Europe's heavyweights safely through
© AFP

Having managed to negotiate the qualification stage, some with more difficulty than others, Europe's footballing giants will be on show next summer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

Turkey, third in 2002, Croatia, third in 1998, Sweden and Bulgaria, third and fourth in 1994, Poland, third in 1982 and 1974, but also Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Romania will be the most notable European absentees.

Destination South Africa
Both Spain (with ten wins) and the Netherlands (eight wins in a group with five teams) earned maximum points, playing spectacular and efficient football along the way. The arrivals of Vicente del Bosque, who replaced Luis Aragones as Spain coach, and Bert van Marwijk, in place of Marco van Basten at the Dutch helm, had no effect on either team's winning form. Quite the contrary in fact.  

Slightly lower down the pecking order, but still unbeaten, came Germany (eight wins and two draws) and Italy (seven wins and three draws), two sides who tend to grow in stature as tournaments progress. Meanwhile, under Fabio Capello, England (nine wins and one defeat) have gone from strength to strength since failing to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008.

The surprises were to be found in the groups from which the play-off winners emerged. Morten Olsen's Denmark earned qualification for their fourth FIFA World Cup by winning a tough Group A, ahead of Portugal and Sweden. After a disastrous start to their campaign, the Seleção das Quinas finished strongly, beating a brave Bosnia-Herzegovina side 1-0 home and away in the play-offs to qualify, despite the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo.

A surprise was also sprung by Switzerland in Group 2. The Schweizer Nati finished a point ahead of Greece and boast a generation of players reaching maturity, not to mention the recently-crowned U-17 world champions waiting in the wings. 2004 European champions Greece nevertheless booked their place thanks to a slender play-off win over Ukraine (0-0, 1-0), who were unable to give Andriy Shevchenko one last FIFA World Cup hurrah.

Group 3 was undoubtedly the most open and saw Slovakia spring a shock by finishing top, two points ahead of Slovenia, six ahead of the Czech Republic, seven ahead of Northern Ireland and eleven ahead of Poland. Slovenia in second were rock-solid at home, not conceding a goal throughout qualifying, including in the play-off triumph against Russia (a 2-1 loss away was followed by a 1-0 win at home). That meant Slovenia became the first team in the history of the play-offs to qualify after having lost the first leg. Russia, in contrast, fell at the last hurdle, despite keeping pace with Germany throughout almost all of Group 4. Guus Hiddink thus just missed out on his bid to manage four different teams at four FIFA World Cups.

Serbia took advantage of France's opening-day slip-up in Austria (a 3-1 defeat) to top Group 7. Unbeaten in their eleven competitive matches since then, the 2006 FIFA World Cup runners-up managed to book their place in the play-offs by dealing the Republic of Ireland their only defeat in 12 matches (1-0, 1-1).

The revelations
Greek Theofanis Gekas, 29, is the qualifying campaign's top scorer with 10 goals, despite Angelos Charisteas being the more likely Greek candidate for the prize. Wolfsburg's 23-year-old Bosnia-Herzegovina forward Edin Dzeko also showed remarkable form, netting nine times in the campaign.

Arsenal's 21-year-old Nicklas Bendtner, the cornerstone of Denmark's attack, was voted 2009 Player of the Year in his homeland. Meanwhile, Brazilian-born Portgual forward Liedson was a worthy stand-in for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Slovakia midfielder Marek Hamsik, 23, is the embodiment of his country's rise through the ranks, while France owe a lot to 23-year-old goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who is a likely successor to Fabien Barthez. Italy have also found a stand-in for Gianluigi Buffon in the form of 26-year-old Federico Marchetti.

What they said
"Capello intimidates me. I think the key to England's revival is that if you don't play well in a match, you don't start the next one." Wayne Rooney, England forward

The stat
4 -
Four teams finished the qualification stage unbeaten: Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. At the other end of the scale, San Marino and Andorra did not manage a single point, with ten defeats each. Finally, England managed to score 34 goals in ten matches, while Malta failed to score a single one.

Qualified teams
England, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland

Top scorers
1. Theofanis Gekas (GRE) - 10 goals
2. Wayne Rooney (ENG), Edin Dzeko (BIH) - 9 goals
4. Miroslav Klose (GER), David Villa (ESP) - 7 goals
6. Ebi Smolarek (POL), Stanislav Sestak (SVK), Marc Janko (AUT), Elyaniv Barda (ISR), Wesley Sonck (BEL), Lukas Podolski (GER), Andriy Shevchenko (UKR) and Robbie Keane (IRL) - 6 goals