A Massive World Cup Qualification Preview
International press conferences at the best of times tend to be mundane, by the numbers affairs filled with platitudes by the key figures within the national side. Not much changes when it comes to conferences prior to World Cup qualifiers, or even the finals itself, but within the words always lies a common train of thought: There are few, if any greater honours in football than representing your country at the World Cup.
England press conferences are laced with references to qualification, how much being at the World Cup means to the players and what winning the trophy would mean to their careers. The same reverence for the competition can be found in the words of any major national side, so for the smaller nations, imagine the honour of being one of the 32 teams going to the finals.
The role played by the lesser nations in World Cup finals down the years has been one of the factors which has helped the competition reach such a status in the minds of players and fans alike. Think about the likes of North Korea in 1966, Bulgaria in 1994 and Senegal in 2002, all three, along with many others, have left a mark on the finals which remains in the national and international consciousness to this day.
In the build-up to the critical juncture for sides still harbouring ambitions of following in their footsteps by qualifying for South Africa in 2010, this article takes a look at some of the other sides in international football looking to make the finals. Some will be more familiar than others, some have already left their mark on the finals in years gone by, while others are looking to secure their place for the very first time. But irrespective of the history, the ambition remains the same amongst these sides as it does in the major nations: represent your country at the World Cup.
5 sides will join South Africa in the finals on the home continent, with Ghana looking fairly assured of their place in the finals going into this weekend’s fixtures. Group 2 also looks to be a straight fight between Tunisia and Nigeria for the qualifying berth, while the Ivory Coast also appear to be headed for their second straight finals. The Elephants will all but secure qualification with a win at home today, but they need to overcome Burkina Faso, second in the group, three points behind the Ivory Coast with three games left.
Les Etalons are no strangers to the final round of African qualifying, but this represents their first real opportunity to make the finals, after securing wins away in Malawi and a surprise 4-2 win in the Burkinase capital of Ouagadougou against Guinea. Defeat against the Ivory Coast put a severe dent in their ambitions to make the finals, and defeat in Abidjan this afternoon will all but extinguish their hopes, but they will hope to replicate the kind of performances which have taken them to this stage, which include going unbeaten in the previous stage of qualifying in a group including Tunisia. If the Stallions want to put themselves back in with a shout of qualifying, they will need to rely heavily on the influence of Hamburg’s Jonathan Pitropia in midfield, along with CFR Cluj’s Yssouf Kone up front. At best, it seems a long shot for Burkina Faso, but to still be in with a shout at this stage represents significant progress for a side who haven’t come close to qualifying for the finals previously.
In with a far better shout are the somewhat more familiar name of Algeria, who have their own place in World Cup history for both the right and wrong reasons. The Desert Foxes made the finals in both 1982 and 1986, defeating eventual finalists West Germany 2-1 in their opening match of the former, which remains one of the major shocks in finals history. However, the Algerians were then the victims of the infamous agreement between the West Germans and Austrians in the final match of the group, which allowed both sides to advance to the second phase as a consequence of a 1-0 victory for the West Germans. The fix sparked international outrage, but ultimately little was done to help the Algerians, with a revision of the scheduling for the final group matches the end result of the shambolic events. Algeria never reached such a stage again, a draw against Northern Ireland in Mexico four years later proving to be their only point of the group.
Since then, qualifying for the World Cup has been a mixture of near misses (defeat over two legs against Egypt denying them a place at Italia 90) and humiliation (Defeat to Kenya over two legs in the opening stage of qualification for France 98). In the period, they also managed to win their first and only African Cup of Nations on home soil in 1990, but Algeria have toiled somewhat since that famous day in Gijon 27 years ago.
Now they probably find themselves two wins away from the World Cup finals, with home fixtures agaisnt Zambia and Rwanda coming up, which should allow them to further increase their advantage in goal difference over the Egyptians before their potentially deciding contest in Cairo on the 14th November. If the Algerians manage to win their next two games, then chances are they will go to the Egyptian capital with a near unassailable goal difference, along with a three-point lead over the reigning African Cup of Nations champions, making qualification all but guaranteed. With a couple of familiar names within their ranks, such as Portsmouth’s Nadir Belhadj, Blackpool’s Hamuer Bouazza and Hull’s new recruit Kamil Ghilas, along with lynchpin Karim Ziani, currently playing for Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg, things are looking good for the Algerians in their bid to make the finals for the first time in 24 years.
