Saturday, October 31, 2009

Potential Playoff in Africa Group C?

This would be strange. And probably exciting, as well.

A one-game playoff at a neutral site to determine the winner of Africa Goup C.

Here is a link to that story.

In short, the playoff will happen if Egypt defeats Algeria by two goals, in Cairo, on Nov. 14, the last day of Africa qualifying. (Or so we thought.) That would leave Egypt and Algeria with 13 points and identical goals-scored and goals-allowed.

Apparently, the "away goals" tiebreaker sometimes employed ... is not in effect here.

Which brings even more tension to a match that already carried lots of it.

Here are the standings in Africa Group C.

Algeria goes to the World Cup with a victory or a tie. It also goes in the case of a one-goal defeat.

Egypt wins the group if it wins by three goals. (And the Egyptians know well that sort of swing can happen, having been part of it at the Confederations Cup, when the United States defeated the Pharoahs 3-0 to jump into the semifinals.)

But if Egypt wins by two goals ... 2-0, 3-1, whatever ... here comes that one-game neutral-site playoff.

North Africa would be riveted. People in Egypt and Algeria would be almost crazy with anticipation. It would be fun. And it would be a little weird. But that's world soccer for you, isn't it.
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Friday, October 30, 2009

This Is the Second 'Soccer' World Cup

I've been referring to football, on this blog, mostly as "soccer." It's the American way. In the United States, another sport known as "football" beat soccer to the name.

But soccer also is a South Africanism.

Making this the second "soccer" World Cup. Following the 1994 World Cup -- in the soccer-not-football US of A.

The proof?

It's all over the South African media.

The Johannesburg Sunday Times? It tracks the sportr known as soccer. Never football. Soccer.

The Independent on Saturday in Durban? Soccer. Soccer. Soccer.

Even in Afrikaans, it's not football. Die Burger, in Cape Town, refers to "sokker" ... as does Die Beeld in Johannesburg. Making it a "sokker" country, in Afrikaans. (Though it could be some version of "football" among the black population.)

So, you futbol-football-fussball world ... you're playing for a soccer trophy next year.

I spent some time poking around, looking for the rest of the planet's "soccer countries," and it's actually a short lists. It has to be an English-speaking country, and it probably has to have some other sport that has appropriated the name of "football."

Actually, the list of soccer countries is only 4.5 countries long. The States and South Africa ... and Canada (which has Canadian football) and Ireland (which has Gaelic football and maybe doesn't call soccer "football" because the English do). There are the four.

And the half? New Zealand. The New Zealand Herald refers to soccer ... but the Dominion Post of Wellington calls it football. Apparently, the Kiwis haven't quite figured out what they want to call it.

You might expect Australia would be a "soccer" country, what with Australian Rules Football ... but the Sydney Morning Herald calls soccer "football" ... and Aussie Rules "Footy." Solved that problem.

If there are any other "soccer" countries out there, I'd like to hear about it.
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Speaking of Stadiums: Brazil Paying the Price

I noted in the previous post, the one about the stunning new stadium in Cape Town ... that I don't know if a country like South Africa really ought to be spending its money on things like that.

Well, the same goes for Brazil.

It's an emerging economy, and all, but it's not as if there's no poverty. (Check out the crime rate in Rio, if you wonder about impoverished masses.)

Now, we've got Brazil's state development bank opening a line of credit for $2.8 billion to the 2014 World Cup organizers to have 12 stadiums ready for the event. This story tells you about it.

The problems with that $2.8 billion?

1. Brazil said no public money would be used for stadiums, when it pitched its bid to FIFA. Now, FIFA almost certainly doesn't care where the money comes from, but it is dishonest and disingenuous for the bidders to have maintained that a country with zero FIFA-caliber stadiums would be able to find private money for 12 of them in time for 2014.

2. Brazil isn't exactly the richest country in the world. This site has them at No. 86 in the world in per capita income, at a modest $7,500. Leaving them behind countries such as Mexico, Malaysia, Botswana -- and even South Africa ($10,300).

Stadiums cost lots and lots of money. Money that could be used for, oh, food. Things like that.

But, in theory, Brazil will have some really nice stadiums, by 2014. Won't be able to eat them, may not be able to afford to get inside them, but poor people can look at them from a distance and ... be proud?
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wow! This Is One Nice Stadium

I had this mental image of South Africa, semi-poor, borderline Third World South Africa ... building some functional stadiums for the 2010 World Cup. They would work, we hoped, but that would be all.

Clearly, I was wrong.

At least one of the new stadiums is visually arresting. The one in Cape Town. "Green Point," it is called, in Cape Town.

Take a look for yourself. They lit up the thing last night, and three photos are posted at the Johannesburg Sunday Times web site.

Doesn't it look like a gigantic diamond sitting there in the distance? Reflecting all that light, like the facets of a gem?

Very impressive. Bravo, South Africa.

I don't know if you can afford this (and who can afford any of the great world events?) ... but that is one sharp stadium. Like the Bird's Nest in Beijing ... except maybe even more visually arresting.

Well done.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beckham's Path to World Cup Smoothed

We've all been worrying our pretty heads over this. Or maybe we're worrying about David Beckham's pretty head.

Anyway, it appears the path is clear for Beckham to make his triumphant return to World Cup action. Or at least to a World Cup roster.

The boss of AC Milan says a loan deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer is finished. All it lacks are signatures. (A minor detail, right?)

Becks will return to Milan for the second half of the Seria A season, beginning in January ... a pre-condition, according to England coach Fabio Capello, for Becks contending for a spot on the England team.

(Taking the winter off, then spending a few months early in the MLS season with the Galaxy apparently doesn't pass muster as proper preparation for South Africa 2010.)

It's not entirely clear why England needs its "bend it like" poster boy. He seems to be about their fourth choice at right mid, realistically.

But there seems to be some odd, cosmic force behind Beckham ... pressing for his inclusion on the England team. Just to bring it a dash more celebrity, or something? To satisfy the yearnings of global fans who don't quite realize he isn't the player he once was?

Perhaps because the WAGs won't be as fun without prissy, pouty Victoria?

Barring injury, or some massive and complete loss of form at Milan -- which is possible, when a player is going to turn 34 in May -- it seems as if Capello is ready to find a place for Becks.

We're so relieved.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

Deliverance, Revelry in Honduras

I meant to check on this 12 days ago, when it happened. But one thing led to another, there were plane rides across oceans, things got pushed to the back of my mind ...

But now we shall get to this:

The reaction in Honduras to its semi-miraculous breakthrough to the World Cup -- for the first time since 1982.

Remember, Honduras has been troubled by civil unrest for more than a month, going back to the coup that ousted the president and his subsequent secretive return to the country and hiding out in the Brazilian embassy.

Perhaps disturbed by the national crises, Honduras's team suffered a crushing home defeat on Oct. 10 when it lost, 3-2, to the United States, missing a penalty in the process. Honduras had won its other four home matches in the final round of qualifying, and one more would have clinched one of the three Concacaf automatic berths at South Africa 2010.

To recount, this is what Honduras needed, on the final day of Concacaf qualifying, on Oct. 14:

A victory at El Salvador. Combined with an American victory or tie vs. Costa Rica.

Without some combination of that ... Honduras would finish fourth in the six-team Concacaf standings and face a difficult home-and-home playoffs with the No. 5 team from South America (Uruguay, as it turns out) for a berth.

Here is the version of events as described on

The key points: Honduras won in El Salvador, 1-0, but as the match ended Costa Rica still held on to a 2-1 lead, and all looked lost.

Then the U.S. scored in the fifth minute of extra time, barely ahead of the final whistle, the match with Costa Rica ended in a tie ... and Honduras suddenly was in the finals.

That set off wild celebrations among Honduras fans at San Salvador, among the players -- and all over the country.

