Football Special Report #14 – Underdog Days, UEFA Qualifiers 1990-2006

Click here for all posts in the Football Special Report series. The following article on big results for Europe’s underdog nations originally appeared in issue #70 (2020) of the Shelbourne fanzine “Red Inc.”, produced by our friends at Reds Independent.

Intro:

Even though the passion of club games can’t be beat, we do hold a major soft spot for international football. These days, this is hampered by the fact that the World Cup and Euros are nauseatingly corporate, while some of the greatest stadiums ever like Lansdowne Road have been replaced with typical modern all-seaters (lets not even get into the club attitudes of a large proportion of Ireland fans). The 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea felt like the most corporate to date at the time, partly due to the location meaning less groups of fans from Europe and South America, yet had the same tournament taken place in the 80s you know it would have felt a lot more chaotic and different. For similar reasons as 2002, the first real “modern” World Cup was probably USA 94,  however this came in the midst of what was perhaps the most romantic era ever for international football.

Even though 1970s-80s football is part of our wheelhouse and we love those decades too, European international football may have reached its zenith in 90s (in terms of heroicness) after the fall of communism but before the total dissolution of Yugoslavia. While the region said a sad goodbye to East Germany by the time of Euro 92 qualification, a tsunami of new teams was about to flood UEFA’s system which would see many a classic Iron Curtain bowl of previous provincial-capitals (Minsk, Kiev, etc) used for international games at last. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all achieved independence early enough to enter World Cup 94 qualifiers again for the first time in decades, along with Russia taking the USSR’s place, while the rest would have to wait. But before that, another “new country” (at least to FIFA/UEFA) nowhere near Eastern Europe had already sent shock-waves around the continent.

Euro 92 Qualifiers:

In the Euro 88 qualifying system, seed Pool 5 (the lowest) had only consisted of Iceland, Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg (Italy were among the teams placed in pool 4 incidentally, perhaps as punishment for scandals or some such). For the next European Championships cycle, Albania also dropped down and San Marino and Faroe Islands were added for the first time. The Faroese – population 52,000 – were placed in a tough Group 4 along with eventual group-toppers Yugoslavia, and, after Yugoslavia’s banishment upon the start of their civil war, eventual tournament winners Denmark. Also present were Northern Ireland, and an Austria fresh from a World Cup 90 appearance.

Having beaten Canada in their first official match the previous year, the Faroes’ competitive debut was set as the home qualifier against the Austrians in September 1990. Since the 1930s, Faroe representative squads had played unofficial games against the likes of Iceland, Shetland, Orkney Islands and Greenland, but had only obtained FIFA membership in 1988 and UEFA in 1990. Since there were no grass pitches on the islands, the Austria game and all other home encounters in the group (the next of which against Northern Ireland was not until a year later) were to be played in Landskrona, Sweden.

On front of only 1157 spectators, the team of amateurs went 1-0 up on the 61st minute through building company salesman Torkil Nielsen and held on to claim the most incredible result of the whole qualifiers. They also did so in beautifully Nordic-appropriate Hummel kits. The islanders later achieved a respectable 1-1 draw in Belfast against Northern Ireland, who had been to two World Cups in the 80s. Despite finishing bottom of the group with 26 goals-against, the “minnows” had shown that potential banana skins awaited those who took these small nations for granted.

World Cup 94 Qualifiers:

The Faroe Islands would not be repeating the heroics of 90/91 come the next campaign, finishing World Cup 94 UEFA qualifying Group 4 with zero points, zero goals and 38 goals-against, but at least they were now playing at home after the foundation of Svangaskarð sports centre, Toftir. In the same group, Cyprus pulled off a 1-1 draw against qualification contenders, and classic post-Cold War side, RCS (Representation of Czechs and Slovaks), helping deny the latter progression to the benefit of Belgium and Romania. And before scoring one of the greatest goals-in-defeat ever during their 1-7 Group 2 defeat to England, San Marino held Turkey to a scoreless draw at home in March 1993.

As mentioned, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were back on the scene for the first time since World Cup 1938 qualifiers (Soviet occupation of the Baltic states took place in 1940). The Estonians’ highlight was a consolation goal away to Scotland in a 3-1 defeat, but Latvia and Lithuania’s placement in Group 3 along with with Albania and a weak Northern Ireland meant that both had opportunities to gain results. Indeed, Lithuania took a point away from Belfast with a 2-2 draw in their opening match, and beat Latvia in Riga and Albania in Vilnius, but the real highlight was a 0-0 home draw against European champions Denmark in September 1992. Despite finishing below Lithuania by the end of the campaign, Latvia achieved the even more impressive feat of holding both the Danes and the Spanish scoreless in successive home games in August and September 1992, with Northern Ireland also taking a point from a home 0-0 with Spain in October.

