Thirty-five members of CONCACAF have entered qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018. (Photo: FIFA via Getty Images)
MIAMI – As CONCACAF launches its 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying run this week with 14 teams from the Caribbean and Central America, it might be fun -- and educational -- to look back on how it all began.
While the road to Russia commences more than three years prior to its actual kickoff, the first-ever qualifying match was contested only 120 days before the opening of Italy 1934.
Back then, the World Cup was not considered the hot ticket it is today and only a few entrants threw their hats into the proverbial ring. Many years before CONCACAF officially came into existence, four teams from the region vied for the right to play on the global stage -- Cuba, Haiti and Mexico and the United States.
Host Haiti and Cuba tangled in a three-game Group 11 series, as all matches were played at Parc Leconte in Port-au-Prince within a seven-day period.
In the first encounter on January 28, the Cubans prevailed, 3-1. Cuba captain and midfielder Mario Lopez became the answer of two trivia questions. Not only did he score the first qualifying goal in the 20th minute, he also converted the very first penalty kick, past goalkeeper Edouard Esper, to give Cuba a 1-0 lead. The Cubans struck twice more in the second half through forward Frances Socorro (61’) and Angel Martinez (64’).
Haiti captain Ludovic Jean-Joseph broke his arm in the 10th minute. It was not known whether he remained in the game or left the match at that time.
Robert St. Fort made sure the Haitians avoided the shutout and gave the 6,000 spectators something to cheer about, converting a penalty kick past Jean Ayra in the 85th minute.
In the second game on February 1, Lopez played hero again, as he equalized in the 85th minute to lift Cuba to a 1-1 tie after St. Fort recorded another penalty in the 25th minute, this time against another keeper, Antonio Garcia, in front of 6,000 fans.
In the third match on February 4, this time before 5,000 spectators, the Cubans had an offensive outburst, registering a 6-0 win. Hector Socorro, Lopez and Francisco Socorro scored in the first half, while Enrique Ferrer, Salvador Solto and Lopez again, found the back of the net after the break.
Those results propelled Cuba into the next round against Mexico, which won all three of their meetings over a two-week span: 3-2, 5-0 and 4-1.
Qualifying, though, wasn't quite finished. The Tricolor still had to play the USA, which reached the semifinals of the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay four years earlier, in a winner-take-all match in Rome, only days prior to the actual kickoff of the World Cup.
In that confrontation, the Americans prevailed, 4-2, as Aldo (Buff) Donelli recorded a hat-trick.
The Mexicans went home and the U.S. played only a single match, losing 7-1 to Italy in the opening round.