Perhaps the side with the greatest chance of upsetting the odds however is Gabon, with the national side’s progress on the pitch reflecting the prosperity the country is experiencing off it. The Black Panthers’ progress since their first attempt to qualify for the finals in 1990 has been marked, going from relative also-rans up to now, where they still face a difficult task in qualifying top of Group A, but after wins in Morocco and at home to Togo, they find themselves two points clear of the latter with a game in hand to come. Four points over their next two games, home and away to Cameroon, should put them in a commanding position on top of the group ahead of a visit to Togo in October, with a home tie in Libraville against Morocco to finish their campaign.
Save for three African Cup of Nations appearances (With a fourth guaranteed due to their co-hosting with Equatorial Guinea in 2012), Gabon have largely failed to leave an impact upon African football since their introduction nearly 50 years ago. Now, with former French international Alain Giresse at the helm, and Hull’s Daniel Cousin spearheading the attack, the Azingo Nationale could be about to upset the odds, after starting out their group percieved as the weakest and least experienced of the quartet looking to secure top spot. Of all the three ‘outsiders’ in with a genuine shout of qualification, Gabon probably represent the best chance of success, along with one of the more interesting stories, given the relatively unheralded nature of the team.
Qualification for the Asian nations has been all but concluded, with Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Australia (despite their tenous claims to Asian residency) making up four of the potential five sides from Asia who can make it to South Africa next year. One spot remains available to the AFC however, with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain due to contest a play-off for 5th place, with the first leg in Riffa later, with the return in Riyadh on Wednesday, the winner going on to play New Zealand for a place in the finals.
For Al-Ahmar, who will start as underdogs against the experienced Saudi Arabians, victory would provide them with a fantastic opportunity to make the finals and finally break through into the ranks of the top Asian teams, after years of threatening to make the step up. Thus far, Bahrain’s international history has been littered with near-misses, casting themselves as the bridesmaids of the Asian Federation.
Three times the Reds have finished as runners up in the Gulf Cup of Nations since the inaugural competition in 1970. Twice they have been defeated in the final of the Arab Nations Cup since 1985. Their record in the Asian Cup was unremarkable for many years, prior to the 2004 edition in China, where the Bahrainis twice led against Japan in the semi-finals, only to concede a stoppage time equaliser and go down 4-3 after extra time, eventually finishing 4th overall.
Probably the biggest disappointment came four years ago in qualification for the last World Cup, where a play-off victory over Uzbekistan took them into a two-legged qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago, with the winner going to Germany. A 1-0 defeat away in the first leg was recovered by half-time in the return leg in Manama, before Dennis Lawrence ended the Gulf state’s hopes of making the final with the crucial away goal, The Soca Warriors winning the tie 2-1 on aggregate. Now, Bahrain potentially find themselves two wins away from their debut appearance at the finals, but with plenty of work to do to overcome the Saudi Arabians in the first instance, they could be in for another disappointment, it will be up to star turn Mahmood ‘Ringo’ Abdulrahman to upset the Saudi Arabians and take Bahrain to the brink of qualification for South Africa.
With 13 places at stake, and only the Netherlands thus far qualified for the finals, Europe remains the most open of all the continental qualifying zones. Expect to see the Dutch joined over the next few days by the likes of Germany, Spain and England over the next few days, but otherwise the groups remain open, with a few old names and new sides making an impact in their bid to make it to South Africa next June.
