Friday, November 27, 2009

Enormous Void on the World Cup Map

Noticed this the other day. While studying the list of 32 qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

An enormous swath of territory, extending from eastern Europe across nearly the breadth of Asia has ... zero ... teams in the World Cup.

From the eastern borders of Slovakia and Serbia and Greece ... to the border of North Korea, the continent of Asia is shut out of South Africa 2010.

And Fifa can't be happy about that, if we assume that it believes every region on the planet would like to have at least one or two countries from their neighborhood in the finals. To root for ... to root against ... just someone to bring the event a bit closer to home.

Didn't work out this time. Not for the 90 percent of the contiguous bulk of this population-dense area.

How did this happen?

--In part, it is bad luck.

Russia, Ukraine and Bahrain were on the edge of qualification. Each was in a home-and-home playoff for one of the 32 berths, playoffs in which each was the favorite. Each stumbled in the second half of the playoff.

--In part it reflects bad planning on the part of FIFA.

Soccer's organizing body allowed Australia to shift from the Oceania qualifying group into the Asia qualifying group. The Australians took a look at Asian soccer and decided -- quite accurately -- that their chances of getting to South Africa via one of the four guaranteed Asia berths were much better than winning Oceania (which essentially means beating New Zealand) and getting the region's half-berth -- and surviving a home-and-home roulette with Asia's No. 5 finisher.

That doesn't mean Fifa should have allowed the Aussies to move. Anyone paying attention (and apparently it doesn't include Fifa) knew that Australia represented a strong threat to qualify out of Asia, and that Oceania without Australia is a one-country "region" named New Zealand.

Australia rolled right through Asian qualifying, not losing in eight matches (6-0-2) of final group play, and poof! there went one of Asia's four berths -- to a country usually considered a continent of its own and not part of Asia.

--Some of it is the sheer weakness and/or incompetence of soccer federations in the massively populated Asian mainland.

China plays lots of soccer, has hundreds of millions of fans ... but its federation is corrupt and incompetent. India also has a horrible federation and doesn't play much soccer. Pakistan is a soccer nonentity and doesn't seem to mind. Ditto, Bangladesh. Indonesia is hardly better. None of those five countries reached even the final 10 in "Asian" qualifying.

Iran usually is competent, but it fell two points short of qualifying outright, one point short of the fifth-place playoffs. Saudi Arabia lost to Bahrain in the fifth-place home-and-home, and then Bahrain lost to New Zealand. There goes the Arabian Peninsula.

And that leaves Asia represented by Japan, the two Koreas ... and Australia. Three countries on the edge of the continent, and one on another continent entirely. And it leaves seven time zones, from central Europe to Korea, with no World Cup teams.

So, from Turkey and the Middle East, from Poland, Romania ... through all the "stans", across Mother Russia and its breakaway children, through China and Mongolia, across Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and down into Indochina and Indonesia and over to the Philippines ... a chunk of territory that probably holds something like two-thirds of the world population ... it's World Cup armageddon.

For soccer fans there, the 2010 World Cup will be about watching teams from the rest of the world. (Unless they feel kinship with the Koreas or Japan.)

Meanwhile, Europe has 13 teams, Africa has six, South America has five, North American has three and even little Oceania has one.

We can be fairly certain Fifa would prefer that an Iran and a Russia and China and maybe an Arabian Peninsula team were in the World Cup. None of them are.

It leaves a yawning void on the World Cup map. Maybe it won't happen again anytime soon. Fifa has to be hoping so.

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