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was never really forced to strain his sinews. Italy had an even share of the game in the second half after introducing first Demetrio Albertini and then Roberto Mancini. With seven minutes to go, however, they were still within one goal of ignominy. Then Dino Baggio scored a palpably offside goal to give them the lead, and it was all over for Portugal. Their misery was complete a minute from time when Fernando Couto was sent off for jabbing his hand into the face of Pierluigi Casiraghi, who collapsed in the risible style.
'Oh, it's a mistake by Pearce …'
That was not the only World Cup qualifier in Italy that night. In Bologna, San Marino hosted an England side who, as David Lacey wrote in this paper, suffered "the final, logical consequences of their own inadequacies". To qualify they had to beat San Marino by seven goals and hope that Poland won at home to Holland. England did score seven, but by far the most memorable goal of the night came at the other end. Before this game San Marino had only scored twice in international football, and averaged a goal every 48,600 seconds. Against England, they scored after 8.3 seconds when the little right-winger Davide Gualtieri pounced upon an absent-minded backpass from Stuart Pearce. This was a preposterous reversal of the habitual theme of Pearce letting his winger know he was around. It was the fastest goal in World Cup competition.
To those who did not endure England's hapless but also unfortunate World Cup qualifying campaign under Graham Taylor, it is hard to fully explain the tragifarcical beauty of that moment. All future replays should be soundtracked by the theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Better, perhaps, to dwell on the happier side of things, for it changed Gualtieri's life. The video of the game acts as instant serotonin. "You know, sometimes if I'm feeling a bit down, I'll play it again just to cheer myself up. It always works," he told the Evening Standard a decade later. When Scotland came to town in 1995, with many fans wearing T-shirts that read "GUALTIERI, EIGHT SECONDS", he was accosted by the Tartan Army and forced to drink pints of Happy Memories until the small hours.
Although a San Marino victory was never a serious prospect, it did take an increasingly agitated England more than 20 minutes to equalise. "You should have heard the language they used to each other," said Gualtieri. Eventually they scored seven, four of them from Ian Wright, which quintupled his tally for England. It all took place in the eeriest of atmospheres, with barely 2,000 spectators in a stadium that housed 45,000.
Gualtieri's goal would have been even more famous had it denied England a place at the World Cup. But Holland, cheered on by an army of 15,000 fans who outnumbered the locals 10 to one, were comfortable 3-1 winners in Poland. It was 1-1 at half-time, which gave England a snifter of misplaced hope. Dennis Bergkamp, for whom international football was a sanctuary from his Milanese torment, defenestrated that hope with his second clinical finish of the night just before the hour.
This was a seriously dark night for England, still the only time since the 1970s that they have failed to qualify for the World Cup. There was a hint of hope later that night, however; on Sportsnight, Des Lynam interrupted a familiar joust between Terry Venables and Jimmy Hill to ask Venables whether he might perhaps, y'know, hypothetically, maybe be interested in the England job if it became available. Venables, normally so loquacious, suddenly became coy. At that stage he was an outsider for the job because of his problems with Alan Sugar, and when Graham Taylor quit a week later, Venables was a 25-1 outsider behind the likes of Steve Coppell, Mike Walker, Trevor and Gerry Francis, Joe Royle, Ray Wilkins and the favourite Howard Wilkinson. It soon become apparent that Venables was the outstanding choice, followed by daylight. A new day was coming, in which Venables' England would play football for grown-ups. It truly had been darkest before the dawn.
Traversing the ring of ire
We've no idea where to start in Group Three, which was the epicentre of this epic night. Spain were to host Denmark in Seville, with Northern Ireland (long since out of the running) at home to the Republic in Belfast. The three sides could barely be split: Denmark were top with 18 points (goal difference +14, goals scored 15), a point ahead of Spain (17 points, goal difference +22, goals scored 26) and the Republic (17 points, goal difference +13, goals scored 18). A draw was enough for Denmark, while Spain and the Republic knew they had to win to ensure qualification but that they might get through with a draw (in Spain's case, a draw was enough if the Republic failed to win; in the Republic's case, a draw was enough if Spain and Denmark did not draw. The Republic were out if they lost; Spain were out if they lost unless the Republic also lost. Confused? Splendid.)