Hungary are probably the most notable of the ‘outsiders’ looking to make it to the finals, with a track record in international football that matches up to most, however it has been a long time since they had their moment in the spotlight. Along with the Dutch finalists of 1974 and ’78 and Brazil’s 1950 runners-up, Hungary’s ‘Magical Magyars’ of 1954 probably represent one of the greatest teams to play at the World Cup who failed to come away with the title.With the likes of Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Puskas in their ranks, the Hungarians went on an unbeaten run of 32 games, spanning over 4 years, all the way to the final, where they fell victim to the ‘Miracle of Berne’, losing to a West German side who they had defeated 8-3 in the group stages a fortnight earlier. Combined with their defeat to the Italians after extra time in the 1934 final, the Hungarians, much like the Bahrainis, have the feel of a nearly-side, although on a far grander scale.
Since the heady days of the 50′s, Hungarian football has gradually declined from World Cup finals, European Championship semi-finals in 1964 and 1972, and Honved’s status as one of the greatest European club teams, to no World Cup appearances in 23 years, no European Championship finals in 37 years, and the nadir of a 2-1 defeat to Malta in qualification for Euro 2008. Since that infamous night nearly three years ago, Hungarian football has been undergoing something of a renaissance at club and international level, although the Magyars still face an uphill battle to follow in the footsteps of domestic champions Debrecni in breaking the glass ceiling of qualification for the Champions’ League group stages.
Wins over Albania, Malta and a draw at home to Denmark have put the Hungarians in a good position to at least make the play-offs through Group 1, exploiting the slip-ups by favourites Portugal and Sweden thus far. With four games to go, the Magyars still face home and away fixtures against Portugal, a trip to Copenhagen to face the group leaders and a crucial tie at home to Sweden this evening, looking to avenge their only defeat thus far, 2-1 at the Rasunda Stadium. With an in-form Denmark still to host Portugal and Sweden, a few positive results for the Hungarians should see them into the play-offs, a few other positive results may even see them qualify automatically, heralding a remarkable return to form after a long barren spell. You get the impression that while their resurgence may be stopped in it’s tracks were they to make it to the finals, a return to the main stage for the Hungarians may provide a point of interest, even if it comes at the expense of the prescence of Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Africa.
Group 3 remains wide open, with five sides still potentially in with a shout of making it to the play-offs or qualifying automatically, with Slovenia, Poland and the Czech Republic looking to build upon recent visits to the finals. For Slovakia and Northern Ireland however, filling the top two spots in the group at this late stage represents something new in the first instance, and a welcome return to form for the Northern Irish.
Formed out of the Czechoslovakian split in 1993, the Slovakians have on a number of occasions threatened to make an impression in qualifying, none more so than in making the play-offs for the first time in a major competition four years ago, before going down to a rampant Spain over two legs. Their current situation undoubtedly presents their greatest opportunity to date however, with the Slovakians going on a remarkable run of form over the last two years.
The Repre have only managed draws with Hungary and Iceland in their last nine friendlies, with defeats to the Icelandics and away to Cyprus in amongst the seven defeats. However, their six matches in qualification have produced 5 wins and only one defeat, away to Slovenia almost a year ago. With victories in Prague against the Czechs, along with home wins against fellow group rivals Poland and Northern Ireland, the Slovaks find themselves two points ahead of the chasing pack, with a game in hand over the Northern Irish and Slovenians.
With renowned talent throughout the side, such as Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, Napoli’s Marek Hamsik and leading goalscorer Stanislav Sestak, Slovakia certainly have what it takes to pick up the necessary points from their remaining four matches to make their inaugural appearance at the finals, and trouble a few teams if and when they reach that stage.
The Northern Irish probably present the greatest threat to the Slovakians chances of finishing top of Group 3. For Nigel Worthington’s men, to even be at this stage given their position only a few years ago marks them out as possibly the most improved side in Europe over recent years. Qualification for Euro 2004 saw the Northern Irish finish rock bottom of group 6, home and away defeats to Armenia being one of the lowest moments in international history for a side famed for their exploits in knocking out the hosts against the odds at the World Cup in 1982. Ranked 45th out of 52 UEFA nations, scoring a goal to end a 1,298 minute drought in a 4-1 defeat to Norway sparked embarrasingly jubilant celebration amongst the Windsor Park faithful during a friendly in February 2004. Little were we to know at the time that would be the catalyst for the Wee Nation’s stunning revival.
Wins followed. Qualifying wins followed. Qualification wins against Denmark, Spain, England followed. Northern Ireland became competitive again. Windsor Park became a fortress. Windsor Park remains a fortress, thus far unbreached in this qualifying campaign. Suddenly, the momentum has led to the point where the team finds itself in the best position to secure a play-off spot, with a two-point advantage over Slovenia and three over Poland, but having played a game more. In order to all but secure their spot in the play-offs, the Northern Irish must build upon a poor away record with positive results in Chorzow today and in concluding their campaign in the Czech Republic a month from now. With a visit by leaders Slovakia sandwiched in between, five points should see Northern Ireland into the play-offs and given them a genuine shout of making the finals for the first time since 1986. Nine points, and the resurgence for one of Europe’s trickier outfits will be complete.
A side quickly establishing a similar reputation for itself in UEFA are the relative newcomers Bosnia-Herzegovina, currently second in Group 6, behind European champions Spain, with the focus upon retaining their play-off spot, with a four-point gap to nearest rivals Turkey. The Bosnians, much like Slovakia, came into being in 1993 and have since then developed into a side shot through with talented players, forming a cohesive unit backed by fervent support which has made visits to Sarajevo and Zenica tricky for any side, 3 defeats in 12 years and 17 World Cup qualifiers in Bosnia telling their own story.
One goal away from qualification for Euro 2004, clearly the Balkan nation are a side who have the knack for qualification campaigns, a trait which should eventually see them rewarded with a trip to a major finals. Now may be the moment for them, with Turkey stuttering badly and Belgium a former shadow of themselves, evidence coming in their 2-1 defeat in Zenica in April, off the back of a stunning 4-2 win in Genk for the Bosnians four days earlier. The double against such famous opposition has put them in great shape, ahead of a visit to Armenia later on, with Turkey and Spain still to make the trip to Southern Europe. Led by sought-after Wolfsburg striker Edin Dzeko, with support in the shape of Lyon starlet Miralem Pjanic and Hoffenheim’s recovering marksman Vedad Ibisevic, Bosnia should at least secure themselves a play-off position given their run of fixtures remaining in the group, a two-legged tie no-one will fancy, especially given the daunting task of having to get something positive from an away day in Sarajevo or Zenica.
By and large, it’s a case of the usual suspects in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, with three of the top four spots in almost certain to be filled by the United States, Costa Rica and Mexico, with the fourth placed side in the group advancing to a two-legged play-off against fifth place from the South American equivalent. Looking to disrupt the established order of the last two qualifying campaigns are Honduras, who are beginning to convert their long-held promise into tangible results, with World Cup qualification beckoning for La Bicolor.
The Hondurans aren’t complete strangers to success, with one finals appearance to their name, making a decent account of themselves in Group 5 during Espana ’82, coming off the back of a CONCACAF title (The prelude to the Gold Cup) a year earlier. Combined with two UNCAF championships in the early 1990′s, as the best side in the Central Americas region, Honduras have a decent track record of success by comparative standards in the North American region. Since their second UNCAF title in 1993 though, results have been patchy for Los Catrachos. Near misses, such as with qualifying for Japan/Korea in 2002 and finishing 3rd in the 2001 Copa America have been followed up with bad campaigns in attempting to make the finals in 1998 and 2006.
They have maintained good form all the way throughout their qualifying run up to this stage in a bid to make South Africa, and with a perfect record from three home games thus far in the final group, coupled with a draw away to 2006 finalists Trinidad and Tobago, the Hondurans have 10 points from 6 games, leading the United States by virtue of goal difference, one point clear of 4th placed Mexico. With four games remaining, including a visit to Mexico and hosting the USA, Honduras are not yet guaranteed a place in South Africa, but the signs look good. With a young side finding places within important European and world clubs (Wilson Palacios at Spurs, Ramon Nunez at Cruz Azul and David Suazo still at Inter Milan), Honduras are slowly beginning to make their prescence felt on the world stage. Qualification for South Africa next year may give this burgeoning side a chance to test their mettle against the best there is, and see how far they have improved from the inconsistent unit which characterised the last two decades for the Hondurans.
