KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS —- Of all the widely-scattered World Cup play-offs this week, one stands head and shoulders above all else. With due respect to the traditions and ambitions of France, Portugal, Mexico and the rest, nothing illustrates the roller-coaster romance of association football as Jordan v Uruguay.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has a population of 5.6m and covers 89,000sq.km.; Uruguay has a population of merely 3.3m and covers only 68sq.km.
But this is football, not geography or demographics. In football terms, it’s Jordan who are the minnows and Uruguay the giants. Jordan have never won even the Asian Cup, let alone ever qualified for the World Cup finals; Uruguay have been champions of South America on a record 15 occasions and won the World Cup twice.
As one-time coach Ondino Vieira once said: “Other nations have their history; Uruguay has its football.”
Degrees of separation
But this is football. Every team have a chance, in every game whatever the chasm separating them on paper (or computer or television screen). For example, for all their grand history Uruguay only just scraped into fifth place in the South American qualifying liguilla to earn the relief of a play-off shot.
Usually, FIFA’s Asian vice-president Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein would expect to watch such a match with a neutrality befitting his place at the world federation’s top table. But not this time. This time he will be in the VIP tribune in Amman as president of the Jordan Football Association.
Of all his ambitions when he became a FIFA vice-president two years ago, this one probably did not even enter his mind. Yet here is, watching his own national team make history . . . win, lose or draw.
He says: “I think anything can happen in football. I’m very optimistic that if we concentrate and if we focus, if we play our best, then we can do something. It is quite a bit like David v Goliath because you’ve got Uruguay ranked sixth, Jordan 70th and we have never actually played in a competitive match against a South American team.
“There was a lot of scepticism, in the Asian qualifying groups, whether we could compete with Japan – which we did; or with Australia – which we did. So I’m optimistic that we got this far and if we can get on with it we can achieve something. If not we will have done our best and I’m very happy with where we are now.”
Is this the biggest match in Jordan’s history? – “Certainly! It’s important for us. It’s been a big celebration for us all along the way. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ve got to where we are and that’s a credit to our players and also an opportunity for them to be seen on the world stage.
“I’m very happy with where Jordan have reached in this World Cup. Sure, I hope we win because that would be a great achievement but, whatever the outcome, I’ll be happy with it.”
Whatever the result in a few hours’ time, Prince Ali will fly to Montevideo with an extra factor in mind.
As Asia’s highest-ranking FIFA director, he has a wider goal which involves “maintaining the focus and development of Asian football.”
So the trip will also be a learning experience as he visits the Uruguay football association and meets its president, Dr Sebastián Bauzá, to discuss “more interactions between South American and Asia.”
Prince Ali adds: “There are many challenges to work for in our [Asian] region and sometimes between federations there is no desire to share more experiences. I don’t think that way. That is why I am looking forward to going to Uruguay, whatever the result we take with us.”
Jordan will kick off 64 places below the sixth-placed Celeste in the FIFA World Rankings. But the Uruguayans have been warned against complacency by their veteran coach, Oscar Tabarez. This will be no repeat of their 8-0 thrashing of those other but very different outsiders, Tahiti, in the Confederations Cup last June.
He says: “We always expect that, against Uruguay, our rivals will give of their best in the World Cup or the Copa America. If Jordan give of their best then I have no doubt it will be a tough game. Anyone who thinks that Jordan, because they are 70th in FIFA ranking, are another Tahiti, needs to learn more . . . very much more.”