2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan ™ Preliminaries
199 teams registered to take part in the 2002 FIFA World Cup preliminary competition, although only 193 of them actually played in the 777 games contested. The history books now contain some new records too, such as a new goalscoring record both for teams and the fastest-ever hat-trick in an "A". More than 17 million spectators filled the stadia for the games - a new record in itself. Some of the big guns also found the going tough in the early rounds.
In the CONCACAF zone, outsiders Costa Rica stunned everybody by dominating the competition from start to finish. The USA qualified with matches in hand, but needed favourable results from other teams to do so. Pre-tournament favourites Mexico even went into the last match unsure of their destiny, but eventually made it safely over the finishing line. But the Confederation champions, Canada, did not even make it as far as the decisive final round. In South America, Argentina were the top dogs, and left their opponents trailing in their wake. Second place went to Ecuador, just ahead of Paraguay and Brazil. The Brazilians struggled like never before, and eventually qualified with a little help from rivals Uruguay, who slipped up against a surprisingly strong Venezuela, who finished in a commendable position themselves, consigning Peru and Chile to the lower reaches of the table.
Asia was home to a keenly-fought battle for the two automatic places, which were finally secured by China PR and Saudi Arabia, the latter living up to their billing as group favourites. In China, scenes of unbridled joy greeted the news that the national team had qualified for the first time ever. Iran could not repeat their success of 1997, and finally bowed out against Ireland Rep. in the playoff round.
In Africa, it was a case of "how you were", with four of the qualifiers from 1998 (Cameroon, Tunisia, South Africa and Nigeria) coming through once again with flying colours. The final African qualifier stunned the world with their showing in the qualification rounds. Senegal outshone seasoned campaigners such as Egypt and Morocco on their way to the greatest triumph in the nation's footballing history.
In Europe, the major surprise was sprung by the Netherlands. The Dutch team was full of international stars, but they only finished in third place in their group, missing out altogether. Poland, a force in world football in the early Seventies, and a constant presence at the FIFA World Cup ™ between 1974 and 1986, announced their return with a glut of goals from a nationalised Nigerian, Emmanuel Olisadebe. Germany, previously untouchable in qualifying rounds, were stunned by arch-rivals England, with Sven-Göran Eriksson's men triumphant in Munich in a 5-1 victory. In the end, Germany came through the play-off round against Ukraine unscathed. EURO 2000 outsiders Slovenia qualified for their second high-profile tournament in succession, while Belgium qualified for the sixth consecutive time, and Turkey succeeded for the first time in 48 years.
Australia's successful year was not crowned in the play-off game against Uruguay, who finished fifth in the South American group. The "Celeste" team from Uruguay finally returned to the world stage after 12 long years in the World Cup wilderness