Sometimes, when you survey momentous events in world football, there's just no beating the old clichés. 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going,' a prime example. Germany handed Russia their first-ever home defeat in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying on Saturday to maintain their record of never failing to qualify for a major tournament. And on Wednesday, Argentina won in Uruguay for the first time in 33 years to book a ticket alongside the Germans at the South Africa 2010. The results in Moscow and Montevideo seemed to confirm our headline cliché, and a couple more besides.
‘Never underestimate the Germans' for one, as Michael Ballack and Co emphatically reminded the watching world, while ‘it ain't over ‘til it's over' certainly was apt as Diego Maradona's troops produced late drama in adversity, not once, but twice in the space of four days. However, elsewhere in the world, new chapters were started and new heroes were added to the game's mythology. Serbia, Slovakia, Chile, Honduras and Côte d'Ivoire were engulfed in joy as result of qualifying for next summer's global showdown.
Furthermore, USA, Denmark, Mexico, Switzerland and holders Italy also booked their places in South Africa alongside previously confirmed contenders Brazil, Paraguay, Netherlands, England, Spain, Ghana, Australia, Korea Republic, Korea DPR, Japan and the host nation. FIFA.com has picked out five special stories from four continents, illustrating the dramas, personal triumphs and occasional contradictions of a whirlwind few days in the decisive phase of 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Argentine maestro thrills Chile
The team representing his fellow-countrymen left it a tad late before sneaking into next summer's finals, but Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa showed how it should be done in his role as Chile supremo. "This team is obdurate, and that was the decisive factor in deservedly winning this match and staying in control of our qualifying destiny all the way through," Bielsa commented after a 4-2 success away to Colombia on Saturday which sent the Chileans to the finals for the first time in more than a decade.
The 54-year-old glories in the nickname El Loco Bielsa, or "Madman Bielsa". However, his spell with Chile and his previous coaching career suggest quite the opposite. Bielsa has fashioned a rock-solid team with no recognised stars, largely comprising young, hungry, physically fit and resolute workers, topped by a keen sharp-shooter in Humberto Suazo. The 28-year-old, on the books at Mexican club Monterrey, topped the South American scoring charts with ten goals. Bielsa's cool calculation and Suazo's instinct are a combination opponents would do well not to underestimate in South Africa.
Drogba to the rescue
The plan was to give the star a rest - and perhaps also prove the team could manage quite well without him if necessary. But when push came to shove, Côte d'Ivoire need their Didier Drogba. The Ivorians travelled to Malawi on Saturday needing only a point to be sure of their place at next summer's showdown. But when Jacob Ngwira fired the home side in front on 64 minutes, Côte d'Ivoire boss Vahid Halihodzic immediately turned to Chelsea hitman Drogba.
The superstar required just two minutes on the park before netting the equaliser and steadying nerves for the team ranked number 20 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The 31-year-old scored six goals in five qualifying matches, underlining both his abundant quality and priceless contribution for his country. Quoted on his club's website, Drogba has now set his sights on success at the 2010 finals: "My team-mates and I want to make history and change the way people think about African football in the rest of the world. I hope we can be the team that makes the Final and wins the tournament."
What Pavon and Bornstein have in common
On Saturday night, Carlos Pavon would have dismissed as absurd the idea that he might be eternally grateful to Jonathan Bornstein just four days later. Bornstein and his USA team-mates won 3-2 in Honduras at the weekend, Pavon missing a penalty and a gilt-edged chance for the devastated home team. But as so often in football, a dramatic change in fortune was to follow.
All-time Honduras top scorer Pavon fired the only goal in El Salvador to renew the nation's hopes. And then it was none other than Bornstein who popped up in the fifth minute of stoppage time to make it 2-2 between USA and Costa Rica in Washington DC, sending the overjoyed Hondurans to the finals for just the second time in their history. "I think we've seen in this cycle more than any that CONCACAF has gotten a lot stronger," USA midfielder Michael Bradley was quoted as saying on the US Federation's official website. "Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, us, it has been a battle." Bornstein and Pavon would doubtless nod approvingly at Bradley's words.
Joy unconfined in east Europe
For displays of overwhelming pride and passion in the last few days, look no further than Serbia and Slovakia. Both nations are still infants in world terms, but both qualified for South Africa in unexpectedly imperious fashion, with each set for a maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals under their current names. The east European upstarts both claimed a famous scalp en route to southern Africa: In Group 7, the Serbs consigned France to the play-offs, while in Group 3, the Slovaks condemned their neighbours from the Czech Republic to a summer of inactivity, as Slovenia claimed the runners-up spot and the berth in the play-offs.
Predictably enough, both triumphs sparked scenes of wild jubilation. After a tense 1-0 victory in the Polish snow to clinch a ticket to the finals, Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss charged into the away dressing room and embraced his players: "I love all these lads," he declared, weeping tears of joy at the historic triumph. The celebrations were even more frantic in the Serbian capital Belgrade. Following the decisive 5-0 thrashing of Romania on Saturday, the players paraded through the streets in an open-top bus, revelling in the applause of the ecstatic crowds. There will surely be no shortage of emotional Europeans once the action gets underway in South Africa.
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