Saturday 28 March ~
The extension of the World Cup finals to 32 teams has not only watered down the quality of the tournament, it has also served as a security net for the major countries by all but ensuring their repeat qualification. This gives the line-up a samey feel to it every four years, with Africa the sole exception thanks to its emerging quality and its criminally small number (five) of spots in the finals. Last time around in Germany, Angola, Ivory Coast, Togo and Ghana all qualified for the first time, and although only Ghana made much of an impact, the tournament would have been arguably much richer in terms of excitement and diversity had Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal been there in place of, say, Sweden, South Korea and the United States.
This weekend sees the start of the continent’s final qualifying round, where five groups of four teams fight for the five top spots and direct qualification for South Africa. Africa is again the region most likely to send some virgin nations to the last 32 – strong countries such as Senegal and Angola are already out, while teams like Gabon, Mali, Malawi, Guinea and Burkina Faso have the potential to make their World Cup debuts. Zambia, who finished ahead of Togo in their second round qualifying group, may finally make up for missing out narrowly on qualification for USA 94 following the previous year’s plane crash that had wiped out almost its entire first-choice squad.
First, though, Zambia will have to get past Algeria and Egypt in Group C, not to mention Rwanda, a team that beat Morocco 3-1 to progress this far. The Moroccans themselves are in a tough Group A with Cameroon and Togo, while Nigeria and Tunisia are expected to fight it out for the top place in Group B. Despite the unfair allocation of finals places in an under-funded continent (with many domestic leagues also hurt by the collapse of satellite broadcaster GTV in January), the African qualification process is the only one that is truly fascinating to follow. While Italy, Germany and Brazil will eventually and inevitably find their way to the finals, the drama has barely begun in Africa, the only region where there is a genuine sense that this is a cup competition.
Elsewhere, the capacity for surprise has already been minimised. In Europe, a Lithuanian victory over France today would represent the continent’s biggest shot at a shock representative, but you wouldn’t bet your last barrel of starka on it, especially as Lithuania only edged the Faroes by one goal in their last match. Israel could progress from a very weak Group 2, with only Greece and Switzerland as their main challengers. Meanwhile, Slovakia’s early running in a tight Group 3 (even Northern Ireland have a chance) will be tested by next Wednesday’s visit to neighbouring divorcee the Czech Republic.
In Asia, North Korea could make their first finals appearance since 1966 if they can convert their long series of ties with South Korea in Seoul next week to a win, but the South, Japan and Australia all look set to repeat qualification. In Central and North America, out-of-form Mexico have made a poor start to the final qualifying group, but El Salvador (looking for their first qualification since 1982) and Honduras (likewise) will both have to recover well to prevent the usual order of Mexico, US and Costa Rica carrying the region’s flag. Even with nine games still to go, El Salvador’s home fixture with the US tonight is already a must-win match for a squad plagued by poor discipline and internecine fights.
In South America’s tortuous qualification process, there could be a good scrap between Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador for fourth place behind runaway leader Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, and the fifth-placed team will also have a good chance to qualify by facing the fourth-placed team from Central and North America in a play-off. But the only team never to have qualified from the region, Venezuela – not tipped to pick up anything from their away game today with Argentina – are already too far behind to harbour realistic hopes of sneaking in.
With the exception of Africa, the World Cup qualifiers have become as much a grind as the Champions League group stage. A 16-team finals - made up of a host, five nations each from Europe and Africa, three from South America and one each from Asia and Concacaf – would rejuvenate both the qualifiers and the tournament itself. Although it’s naive to think there’s any road back, the consequence of expansion has taken the edge out of the competition and diluted the thrill of the football, at the same time as saturating the fan with too many dull games and stuffing FIFA’s pockets with TV and sponsorship income. That cash all goes back into the game, FIFA would argue. In the face of its healthy finances during a global recession, the world’s football governing body is unlikely to try tackling the paradox that an increase in cash and the number of games played has corresponded to a diminishing return on memorable football. Ian Plenderleith