The intensity of the Ireland match was exacerbated by the political climate of the time. The Troubles were at their height, and a month earlier 23 people had died in a series of shootings and bombings. There was much talk of moving the game away from Belfast to Old Trafford, Wembley or even Italy. Eventually the game went ahead as planned, but the Republic, to Jack Charlton's not inconsiderable chagrin, had to fly rather than drive for security reasons.
The mood wasn't improved the day before the match when Billy Bingham – who was to retire after 17 years as Northern Ireland manager – laid into the Republic's "mercenaries". "They couldn't find a way of making it with England or Scotland," he said of players like Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. "I take a totally cynical view of the whole business. I am not prepared to skirt the issue, the same as I am happy to state it is our intention to stuff the Republic." Ireland were given a taste of what was to come when they arrived for their last training session to be greeted by a group of 10- and 11-year-olds with erect middle fingers. When they arrived for the game, they found a ring of barbed wire and armed police.
If there was a ring of steel outside the ground, then there was a ring of ire inside it. This was a maelstrom of hate, the sort of night on which even the gangsters look over their shoulder. Officially at least, the Republic had no supporters in the ground. "I have never seen a more hostile atmosphere," said Jack Charlton, "not even in Turkey." Terry Phelan and Paul McGrath received monkey chants; Alan Kernaghan, who played for Northern Ireland at schoolboy level, was noisily called a "****ing Lundy". And then there were the dogs, hundreds of them, or so it seemed, barking like they knew the apocalypse was coming. "The safest place to be," said McLoughlin, "was on the pitch."
There was another advantage to being on the pitch: you could control your side's destiny. Spain's legendary keeper Andoni Zubizaretta lost that privilege when he was sent off in the 10th minute against Denmark. Zubizaretta passed the ball feebly to his Barcelona team-mate Michael Laudrup and then took him out on the edge of the box. The substitute keeper was Cañizares, a 23-year-old who was making his international debut in a situation that was too much for a man making his 83rd appearance. Yet as he walked on to the pitch, Cañizares went into a zone that he arguably did not enter for the rest of his career.
With Denmark only needing a draw, they seemed to have nine toes in America. There was, however, one big catch: their opponents were Spain, the bogey side who had put the great Danish Dynamite side out of Euro 84 and Mexico 86, while also beating them at Euro 88. Against any other team Denmark would probably have regarded the red card as an almighty bonus. With it being Spain, however, they starting looking for booby traps, their subconscious probably wondering whether Zubizaretta's red card was all part of a warped hextension. Add in the fact that Denmark were most comfortable on the counter-attack – an approach that served them so well during their fairytale win at Euro 92 – and you had a confused broth.
Denmark's extra man meant they inevitably controlled the first half, and created a couple of very good chances, but theirs was a kind of sterile domination, the result of an aggressive-passive approach. And with every Cañizares save, an intoxicating cocktail of destiny and fatalism became ever more Spanish in flavour.
It was also goalless in Belfast after a largely witless first half in which the Republic were comfortable but not incisive. ("The match," said Ken Jones in the Independent, "never rose above the level of perspiring mediocrity.") At that stage the Republic were going out, but the group changed when Spain took the lead in the 63rd minute. A corner from the right was driven beyond the far post, José Maria Bakero baulked Peter Schmeichel, and Fernando Hierro headed into the vacant net. Schmeichel was furious, and with good reason. "Of course it was a foul," said Bakero years later. It was only the second goal Denmark had conceded in 10 qualifying games. "In my eyes it seemed like the referee regretted sending off Zubizaretta and started to give the Spanish a few favours," said Schmeichel after the match.
Denmark pressed, but Spain drew strength from a raucous atmosphere at an intimidating venue where they played every qualifier between 1983 and 1995. At that stage Denmark were going out, but the 'as it stands' table changed again when, out of nothing, Jimmy Quinn scored a stunning volley for Northern Ireland in the 71st minute. Jimmy Nicholl, the Northern Ireland No2, celebrated with an up yours gesture at his Republic counterpart Maurice Setters.
