World Cup Update
I’ve found some time and I must update you on the happenings outside of Europe, which surely everyone is paying attention to, including me. The whole hierarchy of African qualifying is in disarray after some totally shocking results that most definitely have flown under the radar to the untrained eye. I only heard about them because I check FIFA.com ritually. As I write right now, I am watching Djibouti get destroyed by Congo DR 5-0 in the 85th minute, and in only a short while Ethiopia and Mauritania will battle as well. So with that let’s take stock in the African situation.
The aforementioned upsets came about on June 8th (this past Sunday while the EURO 2008 Group B fixtures were dominating the attention of the world), and there are a few I must speak of. First, the biggest and most thrilling upset has to be Swaziland beating Togo 2-1. This result puts Swaziland in the driver seat of their smaller Group 11 (which is the only group with 3 teams compared to the normal 4 thanks to Eritrea withdrawing) and a win for them on the 15th against Zambia would force a serious situation for Togo, who were surprising attendees at the World Cup in 2006, but still held their weight. Surely Swaziland were not expecting to go 2 goals up after 70 minutes, but they must have fought off a serious challenge from Togo, only letting up one goal in the dying minutes. This can go down as one of the shocks of the tournament, but there’s no reason to jump the gun and expect to see Swaziland anywhere further than the final grouping.
The second surprise is actually 2 games that weren’t won but tied. To see Gambia and Madagascar tie stronger opponents (and better yet, hold them scoreless!) in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire must have stirred some attention in the CAF organization. With only Cameroon and Ghana (barely) taking care of business, we may have another few surprising qualifiers in the upcoming 2010 World Cup. Let’s take a step back and view the larger picture. These 6 African qualifying positions are the most important African representatives to ever enter the World Cup. This is because the World Cup is in Africa and any African team that represents their country, and continent, on home soil will do so as if they are defending their own blood. I expect to see the most fervent competition in World Cup qualifiers from the CAF zone, which always means unexpected results and surprise qualifiers.
It ended Congo DR 6-0 Djibouti, a thrashing.
Asia (plus Australia) has been plugging away quietly behind African headlines to produce some of their own surprises, namely an interesting result here from the Iraq v Australia game. After the Socceroos took a 1-0 result from Iraq’s visit to Brisbane, Iraq has returned the favor no more than a week ago in Dubai by the same result. Australia was tipped to be a very strong addition into the Asian zone, but no one there is giving them an inch, they’ve scraped for each of their 2 wins against resilient competition. We see Qatar in second in Group 1, a surprise to me personally, and an embarassed China PR in 4th with nothing to show from 4 games except 1 goal and 3 underwhelming draws. A team with major aspirations is Uzbekistan, who has qualified for the next round efficiently, taking 4 wins from 4 games in a group including Saudi Arabia, a traditional World Cup entrant. Please take care not to expect Korea Rep and Japan to just sweep through these qualifiers anymore (as used to be the general feeling about Asian qualifiers), this is not the same competition as in years past. Bahrain, Iran, UAE, and Qatar are making strong cases for themselves, and while there are only 4.5 places to fight for (really 5 assuming the one Asian team in the playoff can fight off New Zealand or New Caledonia) expect 2 of them to belong to brand new World Cup entrants.
Let’s jump across the world now and remind the readers that we’re approaching the thick of the early CONCACAF qualifying rounds in just merely a few days. Honduras has given us a running start with a 4-0 whooping on Puerto Rico and tomorrow we’ll hear about a few other powerhouses: Costa Rica shouldn’t be troubled with Grenada, and Guatamala will feel the same about St. Lucia. Don’t expect upsets here. I would tip Guyana to beat Suriname, even away, and Honduras to finish the job 2 or 3-1 in Puerto Rico. Sunday provides the real meat of this weekend’s qualifiers. So while all of you are paying attention to the third games in the EURO 2008 Group A, keep one eye on the USA as they host Barbados. The Americans are coming off of a tumultuous 3 game stint against world powers England, Spain, and Argentina. This is both a spur and a bridle: we lost 2 and tied one and played against competition 10 times better than Barbados, but we played our best game in the confines of our home turf in New York and we played teams that have a fluid style. I expect Barbados to pound us with physicality and work our inside midfield with direct and quick passing. A player like Pablo Mastroeni would give us the kind of physical presence to combat this totally different type of opponent. I expect a 3-0 win, but I’ve been wrong before, especially about the United States.
Look for the Jamaica/Bahamas game to be interesting, it could signal Jamaica’s intent for qualifying, and I would interpret the final score there as either posing Jamaica as a threat or another also-ran. T&T should win comfortably, while the most hotly contested game should be Panama/El Salvador. Both of those teams can expect to be in the final grouping normally, but now one will be tragically denied, and I certainly cannot choose between them, although I would say Panama from my gut.
South America (COMNEBOL)
South America jumps back into action this weekend, and the teams that must get results are Uruguay and Ecuador, both of which should expect to be in the top 5 but are instead floundering mid-table after 4 games. Paraguay has performed well so far, and they’ll be rewarded for a most invaluable start to the campaign, which always dictates any team’s mindset for the rest of qualifying. Sunday they meet Brazil at home in Asuncion, what do we expect? I’ve heard Kaka will not be in the team because of injury, but Brazil are so strong, it should be a win for the Samba boys, even away and especially after their dissapointing tie with Peru. Brazil must concentrate harder against lesser competition. I am excited for Venezuela, I had a friend from there and he spoke so highly of his country during the 2002 World Cup Qualifying even though they were perennial whipping boys. This year we see them in 5th so far with 2 wins. Uruguay is clearly beatable (they play on the 17th) and Chile isn’t any stronger (they play the 19th). Which means this 2 game stint for Venezuela could easily provide 2 wins, it would really be something to see them at 4-0-2 after 6 games. The biggest game of course is the Brazil/Argentina matchup in Belo Horizonte on the 18th. I predict an Argentine win, but by no more than a goal or two.
Not that anyone is paying attention except for me, but Vanuatu and New Caledonia play tomorrow, then again on the 21st. It’s these two games that will determine New Zealand’s chances of escaping their tricky group. New Caledonia has to be the only team within striking distance of the New Zealanders, and they must record two wins against Vanuatu to put any pressure on the front runners. The New Calendonians are the only team in the group that New Zealand has not faced, and they have 2 crucial match-ups in the fall (Sept and Oct) that will undoubtably decide the outcome of the group provided New Caledonia beats Vanuatu twice this week. In my opinion New Zealand must win the group and the final 2 legs to give the OFC a chance at a World Cup appearance, which is unlikely already anyway considering the strength of the Asian teams. Keep in mind, the OFC qualifiers also stand in as the OFC nations cup, which is like the EURO 2008 of Oceania (can you make that connection?), so it is played with great pride for all nations involved.
When not watching the EURO 2008 unfold, definitely check out all that is going on in the World Cup Qualifying, the results have been exciting and more surprises are sure to come this weekend! Thank you for reading, I’ll return as soon as I can.