While the race to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ has not yet started in Europe, the action in the rest of the world is already well under way. Indeed, a third of the teams who entered the preliminary competition have already bowed out, with the latest round of matches in November claiming several surprise scalps.
Literally the biggest country to suffer an early exit was China PR, whose 4-0 win over bottom-placed Singapore on 15 November came too late to prevent the world’s most populous nation from crashing out during the closing stages of Asia’s third qualifying round. Despite being drawn as top seeds in Group A, the Chinese, under new coach Jose Camacho, finished third in the four-team group behind west Asia’s Jordan and Iraq, whose top-two finishes saw them through to the fourth qualifying round.
After qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup in 2002, China have now failed to make it to the final stages of Asian qualifying for the past three editions, prompting plenty of soul-searching among the team’s players, officials and technical staff.
“We all agree that the Chinese team needs to change,” Camacho told a media conference ahead of the game in Singapore. “We have a lot of things to do, a lot of areas where we can improve, starting with the training sessions. We need to train more, and then compete more to get better.”
While coaches are often the first people to pay the price for a disappointing campaign, Camacho has been told that he will be given the time to make the necessary changes, with the Chinese Football Association hoping to use the former Spain coach’s expertise in the coming months to help further educate the trainers of their nation's professional league clubs.
The former Spain, Benfica and Real Madrid boss also received the backing of China captain Li Weifeng, who insisted that his country’s footballing problems could not be solved simply by appointing another new coach.
“Chinese soccer has been on the wrong path for the past ten years, and while others have been making great strides forward, we have been retreating,” Li told reporters. “Camacho has not been given enough time, so we should be patient and believe in him. Obviously Chinese players’ understanding of football strategy is some way behind the coach’s requirements, so it is a little like asking a Chinese coach to teach a Zambian table tennis team and expecting immediate success.”
China were joined on the sidelines in November by several other former FIFA World Cup participants, including England 1966 and South Africa 2010 competitors Korea DPR. A second straight 1-0 defeat against AFC Asian Cup semi-finalists Uzbekistan on 11 November ensured that the North Koreans were the first team from the last world finals to be ruled out of the tournament’s next edition.
While Uzbekistan joined Japan in qualifying ahead of Korea DPR in Group C, Australia and Iran also secured places in the confederation’s fourth qualifying round with a game to spare after justifying their status as top seeds in Group D and Group E respectively.
Stunned 1-0 by Oman on 11 November, the Australians bounced back with an away win by the same scoreline over Thailand four days later. Meanwhile Iran, who are bidding for a fourth FIFA World Cup appearance, following on from their successful 1978, 1998 and 2006 campaigns, made sure of their progress after maintaining their unbeaten record with a 4-1 away win over Indonesia, whose FIFA World Cup qualifying drought extends all the way back to a solitary appearance back in 1938, when the country was still playing under the colonial era name of Dutch East Indies.
“Asia for now is a kingdom of three kings, namely Australia, Japan and Korea Republic. But we must work hard to make them accept Iran as the fourth king, and this is our goal for the near future,” said Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s highly experienced coach, following the win in Jakarta.
While six teams have safely made it through to Asia’s fourth round, the remaining four berths will only be decided on 29 February when the last set of matches in round three is due to be played. Below Australia in Group D, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Thailand are all still capable of securing second place. In Group E, 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts Qatar look well placed to qualify alongside the Iranians as they hold a three-point lead and nine-goal advantage over their neighbours and sole remaining rivals Bahrain.
In a surprisingly open Group B, meanwhile, perennial FIFA World Cup qualifiers Korea Republic are still locked in a three-horse race with Lebanon and Kuwait, with 1990 FIFA World Cup qualifiers United Arab Emirates the only side no longer in contention. Bidding to make their eighth successive appearance at the finals – and their ninth in total – the South Koreans have struggled away from home, first being held to a 1-1 draw in Kuwait in September before losing 2-0 at United Arab Emirates in their first November game and then suffering a stunning 2-1 defeat in Beirut against the same Lebanese team who they had beaten 6-0 in their opening match. Those setbacks led to the dismissal of coach Cho Kwang-Rae in December, leaving his successor the task of securing at least a point from February’s decisive match against the Kuwaitis, for which Korea Republic will at least have home advantage.