With the Republic now needing a goal, Jack Charlton turned to Tony Cascarino. There was one problem: Cascarino, for the only time in his career, had forgotten to put his kit on. When Cascarino unzipped his tracksuit top, all he saw was a plain cotton T-shirt. When Charlton asked what was keeping him, Cascarino informed him of the slight impediment to his introduction. "His face turned purple," said Cascarino. "I thought he was going to have a heart attack. 'You fucccccking idiot!'" As with Gualtieri's goal, this was stratospheric farce.
There was no time for this story to play out to its conclusion, because in the 76th minute the substitute McLoughlin brought the Republic level with a fine goal, chesting down a half-cleared free-kick and ramming it into the corner. An exhausted Charlton later said that McLoughlin had "justified his existence". He was also in Cascarino's good books for the rest of his days. "I have always believed," said Cascarino, "that, had Alan McLoughlin not equalised … there's a fair chance Jack would have chinned me."
The Republic pushed for a different kind of knockout blow, knowing they were out if Denmark equalised in Seville. Cañizares made an unbelievable save from Bent Christensen (although this video suggests a foul had been given for a push by Christensen), and then Michael Laudrup drilled a long-range half-volley just wide.
When the final whistle went in Belfast, the Republic celebrated in the mistaken belief that it was over in Seville and that they had qualified. Charlton thought the same as he walked down the tunnel, only to see a TV showing the last rites of Spain v Denmark. "The guy asked if I wanted it to watch it," said Charlton. "'Do I bollocks,' I said. Then he touched me on the shoulder and said: 'Now will you look?' And I did, and it had finished 1-0." The Republic and Denmark were level on points and goal difference. The Republic, who scored four goals in nine games at the World Cup under Charlton, were through by virtue of scoring more goals.
In the feverish aftermath, Charlton decided to score a point. "I spotted Billy [Bingham] talking among his players and moved in his direction to congratulate him on his retirement and compliment him on a good game," he said in his autobiography. "At least that was my intention. Instead, in a moment I still find difficult to understand, I pointed a finger at him and blurted 'Up yours too, Billy.'"
Charlton regretted the words instantly, not least because it hadn't been Bingham who gestured at Setters in the first place, and apologised shortly after. A surreal night ended with Charlton presenting Bingham with an award to mark his retirement. "Some of the people who'd been abusing me all evening are stood there cheering. I think that said it all about a crazy, noisy night."
There was no warm, fuzzy ending in Seville. "When the final whistle blew," said the Denmark striker Flemming Povlsen, "I cried with an anger every bit as intense as the joy I'd felt the year before on winning the European Championship." This headline – which simply said 'ROBBERY' – summed up Denmark's feelings. For the first time in 16 years, the European champions had failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Putting the 'Bodin' in 'foreboding'
There is a nice moment in the 1984-85 edition of Match of the 80s when Andy Gray considers Everton's momentous 3-1 win over Bayern Munich in the Cup Winners' Cup semi-final. "I played 600-700 games at professional level," he says wistfully. "If I could take one with me when I go, that'd be the one."
Not everybody gets to take the glory game with them. For most of the Wales team who had their hearts broken by Romania in 1993, this was the game they will remember forever. "I played almost 850 matches as a pro," said Dean Saunders, "but that Romania match still lives on in my memory." In 2003, Gary Speed called it "the most painful match of my career. I was devastated by it, to be honest, and I wish I'd handled it better because it affected me for a long time afterwards."
Those were halcyon days for Wales. They were 28th in the Fifa world rankings, a position they have not achieved since, and they were the subject of rare goodwill before the game. They received hundreds of telegrams, including ones from John Major, Princess Diana, George Best and the Welsh Rugby Union, and many people in England were more bothered about their fate than that of England. The BBC even switched from the England match to Wales early in the second half.
Terry Yorath, whose contract was due to expire the day after the game, had worked wonders with a motley crew, described in the Independent as a "hotch-potch of disparate talents". It's rare to see such a mixture of great players and journeymen. With Mark Hughes suspended, the team for the Romania match was Neville Southall, David Phillips, Eric Young, Andy Melville, Kit Symons, Paul Bodin, Barry Horne, Speed, Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Saunders.
