Guide to World Cup Qualifying…

I was looking at the qualification tables for the various continental soccer federations and I have to admit that I’m quite surprised at many of the standings. Let’s just say that there are a lot of countries that you’d expect to make it through might not be down in South Africa in 2010. How are some of the countries in UEFA, CONCACAF, and other federations doing? And how the heck does the qualifying process work for the World Cup anyway? Here’s a little explanation of each of the federation’s qualifying rules and the surprises.

CAF (Africa qualifying)
CAF qualifying consists of five groups of four countries, each playing each other twice, for a total of six matches. The team with the most points in each group automatically qualifies for WC 2010.

Ivory Coast is guaranteed through in Group E and Ghana is very close to qualifying with one point and a loss from Mali. Everyone else is up in the air. Tunisia and Nigeria are fighting in Group B, which will be interesting, as they both have some good talent. Morocco, a team that had won the African Cup of Nations (similar to the Euro Championships or CONCACAF’s Gold Cup) a few years ago, is in last place with only two points and three matches to go. Who’s in first the group? Gabon with six points… Egypt, the team that gave Brazil a run for its money in the Confederations Cup this past year is tied with Algeria with seven points apiece. However, Algeria has a game in hand, and will face Algeria in what could be the determining factor for the group winner.

While we don’t really hear a lot about these teams, they are all pretty strong teams, especially that of Ghana, Egypt and Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast in French). They can’t be counted out or underestimated because as seen in recently, they can compete with some of the best (see Egypt and Brazil’s match).

AFC (Asia qualifying)
AFC consists of a few stages of qualifying. They’ve finished up the fourth round, which consisted of two groups of five, each playing each other twice. From there, the top two of each group automatically qualify. The third place finishers will meet up in a two-game playoff (aggregate scoring) to determine who faces the winner from Oceania qualifying for another spot in the WC.

Australia and Japan finished first and second in Group A, while South Korea and North Korea were for Group B. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were both in third place after group play, and are in the second leg of the playoff, after a 0-0 draw in Bahrain on Saturday. Saudi Arabia must win outright in order to qualify, as they will lose on away goals otherwise. A 0-0 draw at the end of extra time will mean a PK shootout.

Australia look to be threatening, given that their game suits that of European play and many of their players are overseas there anyway. It’s a huge advantage that they have over their other neighbors in the continent. Japan and South Korea will give teams a run for their money, but given their style of play and ability to compete against physical European teams with their smaller size, I don’t think they really will get far. Not unless one named Guus Hiddink decides to manage the team again (like in 2002 and South Korea’s run into the semis). As for North Korea and possibly either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, their game still needs a lot of development and probably be easy prey for the stronger teams.

OFC (Oceania qualifying)
The weakest federation of all the ones out there, it consisted of three stages of qualifying. The overview of how to qualify is pretty complex, so I’ll just explain the last stage. Four teams go into the final stage with the team in first place at the end of group play getting a playoff versus the winner of the third-place playoff of AFC qualifying.

After the final group rounds,  New Zealand came out on top by a considerable margin. The question now is whether or not they can beat either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain in a two-leg playoff. It’s definitely a possibility, but not as likely if Saudi Arabia come out as winners, since they’re much stronger. Anything is possible though.

CONMEBOL (South America qualifying)
This is probably the simplest to explain. All ten countries that are part of the federation play each other in what is the largest group stage of all the federations. Each team plays each of the other nine teams twice. The top four teams automatically qualify while the fifth place team goes into a playoff against the fourth place team from CONCACAF.

Brazil look to almost be assured to qualify with 30 points and three games left. A win sealing the deal. Chile and Paraguay are slowly approaching that breakthrough mark with a win each as well to go with their 27 points. However, the race is for the fourth and fifth spots, as there are five teams all within four points of each other. The big surprise? Argentina with 22 points and three games left, followed by Colombia and Ecuador with with 20, and Uruguay and Venezuela with 18 each. With three games for each team, any of those five teams can qualify. There are a lot of scenarios that can happen, so many that I won’t get into it at all.

