September 10, 2009

Joy in England, Disappointment in Argentina and Drama in Saudi Arabia: World Cup 2010 Qualifying Update

After the penultimate round of World Cup qualifiers, the smoke seems to be clearing as the World Cup picture comes into focus for many nations while other races have become even tighter. England, Spain, Brazil, Ghana and Paraguay all booked their tickets, joining Japan, Australia, North Korea, Netherlands, South Korea and host nation South Africa as the first eleven to have cemented their positions in next year's competition.

Now for a breakdown by qualification group....

UEFA (Europe)

The qualification of Spain and England means that now three of the nine automatic spots in South Africa are occupied. The winners of the six remaining groups will also automatically qualify after the final round of games in October. The top eight of nine second place teams from each group will then be randomly drawn into home and home ties to decide the final four spots allocated to Europe (because one group has one fewer team than the rest, the second place standings will not take into account the two games played by the second place nations against the last place teams in each group). Portugal has seemingly revived their hopes of sneaking into the aforementioned second place playoffs with a crucial point off an 87th minute strike in Denmark and a win in Hungary. The Czechs hit for seven against San Marino after a draw in Slovakia and have seemingly put themselves back into contention for qualification; however, Slovenia is up two points and will face the very feeble, above mentioned San Marino in their second fixture of the next round. Slovenia's result in Slovakia in the first leg will ultimately decide the fate for both the Czechs and the group. The Germans can clinch their group with a win in Russia next round but a Russian victory would allow them to leapfrog the group leaders and control their own destiny. Ukraine are two points off an injury plagued Croatian squad with a game in hand. With the Ukrainian's second fixture against a very anemic Andorran squad, playing hosts to Fabio Capello's England (who we know will not take any match lightly) will prove vital for the last qualification position. The French drew twice this past week but are still within striking distance of winning Group Seven. Although Serbia leads them by four points, home ties against the Faroe Islands and Austria should prove fruitful for the Blues and put some pressure on the Serbians. Norway's victory coupled with the Scottish loss Wednesday clinched second place for the Norwegians; nonetheless, a World Cup berth is a long shot for the Scandinavian nation. Being in the group with the fewest teams, Norway has concluded their qualifying matches and sit seventh (on 10 points) in the rankings of second place teams. Republic of Ireland (10 points) and Sweden (9 points) both have two games in hand so a Norwegian qualification into just the next round would require a massive collapse by at least one of the two nations.

The strength of the Spanish, Dutch and English would leave one to believe that all three nations could be considered favorites for the Cup next summer; however, it is important to note that no European nation has ever won a World Cup off 'The Continent.'

CONCACAF (North America, Central America & Caribbean)

Costa Rica has very quickly squandered their early lead on the CONCACAF table and now find themselves in trouble. While it is all but certain that they will finish no worse than fourth, fourth place requires a home and home match against the fifth place (currently Argentina) South American country to win qualification. Boasting a very impressive home record, the Costa Ricans were embarrassed on their own soil against Mexico and conceded a late winner to a weaker El Salvadorian squad to drop themselves from first to fourth. The United States played a hair above mediocrity this past week but, while their form lacked, were able to secure six points from their two matches. Now with the opportunity to reserve their place in South Africa with a win in Honduras, the United States have shown their resilience throughout this qualifying process by achieving results while not playing their best football. Mexico has turned around a poor start to the final CONCACAF stage and should qualify with matches against the group's weakest members, home to El Salvador and at Trinidad and Tobago, in the next round of games.

CONMEBOL (South America)

Perennial favorites Brazil have clinched yet again while Paraguay have booked their fourth straight World Cup ticket. Argentina, after losing at home to Brazil and on the road to Paraguay, find themselves of needing at least a playoff in order to be playing in South Africa next year. The Goal of the Week, however, was the only bright spot from Argentina's otherwise miserable week. Jesus Datolo's brilliant left-footed strike brought the Argentineans’ back into the game briefly, though a Luis Fabiano chip a minute later put the game back out of reach.

With Argentina's final qualifier coming on the road against rival and neighbor Uruguay, nothing is guaranteed to a nation that is often considered one of the most talented in the world. Chile's bid for qualification was put on hold after a hat trick from Nilmar lead the Brazilians to victory even after two strikes from Suazo put the Chileans back on terms. Colombia was brilliant in their first leg, defeating Ecuador and then equally disappointing as they folded in Uruguay. Ecuador put their Wednesday defeat at Colombia behind them as they rallied against both Bolivia and the altitude to launch themselves into fourth and the final automatic qualification position. The most intriguing storyline of the CONMEBOL comes from a traditionally baseball oriented nation. Venezuela, known for their flame throwing pitchers and completely insane presidents, are the only South American nations to never qualify for a World Cup. And while a few mistakes along the way will make qualification an uphill battle, it is still a possibility. Having earned 11 points on their last 5 matches, Venezuela now sit on 21 points, one point out of fifth and two out of fourth; however, they would need to jump at least two of the three nations above them: Ecuador, Argentina, and Uruguay. A poor goal differential (-5) and remaining matches against Brazil and in Paraguay may see the demise of this Cinderella story but with both teams already qualified (and concern about Brazil's participation in the Confederations Cup tiring out their squad ahead of next year’s tournament) Venezuela may see younger more experienced squads. It will be a long shot, yes, but impossible, no.

While Argentina's play of late has replaced the topic of debate from World Cup champion contender to World Cup participant, history is on their side. The last time the South American nation won the World Cup, 1986, there were questions if they would even be competing as well. Maradona and the 1986 Argentine squad required a home and home playoff (after finishing fifth in the CONMEBOL) against Australia to be eligible for the tournament. After a draw 1-1 in Australia, Argentina launched their championship run at home with a 1-0 victory (winning 2-1 on aggregate), months before any team took the field in Mexico.

CAF (Africa), OFC (Oceania) & AFC (Asia)

Asides from Ghana's qualification, the groups of the CAF were very uneventful with only seven matches played over the international break. Most of the groups will need the final round of qualification fixtures to decide who will and will not be playing next summer; however, the Ivory Coast has all but affirmed their position in South Africa. The OFC's half bid was awarded to New Zealand, who awaited the winner of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain this past week. The winner of the final Asian half spot would then play New Zealand in a home and home for a bid to the Cup. After a 0-0 draw in Bahrain, the second leg and Game of the Week (video below) was played in Saudi Arabia's King Fahd International Stadium. With the game tied at one, a brilliant hustle play to save the ball and serve it into the area led to the go ahead and seemingly game winning goal for Saudi Arabia. The Stadium erupted. Hamad Al Montashari, the goal scorer, ripped his shirt off and ran to the stands to celebrate with his countrymen. Words were not necessary to describe the meaning of that goal; enough was said on the faces of the Bahrain players. But the game was not over. Much like the Croatia, Turkey match at the Euro Cup last summer, the game is never over until the final whistle blows. A corner kick minutes after Montashari's presumed game winner found the head of Ismail Abdullahatif and then the back of the net sending through Bahrain to the next round on the away goal rule. The stadium was now silent. The Saudi Arabian players around the goal collapsed. The video below is a true testament to the emotions and excitement of the game and sport in general. From defeat to ecstasy or jubilation to horror, every spectrum of emotions was felt within three minutes at King Fahd International Stadium.

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