While Kazahkstan and Andorra kicked off the European qualification rounds for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ on Wednesday, the remaining teams will have to wait till 6th September to begin their campaigns.
With 53 European nations competing for just 13 berths at the tournament in South Africa in two years time, there will inevitably be many disappointed participants when qualifying draws to a close come autumn 2009. However, for several teams still waiting to make their debut at a FIFA World Cup, the chances are looking better than ever. FIFA.com takes a look at the UEFA qualification groups, focusing on three teams that have the potential to reach the tournament's final stages for the first time.
Slovakia aims to match its neighbour
After living in the shadow of the Czech Republic for more than a decade, the Slovakian national team is hoping to make a name for itself on the world stage. Following the break-up of Czechoslovakia into two independent countries in 1993, Slovakia are still waiting to qualify for a major football tournament after narrowly missing out on a place at 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany. Despite an impressive qualifying campaign, Slovakia fell at the very last hurdle losing a two-leg play-off against Spain.
Although Poland and the Czech Republic will be the teams to beat in Group 3, games involving Slovakia and these two neighbours always generate a unique, derby-like atmosphere, making the outcome hard to predict. Despite the tough draw, coach Vladimir Weiss will be quietly confident having watched his team make steady progress over the past few years - Slovakia currently occupy 64th position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola-World Ranking list.
Bundesliga star Stanislav Sestak sees every reason for Slovakia to be optimistic, as he told FIFA.com: "Poland is obviously the favourite but I believe we have a chance against everyone. We'll be doing our best to cause an upset," said Sestak, appraising the group that also contains Northern Ireland, Slovenia and San Marino.
* Finland's South Africa dream*
The fact that Finland is the only Scandanavian country never to have qualified for a FIFA World Cup is something that striker Mikael Forssell is looking to change. Asked by FIFA.com what it would mean for his country to book a place at South Africa 2010, the Hannover striker had this to say: "It would be unbelievable. It won't be easy but we're improving all the time. I hope we can do it over the next two years."
Forssell and Finland certainly face a stiff task in Group 4 where they will meet Germany and Russia, two teams that impressed at the recent UEFA European Championship 2008. The team coached by Stuart Baxter were themselves unfortunate not to be present at the summer tournament after a strong qualifying campaign left them just three points short of an automatic place.
Already with 115 caps for his country, captain Jari Litmanen will also be intent on leading his team to their first ever FIFA World Cup finals. Wales, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein will have a hard time standing in their way.
Bosnia playing catch-upWhile Croatia have made the FIFA World Cup three times already, and Serbia participated in the 1998 and 2006 editions, Bosnia Herzegovina have yet to take part in a major tournament since gaining independence. Surprising considering an array of talent at their disposal that includes Sasa Papac (Rangers), Zvjezdan Misimovic and Edin Dzeko (Wolfsburg), Miralem Pjanic (Lyon), Sejad Salihovic (Hoffenheim).
Having been drawn in Group 5 alongside European champions Spain and semi-finalists Turkey, Bosnia will be under no illusions about the challenge ahead. If, however, coach Miroslav Blazevic succeeds in moulding a winning team out of a pool of talented individuals, then the group that also contains Belgium, Armenia and Estonia could be thrown wide open.
Good to be back
Alongside the teams looking to make a tournament premiere in South Africa, there are others looking forward to reacquainting themselves with the world's biggest stage after a lengthy absence. Greece have failed to make the finals since USA 1994, while Israel, one of their opponents in Group 2, last appeared at the finals nearly 40 years ago at Mexico 1970. Switzerland, in the same group and under new manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, will be hoping to prolong both Greece's and Israel's wait.
Three teams that have not had to wait so long but will be looking to participate in their first FIFA World Cup since 1998 are Austria in Group 7 (paired with France, Romania and Serbia), Bulgaria in Group 8 (drawn with Italy, Ireland, Cyprus, Georgia and Montenegro) and Scotland in Group 9 (alongside the Netherlands, Norway, FYR Macedonia and Iceland).