The national stadium in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, is an unassuming place. Two small stands, one on either side of the pitch, offer the only seating, with grass banks providing the remainder of its limited capacity in amongst the tropical greenery that borders the stadium. These surround a sun-baked patchwork of grass, encircled by a fading running track. The grass that remains is parched in the baking sun and dotted with a number of loose rocks and stones, leaving a hard, unforgiving, unfavourable surface.
This humble, modest setting is where the 2018 World Cup began. Far away from the glamour of Moscow’s Luzhniki, which will host the World Cup final in front of 80,000 fans and billions watching worldwide, the 2018 tournament began over three years earlier in Dili with the first of the 936 matches played to decide who will lift that beautiful golden trophy in Moscow.
In front of a healthy and enthusiastic crowd of 9,000 in the near full stadium, Timor-Leste were taking on Mongolia in the first of four rounds of Asian qualifying that would, some two and a half years later, ultimately identify the four direct qualifiers that would represent Asia in the World Cup.
So early in the process was this opening round of Asian zone qualifiers that they were played out three months prior to the main qualifying draw taking place in Saint Petersburg in the summer of 2016. Asia’s opening round of qualifying would see six clashes played across two-legs, with all of the opening matches played on 12 March 2015. The honour of kicking off the first of these fell to Timor-Leste and Mongolia.
Timor-Leste is a relatively new country, having only achieved independence in 2002. Comprising two small islets and the eastern half of the island of Timor, which it shares with Indonesia, Timor-Leste is one of the poorest, most deprived countries in Asia. The majority of its population, a shade over one million, is concentrated in the capital city, Dili, and live in some of the most poverty-stricken circumstances in the region.
When its former Portuguese masters moved out in the mid-1970s, the neighbouring Indonesians seized the opportunity afforded them by the ensuing instability and invaded the eastern end of Timor. Their military success led to the onset of a violent, vicious and brutal occupation that would last until 1999. Indonesia relinquished control of the territory following a United Nations-sponsored referendum of self-determination and three years later Timor-Leste was officially recognised as the first newly independent sovereign state of the 21st century.
Like in many other countries, football is immensely popular, even if the quality of play is somewhat lacking. As succinctly put in an article on the Asian news outlet Asia Foundation, ‘If the Timorese find their spiritual salvation in the Catholic Church, they find their physical salvation in football.’
Former national team captain, Alfonso Esteves, a Portuguese of East Timor descent who accepted the call to represent his forebears’ home, was struck by the enthusiasm for football when he first visited. “Timor is a new country and it doesn’t have infrastructure for anything,” he explained. “But when you travel through the country, soccer is 90 percent of everything. All the kids love to play. They don’t even need a field they just want to kick the ball around. You see kids everywhere using two rocks to make a goal. They just play for hours.”
The Asia Foundation continued the theme: ‘Football gives Timorese a national identity. Saying football is Timor’s national sport is an understatement. You can see it played anywhere, anytime, in the hot midday sun and in the downpour of tropical showers, in the mist covered mountains, on the white sand beaches. Though most games are battled out on rough gravel or rutted fields, with old sneakers and bare feet.’
This poverty of resources applied equally to the higher reaches of the sport in East Timor, just as it did to the lower echelons with little in the way of facilities for a national team to train and play on.
After 10 years of trying and repeatedly failing, Timor-Leste’s fortunes finally took a turn for the better, winning an international match for the first time when defeating Cambodia 5-1 in October 2012. However, there was a notable shift in policy that had aided this victory. Several Brazilian-born players, not of Timorese descent, were naturalised from 2012 onwards with the sole intention of raising the standard of the national team.
It was a controversial, divisive strategy, which would cause many a stir amongst the teams Timor-Leste faced over the next couple of years. It was an issue that would eventually come to a head during the World Cup campaign, but on opening day in Dili, the home side took to the field with several of the naturalised players wearing the red and black national jersey.
