It is the party everyone is desperate to attend, but with a record 203 nations competing for just 31 places, most will miss out on an invite to Brazil 2014. And while the stakes are high for all involved, extra pressure will fall on a group of nations for whom FIFA World Cup™ memories are becoming increasingly distant.
Take Egypt, for example. In 1934, the Pharaohs became the first African or Arab nation to compete in a FIFA World Cup, but it was 56 years before they next appeared on the global stage – and they haven’t been back since. The fact that the African champions have qualified for just one of the last ten editions, and none of the last five, is all the tougher to fathom given that they have won four continental titles since their most recent FIFA World Cup appearance in 1990. So ill-fated have Egypt’s qualifying efforts become, in fact, that pundits now refer to ‘the curse of the Pharaohs’, a curse that even the long-serving Hassan Shehata, who resigned last month, was unable to lift during his otherwise glittering tenure.
Russia are also sure to face added scrutiny during the 2014 qualifiers, having reached just one of the last four editions and suffered humbling experiences either side of their stylish UEFA EURO 2008 campaign. The nadir was a 7-1 loss to Portugal during qualifying for Germany 2006, but defeat in the 2010 play-offs to Slovenia – a nation of just two million people – was arguably just as difficult to stomach. With Guus Hiddink having since moved on, the task of returning Russia to the FIFA World Cup has fallen to another Dutchman in Dick Advocaat, who said that it was this “higher challenge” that prompted him to swap the Belgium job for his post in Moscow.
This mission of restoring former lustre is shared by Advocaat’s Hungary counterpart, Sandor Egervari. Remarkably, 25 years have now passed since the last appearance at a major tournament by a nation that, in its glorious heyday, won three Olympic titles and reached two FIFA World Cup finals. Hope has emerged, though, in an exciting crop of youngsters who – under Egervari’s leadership – clinched third place at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
A new ‘golden generation’ is also raising expectations in Colombia, where belief is growing that a run of three successive qualifying failures will come to an end in 2014. Los Cafeteros, who reached three FIFA World Cups in succession during their 1990s zenith, finished just a point off the qualification places for South Africa 2010, and the emergence of stars such as Radamel Falcao has boosted hopes of going one better this time around. As forward Hugo Rodallega reflected earlier this month: "This generation is going through a good phase. We are excited and want to change the recent fortunes of the national team."
Like Colombia, Scotland last qualified in 1998, and the days of reaching five successive editions – as the Scots achieved between 1974 and 1990 – belong to a different era. Nonetheless, a clutch of influential English Premier League stars, headed by the likes of Charlie Adam and Darren Fletcher, have left current coach Craig Levein quietly confident of achieving his “ultimate aim” of a return to the world stage. As he told FIFA.com: “I’m very encouraged by the quality of players we have coming through, so hopefully it won’t be too much longer before we’re back at a major tournament. Historically, we probably 'overperformed' in the respect that we're a small country with a small population... I definitely want to get us punching above our weight again.”
The European Zone offers no shortage of nations in similar positions, with Austria – semi-finalists in 1934 and 1954 – also aiming to avoid a fourth consecutive qualifying failure. Belgium, who qualified for six successive FIFA World Cups between 1982 and 2002 and finished fourth in 1986, have missed out on the last two, while Romania and Norway both sat out the finals in Korea/Japan, Germany and South Africa.
Bulgaria, who memorably reached the 1994 semi-finals at the expense of holders Germany, have also failed to qualify for the past three editions, and coach Lothar Matthaus has tempered expectations of a return in 2014. “You have to be realistic," he told FIFA.com. "1994 is a long time ago. Those days are gone.”
In Africa, it is Morocco who have become grudgingly accustomed to a new, lesser status. Having been FIFA World Cup regulars during the 1980s and ‘90s, and made history in 1986 by becoming the first African team to reach the second round, the Atlas Lions have missed out on the last three editions, and finished bottom of their 2010 preliminary section.
Propping up their qualifying table was a fate that also befell Peru, who reached the latter stages of the FIFA World Cups of 1970 and ’78, but last featured in 1982. La Blanquirroja are joined in eyeing a long-awaited return by South American rivals Bolivia, whose only appearance over the past six decades came at USA 1994.
Others, meanwhile, will be out to prove that they are not the football equivalent of one-hit wonders. In Asia, UAE, Iraq and Indonesia (who competed as the Dutch East Indies) are aiming to add to their solitary FIFA World Cup campaigns of 1990, 1986 and 1934 respectively. That same challenge faces the CONCACAF quartet of Canada (1986), Cuba (1938), Haiti (1974) and Jamaica (1998), while Israel go into the European preliminaries aiming to qualify for the first time since 1970.
The stark reality, of course, is that the strength of their rivals and the limited number of places means that most of these nations will once again fall short. However, with the unique delights of a FIFA World Cup having already been sampled, all will be especially determined to ensure that Brazil 2014 heralds the end of their exile.