The next day, Oct. 15, was declared a national holiday.

We're going to guess that the U.S. team is fairly popular in Honduras, still, for reasons that would defy easy explanation to anyone who isn't a soccer fan.
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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Parreira, South Africa: Tough Job

Wow. Rough crowd.

Carlos Alberto Parreira of Brazil is back as coach of the national team for 2010 World Cup host South Africa, and it seems fair to suggest he is not being hailed as a conquering hero.

More like a prodigal son ... whose family hasn't forgiven him for leaving.

Parreira was named to coach South Africa on Friday, replacing countryman Joel Santana, who had overseen a Bafana Bafana side that had lost eight of nine matches.

In a lengthy story in my favorite Johannesburg newspaper, the Sunday Times, Parreira already is deflecting criticism. Much of having to do with his first stint coaching the national team, for 15 months, into last year.

It's not as if Parreira was disgusted by South Africa or the players. He left after 15 months (when he was supposed to stay through 2010) because his wife of 39 years had a double mastectomy. Which seems like quite a legitimate reason to cross back over the Atlantic, does it not?

The Sunday Times also suggested Parreira's detractors believe he is coming back merely for the money. Well, yes, coaches do expect to get paid.

The point being, he seems to return to a country where antipathy to him already is high.

To be sure, he made a misstep or two. He compared the preparations for 2010 to "going to war", which is something only someone from a country that hasn't actually been to war for a very long time might say. (And when was Brazil's last war? The War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-70?)

But, gee, this looks like a tough crowd, in the South Africa market.

From the perspective of an outsider, South Africa doesn't seem quite ready for a home-grown coach, not when its world ranking has fallen to No. 85 (just behind Mozambique, just ahead of Haiti) -- meaning it almost certainly will be the lowest-ranked team to play in the World Cup. (Unless New Zealand gets in and South Africa slips past it.)

Someone who has put together successful World Cup campaigns in the past (Parreira led Brazil to the 1994 World Cup championship) seems important to the South Africa cause. Find an astute judge of talent, get the team organized, give it some confidence, turn it loose in front of the home fans ... and it should be competitive.

But only if Parreira is given a fair chance to succeed.
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

National Disinterest in Injured U.S. Striker?

Charie Davies, who had been a regular in the United States First XI for most of this year, was nearly killed in a one-car accident earlier this month.

Three people were in the vehicle, which crashed at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 13 ... and one of the people in the car died.

The incident is covered in this story.

What is interesting about this event ... is how little coverage and attention it has gotten since. Which may tell us quite a bit about the status of soccer in the United States.

To my knowledge, this story has not moved much further along, in the subsequent 11 days, aside from one update about Davies being moved out of intensive care, and how he still faces surgery on his elbow and, perhaps face.

A few soccer fans in the U.S. have noticed that some huge questions in the affair remain unanswered, to my knowledge.

-- Who was driving?

--Were tests run for alcohol or drugs?

--Could criminal charges be lodged?

--What was Charlie Davies doing in a car on a major road at 3:15 a.m. -- breaking curfew barely 36 hours before the U.S. was scheduled to play a World Cup qualifying match?

It has been suggested that this news blackout would not have survived if the athlete in question had been an American football star. Or basketball player. Or a star in one of the other major U.S. sports, such as baseball.

Journalists can be pretty successful in wheedling information from authorities, if they put their minds to it. If their editors care.

Apparently, there isn't much will-power here to find out what happened.

It also makes me wonder if, say, a starting forward on a major European or South American side had been almost killed in an early morning wreck, whether fans in that European or South American country would still be guessing at what happened almost two weeks later?

I think not.

My sense is that this story would remain shrouded in mystery only in a few major (or quasi-major) soccer countries -- and the U.S. is one of them. If not the only one.

The U.S. cares about soccer ... it cares about the World Cup, and its team is good enough to qualify for it. But the sport still is not so big that getting to the bottom of what happened to one of its prominent player is Job 1 for anyone.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Parreira Back as South Africa Coach

At least that's what is being reported by Kick Off magazine.

Carlos Alberto Parreira is returning as coach of the South African national team, a week after federation dismissed another Brazilian, Joel Santana -- who had the bad form to have lost eight of his final nine matches running the Bafana Bafana.

Santana replaced Parreira in April of last year when Parreira resigned for what he called "personal reasons." Until then, it had been assumed Parreira would lead South Africa through the 2010 World Cup.

Parreira's appointment is important for several reasons.

--South Africa had to make a change. No one wants a host country that can't compete, and when South Africa lost 1-0 at Iceland, and was manhandled by Germany in a 2-0 defeat ... the Bafana Bafana was beginning to look as if it didn't belong in the 2010 World Cup, even if it were hosting it.

--Parreira is one of the handful of men in the world who has coached a team to the World Cup championship, leading Brazil to the title in 1994.

--Parreira isn't new to South African football. He coached the team in 2007 and into 2008. So he already knows the most important players. He won't be starting from Ground Zero, and that is important, considering the World Cup is less than eight months off -- 230 days, to be exact. That isn't long to batter the squad into shape.

To be sure, Parreira is something of a controversial figure. (As all coaches are, yes?) He was heavily criticized in 2006 when his Brazil team went out to France in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. His tactics were old and tired, some said, and others suggested he had lost control of his team.

Parreira is not a young man. At 66, he is at the upper end of the age bracket that can be expected to do well in a World Cup. It is a supremely demanding job, with enormous pressures.

Still, we're not sure South Africa could have done much better. The federation hired a man who knows the team, is familiar with the country and has won the biggest prize in football.

He takes over a team that played bravely, and well, against Brazil and Spain in the Confederations Cup, last June. So there is hope, still, that South Africa can make a good showing at the 2010 World Cup -- on the field as well as off it.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Desmond Tutu, AIDS and Condoms

This isn't about soccer, exactly, but it certainly gives us more of the flavor of South Africa -- site of the 2010 World Cup.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, conscience of South Africa ... today visited the Tutu Tester, a mobile clinic named for him that offers tests for AIDS/HIV.

South Africa is the epicenter of AIDS (with more HIV positive cases than any other country in the world, smoe 5.6 million in a population of about 50 million), and only now is the government there acknowledging it. Only a few years ago the country's leaders ignored mountains of science and denied that AIDS was being spread throughout the country and was an enormous problem.

So, today, Desmond Tutu not only visited the folks at the Tutu Tester, he was shown how to wear a condom by one of the volunteers.

Using a wooden replica of a penis, that is.

I found this story at the Johannesburg Sunday Times web site, and you can read the whole thing here. Tutu was a bit embarrassed/abashed at the proceedings, it seems, but he bounced right back to remind everyone in South Africa how important condoms are and how important testing is, as well.

The point being, for purposes of this blog and the World Cup ... just know that if you go to South Africa, you are traveling to the country with more AIDS cases than any other country in the world. (Though India is catching up, in part because it has a population of 1.1 billion.) In South Africa, it is not a disease mostly associated with intravenous drug users and the gay community. All sorts of people have AIDS. It is a blight.

But South Africa finally is grappling with the issue, and people like Desmond Tutu are leaders in that sea change.
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Germans to Wear Bullet-Proof Vests at SA2010?

Germans in armor?

Could be, if the report in a German sports publication is correct.

A German sports magazine is reporting that a security firm recommends bullet-proof vests whenever its players stray outside the security perimeter of team hotels during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

That probably won't play well with South Africa boosters ... but we already have established that it is a country with the second-highest murder rate in the world, both in terms of raw numbers and per capita killings, behind only Colombia.

The feeling here is that national teams will be safe. Not even thugs want to interrupt a World Cup.

I suppose the risk is ... not knowing that those little guys over there are German soccer players, and not young, carefree tourists who may have a lot of money in their pockets.