The opposition for Timor-Leste in this first match on the winding road to the 2018 World Cup were from a vastly different background. The warm sunshine of Dili would be quite the shock to the system for the Mongolians. More accustomed to temperatures in Ulaanbaatar pushing the mercury well below freezing at that time of year, the players would have to endure a temperature difference of nearing forty degrees to play in the tropical heat.
Unable to train outdoors in Mongolia at that time of year, the national team’s preparatory training had taken place indoors, save for a late-winter outdoor training camp in snow-laden surroundings aimed at toughening the players up. It’s fair to say this wasn’t ideal preparation for taking on a team with a smattering of Brazilian skills on show, in the heat and humidity of a tropical afternoon south of the equator.
This would be Mongolia’s fifth attempt at making headway in the World Cup. There were no thoughts of qualifying, of course, but having finally registered a maiden victory in 2014 qualification, the aim in advance was to at least replicate that this time around.
But much to the delight of the noise Dili crowd, and the thousands watching on a hastily erected big screen outside the stadium for those unable to secure a ticket, it was the home team who kicked off the 2018 World Cup with a bang. Twenty-eight-year-old Timorese striker Chiquito do Carmo, or Quito for short, who played in the amateur national league for AD Dili Este, scored the opening goal on the road to Russia after only four minutes, racing on to a through ball to poke a neat finish between the legs of the onrushing Mongolian goalkeeper. He added another, a bundled, poacher’s finish, only a couple of minutes later for good measure.
A further two goals were added near the end, with both being scored by two of the naturalised Brazilians in the team, Rodrigo Silva and Jairo Neto, among six such players in the starting line-up. Some had reached a significantly higher standard than any other players on show that day, with a smattering of appearances for Palmeiras, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama amongst them, and one having played for Portuguese side Boavista. Mongolia did pull one back at the death from Erkembayar Batmunkh but up against a seemingly unlevel playing field, they were always in for a struggle.
More than a year down the line, long after the dust had settled on this opening 4-1 win for Timor-Leste, as well as a 1-0 win in the second leg in Mongolia, the issue of the naturalised Brazilians would belatedly come to a head.
Following a complaint from the Palestinian FA having faced, and beaten, Timor-Leste in the next stage of World Cup qualification in June 2016, the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA opened an investigation into the cases of nine players who had gained Timorese nationality and played for the national team, as well as a further three who were yet to play for them.
Palestine’s issue had arisen during the earlier 1-1 draw between the two sides in Dili, when Timor-Leste’s goal had been scored by Ramon Saro, a native of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The Federação Futbelo Timor-Leste was found to have forged birth and baptism certificates to falsely show the Brazilian players had Timorese heritage, claiming one or both of their parents had been born in Timor-Leste. Three of these players had played in that first ever win for the country, while seven were involved in the wins over Mongolia, and the subsequent second round qualifying matches played by Timor-Leste.
The nine players, who were not found to have falsified any documents themselves, were involved in 36 international matches between July 2012 and October 2015. As the dust settled on the investigation, the results of all of these matches were annulled, with the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying matches being awarded 3-0 to the opposition.
That, of course, included the two World Cup qualifiers with Mongolia, although it was far too late for Mongolia to take their place in the second round of qualification that they had effectively been cheated out of. Their dreams of World Cup glory, at least in terms of a minor bit of progression, would have to wait another four years.
Very much like the 2018 World Cup finals itself with Russia’s thrashing of Saudi Arabia, the tournament overall had begun with a thumping home victory. However, for Timor-Leste, the history books will never reflect that. Their resounding win is now reduced to little more than an asterisk alongside a 3-0 scoreline in favour of Mongolia. The drama of the World Cup, its many intertwining narratives and emotional tales of hope springing eternal and dreams shattered by a disappointing reality, are not reserved for the finals alone.
The road to Russia 2018, that will end in the pristine corporate surroundings of Moscow’s Luzhniki, began on the parched patchwork grass of Dili amid rising optimism that would ultimately come crashing down, all hope ultimately destroyed. While the setting and the scale may be different, the emotions are much the same; all part of the unfolding drama that is the World Cup.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams