Next month sees the crucial second-to-last round of games in the qualifying stages for next year's World Cup in Germany. It's going to be an exciting time, with the fate of many countries being decided, while others will be left with sudden-death playoffs.
The South American qualifying group is a mini World Cup all of its own. Each of the ten nations must play each other home and away, meaning an epic 18 games in total (in contrast, the European teams only play 10 or 11 games). There are no weak teams, and with the different national rivalries, each match is a big occasion.
Unfortunately for my personal sympathies, Peru is already out. Much like the country itself, Peru's football team is less than the sum of its parts. They have talented players but are plagued by a collective lack of confidence, puzzling tactics, failure to convert opportunites, and a tendency to leak soft goals. They find themselves 9th on the table, above only Bolivia.
Predictably, Argentina and Brazil are already through on 31 and 3o points. I'm picking, and even hoping, that 2006 may be Argentina's year. Forget the rather negative, cynical teams of the 80s, enlivened only by the genius of Diego Maradona. The current Argentina team play an attractive, attacking game based on the elaborate interweaving of individual skills.
In games between the sides Brazil has traditionally been the neutrals' favourite, but when the two teams met in the final of the Copa America in Peru last year everyone agreed that Argentina was much the better team. Brazil, lacking a couple of their stars, sat back all game and did little. They managed to equalise in the very last minute of both the first and second halves through pieces of individual brilliance, and nabbed a 2-2 draw, going on to win on penalties.
Third and fourth have also become reasonably clear, with Ecuador and Paraguay on 26 and 25 points. Paraguay are now making a habit of qualifying for World Cups, and would like to think of themselves as South America's "third force". Ecuador are also looking to make it their second in a row, but I don't have a lot of time for them. They play all their home games at altitude in Quito and have won almost all their points there--soundly defeating both Brazil and Argentina. On the road they have done virtually nothing.
My remaining sympathies are with Colombia, who will likely scrap it out with Chile and Uruguay for the fifth position. Football tournaments seem to follow me around (I was in France in '98 and Peru for the Copa America last year), and it turned out that my visit to the coffee-growing region of Colombia coincided with the South American under-21 championships there. Colombia beat all comers with compelling performances of outrageous skill and joie de vivre that were a pleasure to watch. If the inconsistent senior team could reproduce even a fraction of this style, you would certainly want to see them in Germany.
The fifth-placed South American team will play off against Australia for a spot at the World Cup. I think it would fantastic to see Australia make it, but if Colombia nab that fifth spot, my loyalties will be conflicted.
However, in terms of my adopted "home" teams, my remaining hopes are largely resting with Guatemala in the North American zone. Never having previously qualified for a World Cup, Guatemala had a great first phase to get through to the final qualifying group. The two giants in that group--Mexico and the USA--are already through on 19 points, and Costa Rica now look safe in third on 13. Guatemala is hanging on to fourth on 8 points, one ahead of Trinidad and Tobago. The prize would be a playoff against the fifth Asian team. Whoever eventually contests that playoff, and whatever the result, it's bound to produce a fairy story, since the Asian opponent will be either Uzbekistan or Bahrain.
The top four Asian teams go through automatically, and there are no suprises there--Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have already qualified.
I don't know much at all about form in the African groups, but from the points tables it looks like South Africa might well miss out. It's also touch and go for Nigeria, while Ghana looks like it might finally make good on its reputation as a major African team by qualifying for Germany.
In Europe, the eight group winners plus two best second-placed teams go in automatically, while the other six second-placed teams play off for three final spots. Already-qualified teams are Germany (as hosts) and the Ukraine for the first time ever. My other perennial second favourite teams, Holland and Portugal, also look certain to go through, while Italy are pretty much there as well.
After looking like they would sleepwalk in, England somehow contrived to lose to Northern Ireland, and now need to win both their remaining home games against Poland and Austria to qualify automatically. Even if Poland is overtaken, it will qualify as one of the best second-placed teams. France has managed to convince Zinedine Zidane and other senior players to come back and now looks odds-on to take its group ahead of Switzerland. Spain is struggling in second behind Serbia and Montenegro and may be in for a playoff.
The Czech Republic is also looking good for a "best second-placed" spot behind Holland, while in the least inspiring group both Croatia and Sweden have a good chance. Significant teams likely to miss out altogether include Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, and one out of 2002 World Cup semi-finalist Turkey and Euro 2004 champion Greece. For those who believe in miracles, Scotland have made a late run--they are still fourth in Italy's group, but have a last couple of chances to pip Norway and Slovenia for a playoff spot.
Whoever makes it to Germany, I, and most other football fans, will be hoping for something special to give the international game back some of its spark and romance. The 2002 World Cup broke new cultural ground by being hosted in Korea and Japan, but the football was a little lacklustre, Brazil and Germany contesting the final virtually by default. It wasn't as dire as USA 1994, where Brazil took the title by beating Italy on penalties, but no player or team really set the world on fire.
After an exciting, goal-filled tournament in 2000, the European championships last year also failed to capture the imagination. Greece's performance in taking the title was heroic, but not exactly inspiring, based as it was on throwing everybody behind the ball but still managing to pinch one goal a game. Credit to them for doing it three matches in a row.
In the last couple of major tournaments, teams with a lot of players in the really big leagues (particularly those in England, Spain and Italy) have seemed tired, listless and unmotivated. With the big money now involved, club teams dominate schedules and loyalites, and the international scene has suffered.
Even at club level, all is not rosy. The Champions League was the inevitable result of the increasing popularity and professionalisation of football, and the money pouring in from cable TV. Big name teams like Manchester United, RealMadrid and AC Milan were able to assemble teams of stars, and agree to play each other more often than in the past.
This was always going to exacerbate the haves / have-nots divide, and mean the end of unknown teams like Nottingham Forest coming through to win the European Cup. But it was accepted as free-spirited capitalism, which gave people what they wanted to see. Harlem Globetrotters-style teams like Barcelona, with their attitude of "if you score four we'll score five", produced compelling sporting spectacles that were hard to argue with.
Now, however, capitalism is morphing into oligarchy. Nothing typifies this more than the rise of Chelsea. Under the ownership of Russian oil baron Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have given new definition to the concept of buying success. The approach has been simple--if someone's good, get them, and bugger the expense. When Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho steered Porto to the Champions League title he was brought to Chelsea and told to assemble the squad of his choosing. When Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard inspired his side to an improbable Champions League success last season, Chelsea immediately tried to buy him (though in this case, Gerrard decided to stay with Liverpool).
While other clubs have put together teams of internationals, Chelsea now has two such teams. Stars such as Dutch winger Arjen Robben or English midfielder Frank Lampard are supplemented with players of comparable quality in every single position--negating the need to muddle through injuries or get individuals to play a range of tactics. While they have not had Champions Leaue success yet, Chelsea last season won the English Premiership with a record points tally, and this season are ten points ahead after only seven games.
To the fustration at the numbing predictability of the premiership has been added fans' increasing disgust at the values emanating from the game. In the last couple of months the British media has looked wistfully at the drama, passion, skill and gentlemanly comportment of the Ashes cricket series. In constrast, footballers with their stratospheric salaries seem to only display petulance and greed, and practically to collude with the tabloid media (a la Martin Amis' hilarious scene in Yellow Dog) in generating stories of violence and misbehaviour.
So, everyone's hoping for a bit of drama, passion, and even some inspiration at Germany 2006 to kick some life back into the sport. I'm not holding my breath, but football has been written off before, only to renew itself, so who knows?
In the meantime, go Guatemala!
Categories: football, Germany 2006