2012 was full of action in the CONCACAF zone, with six teams booking their passage to the final round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. Mexico, USA, Jamaica, Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica are all now looking forward to the New Year, when they will battle it out for the 3.5 spots on offer to the region at the showpiece in Brazil.
Mexico were very much the form team in the year that was. They won their first-ever Olympic football gold medal in London, beating Brazil in an action-packed final, and bossed the CONCACAF region at senior level in qualifying for Brazil 2014. Jose Manuel de la Torre's men stormed through the semi-final qualifying round to book their place in the final hexagonal round early, without having tasted defeat. The side, led by Giovani Dos Santos and Javier Hernandez, are brimming with confidence.
“Nobody wins by just strolling through games," explained their coach, known affectionately as Chepo, a man with a firm focus on discipline and hard work. "You win through putting in a lot of effort, hard work and tireless running, by knowing how to handle yourself and by making sure that these factors give you the upper hand.”
The Mexicans won all six of their semi-final round qualifiers, scoring 15 goals and conceding just two. They finished the round with a full eight points more than their closest chasers in the section, Costa Rica.
Despite finishing so far afield of the mighty Mexicans, Costa Rica can take heart in reaching the final round of qualifying too. Bryan Ruiz of English Premier League side Fulham pulls the strings in midfield, constantly providing service for Alvaro Saborio, whose six goals in six games in the previous round were crucial in the Ticos’ success. With Saborio, a self-admitted “typical striker” -- a little on the greedy side -- Ruiz’s selflessness and creativity are the perfect contrast. “I like to have the ball, I like to combine with other players,” Ruiz told FIFA.com about his role in the team. “I’m not greedy; if I see a player in a better position than me, I give him the ball.”
Klinsmann building in the States
Elsewhere, USA – in a transitional period under former German playing icon Jurgen Klinsmann – did just enough to win their semi-final section. “All of our opponents are better than they were a few years ago,” the German admitted to FIFA.com, not hiding the fact that he wasn’t terribly impressed with his side losing to Jamaica and drawing Guatemala on the road. “Central America’s teams are very technical and difficult to play against. There is great athleticism, speed and ambition in the Caribbean. And for every one of those teams, it’s a big deal to play against the United States. They do everything they can to beat us.”
The other team to move through from semi-final Group A was Jamaica, who are undergoing a dramatic resurgence. There was a period of stagnation after the Reggae Boyz reached their first and only FIFA World Cup in 1998, but Theodore Whitmore – who played in those finals in France – has the Caribbean skill merchants looking like a well-drilled contender ahead of the final round of qualifying. With speed up the flanks and power and pace all over the pitch, the Jamaicans will be a team to fear in the final round, especially at their home stadium in Kingston, known as ‘The Office.’
“He’s got us unified,” said Jamaican striker Ryan Johnson about his coach and childhood idol. Whitmore took over the top post in June of 2009 and has led the Boyz to a Caribbean Cup title, the quarter-finals of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup and up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. “The coach has had the majority of this team playing together for three years now.” Johnson added. “He’s got all our respect, so when he speaks, we listen.”
Honduras and Panama finished tangled on 11 points in their semi-final Group C and hope to improve their form in the final round. The Hondurans – who pulled off an 8-1 win over Canada in their last semi-final round game to reach the final hexagonal – are full of physical power and danger, despite a slow start to qualifying. “We’re within touching distance of Brazil,” said Honduran midfield warrior Maynor Figueroa of Wigan Athletic. “Of course the hexagonal will be just as tricky, but just getting there will give us a huge confidence boost.”
While Honduras have reached a FIFA World Cup before, in 1982 and 2010, Panama are still hoping to ride recent successes to their first world showpiece. Coached by former playing idol Julio Dely Valdes, they boast perhaps the best side in their history. “Panama have a strong chance of getting to Brazil,” said Valdes. “There’s a lot of optimism, but we need to take things step by step. First we need to qualify and then I think we’re capable of making history.”
The hexagonal gets underway on 6 February 2013 with Mexico hosting Jamaica, USA traveling to Honduras and Panama opening their doors to Costa Rica. Here’s hoping 2013 has more excitement in store as things heat up in CONCACAF.