In another complex group, Wales needed to win by two to be certain of qualification, but any kind of win would do provided the RCS (Republic of Czechs and Slovaks) were not victorious away to Belgium. The RCS also needed a win to qualify, while Belgium and Romania required only a draw. Belgium held the RCS to a 0-0 draw in Brussels despite the sending off of Philippe Albert early in the second half; Wales, although they did not know it at that time, just needed a win. That was still an arduous task against a brilliant Romania side who had stuffed them 5-1 in the return fixture.
The clash of styles could hardly have been greater. For once, it would have been offensive not to resort to stereotypes. This was a case of valiant endeavour against temperamental flair. Not that Wales were without talent, but the tension of the occasion – and an amazing atmosphere that mixed fear, pride and desire – inevitably led them to embrace more classically British qualities. After the game, a Romanian journalist asked Yorath, almost out of sympathy, "Will you never change from kick and rush?" Florin Raducioiu, the Romanian centre forward, said Giggs needed to escape English football to fulfil his talent.
Wales so nearly achieved a monumental triumph of the human spirit, but Romania were much the classier side. Of course they were. In the first half Dan Petrescu hit the post from three yards and Ilie Dumitrescu smashed over the bar from 12 yards after an exhilarating counter-attack. Gheorghe Hagi was his usual influence, drifting in dangerously from the right flank to send a number of long-range shots high or wide. After one such effort, the peerless BBC commentator Barry Davies sounded a warning. "He hasn't found the accuracy but I must say it worries me that he's running at people and he's finding space."
It seems truly absurd with hindsight, but at the time Hagi was playing in Serie B for Brescia, a stop-off between spells at Real Madrid and Barcelona. His superior class was not in doubt, despite that, and he punished Wales in the 32nd minute. Hagi took a familiar, sinuous route infield from the right and then, from 25 yards, drove a low shot that slithered under Neville Southall. In the build-up to the game Southall, 35, was telling anyone who would listen that he was as good as he had been 10 years earlier. He could not have picked a more inopportune time to make the biggest mistake of his magnificent international career.
Wales's response was splendid, and they put fierce pressure on Romania either side of half-time through a number of set pieces. Young's looping header was tipped over acrobatically, then Melville's header was cleared off the line in first-half injury-time. Another set-piece brought the equaliser after an hour, when Saunders flicked the ball in from a couple of yards. Almost straight from the kick-off, Wales were given a penalty when Speed, by his own admission, went down easily after a tug from Petrescu. "What I've always wondered is what would have happened had I stayed on my feet?" said Speed in 2003. "Would I have scored if I hadn't gone down? Would that have made the crucial difference and taken us to the World Cup finals?"
The BBC switched to the Wales game just as Bodin prepared to take the penalty. (Tediously, 32,000 people phoned up to complain, and you can just imagine the faux outrage on Twitter were it to happen nowadays.) He was an excellent penalty taker; six months earlier he had scored at Wembley to settle a crazy play-off final and put Swindon into the Premiership; he had scored three out of three for Wales. But this was a whole new level of pressure, the kind you don't imagine when you sign up to take penalties for your team. For so many people around the ground, he put the 'Bodin' in 'foreboding'. He hammered the penalty against the bar. In 2007, Observer Sport Monthly judged it the 46th most heartbreaking moment in sport history.
Wales continued to push forward, but something died in them in that moment, and Romania stealthily took control of the game once more. After a couple of near misses, Raducioiu slipped an 83rd-minute winner through Southall, who was arguably culpable again. Wales had lost at Cardiff Arms Park for the first time since 1910. A miserable evening became evening darker when, just after the final whistle, an elderly fan was struck in the neck and killed by a flare launched from the other side of the ground.
"At first there was a feeling of disbelief, of numbness," said Yorath, who never managed Wales again. Within a year, Wales were a rabble, losing in Moldova and being thrashed 5-0 in Georgia. "It was only at about four in the morning in my hotel room that I sat down and started crying. I knew it had gone. All that work had been for nothing."
