Northern Ireland is the most successful country ever in World Cup finals

Opinion: These are the World Cup facts the ‘experts’ keep under wraps

‘These things speak as eloquently of the harsh realities and beautiful romance of football as anything likely to emerge from Brazil over the coming month.’ Above,  an alley decorated in the Brazilian national colours to celebrate the World Cup. Photograph: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

‘These things speak as eloquently of the harsh realities and beautiful romance of football as anything likely to emerge from Brazil over the coming month.’ Above, an alley decorated in the Brazilian national colours to celebrate the World Cup. Photograph: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

 

Here are a few World Cup facts the so-called experts seem to be trying to suppress.

Northern Ireland is the most successful country ever in World Cup finals.

John Saldivar has done more than anybody else to challenge Fifa corruption.

Deon McCaulay is joint top scorer so far in the 2014 tournament.

Keep these things in mind as the marathon celebration of high art and low cunning gets under way this afternoon.

Measuring achievement against population – the only sensible way to proceed – Northern Ireland’s performance in reaching the quarter-finals in Sweden in 1958 remains the greatest single feat in World Cup history. Proper terminology Tottenham wing-half Danny Blanchflower – we used proper terminology in those days – captained a squad managed by Peter Doherty which included Peter McPartland (Aston Villa), Derek Dougan (Portsmouth), Fay Coyle (Forest), Bertie Peacock (Celtic), Dick Keith (Newcastle) etc.

The goalkeepers were Harry Gregg (Manchester United) and Norman Uprichard (Portsmouth). Jimmy McIlroy was there, too.

McIlroy, an inside left, ex-Glentoran, looked like a film star. The cover of the world’s first “colour supplement”, launched by the Sunday Times in February 1962, showed 11 pictures of the fashion icon of the age, Jean Shrimpton, in outfits created by the main begetter of 1960s chic, Mary Quant, arranged in four-by-three grid formation, the 12th space filled with a photograph of McIlroy in the claret colours of Burnley FC. FA’s Hall of Fame The main stand at Turf Moor carries his name. He was made a Freeman of the Borough in 2008. In April this year, he was inducted into FA’s Hall of Fame, along with Patrick Vieira, Michael Owen, Alan Shearer, Trevor Francis and (!) Ray Wilkins.

He is, perhaps, the greatest thing ever to come from the village of Lambeg. Hardly anybody in the Republic appears to have heard of him.

Northern Ireland was the least populous World Cup qualifier until 1986, when Trinidad and Tobago made it to Mexico.

It remains the least populous country to reach a quarter-final, the least populous to win a finals match, the least populous to top a finals group, the least populous to qualify more than once.

At Spain ’82, the North drew with Yugoslavia and then with Honduras before facing their hosts at Valencia. Gerry Armstrong robbed Gordillo 25 yards from his own goal on 47 minutes, galloped the length of the pitch, laid off to Billy Hamilton overlapping down the right, and was there to hammer the ball to the back of the net after goalkeeper Arconada spilled Hamilton’s cross into his path.

Billy Bingham’s boys played the last 30 minutes with 10 men (Mal Donaghy unfairly dismissed), but gave not an inch and made Irish history.

(Spain ’82 also saw the debut of 17-year-old Norman Whiteside, still the youngest World Cup player ever.)

Thus, weight for age, Northern Ireland is the most successful side in the history of World Cup finals.

Belize, formerly British Honduras, the only English-speaking country in Latin America, population 300,000, has never qualified for the finals of a tournament. But in April 2011, its sports minister, John Saldivar, told the national football federation to supply answers to allegations of “numerous irregularities, misconduct and improprieties”, and to produce evidence that president-for-life (or so it seemed) and Sepp Blatter confidante Bertie Chimilio had ever been elected to the position.

All nine registered Belizean clubs resolved that if Chimilio didn’t comply, they would resign and form a new federation. Within days, Blatter had travelled from Fifa headquarters in Switzerland to central America to declare that, “Governments should never interfere in the organisation of our game.” ‘Destructive’ precedent No new Belizean football body would be recognised. Saldivar was trying to set a “destructive” precedent. This wouldn’t be tolerated.

To the astonishment of all concerned, Saldivar and the Belizean clubs stood firm. Eventually, the federation agreed to rewrite its statutes and promised open elections. In February last year, Chimilio was ousted and replaced by reformist candidate Ruperto Vicente. Chimilio is now under investigation for tax discrepancies.

Blatter’s edict against “interference” was tantamount to declaring Fifa above all State law, the Holy See of world sport, with an infallible pope defining all relevant doctrine. To ruffle its plumes was to risk excommunication.

But Belize did it and lives to tell a better tale. How different, how better football might be if more powerful countries were to show such testicular fortitude.

Belize striker Deon McCauley was one of three players – Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie were the others – to hit the net 11 times in the qualifiers for Rio. Messi and Dzeko hit 10, Ronaldo nine.

True, McCaulay’s goals were against the likes of Montserrat and St Vincent and the Grenadines. But you can only score against the team put in front of you.

These things speak as eloquently of the harsh realities and beautiful romance of football as anything likely to emerge from Brazil over the coming month.

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