Very much like CAF, any of these teams can’t be ruled out of going far in the World Cup. South America is one of the strongest continents in terms of soccer/football. Assuming that Argentina goes through, Brazil and Argentina are always favorites and reliable to count on when they go into the World Cup. However, Argentina has been lacking a lot as of late, likely due to the controversial leadership and selections made by Maradona. Brazil is scarier than ever while under Dunga, as he’s left the old guard (like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho) and replaced them with the next generation (Kaka, Luis Fabiano, and Daniel Alves).

CONCACAF (North America qualifying)
To us Americans, this is the most important federation qualifying. It also consisted of a few preliminary rounds before the final round. Known as the hexagonal, six teams play a total of ten matches, two against each team in the group. From there, the top three teams will automatically qualify. The fourth team goes to a play-off versus the fifth place team from South America.

As of right now, the U.S. and Honduras each have 13 points, while Mexico and Costa Rica each have 12. With only three games left each, this is going to be a tight race between the four teams, with none of them wanting to be in that dreaded fourth position. Honduras has the toughest three games left, with matches versus the United States and Mexico still. Costa Rica have the easiest, as they face El Salvador and Trindad & Tobago, both at the bottom of the standings (and for the most part eliminated barring a miracle).

From the looks of it, it will likely be the same three teams that automatically qualify, in the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica, with the first two being the most successful. The United States looks to be a much different team than from four years ago and definitely will be a much bigger threat than they were back then. With younger stars in the attack and defense, they should be strong. Mexico is always a force as well and can’t be counted out as shown in 2006. They could have went further in the tournament if it wasn’t for the goal of the tournament from Maxi Rodriguez. With new faces like Vela and Dos Santos, they can be quite scary from an attacking standpoint to go with the old guard in Blanco.

UEFA (Europe qualifying)
This is the biggest federation of in the world, as there are a total of nine groups, eight being groups of six and one group of five. The top finisher of each group automatically qualify, while the best eight of the nine groups going into a two-leg playoff to qualify, with the winners getting the last four spots. It is by far the most exciting of all the federation qualifiers because there are several strong teams in each group, with only two having a chance at a spot.

UEFA holds many of the soccer/football giants of the world and many are in prime position to qualify. The Netherlands are the first, as they were in not only in the weakest group, but in the group of five. They’ve won all seven of their matches and have one left. Spain are also undefeated after seven, but still have three matches to go. They are a shoe-in to qualify. England, Italy and Germany are also in first right now, but by a narrow margin in points.

Now this is where the surprises come in. As of right now, 2006 WC teams Ukraine, Turkey, Poland, Sweden, and Portugal are not in the top two teams in their group. Given that there are only three games left in each group, they are in desperate need of points and wins. Any loss could have them sitting at home watching the WC rather than playing. Furthermore, 2006 WC runner-up France, Greece, Russia, and Croatia (all four strong teams) are in second in their groups. So this could mean that if they finish their group in second, they have the possibility of playing each other and eliminating each other from qualifying.

I would say keep an eye out in the UEFA WC qualifying because it’s going to be quite exciting. Of the teams I’ve listed, they all could go far in the WC if they were to qualify. I would credit it to the completely different style of play. Physical, athletic and strong on offense and defense has been the reason for success for UEFA. And remember in 2006, the last four teams left were Portugal, France, Germany and Italy. So if your team managed to get through UEFA qualifying, you have to consider them a favorite, as they have to go through arguably the toughest qualifying process for the World Cup.

Again, there are still three games left and anything is possible. It is unlikely that we’ll see both Sweden AND Portugal make it to South Africa though. Poland still has a shot. Turkey has an outside shot, with some help.

Keep an Eye Out With Qualifying
So as you can see, there’s a lot of stuff when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup. UEFA seems the be the most intriguing to keep an eye out on, followed by CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. But I think this is what makes it so interesting as well. The surprise teams, the teams you love to hate getting in, the favorites possibly not making it through. But that’s what qualification is all about. Weeding out the weak and putting in the best.

So keep an eye out over the next few months to see what happens and what teams make it in. But hopefully, this gives you some better insight to how this whole process works and ultimately, a preview of what’s to come for 2010 World Cup.

As for my thoughts and perspectives of the teams that will likely make it and who won’t likely make it… I’ll save that for another post.

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