Thursday, September 11, 2008

On the Road to South Africa 2010

The Olympics were definitely an exciting sportswatching dalliance. But as someone with a long-term relationship with international football, it's good to see the thrills of Euro 2008 be followed in pretty short order by the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa

As always, I have a series of allegiances and favourites as the qualifying drama unfolds across the different continents.

My greatest interest is perhaps in South America, where Peru remains as enigmatic as ever. In the first few rounds, the team seemed hellbent on creating ever-greater national embarassment, with five-goal thrashings by the likes of Ecuador and Uruguay. Just when it seemed like they were angling for a demotion to another continent, the Peruvians have dragged themselves off the floor with a 1-0 home win against Venezuela, and today, a thrilling last-minute 1-1 draw with Argentina, an epochal run down the left by Juan Vargas providing a sliding tap-in for Johan Fano and sending the Lima crowd into delirium.

Unfortunately, Colombia are going in the other direction. Having been in the top three and unbeaten after the first five rounds (including a 2-1 home win against Argentina), they have now slipped to sixth, with a home loss to Uruguay and a 4-0 thrashing from Chile. All the Andean teams have slipped off the pace, with Paraguay four points clear on 17 points, and the Southern Cone (Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay) threatening to monopolize the potential qualifying spots.

But the South American campaign is always long, tough, and full of reversals and surprises -- and surely at some stage a Latin American team other than Brazil or Argentina will prove the depth of the continent's football by matching the feats of non-giants like Poland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Croatia and South Korea, and making it to at least the semi-final stage of a World Cup.

In the North American zone, perennial qualifiers the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica are looking good to go through to the final group of six that will decide the candidates for 2010. My hopes are with Guatemala, who holds a slight edge over Trinidad & Tobago in the battle to take second place in the US group and also go to the final six.

If the South American qualifiers (18 games) reward perseverance and adaptability, the European groups, with strength in depth, are a cutthroat affair where a couple of slipups can leave even the bigger teams struggling for survival. There's already been a couple of those, with France going down 3-1 to lowly Austria in the first game, while today Switzerland were stunned 2-1 at home to Luxembourg. Portugal will be wondering what hit them, after somehow letting Denmark score three goals in the last ten minutes to lose 3-2. For Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands there have been few problems so far, while the much-maligned English surpised with a dynamic 4-1 win over the overconfident Croatians in Zagreb.

If I could pick a dark horse in Europe, Israel may have its best chance ever of qualifying. They're in Switzerland's group, with the only other major candidate being Greece (whose unlikely Euro 2004 triumph has made it a 'seeded' team for subsequent tournaments).

Then of course there's our little corner of the world. Say what you like about FIFA, they really seem to be sincere about having a 'world' cup. Cynics have long argued that the disproportionate number of places for North America and Asia has more to do with money-spinning tourists and television audiences than the desire for a quality global competition. But the recent changes which make it easier than ever for a team to qualify from Oceania can surely not be based on any potential for profit.

In the past, the Oceania winner -- usually Australia -- had to face a playoff against the fifth qualifier from South America. Having finally managed this task in 2006, the Australian federation then announced it was shifting its allegiance to Asia, where it thought it could qualify more easily. The joke is on the Australians, however, because although they will still probably get through without too much trouble, FIFA has changed the rules and the Oceania winner now only needs to win a playoff against the fifth-best Asian team in order to make to South Africa

Therefore, remarkably, after home-and-away rounds against Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, a workmanlike New Zealand team only has to get a couple of good results next year to reach its second world cup. In reality, this will still probably be a bridge too far -- but likely opponents such as Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan, though superior, are not unbeatable.

It seems a little unfair when New Zealand is probably a notch below even traditional European minnows like Cyprus -- whose performance against Italy in the first European qualifying round deserved better than a last minute 1-2 loss. With all our limitations, we have a better chance of qulaifying for the world cup than they ever will.

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