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VOL.32 :: NO.52 :: Dec. 26, 2009

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YEAR-END SPECIAL / FOOTBALL/WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS

A heady mix it was

The 2010 World Cup qualifiers threw up a variety of emotions and compelling moments, and a major controversy too. By S. R. Suryanarayan.

AP

Through at last... coach Diego Maradona celebrates Argentina’s victory over Uruguay in the World Cup qualifier in Montevideo.

The dust has finally settled. The 32 contestants for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa have been identified. The millions of fans around the globe now await the real feast.

Barring South Africa, which won an automatic berth as the host of the World Cup, the rest went through the grind and turmoil of the qualifying phase that lasted over two years, beginning with the match between New Caledonia and Tahiti on the Pacific i sland of Samoa on August 25, 2007 to the play-off between Uruguay and Costa Rica on November 18, 2009 when the former champion barely managed to go through.

As always, the lengthiest football tournament in the world threw up a variety of emotions and compelling moments, and a major controversy too, making it a heady mix. If Diego Maradona’s Argentina had many football lovers missing a heartbeat or two as it stumbled and was almost in danger of toppling out of the qualifiers, then Thierry Henry’s ball-handling act that fetched a goal for France, courtesy William Gallas, against Ireland had many crying foul.

Having won the first leg in Ireland and trailing in the second at home in Paris following Robbie Keane’s goal, Henry’s hand-ball in the extra time provided the unexpected twist. “Cheating” cried the Irish, who felt that they were done in by this unsporting act. They demanded a re-play but in vain. It was virtually a do-or-die match for the former champion France.

France getting into the play-off phase itself was a surprise. But then, finishing a point behind Serbia in the group-league stage, they had to.

However, Argentina’s run was different in that it lost momentum, and even direction very early. When Maradona took over the team from Alfio Basile to stem the rot, Argentina actually sank to a new low, suffering a 6-1 loss to Bolivia and then another defeat at home against arch-rival Brazil. The last minute winner against Peru, and then the inspiring maiden win at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo against Uruguay, thanks to the late effort by Mario Bollatti, gave Argentina the lifeline.

France and Argentina were lucky, but not Russia and Croatia. Ecuador, which promised much but disappointed with two defeats in the end, too failed to qualify for the World Cup. Yet, South Africa will not be short of stars.

A brief analysis of each continent:

SOUTH AMERICA

The high point was Argentina’s Houdini act and the storm coach Maradona weathered. Finally, it all ended well for the former champion. Even Uruguay, which provided the lifeline for Argentina and had to go into the play-offs, qualified by overcoming Costa Rica from CONCACAF.

Uruguay had to thank Diego Forlan’s finishing and Luis Suarez’s dash, while the Paraguayans had in Salvador Cabanas a sharp shooter. Chile was inspired by the irrepressible Alexis Sanchez and the ever-sharp Humberto Suazo. Nilmar and Luis Fabiano lit up Brazil, as did goalkeeper Julio Cesar and defensive midfielder Felipe Melo. The last two were the pick of the qualifying rounds.

EUROPE

In terms of intensity of competition, Europe had plenty to offer. That is why surprises were commonplace. A look at the teams that failed to go through to South Africa makes it vivid: Turkey (3rd in 2002), Croatia (3rd in 1998), Sweden and Bulgaria (3rd and 4th in 1994), Poland (3rd in 1982 and 1974), Russia (coach Guus Hiddink, thus, failed to take a fourth different team to the World Cup), Ukraine (sadly Andriy Shevchenko’s final hurrah didn’t materialise), Czech Republic and Romania.

Among the other heavyweights, Spain (with 10 wins) impressed while England under Fabio Capello had a fabulous run. In the play-offs, Denmark ensured its fourth World Cup qualification, ahead of Portugal which, even without Cristiano Ronaldo, managed a place with a 1-0 (away and home) victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina. To that extent one big name in contemporary football is bound to be there in South Africa to carve a niche for himself.

Switzerland was a revelation. Recently crowned U-17 world champion, its senior members matched the tempo. Slovakia, inspired by midfielder Marek Hamsik, will make its maiden appearance in the World Cup. Slovenia did not concede a single goal in the qualifying phase. Serbia, France, Italy, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands are the other teams to qualify from this group.

AFRICA

There was a suspense-filled qualifying phase. Nothing reflected this better than Nigeria’s plight. A minute away from elimination, the Super Eagles’ substitute Obinna Nsofor conjured a stunning winner against Mozambique. Nigeria, thereafter, did not look back. In the process, Tunisia, which was better placed initially, lost out.

Cameroon was in a slump before coach Otto Pfister gave way to Frenchman Paul LeGuen and what followed was dramatic. Four wins in a row with Samuel Eto’o as the mastermind enabled Cameroon book its sixth trip to the finals.

Ghana (watch out for Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien) was the first team to qualify for the World Cup. Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), spearheaded by Didier Drogba, was brilliant. With 12 wins in a row, the Elephants stomped into the second round to dominate again. Only Malawi took a point off it with a draw.

ASIA

DPR Korea’s comeback to the world stage after a four-decade hiatus was the talking point. Australia’s dominance was expected, as was Korea Republic’s seventh entry into the World Cup Finals. The South Koreans qualified with two games to spare with Park Ji-sung being their key player. The team has two good strikers in Park Chu-young and Lee Keun-ho, both aged 24, of whom more will be heard.

Mark Schwarzer was Australia’s pick while the two Nakomuras, Shunsuke and Kengo, proved to be Japan’s mainstay. Saudi Arabia and Iran made a disappointing exit. Bahrain gained some ground to reach the play-off only to be beaten by New Zealand (Oceania winner).

CONCACAF

USA and Mexico were exceptional. For America, Bob Bradley was able to bring out the best out of Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and the up and coming Jozy Altidore. Mexico benefited from the change of coach midway through the qualifiers — from Sven-Goran Eriksson to the familiar Javier Aguirre. Honduras’ return after nearly three decades had much to do with the smart play of Amado Guevara, Wilson Palacios and Pavon.



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