By Neel Shelat.
It has been a busy old month in the world of football. Between new seasons starting to titles being handed out, competitions across the planet are at various stages in the spectrum, and we have been trying to keep track of all of them in WFi‘s Frantic Football Podcast.
For our monthly column, we have picked out four of the biggest and most important stories from February 2023.
🌏 World Cup Qualification: Three Debutantes Decided
Barely a couple of months after the drama in Qatar, we already turn our attention to the next World Cup. This year, the famous tournament is being held in Australia and New Zealand, meaning it will be the first time the Women’s World Cup is being played in the Southern hemisphere.
The draw had been made quite a while ago, but three of the 32 teams remained undecided. They were decided this month via an inter-confederation play-off tournament, featuring 10 teams divided into three groups with one World Cup spot available at the end of each after one-off knockout ties. After a very dramatic tournament, three would-be World Cup debutantes emerged.
In Group A, Cameroon got the better of Thailand to set up a final with Portugal, the highest-ranked team in the tournament. There was some late drama as the Indomitable Lionesses equalised in the 89th minute, but a stoppage-time penalty from Carole da Silva Costa sent her nation through to the World Cup.
Haiti thrashed Senegal in Group B’s semi-final, so Chile stood between them and a spot at the world’s greatest stage. Teenage sensation Melchie Dumornay stole the show with a goal each towards the end of either half, rendering Chile’s 101st-minute goal rather useless. So, in spite of political unrest in their homeland and systemic issues in their football federation, Haiti will be playing in Australia and New Zealand later this year.
Group C was the only one with two semi-finals. First, Paraguay advanced ahead of Taiwan on penalties after some late drama in stoppage time, after which Panama beat Papua New Guinea. The two sides from the Americas faced off in the last of the play-off finals, where Panama edged out a one-goal victory thanks to Lineth Cedeño’s 75th-minute strike.
🇳🇱 Netherlands: Ajax Turn a Corner
Back in the world of club football, European giants Ajax have had a potentially season-changing month.
At the start of it, they had just ended a terrible run of form that had left them winless in seven league matches. That led to the sacking of Alfred Schreuder, whose unsuccessful tenure was the subject of one of our podcast episodes with Ajax expert Karan Tejwani.
Johnny Heitinga was selected as the interim replacement for Schreuder, and we now know that he is expected to remain in charge until the end of the season at least. Ajax have convincingly won all five of their domestic fixtures this month, although they have been knocked out of the Europa League after losing to Union Berlin.
That might prove to be a blessing in disguise, though, as it will allow the defending champions to fully focus on what is becoming a very intense title race. Feyenoord are still leading the way, but Ajax are hot on their heels with just a three-point deficit. PSV and AZ are within a subsequent three points of them, so there is little to separate the top four.
There is a long way to go yet as each of the sides have 11 league matches lined up till the end of the season, but we look set for a very close finish.
🌏 Asia: Al Hilal Create History
Al Hilal have been very bust in February, so much so that they haven’t had time to play a single Saudi Pro League match!
They started off in Morocco, where they were the Asian representatives in the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup. After edging local side Wydad Casablanca out on penalties, they set up a semi-final date with Copa Libertadores holders Flamengo. Helped by a sending-off, they staged a big upset to win 3-2 and become the first Saudi Arabian side to reach the Club World Cup final.
Unfortunately, they could not go a step further as Real Madrid proved too strong, but they put up a great fight nonetheless and only went down 3-5 after a thoroughly entertaining match. That certainly was a taxing CWC campaign, but they had little time to rest as they were playing against foreign opposition just over a week later.
This time, they were in Qatar to participate in the West Zone knockouts of the 2022 AFC Champions League. Wins over Shabab Al-Ahli and Foolad Khuzestan saw them advance to the semi-final, which was played within a week of their Round of 16 tie. Yet, they did not show any signs of tiredness at all in the process of dismantling local outfit Al-Duhail 7-0 to advance to a third ACL final in four seasons.
Al Hilal cannot really afford to rest in March either as they must restore their focus to the league. Their international adventures mean that they have played three matches fewer than the sides around them, so they will be chasing an 11-point deficit to leaders Al Nassr.
🇹🇷 Türkiye: Football Returns as a Nation Rebuilds
February has been a very tough month in Türkiye. In the first week, two devastating earthquakes rocked the southern region of the country (as well as northern Syria) leaving a trail of damage and destruction. Obviously, football was not on anyone’s mind at such a time, so the league was temporarily suspended.
However, the country also got a concrete reminder of the fact that football is much more than just a sport — it can have a huge impact on wider society. Fan groups and clubs pulled together to set up fundraisers and assist the rescue effort, which lasted almost two weeks.
While the domestic league paused, continental commitments could not be forsaken, so Trabzonspor’s UEFA Europa Conference League tie against FC Basel went ahead as scheduled. Suddenly, this became an occasion for the Turkish people to pull together and focus on something else for just a couple of hours, with the divisions of club fandom totally broken.
— Trabzonspor Club (@Trabzonspor_EN_) February 16, 2023
About 10 days after that, the Süper Lig returned to action. There were poignant pre-match scenes in each of the fixtures, where the players and fans displayed banners with supportive and uplifting messages. The fans had more to say too, including chants against the government, who have been accused of negligence before and during this disaster.
There were actions taken that can go far beyond words too, such as the fans throwing soft toys onto the pitch during Beşiktaş match with Antalyaspor in order to donate them to surviving children in the earthquake-affected territories.
"Bir başkadır benim memleketim…" pic.twitter.com/cipmCNXUry
— beIN SPORTS Türkiye (@beINSPORTS_TR) February 26, 2023
Stats courtesy Transfermarkt and FotMob.