Date with destiny for World Cup hopefuls

Football dreams can turn to nightmares as World Cup qualifying reaches its climax.

by
    Date with destiny for World Cup hopefuls
    Bosnia-Hercegovina coach Safet Susic has taken his team to the brink of a first World Cup appearance [Reuters]

    October 15th, 2013, is a date that will be forgotten forever by most people.

    But for football fans around the globe, it's one that will go down either in their national team's annals of glory – or as a day remembered as one when the chance to reach the World Cup was missed.

    In Europe, 18 teams will still be in contention when Tuesday's final qualifiers kick off.

    Two of those, England and France, have particularly vivid nightmares to recall from previous qualifying campaigns.

    Others will travel in hope on Tuesday, not least Bosnia-Hercegovina, who may wake up on Wednesday morning to find that reaching their first World Cup finals was no dream.

    Elsewhere, the playoffs for Brazil 2014 have already begun. Tuesday's first-leg contest in Africa sees Ghana host Egypt in a rematch of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations final.

    If we want any reminder of how incendiary World Cup qualifiers on the continent can be, we need look no further than the team that beat Egypt to World Cup 2010 – Algeria.

    The front cover of Algeria's Competition newspaper on Sunday carried a picture of the referee from the Desert Foxes' 3-2 first-leg defeat to Burkina Faso the day before, with the headline "Cet arbitre est un salaud!" – meaning, "This referee is a…".

    Selected fixtures

    Teams in italics can still reach Brazil 2014 directly or in playoffs. Underlined teams have qualified.

    Europe

     Azerbaijan v Russia
     Bulgaria v Czech Republic
     Denmark v
    Malta
     England v Poland
    France v Finland
    Greece v Liechtenstein
    Lithuania v Bosnia-H.
    Norway v Iceland
    Portugal v Luxembourg
    San Marino v Ukraine

    Sweden v Germany
    Turkey v Netherlands

    South America

    Chile v Ecuador
    Uruguay v Argentina

    Africa (playoff)

    Ghana v Egypt

    You can do the translation yourself if you wish, but needless to say the unfortunate official's award of a late penalty to Burkina Faso was not popular with the Algerians.

    Things are not yet settled in South America either, with Uruguay – who play Argentina on Tuesday – looking likely to go through to the playoffs by finishing behind Ecuador and Chile. In North and Central America, Mexico face Costa Rica as they try to get into the playoff spot ahead of Panama.

    Pole position

    England's win over Montenegro at Wembley on Friday left them in the driving seat in Group H, but their final match against Poland brings bad memories back to the national conscience.

    Almost forty years ago to the day, on October 17, 1973, Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski became a hero when he blocked England's route the 1974 World Cup finals, at which Poland would go on to finish third.

    He will be in London for the match, which England have to win if they are to finish the group one point ahead of Ukraine, who play San Marino.

    The joint-bottom-ranked team in the world may have played their part when the English failed to reach another World Cup, in 1994, but are unlikely to prevent Ukraine from bagging three points and a sackload of goals. Any English complacency could see them have to settle for the playoffs.

    And in those playoffs, they could meet France.

    Les Bleus play Finland at the Stade de France on Tuesday, but are almost certain to finish runners-up to Spain in Group I, with the world champions playing Georgia.

    The French complained to FIFA on Monday that the seeding system for the playoffs has left them at a disadvantage.

    Weightings for the eight playoff teams are determined by FIFA ranking, with the four highest-placed sides being drawn against the lower ones.

    But France say they only fall into that lower category because their qualifying group contained five teams instead of six, so fewer ranking points were available. They want the system changed before next week's draw.

    "We must always advance our arguments according to what we think is just," French football chief Noel Le Graet said in Monday's L'Équipe.

    Meanwhile, the French public continue to occupy themselves with just how much they dislike their national team – not a bad turnaround from the euphoria that engulfed the side when they lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1998.

    Beneath its two-page spread on which players Didier Deschamps should pick for their playoff campaign (not much mention of the Finland match), L'Équipe carried a poll showing that 82 per cent of French people have a poor opinion of the squad, with their behaviour in South Africa still fresh in the memory.

    And 52 per cent don't think France will reach Brazil, although having already qualified for the playoffs, there can be no repeat of the 1993 debacle on Tuesday night.

    There's less pessimism to be found in the Balkans, where Bosnia-Hercegovina's footballers are providing a rallying point for a country still experiencing tension between ethnic groups.

    They travel to Lithuania, where a win will give them top spot in Group G ahead of Greece, who face Liechtenstein.

    Their campaign so far has seen them cheered on even by ethnic Croats and Serbs back home in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

    "This is the only positive thing happening here and it shows a different picture of us to the outside world, that politicians are not the barometer of what we want to be," Dragan Soldo, an unemployed Croat lawyer, told the Reuters news agency.

    "This is a step towards the normality of Bosnia as a state.The national team is like an illusion which, if only for a moment, takes us beyond our reality."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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