It will be interesting to see if other national teams follow suit. The United States team often seems to feel under siege whenever it goes to another country. England and Spain have been targets of terror groups; might their teams, as well?

The gist of this seems to be that the Germans fear random street crime. If it were you or me, just walking around, that might be a legitimate concern. But as long as German players are dressed as soccer players ... they ought to be safe.

I'm guessing the bullet-proof vest thing will be ignored. And one good reason will be the (probably) needless paranoia it might inspire in a team with realistic aspirations of winning the tournament.
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

South Africa Fires Coach

This pretty much had to be done. Since reaching the semifinals of the Confederations Cup back in June -- after coming out of a very weak group -- South Africa's national team has been struggling. Badly. When you lose to Iceland ...

So, the ouster of coach Joel Santana was a necessity. South Africa needs to get a fresh approach to things ... or the host country for the 2010 World Cup may be faced with the distinctly unpleasant experience of going out of the tournament with hardly a whimper.

The World Cup usually goes to countries that are serious soccer powers. Germany, France, England, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Mexico, even.

And even when it hasn't, the host nation(s) have risen to the occasion. The United States survived the first round, in 1994, when it was host -- but anything but a serious soccer country. South Korea got to the semifnals in 2002, when it co-hosted with Japan -- which also got to the knockout phase for the first (and only) time in its history.

South Africa may yet rise up and get out of the group phase, as well, but its play since June has not indicated that it is likely. Eight defeats in nine matches? That's why Santana is out and someone else -- maybe Sven Goran-Ericksson? -- will replace him.

South Africa has some competent players. It should be able to defeat the Icelands of the world. Perhaps a fresh approach will turn around the Bafana Bafana and enable them to be just good enough to ride the enthusiasm of a country to some modest measure of renown at South Africa 2010.
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Monday, October 19, 2009

Euro Playoffs: France vs. Ireland, Etc.

These four European second-place playoffs sounded more intereresting in theory than in practice. I'm looking at the pairings now and having trouble conjuring victory for the four unseeded teams.

Here they are, with home team in Game 1 listed first:

Ireland vs. France

Portugal vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina

Greece vs. Ukraine

Russia vs. Slovenia

France, Portugal, Greece and Russia are the seeded teams. And which has the best chance of losing? Or at least some chance?

Hmm. I suppose my choice would be ...

France. And, mind, I don't think the French will lose.

Before getting into that, I do now wish the thing had been unseeded. So that there was a chance France could play Russia and Bosnia could play Slovenia, etc. Those would be fairer fights, and the stakes would be just as enormous. But the FIFA/UEFA decision to make the top four (according to FIFA world rankings) unable to play each other ... takes some drama out of this. Though anything can, in theory, happen in a home-and-home playoff.

I can't see Greece losing to Ukraine. The rap on Greece, most of the past decade, is that is struggles to score but it just put up five goals on Latvia, a pretty good side, and so those scoring issues appear to be less acute. And Ukraine isn't a bad side, but it's in the this tournament only because England needed to win at home against Croatia to clinch its group, and did, and then didn't need a result at Ukraine, which defeated the English, and finished second. Ukraine doesn't inspire much enthusiasm -- though it seems to be the unseeded team the seeded quartet feared most.

Nor can I see Portugal losing to Bosnia. The Portuguese are hot, having finished with a rush to secure second in their group. Plus, Bosnia just gave up five goals to a Spanish team that was Just Kicking the Ball Around, having nothing to gain or lose -- after having clinched its group months ago.

And Russia and Slovenia? Don't see the unseeded team winning that one, either. Russia came This Close to defeating the Germans at Moscow, which would have won the group for Mother Russia. Slovenia is tough in defense, but it's a itty-bitty country that can't help but be overawed by Russia.

Ireland and France? Ireland has a chance. A decent one. For two reasons: 1) Irish grit and 2) The Domenech Factor.

Ireland is a hard-headed side that yields goals grudgingly. Scoring them always is the issue for the Irish, who are slow and modestly gifted, technically ... and may, in fact, be the least athletic team ranked in the world's top 40.

Meanwhile, France continues to run out various incarnations of an all-star team that rarely impressed in qualifying. It seems to be about Raymond Domenech, their goofy coach, who somehow has destroyed French elan and turned his First XI (whomever it happens to be just now) into a nervous, fidgity crew.

French talent remains far, far better than that the Irish can call on. Ireland has no one like Thierry Henry, even in his athetic dotage.

Still, this process has the potential to be interesting, especially if the underdogs can get a result in the first match, on Nov. 14.

The return match will be Nov. 18. And at the end of that day, I fully expect the four seeds to be headed for South Africa 2010.
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Sunday, October 18, 2009

SA2010 Better Off without Maradona?

No question that we prefer to see a World Cup with Argentina in it.

But the bad news here is ... Diego Maradona likely will be in South Africa, too.

Maradona happened to be on the sidelines when Argentina won at Uruguay on Wednesday, clinching a berth in the 2010 World Cup. So, the odds are strong the mercurial (if not goofy, if not barking) coach will be there, too.

That may not be to the good, as the latest controversy surrounding Maradona seems to indicate.

Maradona blasted his critics in the Argentine media, after the 1-0 victory over Uruguay, and at some point was more than a little vulgar, in the process.

A cursory search of the web yields no transcript of Maradona's rant, but it was foul enough that FIFA announced it will investigate his comments.

That's the Maradona we don't really need. The rude and crude and paranoid android who was on display in the interview room Wednesday night.

If only it were possible to Argentina -- without Diego. Alas, it seems as if they are no joined at the hip. And perhaps at the lip. A pity, actually.
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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ghana Wins World Cup ... Under-20 Version

An African team wins a major FIFA competition staged in Africa, defeating Brazil in the final ...

Supporters of African soccer have to hope that what happened today, in Egypt, in the under-20 tournament, can be replicated in South Africa at the Big Boy World Cup in 2010.

Ghana defeated Brazil in a shootout to win the under-20 world championship. Brazil missed its final three attempts shots, and Ghana won 4-3 after six pairs of players walked up to the penalty spot.

African soccer has often been the wild card of global football.

I'm thinking of Senegal and its 1-0 defeat over defending champion France at the 2002 World Cup ... and Nigeria 3-2 over Spain at the 1998 World Cup ... and Cameroon 1-0 over defending champion Argetnina at the 1990 World Cup -- plus Cameroon's advance to the quarterfinals before it lost 3-2 to England in extra time.

African teams, however, rarely have been able to sustain their momentum, and never have been considered serious threats to go deep into the World Cup.

That may change next year and for one obvious reason -- the World Cup will be played in Africa for the first time.

Evidence of a "home continent advange" is extensive. All of the championships won by European sides have been won on the European continent. Argentina and Uruguay each won their two championships in the New World.

South Korea reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, a singular achievement for the country's team, when it was the co-host of the tournament, along with Japan.

So, Africa's time may be coming. Soon.

I am on record, on this blog, as having predicted an African team will make the semifinals at South Africa.

When I wrote that, I might have been thinking of Cote d'Ivoire. Now we may have to include Ghana in our "potential semifinalist" thinking. Playing at "home" is a big advantage, and when you already have a good side ...
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Friday, October 16, 2009

France, Russia, Portugal, Greece Seeded

We figured it would be France, Russia, Portugal and Greece ... and it is.

The four playoffs between the eight runners-up in European qualifying will determine the final four Europe sides into South Africa 2010.

News emerged a few weeks ago that the draw would be seeded, and not just four random pairings. Meaning the top four teams will be matched against the lower four. Prompting one Irish player to criticize FIFA and UEFA for not letting everyone know, from the start, how the process worked.

The latest FIFA rankings, released today, were used to choose the four seeded group runners-up teams, and France (9), Portugal (10), Russia (12) and Greece (16) rank ahead of Ukraine (22), Ireland (24), Bosnia-Herzegovina (42) and Slovenia (49).

