Winner takes all is what the play-offs are all about, and it will be no different this Saturday when the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ ones take place. A handful of teams have 180 minutes in which to achieve what every footballing nation dreams of – a place at world football’s flagship event. The FIFA World Cup play-offs have a long, exciting and often dramatic past, and FIFA.com has been leafing through the history books to highlight some of the classic encounters that decided who was in and who was out of the showpiece event down the years.
Back in 1958
The first time two teams were involved in a direct showdown for a place at football’s top table was ahead of the FIFA World Cup 1958 in Sweden. All of the teams scheduled to face Israel had pulled out, so FIFA decided to pick one of the nine teams who had finished second in their group to face Israel over two legs.
Wales were the team pulled out of the hat, and with legendary forward John Charles in their ranks, who plied his trade with Juventus among other clubs, the men in red won both matches 2-0. Under the aegis of Jimmy Murphy, Wales went on to reach the quarter-finals in Sweden, going down 1-0 in a tight encounter with eventual champions Brazil.
Mexico squeeze past Paraguay
Four years later, a team from the CONCACAF confederation took on CONMEBOL opponents – as will be the case this Saturday. Nearly five decades ago, Mexico lost the opening match of their regional group 3-0 to Costa Rica, but went on to exact their revenge over the Ticos as well as defeating the Netherlands Antilles, setting up a play-off against Paraguay.
El Tri hosted the first leg on 29 October 1961 and star striker Isidoro El Chololo Diaz helped them to a narrow 1-0 win, and one that was to prove enough to make it through to the 1962 finals, since Paraguay could only manage a 0-0 draw at home a week later. At the tournament in Chile, Mexico fell at the group phase after managing only one point in their three matches.
The play-offs were then put on ice for 12 years until the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Europe was scheduled to meet South America with USSR facing off against Chile in September and November 1973, but circumstances were to dictate otherwise. After a 0-0 in Moscow, everything was set up for a showdown over 90 minutes in Santiago, but the Soviets refused to travel to Chile for political reasons. The South Americans turned out onto the pitch and took a 1-0 lead in the absence of their opponents, at which point the referee stopped the game. FIFA awarded a 2-0 win to Chile, meaning that the 1962 FIFA World Cup hosts had secured their trip to Germany. They too would fail to survive the group stage however, after a defeat to West Germany and draws with East Germany and Australia.
Four years later, Hungary took a much more conventional route to the FIFA World Cup. The Magyars thrashed Bolivia at home 6-0, opening up a five-goal lead by half-time. The 1954 FIFA World Cup finalists also won the away leg, but the boot was on the other foot at Argentina 1978 when they lost to Italy, France and the hosts in the opening round.
Australia's first play-off experience
The Socceroos have earned themselves something of a reputation as play-off veterans, and their first two-leg decider came ahead of the finals in 1986. Scotland had battled their way to second place in their European qualifying group behind Spain and earned the right to a play-off against Australia.
Under new coach Alex Ferguson, who took up the cudgels after Jock Stein had died of a heart attack at the end of a qualifier against Wales, and with Liverpool captain Graeme Souness at the helm, Scotland won 2-0 at home and drew 0-0 in Australia to book their place in Mexico. A draw against Uruguay, who were reduced to ten men in the opening minutes, was all that Scotland could manage at the finals though, and they were soon on the plane back home.
Second chance for Israel
A good 30 years after taking part in their first FIFA World Cup play-offs, Israel got a second chance to qualify in October 1989. They had made it through the Oceania qualifiers at the expense of Australia and New Zealand, only to meet a Colombia team who had won their particular South American group.
Israel failed to get on the score sheet in either leg, allowing the Cafeteros to progress after their 1-0 home win and a goalless draw in Israel. And with Carlos Valderrama and Rene Higuita in their ranks, Colombia got through to the Round of 16 at Italy 1990 before falling to the tournament's surprise package Cameroon.
Australian suffering continues
Australia's second appearance in the play-offs brought them face to face with no less an opponent than Argentina. The 1986 winners and 1990 runners-up could only finish second in their qualifying group behind Colombia, and needed to go via an intercontinental play-off against the Aussies to book their ticket north to USA 1994.
After a respectable 1-1 against Diego Maradona and Co in front of their home fans, the Socceroos again fell at the final hurdle, going down 1-0 away to the South Americans. The Albiceleste made the last 16 of the tournament in North America before crashing out 3-2 to Romania.
Not that this was an end to Australia's suffering. Four years later the Socceroos again made it to the play-offs, this time hoping for a trip to France. Iran provided the opposition on this occasion, and the tie was one of high drama. Harry Kewell gave his team the lead in Tehran but Khodadad Azizi equalised before half-time, and the first leg ended 1-1.
And so the teams headed down under to Melbourne six days later, where the home team raced into 2-0 lead and looked certain to qualify for a FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1974. Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi with a late equaliser turned the tie on its head however and sent the Iranians through. They even managed their first ever victory at a final phase, beating USA 2-1, but could not progress further than the group stages at France 98.
Hopes again dashed for the Aussies
Four years later, the Socceroos had it all to do again. Uruguay had squeezed past Colombia on goal difference to finish in fifth spot in the CONMEBOL standings and earn a tie with perennial play-off participants Australia. The outsiders won their home leg in Melbourne thanks to a goal from Wolverhampton Wanderers left-back Kevin Muscat, but come the return leg in Montevideo, Dario Silva and Richard Morales with a brace brought the Aussies back down to earth with a bump. The final score was 3-0 and once again Oceania would have no representative at the FIFA World Cup. At Korea/Japan however, Uruguay flatted to deceive and failed to survive the first phase.
Play-offs were also held to decide five of the UEFA representatives, with eventual finalists Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Slovenia and the Republic of Ireland all progressing via that route. Germany were most impressive in the play-offs, thrashing Ukraine 5-2 on aggregate, while Turkey went one better, beating Austria 6-0 over the two legs. Slovenia reached their first FIFA World Cup since becoming an independent nation when they beat Romania 3-2 on aggregate.
Delight down under
Australian suffering finally came to an end ahead of Germany 2006. As had been the case four years earlier, their opponents in the intercontinental play-offs were Uruguay. Each team won their home leg 1-0, in Montevideo and Sydney respectively, and no winner emerged after extra time down under. Penalties were therefore required with Mark Schwarzer earning hero status by saving the efforts of Dario Rodriguez and Marcelo Zalayeta. After four fruitless attempts, the Socceroos finally had another FIFA World Cup to look forward to.
South Africa 2010 play-off candidates Bahrain will be hoping for better luck than four years ago when they narrowly missed out on a maiden FIFA World Cup berth. Two matches against Trinidad and Tobago were all that stood between them and a trip to Germany, but luck ran out on the AFC team. Despite drawing 1-1 in the Caribbean, they slipped to a devastating 1-0 defeat at home, which was enough to see the Soca Warriors through.
The UEFA Zone play-offs were also full of drama, none more so than Switzerland versus Turkey. After a 2-0 win at home in Berne, the central Europeans were full of confidence ahead of their trip to Istanbul, and though Fatih Terim's team managed a 4-2 win, Switzerland sneaked through to the Germany 2006 on the away goals rule. Spain and the Czech Republic also secured their passage via the play-offs.
All the signs indicate that the coming weekend's play-offs will be equally as exciting. In Europe, big names like France and Portugal are fighting for a place in South Africa, while Uruguay have the chance to put their defeat at the hands of Australia four years ago behind them when they take on Costa Rica. Bahrain, meanwhile, are only 90 minutes away from making history after drawing 0-0 with New Zealand in the first leg.