Euro 96 Qualifiers:

The Euro 96 qualifiers of Autumn 1994 saw the arrival on the competitive-international scene of a two sides about to take Europe by storm – Croatia and the Czech Republic; others that would do well but fail to make enough impact to qualify – Slovakia, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova (finishing ahead of Wales); and some that were probably always destined to finish bottom of their groups this time around – Azerbaijan (who did manage a 0-0 with Poland), Armenia and Lichtenstein. The latter was of course the only non-former communist state joining, and had originally intended to compete for a place at USA 94.

Drawn alongside Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Austria and Latvia in a tough Group 6, nobody gave the Lichtenstein Principality Boys (that’s our nickname for them) a chance of salvaging anything from their maiden international adventure. But an amazing 0-0 draw against a waning Ireland in June 1995 at Sportpark Eschen-Mauren made sure they would not end the campaign with nothing to show for. Latvia, meanwhile, continued their progression with a great 3-2 win over Austria at home, who in turn continued to regress.

In Group 5, Luxembourg put in some good performances which meant they would not be propping up the base of the group for the only occasion in the our time-period (in fact not earning a single point after this). Their sole bright-spot from World Cup 94 qualification had come via a 1-1 draw with Iceland, but this time a mighty total of ten points were amassed with the help of an amazing 1-0 home win over future-tournament finalists Czech Republic in June 1995 (also beating Malta home and away and drawing with Belarus).

World Cup 98 Qualifiers:

The ranks grew again for the next campaign, as Bosnia-Herzegovina joined along with the return of their war-rivals Yugoslavia (or rather the addition of the rump “Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, now comprising of less than half the territory of the former “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”). The Bosnia-Herzogovinians marked their debut with some resounding performances in Group 1, beating Denmark 3-0 in Sarajevo as well as home and away victories over fellow former-Yugoslavs Slovenia. In Group 3, Azerbaijan improved their “personal best” with a commendable 1-0 win over Switzerland in August 1996, while in Group 9 Armenia also made strides with one of their eight points earned at home to Portugal on the same day.

In Group 8, Ireland will have been filled with dread to see the name of Lichtenstein again, but it was to be the other smaller teams of Iceland, Lithuania and FYR Macedonia that they would have to look out for. In November 1996 the Icelandic squad came to Dublin and left with a point after another 0-0. In April 1997, things got worse for the Irish as Macedonia recorded their best win to date with a 3-2 win over an orange-clad Boys in Green at home. And in August, Lithuania got a measure of revenge after their back-to-back losses in 92/93, as Ireland were once again held scoreless at Lansdowne Road contributing to their eventual deficit of ten points compared to group winners Romania.

Euro 2000 Qualifiers:

Ahead of Euro 2000, Andorra were the only new country to join and would unsurprisingly finish bottom of qualifying Group 4 with zero points. The opening day of the campaign continued to throw up surprises though, as Belarus in Group 1 managed to hold Denmark to a 0-0 in Minsk. The Belorussians only other two points amazingly came via 1-1 and 0-0 draws away (March 1999) and home (October 1999) to group winners Italy. Also during the opening round in September 1998, Cyprus achieved their best result of the 90s with a historic 3-2 win over Spain.

Moldova were to be the wooden-spoon side of Group 3, but at least picked up a 1-1 in September 1999 against soon-to-be qualifiers (via play-offs) Turkey. Lichtenstein in Group 7 continued to overachieve, with a 2-1 victory over Azerbaijan in October 1998 before a 0-0 with Hungary in September 1999, and only ended in last place thanks to goal difference. Group 8, however, was to feature one of the most infamous upsets. Macedonia, having already been the scene of a draw with Croatia, once again turned into an Irish nightmare as a last minute 1-1 home equalisier in Skopje on the last day denied Ireland top-spot and, ultimately (after failure in the play-offs), qualification.

World Cup 2002 Qualifiers:

Compared to “the four” in the 1980s, seed Pool 5 now featured a staggering 14 countries for the World Cup 2002 draw. With this overwhelming amount of weaker sides, there wasn’t to be too many major upsets in the campaign, but in Group 5 bottom side Armenia still picked up draws against Norway (0-0 away, September 2000), Wales (2-2 at home, March 2001), Belarus, (0-0 at home, June 2001) and Poland (1-1 at home, June 2001). The Belorussians themselves narrowly missed out on a play-off place behind Ukraine, with notable 2-1 home wins over Wales (September 2000) and Norway (March 2001), and an even better 4-1 home win over top-placed Poland (September 2001).