The draw will be made Monday.

It doesn't seem quite fair that all the participants didn't know how this would work, from Day 1, and FIFA needs to make it clear if UEFA uses this method again, four years hence.

But everything else FIFA does is seeded, including the World Cup draw.

Sure, Ireland would like a chance to play Bosnia or Slovenia, and France has to be pleased it can't possibly be paired with Portugal or Russia. But it isn't as if FIFA hasn't seeded teams before.

And a home-and-home ... anything is possible. A tie on the road, a victory at home, and you're in. Pretty much the formula for success in any international soccer competition.

I'm looking forward to it. I know it's nerve-racking for the teams involved, but it should make for some entertaining matches, next month.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Not Many Big Names Missing the Party

Most of the planet's top teams are on their way to South Africa 2010.

Typically, it seems as if one of the Big Kids doesn't qualify. Maybe England. Or the Netherlands. Somebody pretty good doesn't make it. Someone serious fans will miss.

That is not really the case, so far in the 2010 cycle. For a while, Mexico seemed to be in trouble. And then Argentina was at great risk. But both are in, and ...

So far, the highest-ranked team not to make South Africa, according to the most recent FIFA rankings, is Croatia, at No. 9. Seems a little high, but there they are.

The next-highest nations not going to South Africa are ...

18. Czech Republic. The Czechs seemed to find themselves in the middle of a generational change, and ended up in a tough qualifying group (Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Northern Ireland) and finished third.

19. Bulgaria. Bulgaria is ranked in the top 20? How did that happen? Bulgaria won only three of 10 matches in a group that included Cyprus, Montenegro and Georgia. No great loss to SA2010.

22. Israel. Not bad, but not that good. Never seemed to win the key match in a fairly tough group -- but one that lacked a superpower, unless you count Switzerland and Greece, and I don't.

26. Romania. Finished fifth in Group 7, behind Austria and Lithuania, ahead of only the Faroe Islands. So, no loss.

And please note: Romania, at 26? That means of the 25 highest-ranked teams in the world, 21 already have qualified for South Africa 2o1o.

Yes, it would be nice to have a few long-shot teams in the World Cup. And there are ... a few.

Japan is No. 40. Honduras is 42. Slovakia is 45, South Korea 49, North Korea 90. Those four are in.

And they will be joined by either Bahrain (64) or New Zealand (100), who are in a playoff. Slovenia (54) is in a playoff, too.

But the real long shot at South Africa ... could be South Africa. Ranked only No. 73.

The host nation could, by itself, be enough of a lovable underdog story to fill the 2010 quota for lovable underdog stories. Its matches will get plenty of attention, and if it can win a time or two? A big deal.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of us would just as soon watch the global elite. Which are queuing up quite nicely for the 2010 World Cup.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Argentina, Honduras among Four Going to SA2010

Argentina will be in the World Cup finals, as per usual.

Honduras will, as well. But there is nothing "usual" about that.

In the last huge (32 matches) day of South Africa 2010 qualifying, Argentina did what it was supposed to do, thanks to (or in spite of) the leadership of coach Diego Maradona.

Not that it wasn't a touch-and-go thing, for Diego Maradona & Co. They needed a goal in the 84th minute to defeat Uruguay, 1-0, in the showdown for the fourth and final guaranteed South America berth for South Africa 2010.

And they needed perhaps the most anonymous player on a team of international stars -- reserve midfielder Mario Bolatti -- to score it.

But, after months of sturm und drang, Diego and the Argentines are headed for their 10th consecutive World Cup finals.

Honduras had, by far, the most dramatic route to South Africa of the other three qualifiers today.

Honduras began the day sitting fourth in the Concacaf standings, and fourth is good only for a nerve-racking home-and-home playoff with the Conmebol No.5 team. Getting up to third is critical, because Concacaf has three guaranteed berths.

Honduras played at arch-rival El Salvador, and needed a victory -- combined with something less than a victory by Costa Rica, which was playing the United States at Washington D.C.

It looked very grim for the Catrachos, as Honduras's team is known, when Costa Rica striker Bryan Ruiz put in goals in the 21st and 24th minute. Actually, we were working on this blog post, and already had Honduras playing the home-and-home with Uruguay, No. 5 in the final Conmebol standings. Then it began to turn.

Carlos Pavon scored for Honduras in the 64th minute. Michael Bradley scored for the U.S. in the 72nd.

Costa Rica, fighting off repeated U.S. attacks, appeared as if it would hold on, especially when U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu went down with an injury in the 84th minute, leaving the Americans playing with 10 -- because they had used their three substitutes.

Then the match got weird. Referee Benito Archundia of Mexico sent off Costa Rica coach Rene Simoes for stalling during a substitution, and his assistant soon followed him to the locker room.

Five minutes of extra time were added on, and with about 30 seconds left the U.S. got a corner kick from Landon Donovan who lofted a nice ball to defender Jonathan Bornstein -- who headed it in basically as the match ended.

Suddenly, Honduras had three points today, Costa Rica had only one (for the 2-2 tie), and they were level on points, at 16, but Honduras won the goal-differential tiebreaker -- and is headed for South Africa. It is only the second time Honduras has qualified for the World Cup final and, rest assured, the country is one huge party all night tonight.

Other teams who punched their tickets to South Africa:

The Swiss made it more nerve-racking than it needed to be, but holding Israel to a 0-0 tie was enough to give them the championship of Europe Group 2, one point ahead of Greece.

--Slovakia. The Slovaks are still looking for their scoring punch, but an own goal by Poland's Seweryn Gancarczyk -- in the third minute -- led to a 1-0 victory by Slovakia and clinched its first appearance in the World Cup finals as an indepedent nation. Slovakia lost 2-0 at home in its previous game to put itself at risk, but its suspension-weakened squad managed to keep Poland from scoring, and now it is headed to South Africa.

The other big development today was the finalizing of the eight-team lineup for Europe's home-and-home playoffs for the continent's final four berths in South Africa.

The octet: France, Portugal, Russia, Greece, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland, Ukraine. And look for the first four to be seeded against the second four when the draw for the playoffs is made on Monday.

So, we now have 23 teams with reservations for South Africa. With four still to come from Europe, three from Africa and one each from the Costa Rica-Uruguay and Bahrain-New Zealand playoffs.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Wednesday: Looking at the Big Matches

Thirty-two South Africa 2010 qualifying matches on Wednesday. The last hugely busy day on the World Cup qualifying schedule.

Three sorts of matches on tap.

1. The plurality that have no realistic bearing on South Africa 2010. Matches in which kids will get their first cap and not even the most rabid of fans will have much emotion invested.

2. The chunk that involve one team with finals aspirations ... and one team without any. The fascinating matches that leave everyone wondering if the teams with nothing to play for ... play as if they do have something to play for.

3. The minority of matches that matter to both teams.

Let's look at those from categories 2 and 3, in ascending order of intrigue.

--Ukraine at Andorra. The Ukrainians sneak into second place in Europe Group 6 with a victory over puny Andorra. Ukraine got a scheduling break; England clinched at home against Croatia, then lost 1-0 at Ukraine in a match that didn't really matter to the English. Flip those matches on the schedule and it would be Croatia playing to clinch second, at Kazakhstan. Now, Croatia needs a victory and an Andorran miracle. Good luck with that.

--Slovenia at San Marino. Slovenia finishes no worse than second in Europe Group 3 if it can defeat the feeblest team in UEFA. San Marino has been outscored 44-1 in nine matches. Slovenia will be looking for a big score to make sure it wins a goal-differential battle with Slovakia if the latter loses at Poland -- a result that would make Slovenia champions of the group, avoiding the second-place playoffs.

