Saturday, November 14, 2009

Advantage France, Portugal, Russia ... Greece?

The first half of the four home-and-home playoffs between second place teams out of European group qualifying ... are complete.

The scores on Saturday: France 1 at Ireland 0 ... Bosnia-Herzegovina 0 at Portugal 1 ... Slovenia 1 at Russia 2 ... Ukraine 0 at Greece 0.

And the advantages now lie with the four seeded teams -- France, Portugal, Russia and Greece. In that order.

Here is why:

France won on the road, at Croke Park in Dublin. It wasn't decisive, but a road victory is a very big deal for les bleus, who have struggled to beat anyone anywhere. But especially on the road. France now needs only a tie at Stade de France on Wednesday to secure passage to South Africa.

Portugal had a victory, at home, without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, which is nice, because all it needs now is a tie at Zenica on Wednesday. And that might be about all the Portuguese can hope for against the testy and talented Bosnians.

Russia also has a victory, but it is stained a bit by the "away" goal the Russians surrendered in the 87th minute. Slovenia has to win, yes, but it has a little wiggle room in types of victory. To wit: A 1-0 Slovenia victory (in Maribor) sends Slovenia to South Africa 2010 because of that "away" goal. No extra time (or eventual penalty shootout) needed. But Russia still has the upper hand. A tie will do, as will any defeat in which Russia scores two goals or more.

Greece ... this isn't much of an advantage. Ukraine now gets to play at home, and will be favored to win. The advantage to a scoreless tie at home is that "away" goal thing, again. Any tie that isn't 0-0 sends Greece to South Africa. Ukraine has only one way into the finals that doesn't call for a victory, and that would be another 0-0 tie ... capped eventually by a shootout victory.

Africa had a wild day, but it was typical European order, Saturday. No victory by more than a goal, and everyone still with a shot to win on Wednesday.
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Egypt, Algeria Will Play It Again

This already was too intense.

And now?

Things were on the verge of chaos before Egypt and Algeria met in their Africa Group C finale tonight, with a berth in South Africa 2010 at stake.

Three Algerian players were injured when their team bus was pelted by stones on the way from the airport to the hotel. An event that sparked outrage in Algeria and, at first, complete denials in Egypt (and a rather shameful media report that the Algerians had trashed their own bus) ...

That was followed by Fifa warning Egypt to take care of security, the sort of blunt "you better get this right" threat that the world governing body rarely issues. And Egypt giving up its "we didn't do nothin' " stance and promising to provide unprecedented security to the Algerians.

And for more "fun" ... Algerians attacked an Egyptian work camp, in Algeria, and looted their quarters.

Hmm. Soccer War II, anyone?

And now ... with Egypt scoring in the final seconds of the fifth extra-time minute, to win 2-0 in Cairo ... Algeria and Egypt are in an exact tie in the Group C standings, and will have a one-match playoff to determine a place in the 2010 finals ... on Wednesday at Omdurman, Sudan.

Egypt and Algeria, bitter rivals in soccer. Who (outside of north Africa) knew?

The match had generated such strong emotion among fans of the two teams ... that here in Abu Dhabi, all the way across the Arabian Peninsula from Egypt, Egyptian expats were driving up and down the streets honking horns and waving flags two hours after the match was over.

So, yes, they get to play it again.

Sudan is a neutral site, but it is Egypt's preferred neutral site. When Fifa figured out that the teams could end in a absolute tie, it opted for the extra game and asked the combatants (uh, contestants) where they would like to play it. Algeria preferred Tunisia.

And the draw to decide who got their choice was so closely watched that the web site posted a series of photos to the process, intended to show that it was on the up and up.


You almost wonder, now, if the best way to approach the playoff game, on Wednesday, is to close the stadium. Allow the players and media in, but no fans. But show it on television, of course.

Four European teams will play their way into the World Cup on Wednesday, as will one from the Western Hemisphere ... but the single hottest match would appear to be Algeria and Egypt. In the Sudan.
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Nigeria (!) and Cameroon Join the 2010 Party

Cameroon took care of business.

Nigeria took care of the upset.

Cameroon put an exclamation mark on its worst-to-first surge in Africa Group A, going to Fez and throttling Morocco 2-0 to clinch its sixth appearance in a World Cup final -- a high for any African nation.

Meanwhile, Nigeria pulled a dramatic switcheroo on the final day of qualifying in Africa Group B, winning a 3-2 goalfest at Kenya while Tunisia was shut down and shut out, 1-0, at Mozambique.