The defection of Australia to the Asian confederation has opened the door for New Zealand to assume dominance of a confederation painfully thin on competition. Typically, the All Whites’ World Cup campaign would be long ended by now, given the sheer dominance of the Socceroos over many years in the OFC, a domination only broken once, when the New Zealanders advanced to the World Cup finals in Mexico 23 years ago, only to be hammered by the Scots, Soviets and Brazilians en route to bottom place in their group. The low point for the national side came only five years ago, when the Solomon Islands finished second in the final OFC phase of qualifying, pipping New Zealand to the right to being beaten by Australia in the final play-off.
The departure of the Australians to Asian qualifying has given New Zealand their opportunity, one seized, along with the OFC Nations Cup last year, topping a group including New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu, guaranteeing themselves a play-off against either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia for the right to go to South Africa. Victory in the continental competition gave us a chance to see the New Zealanders in action at the Confederations Cup held as a dry run for the finals in June/July. Unfortunately, there was little promise shown throughout the All Whites’ three group games, unsurprisingly being on the recieving end of a drubbing by Spain, followed by lifeless performances in losing to the hosts, and getting a point against an equally uninspiring Iraq team. As a warm-up for the serious business of the two-legged play-off to come in October and November, it was not promising for the New Zealanders.
It would be wrong to be entirely negative however, as worse sides have gone to the World Cup in years gone by (A hopelessly out of depth Zaire in 1978 and an equally bad El Salvador in 1986) and worse sides will probably go to the World Cup in the future. For New Zealand, to even be at this stage can only be a positive experience, and two positive results are all that stand between them and a prestigious spot in the finals, an achievable target, especially if the likes of Blackburn’s Ryan Nelsen, Celtic Chris Killen and San Jose Earthquakes’ Simon Elliott are on form. Beyond the qualification process, you fear for what damage could be inflicted to this New Zealand side if paired up against a serious contender, but when you relate back to the concept of the honour in representing your nation at the World Cup finals, such worries can be negated somewhat.
With the focus firmly on the twin powers of Brazil and Argentina, particularly with the latter’s struggles to qualify for the finals, every other contender for one of the top four automatic spots, or the 5th place which will take them into a play-off against the fourth placed side from North America, has been allowed to progress through qualifying without much focus on their performance. Clearly this has helped Chile in their bid to return to the finals for the first time since France ’98, with their impressive results which have taken them to the brink of qualification relatively unheralded amongst the South American media.
With four games remaining in the group, La Roja find themselves six points clear of Ecuador in 5th place. With two wins this week, tonight against a struggling Venezuelan team in Santiago and away to Bolivia on Wednesday, Chile will all but guarantee qualification for the finals, a reward for their brand of attractive football pursued under Argentinean Marcelo Bielsa since he took the job in 2007. It will signal a return to the finals for a Chilean team with a chequered history in the competition, famous more for their anecdotal history and low points rather than their performances in the competition.
A run to the semi-finals on home soil in 1962, made famous by the oft-repeated story about beating teams after eating or drinking steretypical food or drink from their country, was marred by the ‘Battle of Santiago’, when their match against Italy descended into an all-out brawl, defined as the “most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition in football.” Combined with the ban the Chileans recieved from trying to qualify for USA ’94 after goalkeeper Roberto Rojas cut himself with a blade to make it seem as if he had been hit by a missile from the Brazilian crowd behind him during a crucial Italia ’90 qualifier, and Chile’s record of one semi-final, one second round finish and four other first round appearances soon pale into comparison.
This time around, Chile have the potential to make the headlines for the right reasons. Gone are the twin towers of Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano leading the line for the Chileans, replaced by players of lesser calibre, but who have collectively unified to produce a strong team, accounting for Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia throughout the qualifying process. Although unremarkable talents on their own, the likes of Boca Juniors midfielder Gary Medel, Sporting Lisbon winger Matias Fernandez and Monterrey striker Humerto Suazo have all contributed to put Chile on the verge of making it back to the finals. Come South Africa, they will hope to make the headlines for all the right reasons.