--Portugal at Malta. The Portuguese can complete their charge into second place in Europe Group 1 with a victory over the Maltese -- who have been outscored 22-0 in qualifying. Even without the injured Cristian Ronaldo, Portugal should have this wrapped up in a matter of minutes, and then gets ready for the home-and-home with some other second-place Euro squad for a South Africa berth. Note: Portugal had six points from its first five qualifying matches but is in position to claim 13 points from its second five.

--Luxembourg at Greece. Another match that shouldn't be close, but ... Greece does no worse than second in Europe Group 2 with a victory, and could finish first via goal differential if Switzerland loses to Israel. Greece won 3-0 at Luxembourg 13 months ago. But if the Greeks somehow to contrive to tie the Grand Duchy guys, Israel could jump them for second by beating the Swiss.

--Honduras at El Salvador. Honduras needs a victory -- and a Costa Rica defeat at the United States -- to secure the third and final automatic Concacaf berth in South Africa. Los Catrachos may have a harder time than the hexagonal standings would indicate because 1) they are coming off a devastating home loss to the Yankees and 2) El Salvador is their historic rival. (See: The Soccer War of 1969.)

--Costa Rica at United States. A more meaningful match than the one above because the Ticos control their fate; they return to the finals if they can win a qualifier in the States for the first time in 24 years. Luckily, for Costa Rica, the U.S. already has clinched and may be distracted by the automobile accident today that badly injured forward Charlie Davies. However, U.S. coach Bob Bradley insists his team will play hard, with its best XI, because it wants to finish atop the Concacaf standings, which it currently leads.

--Ecuador at Chile. Ecuador sits sixth in the South America table, and sixth brings you nothing, but the Ecuadorans can jump up to No. 5 -- and the home-and-home playoff with the No. 4 team out of Concacaf -- if it can win against the already-qualified Chileans (and the Argentina-Uruguay match has a loser). How much does Chile care? And can Ecuador recover from its critical home defeat vs. Uruguay last Saturday?

--Slovakia at Poland. The Slovaks are looking for their first World Cup finals as an independent nation, having just missed a chance to clinch Europe Group 3 when they lost 2-0 at home to Slovenia. Poland has disappointed, and is out of contention, but if the Poles care enough, and the Slovaks are too tight (and miss their four suspended players too much) ... Slovakia could find itself in the second-place playoffs.

--Israel at Switzerland. One of the two matches in which both sides have something to play for. Switzerland clinches Europe Group 2 with a victory or tie. Israel can slip into second -- and a spot in the second-place playoffs -- with a victory combined with a Greece tie or loss at home to Luxembourg. Greece not beating Luxembourg is unlikely, but weirder things have happened.

--Argentina at Uruguay. The Match of the Day. The winner finishes fourth in the Conmebol standings and gets the region's final automatic berth at South Africa 2010. Argentina finishes fourth with a tie -- unless Ecuador wins by five goals at Chile. Uruguay has been the steadier side, especially since Diego Maradona took over Argentina, a year ago. But if we compare sheer talent, the Argentines must rate as favorites, even on the road ... and even though Maradona is winless in three road qualifying matches as coach. If Argentina loses and Ecuador wins, Ecuador finishes fifth and gains the home-and-home playoffs with the No. 4 side out of Concacaf for a berth. And Argentina is done. Lots of tension here.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Messi, Diego: More about Argentina

These guys can't stop making news. Or prompting columnists and analysts to write and talk about them.

Argentina. Diego Maradona. Lionel Messi.

OK, those are three pretty compelling concepts in the world of soccer.

Argentina's profoundly uneven qualifying campaign comes to a close -- well, at least the South America portion of it -- on Wednesday when the albicelestes play Uruguay just across the River Plate, at Montevideo.

If Argentina wins, it finishes fourth and gains at automatic berth to South Africa 2010. A tie, it almost certainly finishes fourth in the South America standings.

But an Argentina defeat puts Uruguay in the No. 4 slot, and leaves Argentina fifth, and headed for a playoff with the No. 4 team out of Concacaf ... or even sixth, behind Ecuador (if it wins at Chile) -- and out of the World Cup, as of Wednesday night.

Anyway, at this moment, Messi may want to make an appearance in crunch time.

Author Harry Harris has noticed that Messi, FIFA's World Player of the Year for 2007, has gone missing in action. And it might be nice if he showed up for the crucial match with Uruguay.

What Messi's issues might be are open to speculation. The author of the linked piece (above) suggests Messi is "overawed" by the idea of national icon Maradona as coach of the team.

That sounds a bit far-fetched, actually. Messi has played in too many big matches.

More likely? Messi is being used badly ... or is a bit out of form ... or can't actually get excited about playing for a coach who has Argentina to four defeats in its last six matches.

Anyway, we keep coming back to Argentina, don't we?

Mostly, it's about big names and big stakes. Argentina still is at risk of being the biggest name not to get to South Africa. The world will be watching to see if Maradona -- and Messi -- can avoid that indignity.
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Seven Matches, No New Finalists

Seven more qualifying matches played today for South Africa 2010 ... but no new team secured a berth in next year's big event.

Still stuck on 19 teams ... with 13 still to be determined.

The closest we came to getting to 20 teams was in Africa, where Nigeria scored three minutes into extra time to eke out a 1-0 victory over Mozambique. A Nigeria draw would have clinched Africa Group B for Tunisia, which won 1-0 at home over Kenya.

Biggest African disappointment this quadrennium?

Has to be Nigeria. This is a serious soccer nation, with the biggest population in Africa and lots of oil money, and a squad made up of players from some of Europe's elite leagues. Among its starters today: Midfielder Mikel John Obi (Chelsea), defender Joseph Yobo (Everton), midfielder Seyi Olafinjana (Hull City), midfielder Kalu Uche (Almeira) and his brother Ikechukwu Uche (Real Zaragoza), Taye Taiwo (Marseille). Etc.

Still, Nigeria suffered a scoreless tie at Mozambique, a team of unknowns, back in March, and was unable to make up for that gaffe by defeating Tunisia. Nigeria twice had one-goal leads in a home match with the Tunisians last month, but settled for a 2-2 tie.

Now, Nigeria needs help. It must win at Kenya while Tunisia loses at Mozambique, on Nov. 14. Tunisia hasn't exactly overpowered its opposition, either, but it has come through in pressure situations.

Another interesting match was Algeria's 3-1 home victory over Rwanda, a result that leaves the Algerians on the cusp of South Africa -- and its first World Cup finals since 1986. Algeria leads Egypt by three points in Group C, with the final match scheduled in Cairo on Nov. 14.

Algeria advances with a victory, a draw or even a one-goal loss, because it is plus-7 in goal differential to Egypt's plus-3. Egypt would advance with a 2-0 victory because it that would leave each team at plus-5 in goal-differential, and Egypt would win on the basis of a 3-2 lead in away goals. However, if Algeria scores one goal or more, Egypt would have to win by three goals.

Got all that?

The third match today worth noting was Brazil's 2-1 loss at Bolivia. It would be bigger news if Brazil hadn't already qualified, but it showed up with a representative side (Luisao, Maicon, Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Ramires, Adriano) ... and still lost. Of course, winning with your best players is difficult, in La Paz, Bolivia, which sits 12,000 feet above sea level.

Another huge day of qualifying coming Wednesday, with 32 matches scheduled. At least four more participants in South Africa 2010 will be identified -- two from Europe, one from South America and one from Concacaf. Also, the 10 participants in home-and-home playoffs for five berths also will be known -- eight runners-up in Europe, the No. 4 team out of Concacaf and the No. 5 team from South America.
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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Eight More Qualify for South Africa

Great day for soccer fans. Matches decided in the final seconds. Clutch victories on the road. Eight more berths in South Africa 2010 assured ... but 13 still unknown with only a (comparative) handful of qualifying matches still to play.