There were further November upsets in the CONCACAF region, covering North and Central America and the Caribbean, as three of the six top seeds in the confederation’s second qualifying round failed to progress. Former FIFA World Cup participants Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago both finished as runners-up in their respective groups, with only the group winners going through to the third round, while Grenada – top seeds in Group E – lost four of their six matches to finish bottom of the group.
The misfortunes of the favourites were, of course, balanced out by the joy of the teams who finished above them. Guyana’s Golden Jaguars secured a place in the next round at Trinidad and Tobago’s expense thanks to a 2-1 home win over the Soca Warriors on November’s penultimate matchday. The Germany 2006 participants rallied to beat Guyana 2-0 in Port of Spain four days later but it was too little, too late for the Caribbean islanders, who finished a single point behind their conquerors to miss out on the penultimate round of qualifying for the first time in three decades.
“This is history for Guyana and we created it by showing what belief, determination and a will to accomplish something can do for our lives and our country,” said Guyana’s Trinidad-born coach Jamaal Shabazz, after his adopted country’s decisive win over the land of his birth. “It was a moment we dreamed about and we worked together and made it happen.”
There was similar ecstasy for the tiny state of Antigua and Barbuda on 11 November as they ended fellow Caribbean nation Haiti’s dreams of repeating their 1974 FIFA World Cup qualification. Boasting a population of around 90,000 people – compared to the roughly ten million inhabitants of Haiti – Antigua and Barbuda pulled off a shock 1-0 home win in a packed-out cricket stadium in the Antiguan capital of St. John’s, with 30-year-old journeyman Kerry Skepple poking home the decisive goal eight minutes from time. Like Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti managed a consolation victory on home soil four days later, but were left two points adrift in the group’s final standings.
“We can go on to become a power in the Caribbean, we can beat anyone on these islands,” was the confident assessment of Antigua and Barbuda forward Peter Byers, whose eight goals during the round have made him the leading goalscorer among the teams still able to qualify for Brazil. Having got the better of Haiti, Byers and his team-mates will now focus on the even bigger challenge of CONCACAF’s third qualifying round, where they will take on confederation heavyweights USA and Jamaica, as well as fellow second-round survivors Guatemala.
Although starting their campaign as second seeds, having briefly slipped below Grenada on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking used to determine CONCACAF’s second-round draw pots, the Guatemalans proved to be the strongest team in Group E, winning all six of their matches, including two comfortable victories over the struggling Grenadians.
The three other CONCACAF groups, meanwhile, went according to form with top seeds El Salvador, Panama and Canada all securing relatively easy passages into round three. While the Salvadorans and Panamanians matched Guatemala’s achievement in winning all their matches, Canada found the going only slightly tougher – winning four of their games and drawing twice. Their closest rivals throughout most of the stage were St Kitts and Nevis, but the Caribbean team ultimately paid the price for too many drawn matches, including November’s goalless decider in Basseterre that allowed the North Americans to progress.
Few shocks in Africa
As CONCACAF’s second round of qualifying drew to a close and the Asian Football Confederation approached the end of its third round, the first stages of qualifying were just getting under way in Africa and Oceania. Africa’s opening round saw fewer surprises than in the other regions, with nine of the 11 knockout ties ending in relatively straightforward wins for the seeded sides. The two exceptions involved unseeded Equatorial Guinea and Lesotho who made the most of home wins in their first legs to see off Madagascar and Burundi.
“It was a boost for the whole country and very exciting for the team,” Lesotho coach Leslie Notsi told FIFA World after his side had made sure of progression by following up their first-ever victory in a FIFA World Cup qualifier with a 2-2 draw in the Burundian capital Bujumbura. “We flew back via Johannesburg and then took a bus to Maseru, but there were still people waiting to cheer us when we finally crossed the border at around 11pm.”
Most of the other favourites progressed comfortably enough, with Kenya, Namibia, Ethiopia, Congo DR and Congo all winning by margins of five goals or more. But there were a couple of near shocks involving Rwanda and 2006 FIFA World Cup participants Togo, both of whom were held to away draws against their unseeded opponents during the first leg.
