17 November 2005

World Cup Qualifying: Complete!

We now know the 32 teams in the World Cup. The remaining games were played yesterday. There were some notably dramatic finishes, as well as some foregone conclusions. At the end of the day, the last five teams had been added: Australia, Trinidad & Tobago, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Spain. There was some ugliness too; Turkey and Switzerland have some explaining to do. But in the end, the qualifying is finished, and we have our competitors. Here's a summary, with thoughts on each region.


Ivory Coast

Missing notables:
Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa.

Africa was the most surprising region. Only one team (Tunisia) returns from the 2002 contingent, and in fact the other four teams have never been to the World Cup before. Africa is a very competitive region, and teams can often have surprising success as a result (see Senegal in 2002, for example). None of these teams will be picked as favorites in their groups... but I expect at least one to go through to the next round.

Asia and Oceania

Saudi Arabia
South Korea

Missing notables:
China, Bahrain.

Same old story here: Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all will attend. All three were included in 2002 and 1998. Iran also has been a regular recently, though China qualified instead in 2002. Without the home-field advantage, it will be difficult for Japan and South Korea to replicate their success from the 2002 World Cup. Asia just isn't as challenging, and the lack of competition will hurt these teams.

It's also interesting to see Australia will be included, after winning in the playoff against Uruguay. Only twice before have Oceania teams qualified for the finals: Australia in 1974 and New Zealand in 1982. So a 24-year drought has been ended. Or has it? Australia will move to the Asian Football Confederation on 1 January 2006. So perhaps one could argue that they won't be representing Oceania after all.


Czech Republic
Serbia & Montenegro

Missing notables:
Turkey, Greece, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium.

With 51 teams in the region and 14 places in the finals, you would expect some surprises from Europe. There weren't any huge shocks but definitely some interesting results. Turkey found 3rd place in 2002; in 2005, they miss by the thinnest of margins in their playoff with Switzerland. Greece aren't a World Cup regular by any means, but their win in Euro 2004 seemed to indicate a team on the rise. It's also interesting to see Russia out and Ukraine in, attending their first-ever finals. The Czechs haven't qualified since 1990, so they too will be unfamiliar faces. There are many European teams who have legitimate dreams of World Cup success, probably starting with hosts Germany. Some will be cruelly disappointed, of course, but I expect several European teams will advance past the group stage. But will it be 9 teams, as in 2002?

North/Central America

Costa Rica
Trinidad & Tobago
United States

Notably missing:

Same old story out of CONCACAF: US, Mexico, and Costa Rica all go through. What's interesting is to see Trinidad & Tobago qualify as well, thanks to their victory over Bahrain. It will be their first trip to the finals. They're certainly an uneven team, but they've shown flashes of attacking flair, and I'm hopeful that they'll do credit to the region in Germany.

But will CONCACAF have overall success? I have high hopes for the US of course. They've been playing well of late, and the team certainly has depth that compares with any other squad. But their lack of size may cost them in physical play against the more aggressive European teams. Mexico have also looked good throughout qualifying, and they have realistic hopes for a successful World Cup. I think both teams should expect no less than a trip beyond the group stages.

South America


Notably missing:
Uruguay, Chile

No big surprises here either. Someday, we will have to come to grips with a World Cup without Argentina or Brazil... but not in 2006. Ecuador are the relative newcomers, with only one previous visit. But that was in 2002 so they too will be a familiar face. Will COMNEBOL have success? Brazil will always be threats to win it all, and Argentina will also be a dangerous team. But we'll have to see if any other teams make it through to the elimination rounds.

So that's the summary. Mark your calendar for 9 December — that's when the group draw will take place. Once that's out, we can start to seriously speculate about favorites, surprises, and disappointments. But for now, 32 countries are celebrating the simple fact that they will be part of the largest spectacle in sport.

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