Ten of the most significant results from today ... including all eight of the 2010 clinching matches, from least-rousing to most:

10. Malawi 1, Cote d'Ivoire 1. The least impressive and least surprising clinching performance of the day. Ivory Coast, as it has been known in English, led the weakest group in Africa, Group E, by six points with two matches to play, and needed only a tie today to clinch, and that's what it delivered. But not before trailing minnow Malawi untilthe 67th minute, when international star Didier Drogba scored for the Ivoirians.

9. Mexico 4, El Salvador 1. This one rated a zero on the Surprise Meter. Little El Salvador at Mexico, in Azteca ... the outcome was never in doubt. And neither was Mexico getting one of the three guaranteed Concacaf berths in South Africa 2010. Mexico turned things around back in Games 6, 7 and 8, when it came from behind to win at home against the United States, 2-1; then crushed Costa Rica, 3-0, at San Jose; and when El Tri survived a determined performance by Honduras to win 1-0 on a penalty over Honduras, at Azteca. Oh, and those games coincide with the accession of Javier Aguirre to the coach's job.

8. (tie) Argentina 2, Peru 1; Portugal 3, Hungary 0. Two of the glamour soccer powers at risk of not making the World Cup finals came through and now control their destiny. Martin Palermo can off the bench to score three minutes into stoppage time as Argentina avoided what would have been a humiliating and disastrous tie with bottom-feeder Peru, in Buenos Aires ... and Simao scored twice for Portugal in its romp and jumped into second in Europe Group 1 with only a home match with Malta left. That is, Portugal can begin planning to be in one of the four home-and-home second-place playoffs for a South Africa ticket.

7. Ecuador 1, Uruguay 2. The visitors rallied for a victory, at 9,300 feet above sea level, in Quito, to win on a penalty by Diego Forlan in extra time. Uruguay now gets arch-rival Argentina at home, in Montevideo, on Wednesday, with the fourth (and final) guaranteed berth from South America at stake. If Ecuador recovers to win at Chile, and there is a loser in the Uruguay-Argentina, Ecuador would finish fifth -- and go into the home-and-home playoff with the No. 4 squad out of Concacaf.

6. Serbia 5, Romania 0. Milan Javanovic scored twice as the Serbs clinched Group 7. Serbia goes to the finals for the first time since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

5. Colombia 2, Chile 4. The Chileans overcame the shock of an early own goal in the thin air of Medellin (5,000 feet) to roll to victory and qualify for their first World Cup finals since 1998. Jorge Valdivia, who plays for Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, scored the decisive goal in the 72nd minute.

4. Ireland 2, Italy 2. The Azzurri needed only a tie to clinch Europe Group 8, but it didn't look likely when Sean St. Ledger scored for Ireland in the 87th minute. However, Alberto Gilardino scored in the 90th minute to put Italy through to South Africa. Ireland's consolation prize: A berth in the second-place playoffs for one of the last four Euro berths in 2010.

3. Denmark 1, Sweden 0. It took 79 minutes before a goal was scored, but Jakob Poulsen's strike clinched Group 1 for Denmark and all but eliminated the Swedes from future consideration. Sweden now can finish second only if it defeats Albania and Portugal somehow loses at home to Malta. OK, let's just say it: Sweden is dead.

2. Honduras 2, United States 3. Little-known forward Conor Casey scored twice and Landon Donovan got the key third goal on a bending free kick as the U.S. secured one of Concacaf's three assured berths with an unexpected victory at San Pedro Sula. Honduras had been unbeaten and untied in eight previous home matches in this qualifying cycle, outscoring the opposition 12-2 in the final round. The U.S. will appear in its sixth consecutive finals after missing the previous nine.

1. Russia 0, Germany 1. In a match pitting the FIFA world-ranked Nos. 4 (Germany) and 5 (Russia) teams, the superpowers of Europe Group 4, Miroslav Klose scored in the 34th minute and Germany held on for 32-plus tense minutes -- in Moscow -- while playing with only 10 men, following the expulsion of defenseman Jerome Boateng. Russia figures to be a very formidable opponent in the second-place playoffs.
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Friday, October 9, 2009

On the Eve ...

Check here on Saturday for two posts on the day's qualifiers. One from early results, and one from the end of the day, after the Concacaf scores come in.

In between, I probably will be driving around Southern California looking for a place that is broadcasting the closed-circuit (!) United States match from Honduras. Yes, closed-circuit. Meaning it is not on television, live, anywhere. Which is insane. But I'll stop here. If you want to read more fulminating about this, check my other blog, Read more!

Russia Seeks Historic Victory vs. Germany

Russia and Germany. You think they would have a long soccer history.

They don't. Something about a couple of world wars, a revolution, etc. They didn't play between 1912 and 1955. Even since then, despite being fairly close, geographically, they have met only sporadically.

Still, there is some history here ... and the bottom line is this:

Russia never has defeated Germany (or West Germany) in an "official" match. "Official" being World Cup, European Cup or Olympic.

Which is germane to this moment, because Germany plays Russia in Moscow on Saturday with the lead in Europe Group 4 at stake. The winner almost certainly will finish first in the group and gain entry to South Africa 2010. The loser will fall into one of the four second-place playoffs -- with a berth at stake for the survivors.

This preview doesn't mention Russia's unfortunate soccer history vs. Germany, but in other material we had seen references to German dominance.

So we looked it up. The results:

Germany: Four victories, one tie, zero defeats. This is from a very handy English language history of every Russia international match. Going back to 1912.

That 4-0-1 German record includes a 1966 World Cup match (2-1), a 1972 Euro Cup meeting (3-0), a 1992 Euro Cup match (1-1), a 1996 Euro Cup match (3-0) and a Germany victory last year in this round of qualifying (2-1).

Germany has pretty much dominated the series, even when we include friendlies (but not matches between the Soviets and East Germany or the "United" German team at the 1956 Olympics).

In those other matches, Germany or West Germany is 13-2-3 vs. Russia.

Russia's last victory over Germany or West Germany? A friendly in 1956, 2-1.

So, Russia will be looking to make history -- as well as all but lock up its World Cup berth.

(And, yes, let's discuss the relevance of a tie, though we will deal with it in paranthetical matter. Ties are boring, but they often are strategically significant, and a tie ... clearly benefits Germany significantly. A tie with Russia, Germany remains a point ahead of Russia and then needs only to win, at home, against Finland, to be sure of finishing first. Finland is a competent side but will be playing for nothing, besides messing with the Germans, which I don't believe is a major issue in Finland at the moment. While Russia goes down to Azerbaijan for an almost certain victory. So Germany may just settle for 0-0, if it's that way in the second half, and hope it can defeat the Finns, which it probably can ... But back to thinking someone will win!)

This game also matches teams ranked Nos. 4 (Germany) and 6 (Russia) in the FIFA world rankings. Meaning it is rivaled only by last month's Brazil-Argentina match (pitting No. 1 vs. No. 8) for the highest-ranked teams meeting in the qualifying rounds.

Lots going on, in this one.
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

England, Jack Warner and the 2018 Bid

We have noted before, on this site, that the wrangling over who will host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022 ... sometimes seems to eclipse the run-up to the 2010 World Cup.

It seems a bit crazy, to be so agitated about tournaments nine and 13 years away, involving players who may not even be professionals yet ... but there it is. The would-be host countries are thinking about this. A lot. Even with a rash of crucial qualifiers coming up this weekend.

One of those countries is England, which wants to host either Cup, and generally is connected to the 2018 Cup -- because it will have been in the Americas in 2014, and away from Europe since 2006.

However, the highly influential (and controversial) Jack Warner, FIFA executive member and president of Concacaf, made lots of news in England this week by criticizing the English bid.

First, in this story, in which Warner said England's bid was creeping along when it ought to be galloping.