In Group 9, POTP’s unofficial-official favoured nation of Finland put in one of their best overall qualification performances ever (although they also had been only one point off the play-offs from a weak group in 98), finishing in third behind England and Germany. An opening day defeat of Albania was built upon with an October 2000 0-0 draw against England in Helsinki, which drew parallels to the 1985 1-1 World Cup qualifier of same fixture. Despite a 2-1 loss in the English return game, the Finns amazingly went 2-0 up at home to Germany in June, 2001, with the Germans pulling two second-half goals back to salvage a point. Finland would go on to beat Greece 5-1 in September before another fine draw with the Germans on the last day – a 0-0 in Gelsenkirchen in October.

Euro 2004 Qualifiers:

The number of teams in Europe had finally stabilised for a while, with the same amount of entrants for the third qualifying campaign in a row. The 35 of them had also created an oddly symmetrical ten groups of five. But there was one important change as Yugoslavia nominally disappeared, now known simply as Serbia and Montenegro. The other previously war-torn nation in the region, Bosnia-Herzegovina, again made waves and were unlucky to finished fourth place in Group 2, only one point off the play-offs behind Denmark, Norway and Romania. The B-Hs continued to be the Danes’ bogey team, with a great April 2003 0-2 win for the Balkan outfit in Copenhagen followed by a 1-1 draw in Sarajevo on the last day which very nearly ended with a home win and automatic Bosnian qualification.

World Cup 2006 Qualifiers:

2006 would mark the end of an era, as it was to be last campaign that Serbia and Montenegro competed together in qualification and hence the final dissolution in football terms of what had once been the classic European state of Yugoslavia (Kosovo became independent in 2008, but had been under transitional UN administration since 1999). This was also the time that Kazakhstan suddenly joined UEFA and entered the European system, just when you thought there were no more former-Soviet republics left to pop-up (watch this space for Transnistria). The only point earned from the Kazaks’ European debut (who’s country technically is partly within geographic Europe) came against another of the “far-eastern” European states, Georgia, in October 2005.

In Group 3, Lichtenstein picked up one more of their all-time great results with a unexpected 2-2 draw at home to Portugal in October 2004. This result helped them finish eight points ahead of Luxembourg at the bottom of the group, demonstrating the gulf in class held by the Principality over the much larger Grand Duchy at the time (population of 38,000 vs 613,000). The side that had beaten Portugal on home soil in the final of Euro 2004, Greece, also suffered from a summer hangover and were beaten 2-1 in September 2004 by neighbours and historical rivals Albania in Group 2, in one of the most famous nights in that country’s sporting history. In Group 5 Belarus finished second bottom, but not before a 0-0 draw with Scotland at home in June 2005, and an even more remarkable 0-1 defeat of the Scots on front of 51,000 grumpy home fans in Hampden in October.

The previously referenced Serbian-Montenegrins were about to top Group 7, undefeated and going to a World Cup before going their separate ways. In the same group Belgium struggled, with mirrored 1-1 draws against Lithuania home (September 2004) and away (October 2005) on the first and last days of the group, contributing to their 4th place finish. Second placed Spain had the Bosnians breathing down their necks also, again with 1-1 draws in both Zenica (September 2004) and Valencia (June 2005), accompanied by a Bosnia-Herzegovina draw against Serbia-Montenegro in between (October 2004).

In Group 8, one small side we have more-or-less yet to mention (due to a lack of noticeable results more than neglect), and one of the “classic European” variety having debuted in 1957, is Malta. But the “old minnow” Maltese would finally make some headlines in this campaign (in Malta, Iceland, and Croatia at least), as a 1-1 draw against Iceland in October, 2004, was bested by an excellent 1-1 with Croatia in Ta’ Qali in September 2005. The islanders, Mediterranean this time rather than the northern Faroese we started with, would finish the group holding their own after this, as another 1-1 against Bulgaria was earned in October.

Aftermath:

We cut off here as the retro world of the 90s is left further and further behind. But honorable mentions must go to Cyrpus’ famous 5-2 victory over Ireland in 2006 and Kazakhstan’s 2-1 win against Serbia in a 2007, both Euro 2008 qualifiers. A more recent tip-o’-the-cap also to Luxembourg’s 2017 1-1 World Cup qualifier result with France, Andorra’s amazing 1-0 defeat of Hungary the same year, Liechtenstein’s heroic 2019 1-1 in Greece which helped our beloved Finland qualify for their first major tournament, and Luxembourg’s 0-1 win away to Ireland in March 2021.

***

YouTube Links:

Faroe Islands vs Austria, 1990
Lichtenstein vs Ireland, 1995
FYR Macedonia vs Ireland, 1997
Lichtenstein vs Portugal, 2004
Kazakhstan vs Serbia, 2007

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