By Jethro Soutar
The World Cup kicks off in Brazil this week, but who should islanders cheer for?
No island country has ever won the World Cup, or even reached the semi-finals. The closest thing to an island victory came in 1966 when England were crowned champions, though the likes of Spain, Italy and France have all featured islanders in their World Cup-winning line-ups.
Is an island country likely to triumph this time round? Alas, it’s rather unlikely.
Two island nations have qualified: Japan and Australia. Of the two, Australia have the tougher challenge. They are the lowest ranked team in the tournament and find themselves in one of the hardest groups; the Socceroos must compete with Spain, the Netherlands and Chile to secure one of two berths into the second round. Spain won the tournament four years ago, defeating the Netherlands in the final, so Chile would appear to be the weaker link. But the South Americans – Australia’s first opponents – are no pushovers; they had a fantastic qualifying campaign and are confident of advancing themselves. Chile play exciting, dynamic football and will doubtless become a favourite among neutrals, and island aficionados have the perfect excuse to adopt them: one of their best players goes by the name of Mauricio Isla.
Japan’s group (Japan, Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast) is harder to call, indeed it’s probably the most open group in the whole tournament. Part of the mystery comes down to the fact that these teams have barely ever played against each other before; only seven games have ever been played involving two of the four teams. Colombia are the seeded side and start as marginal favourites, though they suffered a setback with an injury to star striker Radamel Falcão. It’s also the first time Colombia have reached the finals for sixteen years, whereas Japan are playing their fifth straight tournament. Japan’s Italian manager, Alberto Zaccheroni, has built a quick side that likes to attack, but they are fairly fragile defensively, especially at set-pieces. Greece – another possible pick for island lovers – are just the opposite: defensively sound but less-than potent going forward. Celtic striker Giorgos Samaras, from Crete, will be hoping to put the balance right.
Islanders are perhaps better advised to cheer on a team led by an islander, starting with arguably the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal’s captain and top scorer was born and raised in Funchal, Madeira. Portugal are also in a difficult group – alongside Germany, Ghana and USA – but look a good bet for making the quarter-finals, especially if their Atlantic islander finds form.
Jamaica-born Raheem Sterling will be hoping to play some role for England in their opening game against Italy, while lining up for the Italians will be another islander, Mario Balotelli. Born in Palermo, Sicily, to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Balotelli spent two years on the island before moving to the mainland, where he was adopted by an Italian family in Brescia. Balotelli will be seeking to emulate fellow Palermo-native Toto Schillaci, who won the Golden Boot in 1990.
Elsewhere, defending champions Spain are led by two forwards from the Canary Islands, David Silva and Pedro, both from Tenerife, while Switzerland’s Gelson Fernandes was born a little further south, in Praia, Cape Verde.
Finally, an honourable mention goes to France midfielder Rio Mavuba. In 1984, Mavuba’s family boarded a ship fleeing the Angolan Civil War. The ship slipped out to sea in the dark of night and drifted up the African coast before eventually docking in Marseille, where the boat’s passengers were given refugee status. Mavuba was born en route, in international waters. His passport reads ‘born at sea’.
Jethro Soutar is co-editor, co-translator and co-publisher of The Football Crónicas, a collection of translated writing from Latin America. There's a piece on a transvestite team in Colombia, a prison team in Argentina, a kidnapped team in Bolivia, a Quechua women's team up in the Andes – social portraits that take football as a common theme. Out now from Ragpicker Press. Jethro has previously written for The Island Review here.