Then, in this more recent story, in which Warner said England needed to inject some energy into its bid by including, oh, David Beckham as one of its primary salesmen.

Warner is considered something of a boogieman in England, where he generally is considered to be hopelessly corrupt. But he is feared because he appears to wield so much power over the Concacaf voting bloc. And, by extension, over Sepp Blatter himself.

Blatter's accession to the FIFA presidency, remember, came via the parts of the world that were not Europe. Including Concacaf -- the Caribbean, North American and Central American confederation. (Warner is from Trinidad & Tobago.) Europe almost unanimously supported the Swede Lennart Johansson over Blatter, a Swiss.

Anyway, follow the links if you want to see a batch of England-oriented hand-wringing over their bid, and Jack Warner's criticism of it.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Irish Keeper Slams 'Seeding' in Europe Playoffs

It was one of those announcements that didn't get all that much attention, when it went down.

Last week, FIFA announced that the eight second-place European qualifying group finishers headed to the four home-and-home playoffs in November for berths in South Africa 2010 ... would be seeded.

That is, don't look for two traditionally powerful soccer nations to be randomly matched in the struggle for the final four Europe berths in the World Cup finals.

And a key player for one of the "lesser" potential group runners-up is not happy about this. At all. In fact, Shay Given, Ireland's keeper, was quoted in this story as calling it a "disgusting" situation.

Given does have a fair complaint: European clubs were not told, before qualifying began, that the second-place teams would be seeded.

As he notes, it seems only fair that all the procedures for getting to the 2010 World Cup should be clear and established even before the process began.

As the story notes, seeding would eliminate potential playoff matches such as France and Germany, who could each finish second in their groups.

If the standings remain as they are, now, when qualifying group play is completed next Wednesday, the seeded second-place nations would be Croatia, France, Greece and Russia. And they would be drawn against either Bosnia, Ireland, Slovenia or Sweden.

Thus, Ireland and Given would have to fight past a genuine soccer power, in the playoff, rather than have a chance to go up against historically lesser sides such as Slovenia and Bosnia.

Next time around, FIFA should make this clear. Let everyone know what the rules are. From Day 1.
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Portugal Hopes Ronaldo Will Be Ready

Remember when we were wondering, the other day, why (and how) someone in Spain could write a story about Cristiano Ronaldo not being able to play for Real Madrid over the weekend ... without even raising the question about whether he might be available for Portugal's crucial match this coming Saturday?

That has been rectified.

Though not by the original writer.

Turns out, as this story notes, that Portugal believes there is a good chance Ronaldo -- the reigning FIFA Player of the Year -- will be available when the Portuguese play host to Hungary, in Lisbon, in a critical qualifying match.

And in this story, Ronaldo is quoted by as saying he thinks he "will be fine" in time for the match.

Portugal is tied for third in Europe's Group 1 standings, but could jump to second with a victory, combined with a Sweden loss at Denmark.

Portugal is No. 17 in the FIFA world rankings, and missing South Africa 2010 would be embarassing and unfortunate. (Though not as embarrassing and unfortunate as Argentina, ranked No. 8, not making it.)

But Portugal finishes qualifying with a match against Malta, and would have 19 points, if it can defeat Hungary -- which would give them a good chance at second place, and a spot in the UEFA second-place playoffs. The back door to South Africa for four European teams.

Having Cristiano Ronaldo ... probably would help Portugal quite a bit.
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Monday, October 5, 2009

Top 10 Qualifiers Coming This Weekend

Is it just me, or is the soccer world so intent on/overwhelmed by the early stages of the Western European club seasons ... that the next critical four days of qualifying are being almost overlooked?

By the night of Oct. 14 -- a week from Wednesday -- we will know the identity of at least nine more World Cup finalists -- and that number could go as high as 13, depending on results in Africa.

That is, known participants in South Africa 2010 could more than double in the next nine days, from 11 to as many as 24.

To jump start the discussion, our list of the 10 most important of the 40 qualifying matches to be played this weekend, Oct. 10-11:

10. Rwanda at Algeria, at Blida. Algeria moves excruciatingly close to its first World Cup finals berth since 1986 with a victory, and it is heavily favored at home over Rwanda. What makes this Africa Group C match interesting is that last-place Rwanda has been stingy giving up goals (five in four matches). An Algeria victory in this Sunday match, paired with an Egypt victory over Rwanda the day before, sets up a massive Algeria-at-Egypt match on Nov. 14. Algeria needs only a tie to advance.

9. New Zealand at Bahrain, at Manama. The first leg of the home-and-home playoffs for a World Cup berth between the Oceania champion and Asia's No. 5 club. Nothing will be determined here (the second leg is Nov. 14, in New Zealand), but a two-goal victory (either way) could put one of these teams well along the road to South Africa. Bahrain is the Arab world's standard bearer; New Zealand is the only vaguely competent side left in Oceania, with Australia having defected to Asia.

8. United States at Honduras, at San Pedro Sula. Honduras arguably has been the most impressive side in Concacaf Hexagonal competition, aggressive in the attack and blessed with big, fast and skilled players, and particularly impressive at home, where it is 4-0-0 with a 12-2 goal differential. "Home," however, is in a bit of turmoil; the elected president was ousted by a coup, is holed up in the Brazilian embassy, and there is a chance of domestic violence (or at least upheaval) at any moment. The U.S. sits atop the Hexagonal, and could clinch a World Cup berth with a tie, but it rates as an underdog in steamy San Pedro Sula.

Togo at Cameroon, at Yaounde. Cameroon can come near to completing its stunning worst-to-first sprint (it was dead last in its group a month ago today) with a victory over the Togo squad that pinned a 1-0 upset defeat on it back in March. If Gabon ties or loses to Morocco, a Cameroon victory here would clinch Africa Group A for the Indomitable Lions, putting Cameroon into the finals for the fifth time since 1990. If both Cameroon and Cabon win, the group goes to Nov. 14, with Cameroon playing at Morocco and Gabon at Togo.

6. Chile at Colombia, at Medellin. Chile clinches one of South America's four guaranteed berths with a victory. Colombia, currently No. 8 in the South America standings, reintroduces itself into the contender equation with a victory -- because its final match, at Paraguay, is against a team already in the World Cup. If the Colombians can get six points, in their final two matches, and jump up to 26 points, they could fourth or fifth. But the Colombians (5-2-1 at home; 2-0-0 at Medellin) have to beat Chile first.

Latvia at Greece, at Athens. The teams are tied for second in Europe Group 2, and a winner, if there is one, will be all but certain of getting the runner-up berth and a place in the home-and-home playoffs among UEFA second-place teams for a South Africa berth. Latvia is one of the surprise clubs in all of European qualifying; nearly its entire roster plays for little-known domestic clubs. Both teams have fairly easy final matches: Greece at Luxembourg, Latvia home to Moldova. A tie is to Greece's benefit, because it holds a slender, one-goal advantage in differential and is more likely to score a rash of goals in its final match than is Latvia.

4. Uruguay at Ecuador, at Quito. Seeking its third consecutive appearance in the finals, Ecuador sits fourth in the South America standings with two matches left, but Uruguay remains very much in contention for a top-four finish, as well. Ecuador almost has to win, at its 9,300-foot-high aerie; it doesn't want to have to go to Chile needing a point or three, especially if Chile is still fighting to qualify. This is a huge opportunity for Uruguay, a country with a proud (championships in 1030 and 1950) World Cup tradition. If the sea-level side can stage an upset, it probably will control its destiny when its Oct. 14 home match with Argentina rolls around.

3. Slovenia at Slovakia, at Bratislava. Slovakia punches its ticket for South Africa (and its first World Cup finals as an independent nation) with a tie. Slovenia keeps alive its slim hopes of finishing first atop Europe Group 3 if it can win, and a tie keeps it in the race for the No. 2 slot and a home-and-home playoff for a berth. Arguably, the biggest match in Slovakian history.