Leaving just one South Africa 2010 berth out there to be won today (probably), Algeria or Egypt out of Africa Group C.

Nigeria was in trouble, before today's action began. It suffered a surprising (at the time) tie at Mozambique, then saw a home victory turn into a 2-2 tie when Tunisia's Oussama Darragi scored in the 89th minute, back in September.

That left Tunisia in control of its destiny, at Mozambique. And then the matches kicked off.

Tunisia didn't score in the first half, but its two-point lead looked secure because Nigeria trailed 1-0 at halftime in Nairobi.

Things turned in a hurry. Nigeria got even in the 62nd minute on a goal by Obafemi Martins and went ahead three minutes late on a goal by Aiyegbeni Yakuba. Kenya got even in the 79th minute, but Martins scored the winner in the 83rd minute.

Meanwhile, Tunisia not only couldn't win, at Maputo, it surrendered a goal to Dario in the 83rd minute ... and a quarter-hour after that Tunisia had failed to qualify for the first time since 1994, and Nigeria was in. Rest assured the change at the top was celebrated in Abuja and Lagos.

Turns out, Mozambique was a tough place to play. The 'biques tied Nigeria at home and won against Kenya and Tunisia, and it is that one point Nigeria got for the tie at Maputo that has it going to South Africa. What looked, a day ago, like a bad result, actually was decisive -- in a good way for Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Cameroon proved it was just too strong for its group, taking care of Morocco with the help of a goal from Samuel Eto'o. The victory was rendered moot when second-standing Gabon couldn't manage to win at Togo, going down 1-0.

That settles Africa's lineup for South Africa 2010 -- South Africa, the host; Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and the winner of the Egypt-Algeria game currently underway.
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Kiwis Headed for South Africa 2010

New Zealand defeated Bahrain 1-0 on what looked like a blustery night in Wellington -- which was what the Kiwis were hoping for as a favorable atmosphere for heat-loving Bahrain.

Rory Fallon headed home the only goal, just before halftime, and goalkeeper Mark Paston saved a penalty early in the second half to put New Zealand into South Africa 2010.

It is the first result in today, from the 15 qualifiers on tap. The Saturday night match actually ended before Saturday even dawned in a big chunk of the world.

Here is a link to the story posted by the Post Dominion newspaper in Wellington. The page has a video link that nearly summarizes the match.

Later today I will post a link to one of Bahrain's English-language newspaper for what, no doubt, will be a mournful account of the proceedings.

(I would hate to be Sayed Mohamed Adnan, the man who failed to convert the penalty. He probably instantly became one of the 10 most infamous people in Bahrain.)

The ramifications of this:

--Bahrain's failure means that Gulf Arabs won't have a team at South Africa. If they want to root for fellow Arabs, they will have to settle for the Tunisians or Algerians, if they advance, later today.

--It means Bahrain has come tantalizingly close to its first World Cup for in consecutive quadrenniums. The Bahrainis lost a similar home-and-home, winner-goes-to-the-World Cup vs. another "unfancied" squad (as the English would say) in Trinidad & Tobago before the 2006 World Cup. How do you say "Close but no cigar" in Arabic?

--New Zealand gives Oceania a team in the World Cup. Although Australia also is in. The Aussies, however, shifted into Asia beginning with this qualifying round. Thus, New Zealand had to defeat only sad little sides such as New Caledonia and Fiji to get to the playoff with Bahrain. It is by far -- by far -- the weakest region in the world, and the Kiwis are all but guaranteed a playoff shot ... forever. Or until Australia comes back.

--It is New Zealand's first World Cup appearance since 1982, and second all-time, and there may not be many more -- even with the nearly-straight-to-the-playoffs reality of the current Oceania setup. Not if some of Asia's enormously populated, soccer-mad countries ever get their acts together. (Talking to you, China. And you, India and Indonesia and Malaysia.) That would put a side more formidable than Bahrain into a playoffs with the Oceania champ. (That is, New Zealand.) New Zealand has only 4.3 million people, and soccer is no better than its third-favorite sport, far behind rugby and cricket.

--New Zealand now is the darling underdog of South Africa 2010 (assuming the hosts have to play better than they have shown, of late). And they also are officially the team Everyone Wants in Their Group when the 2010 draw is made on Dec. 5.

But just being there ... that's a big deal for New Zealand soccer. Congratulations.
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