The scapegoat, inevitably and harshly, was Bodin. He did not so much have his 15 minutes of fame as his 12 yards of infamy. Unlike with England's failures from the spot in the 1990s, there was no safety in numbers for Bodin, no Pizza Hut adverts. Just abuse from a load of pizza-faced idiots.
"After the game I can remember a group of students out in the streets of Cardiff giving me lots of abuse," said Bodin. "But thankfully that was the worst it got." He may not have read the interview in which Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers called him a '****'. "I became a better person for what happened," Bodin said, "and I've never lost my temper if anyone brings the subject up because it did happen." He is a sensible, dignified man who eventually found peace with what had happened.
And then there were France
At least Bodin can laugh about it now, as this video shows. David Ginola can't. It's 6,664 days since he was part of the France side that failed to qualify for USA 94, yet the fallout is still going on. The 2-1 defeat at home to Bulgaria sparked a bitter feud between the manager Gérard Houllier and David Ginola. It was reignited late last year when Houllier called Ginola "a bastard" in the book Coaches' Secrets; Ginola's response was to issue legal proceedings.
It had all seemed so straightforward for France. To qualify, they needed only to win at home to Israel or draw at home to Bulgaria. Israel were the worst team in the group, and had not won a single game. France had beaten them 4-0 in Tel Aviv. France had also not lost a World Cup qualifier at home for 25 years. It was such a formality that nobody even bothered to ask whether the fat lady needed a lozenge. The magazine Le Sport sent a print run to newsstands with the simple headline 'QUALIFIED'.
After 82 minutes in Paris, France were 2-1 up, the second goal a majestic long-range curler from Ginola. But goals from a young Eyal Berkovic and Reuven Atar, both created by the marauding Ronnie Rosenthal, gave Israel a sensational smash-and-grab victory.
Even then, it seemed only to have postponed the inevitable. A month later, France needed only a draw at home to an erratic Bulgaria. Eric Cantona hammered them ahead in the 31st minute, but Emil Kostadinov equalised six minutes later with a smart header from a corner.
The second half passed in a blur of nailbiting and clockwatching, and before anyone knew it the clock read 89:42. Then Ginola, the substitute, eschewed the chance to keep the ball by the corner flag and instead launched a long cross towards Cantona. Sixteen seconds later, Bulgaria had scored. Luboslav Penev flicked a speculative pass over the top, and Kostadinov controlled it before scorching the ball in off the underside of the bar from a narrow angle. It was so unthinkable that the French TV caption read France 2-1 Bulgarie. The whole of France was in shock. Dider Deschamps, a tough man, was almost overwhelmed by anguish.
It was an awesome finish from Kostadinov, who had no right scoring from that angle and even less right to be in the country. The same was true of Penev, the man who created the goal. For some reason, Bulgaria had forgotten to apply for visas for both men before the game. By the time they realised, it was too late to get them in time. But Borislav Mihailov and Georgi Georgiev, who both played for Mulhouse in France, knew of a border-post where security was not as tight as it might have been. The two men sneaked in and stayed at Georgiev's house before heading to Paris.
It's fair to assume that Ginola has never been welcome in Houllier's house since, and vice versa. "He sent an Exocet missile through the heart of the team," said Houllier after the game. "He committed a crime against the team. I repeat: a crime against the team." Houllier has always denied suggestions that he called Ginola an "assassin" or "a murderer". He did, however, call him a salaud (bastard) in a book last year. He also said "I'll never say anything good about Ginola" in Philippe Auclair's biography of Eric Cantona. Ginola's crime was not just to try to score a goal; in the buildup to the game he had complained to the press that Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin were given preferential treatment by Houllier. Ginola was the darling of PSG, while Papin and Cantona were Marseille alumni. For much of the Bulgaria match, which was played in Paris, Papin and Cantona were booed.
"It affects my personal life, my children, it affects a lot of things, it's intolerable," said Ginola a couple of years ago. "Now it's enough. I'm so sick of it. Until my death they are going to talk to me about this." He was not the only man whose career had its defining moment on 17 November 1993.