Sepp Blatter may not want World Cup play-offs any more, but you've got to admit they create the sort of drama, pressure, and excitement which reminds us why football is blessed with the most important sporting event on earth.
Sepp Blatter may not want World Cup play-offs any more, but you've got to admit they create the sort of drama, pressure, and excitement which reminds us why football is blessed with the most important sporting event on earth. In fact the play-offs often create more tension than many of the matches in the tournament itself. Why? Because for most nations (let's not forget there have only been eight winners) qualifying for the World Cup is the real prize. To me, doing that via the white heat of the play-offs makes the achievement especially worthwhile.
It's a scenario Australia knows only too well. The very first World Cup 'campaign' for the Socceroos (1965) involved a play-off against North Korea. Since then, there have been do-or-die contests against Israel (1969), South Korea (1973), Scotland (1985), Argentina (1993), Iran (1997) and Uruguay twice (2001/2005). It's a fair argument that, win or lose, reputations have been forged and careers have been defined by these two-legged affairs. The game itself has often been measured by these definitive moments once every four years.
Not any more, of course. Since the move to Asia, we've managed to qualify direct. But do I miss the play-off experience? You bet.
This is play-off week around the globe, and the sense of nostalgia is overwhelming. The identity of the final ten qualifiers for Brazil is about to be decided, and from Rekjavik, to Amman, to Mexico City, to Montevideo, the level of interest has been overpowering. Stadiums have been choked, bars have turned into shrines, teams have been swamped by media hordes, games have unleashed a tsunami of patriotic fervour. That either Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo will not be going to Rio underlines just how much there is at stake.
Which brings me to New Zealand. Here across the Tasman, the reaction to the crushing defeat in the first leg at the Azteca has been every bit as heartfelt, irrational, vindictive, and forensic as you'd expect in any of the so-called 'first world' football nations. Yes, the All Blacks remain - comfortably - the flagship of the nation. But the All Whites, thanks to their history-making achievements in South Africa, have nudged themselves prominently into the public consciousness. The return leg in Wellington, which sold out in record time, will reveal how forgiving the fans, and the media, are prepared to be in dealing with the inevitable disappointment. Not a lot, I reckon.
Observing the fallout from the five-goal flogging in Mexico has been instructive. Success creates expectation, but Ricki Herbert doesn't seem to have quite grasped the fact. Having got the tactics and the selections so obviously wrong in the first leg, Herbert fronted the media not to take the blame for what had just occurred, but to instead demand credit for what had occurred four years earlier. Claiming he deserved more respect for the results in South Africa, and that he had effectively 'rescued' football in New Zealand, Herbert's angry rant didn't divert the criticism, it channelled it. That's what the play-offs do. Sharpen the focus. There's a lot to be said for that.
Truth is Herbert - the first homegrown coach the All Whites have had - has done wonders over the past eight years. History will record his contribution favourably, but it's the present, and the future, which most concerns the game across the Tasman. Despite having arguably the most talented collection of players they've ever had, New Zealand probably won't be going to Brazil. People want answers, and why should anyone be surprised by that.
Frank van Hattum, the chairman of New Zealand Football, believes the play-offs don't help. But when Blatter floated the idea of direct entry for Oceania in an enlarged World Cup (haven't we heard that before), van Hattum's response was lukewarm. Far better, he suggested, for the Oceania representatives to play through the final round of Asian qualifiers. Exactly how, for the last two campaigns, the Socceroos have qualified for successive World Cups.
Does it matter how you reach the World Cup as long as you get there? Maybe not. But what the play-offs can do, arguably, is prepare you better. For players and coaches - like the World Cup itself - there is nowhere to hide. And for the rest of us it's a wonderful ride.