2. Sweden at Denmark, at Copenhagen. The Danes clinch Europe Group 1 with a victory over their Scandinavian rivals. Sweden pulls into a tie with Denmark atop the group with a victory. Sweden also has the easier final match, home against Albania while Denmark is home to more formidable Hungary. The Danes do have a semi-comfortable goal differential advantage over Sweden, 11-6.

1. Germany at Russia, at Moscow. A showdown of the superpowers in Europe Group 4; they have outscored their group opponents by a combined tally of 42-8. Each has stumbled only once in eight qualifying matches to date -- Germany in a 3-3 draw at Finland, Russia in a 2-1 loss to the Germans at Dortmund last November. Germany clinches the group with a victory. Russia, which finishes at feeble Azerbaijan, all but clinches if it can win Saturday. A draw helps the Germans, who then could clinch with a home victory over Finland on Oct. 14. Also, all sorts of historical and geopolitical subplots when these two face off.
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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Reports of France's Demise Are Exaggerated

France hasn't covered itself in glory in World Cup qualifying, to date, but things aren't nearly as bad as this fairly hysterical story would suggest.

France is second in Europe Group 7 and is almost certain to clinch the No. 2 slot when it plays at home against little Faroe Islands on Oct. 10.

And a second-place finish puts France into one of the four home-and-home playoffs with another second-place team out of Europe. France would rate as a favorite over nearly any second-place team, no?

Meanwhile, Serbia likely will win Group 7. A victory home against Romania or at Lithuania wraps up a berth in South Africa for the Serbs.

Certainly, a case can be made that France should jettison coach Raymond Domenech. He is a bit of a goofball ... but he also has contrived to turn the French into a group that can't score.

But France still has gobs of talent. Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery ... there is scoring ability there. Even if les bleus are an army of lions led by a rabbit (as Napoleon might have put it), the lions might be able to advance despite their Rabbit in Chief.

Yoann Gourcuff isn't available to France, and that creates a problem because he is a creative midfielder. But Ribery ought to be able to fill in.

Once it wraps up second place, all France needs is a home victory and a road draw to advance to South Africa. That would be a more achievable goal with someone else as coach ... but even Raymond Domenech ought to be able to scare up a home victory and a road tie against some other group runner-up.
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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ronaldo Unavailable to Portugal?

Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the greatest soccer player in the world, is injured and won't play Sunday for his club team, Real Madrid.

What the story (linked, above) doesn't address is this:

Will Ronaldo be available for Portugal's crucial World Cup qualifying match on Oct. 10?

Which comes back to an interesting question we probably will address at greater length sometime in the future:

Are club commitments such an overpowering concept that athletes (as well as journalists) don't bother to take international duties into account?

Ronaldo's unavailability for one of dozens of club matches this season ... is the sole point of attention in the story. When anyone who is interested in the World Cup would immediately and understandably wonder "so, what does it mean for Portugal?" And hope that topic were broached at least to the point of "Portugal has an important qualifying match with Hungary coming up and Ronaldo readiness for that match isn't known." Tell us you don't know what it means for a week from now, because a week from now is what the international soccer community is interested in.

Portugal is trying to rally, here at the end of qualifying for South Africa 2010, and finish at least second in Europe's Group 1 standings -- and get into the home-and-home playoff with some other second-place team.

Portugal is well-advised to win its final two matches -- home against Hungary next Saturday, and home against Malta on Oct. 14.

The second match is all but a sure victory. The first is anything but.

Hungary, remember, also still has a shot at finishing second in Group 1, and the Oct. 10 match should be very, very intense.

Giving us an idea of whether the reigning FIFA Player of the Year might be available for that match seems like the least the writer could do. But when club, club and club overpower even the World Cup ... information like that gets left out.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Olympics to Follow World Cup to Brazil

Rio de Janeiro was awarded the 2016 Olympic Games today in a vote by the International Olympic Committee. Which was a bit of a surprise for one reason:

The Olympics are going to Brazil only 24 months after the World Cup plays South America's superpower.

This could be a risky proposition for the Olympics because it sets up an almost head-to-head competition with the World Cup.

A competition that may well leave the Olympics in second place.

Commentators in the city of Chicago, one of three competitors with Rio, seemed convinced the potential confluence of events, in Brazil, would wreck the Rio bid for the Olympics.

In today's Chicago Tribune, commentator David Greising wrote, "Rio's bid-killer, though, is the fact that Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014. That's two short years before the 2016 Olympics, a mere eye blink for an IOC that measures time in quadrennials.

"Set aside legitimate concerns about Brazil's capacity to host the world's two biggest sports events within 24 months of each other. Instead, consider the issue that will rule out Rio for many IOC voters: The world's oldest sports movement does not like to share the spotlight with anyone; World Cup soccer least of all.

"In the Alice in Wonderland world of the Olympics, the IOC is the Queen of Hearts: vain and mercurial to the point of narcissism. Off with the heads of anyone who suggests the IOC must compete for sponsorship money, organizational efforts and the public's attention. As big as the Olympics are, the World Cup is at least as big everywhere outside the U.S, and futbol-mad Brazil is the last place in the world where the IOC would want to show up two years after the Cup."

Or not.

This could be very interesting.

Our sense for quite some time has been that the World Cup is a bigger event, in terms of global interest, than is the Summer Olympics. Aside from the United States and Canada, and maybe Australia and New Zealand (and the vanished Soviet-era bloc, which looked at the Olympics as a way to make political statements). And perhaps (perhaps) China because, like the U.S., China is far more successful in Olympics competition than it is in soccer competition.

But, as was noted in a previous blog post on this site, soccer appears to be the No. 1 game among the Chinese populace. Even if the Chinese can't actually play the game.

Something fun to keep tabs of will be the size of the TV audiences for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. The number of tourists for the former, and the latter.

We predict a World Cup victory. Followed by IOC self-reflection on why it allowed itself to be drawn into the sort of direct competition it wouldn't win.
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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mexico Realizes Limitations, Scraps Cup Bids

If you've been in Mexico lately, or paid any attention to the news coming out of the country, the idea that a World Cup should be staged in Mexico in 2018 or even 2022 ... always seemed a little, oh, ridiculous.

Apparently, someone in Mexico's soccer federation also realized it wasn't such a good idea to try for the World Cup (never mind actually stage it), and the plug has been pulled on the bid process.

Mexico officials are citing the cost of the event, and that's one really good reason not to put on a World Cup.

But there are others.

1. Mexico has done little to improve its soccer infrastructure since it last hosted the World Cup, in 1986. That makes for a lot of aging and old-fashioned stadiums as potential World Cup venues, and that wasn't going to fly.

2. Mexico's economy is in the tank. Arguably worse than it was a generation ago.

3. Mexico is this close to turning into a narco-state. Many of the cities on the U.S. border and almost lawless, and several in the interior aren't much better. Mexico can't quite guarantee the security of its own citizens on a daily basis, and the idea of making the country safe for 500,000 or so World Cup visitors ... well, it wasn't going to happen.

That leaves Australia, England, Indonesia, Japan, Russia and the United States as candidates for both 2018 and 2022. Portugal and Spain, and Belgium and Holland, want to share hosting duties for either World Cup.

South Korea and Qatar are bidding only for 2022.

FIFA is scheduled to vote on hosts for both 2018 and 2022 in December of 2010. Brazil will play host to the 2014 World Cup. England probably is the favorite to get the 2018 World Cup, and the U.S. may be the front-runner for 2022.

Mexico is out of the loop until 2026, at the earliest. Which is just as well.

It's good when a country realizes its limitations. Mexico is a great soccer country, but this is not the time for it to take on the massive responsibility of a World Cup.

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