The prize could not be greater for the six remaining teams in the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone as they embark on the final round of qualifying this week. The top three sides in the section will book slots at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, with the fourth earning a play-off place.
And as a glance at the opening round of matches confirms, competition is sure to be intense. In the pick of Wednesday's trio of ties USA and Mexico renew their long-running rivalry, while the duel between Costa Rica and Honduras is sure to raise passions in Central America. And no less intriguing is the clash that pits a youthful El Salvador against the experienced campaigners of Trinidad and Tobago.
After 55 meetings over the years there is not much Mexico and the USA do not know about each other. The region's two powerhouses renew hostilities in Columbus in the most eagerly awaited match of the six-team group, and there is nothing the two sets of rival fans would like more than to get one over their historical rivals. For USA coach Bob Bradley any meeting against Mexico is special, especially when there are vital qualification points at stake: "There is always a great sense of expectation every time we play them, and when I spoke to the players after the draw it was the only thing we talked about."
In an interview with FIFA.com, however, Tricolor captain Pavel Pardo, tried to put the clash in perspective. "It's a key match for sure, but it's not a final and there are other vital games ahead. We've got nine other matches and every one of them is crucial to our hopes."
Even so, three points on enemy territory would represent the best possible start for the Mexicans, although given the Americans' home record that would be quite an achievement. It has been ten long years since the Stars and Stripes last lost a qualifier on home soil, a record they will be keen to extend against their southern neighbours.
Ticos hoping to tick
One fixture that can match Mexico-USA for intensity is the Central American derby between Costa Rica and Honduras. The duo have been engaged in an equally bitter rivalry over the years, the latest instalment of which came just a few days ago, when the Ticos emerged victorious from an UNCAF Cup semi-final in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
A FIFA World Cup qualifying match is an entirely different occasion, however, as the Catrachos know only too well. Their hopes of reaching Germany 2006 were dashed by a goalless draw with the Costa Ricans, a result that, as striker David Suazo recently explained, has strengthened their resolve this time around: "Honduras have the potential to achieve something big here. If we can keep up our form of late, it will be tough for Costa Rica."
History is also on the Hondurans' side. Although the Ticos are kicking off their campaign at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in San Jose, it has been an incredible 48 years since they last beat tomorrow's opponents on home soil in a qualifying match.
Minnows at the ready
While most of the attention will be focused on the other two games, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago should create plenty of excitement themselves. After a disappointing showing in the UNCAF Cup the Cuscatlecos boosted their morale with a 1-0 friendly win over Peru. But despite home advantage on Wednesday, coach Carlos de los Cobos is not taking anything for granted. "It's good to start off at home. It does give you a little edge, but the fact that Trinidad have got this far shows they must be a good side."
The Caribbean team are banking on star forward Kenwyne Jones and the veteran pairing of Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy to help them make an impact. "We'll be concentrating on maintaining possession and playing our usual game on the ground," commented Latapy.
The scene is set, then, for an exciting start to what promises to be a gripping final phase, one that will have the region's many football fans on tenterhooks over the next few months.