Coming from behind to scrape a 1-1 draw against Eritrea, the Rwandans finally booked a place in the second round thanks to a 3-1 home win in the tie’s second leg. Togo’s Sparrow Hawks could also only manage a 1-1 draw in their opening leg against Guinea-Bissau but came through with a 1-0 victory in the second leg. The win was made all the more memorable by the return to the side of star striker Emmanuel Adebayor, nearly two years after the player had announced his international retirement. The Togolese Football Association also confirmed after the match that stand-in coach and former French international Didier Six had signed a contract to take charge of the team until 2014.
31st time lucky
Of all the hard-fought victories being celebrated around the world in November, however, surely none could have been as sweet as American Samoa’s 2-1 win over Tonga during the opening round of qualifying in Oceania.
The win was the first ever by the American Samoans in an official international match, and ended a run of 30 straight defeats, including 12 consecutive losses in their three previous World Cup qualifying campaigns. Including their world record 31-0 defeat to Australia in April 2001, the South Pacific islanders had conceded 129 goals and scored just twice in those previous dozen appearances before their landmark win over Tonga.
Played as part of an opening round that involved the four lowest-ranked teams in Oceania, American Samoa’s maiden win was followed up with their first-ever draw – a 1-1 tie with the Cook Islands – to put the minnows on the brink of an unlikely progression to this year’s second round of qualifying.
American Samoa were brought back down to earth, however, in the final minute of the tournament’s decisive match. Needing a win against neighbours and tournament hosts Samoa, they had a golden opportunity with around ten minutes remaining but could only strike the post. Their chances were only finally dashed in the last minute of the game, however, when Samoa’s Silao Malo finished off a counter-attack to make sure of his team’s place in the next round.No happy ending to American Samoa’s historic week, then, but there was still something of a fairytale feeling as the team looked back on their achievements at the tournament.
“It’s amateur football at its best,” said coach Thomas Rongen. “The game at the highest level can be very cynical, but this is just about 23 guys making sacrifices. They’re not getting anything to be here, and some are spending time away from their jobs and losing money because of that.
“Our goalkeeper has been carrying this 31-0 [defeat to Australia] with him, and the first thing after the game, he looked at me. He was crying and said, ‘I can now tell my children that I’m a winner’, and that is bigger than the game itself, quite frankly.”
Still tight in South America
With qualifying action in Europe not due to start until September following the completion of UEFA EURO 2012, the only other confederation whose members can all still dream of a place at Brazil 2014 is CONMEBOL. Since the South American qualifiers consist of a nine-team league in which every country plays each other twice over a two-year time frame, it will be some time yet before the first qualifiers and the first eliminations are known.
November’s South American matches suggested, however, that many of those decisions could go right the way down to the wire, with the race to join the Brazilian hosts proving just as tight as expected. While Uruguay continued to set the early pace thanks to a 4-0 win over Chile on 11 November, all of the confederation’s other teams have already lost at least one match, with just four points separating the Uruguayan leaders from eighth-placed Peru.
Underlining the apparent closeness of the contest, none of the sides who played two matches in November were able to manage back-to-back wins. Two-time world champions Argentina continued their somewhat stuttering start to the campaign, managing only a 1-1 draw at home to bottom-placed Bolivia before picking themselves up with a 2-1 win in Colombia.
Chile, meanwhile, bounced back from their defeat in Uruguay to beat Paraguay 2-0, just four days after the Paraguayans had celebrated a 2-1 win over Ecuador. As if trying to prove that all the South American teams are capable of beating each other at the moment, Ecuador then managed a 2-0 win over Peru, while Venezuela – the only South American team never to qualify for a FIFA World Cup – continued their impressive start with an away draw in Colombia and a home win over Bolivia.
With most of the South American teams having now played a quarter of their matches, the Venezuelans are currently level on points with the Uruguayans and Argentinians at the top of the standings, although Uruguay have played one game less than their nearest rivals.
Still, with more than six months separating November’s matches from the competition’s restart in June, there is plenty of time for teams to turn things around. As Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuaín said in a reference to his side’s win over Colombia that could equally be applied to the FIFA World Cup preliminaries as a whole, “Now we have six months to try to find our best shape. We took a good step today, but the qualifiers are long."
Click on this ‘Classic Qualifiers’ link to read about some of the most exhilarating FIFA World Cup preliminaries.