The FIFA World Cup 2014 kicks off in just over six months in Brazil! Thirty-two countries have booked their flights to Brazil next year after rounds of qualifying. Today we look at the qualifying system which 32 countries have braved through to achieve a spot in the World Cup.
The European continent was allocated 13 spots, the most of any continental federation. The countries were split into nine groups. The nine winners of these groups automatically booked their berth in the World Cup. The runner-ups had to go through another round of qualifying while those that finished below second had to wait another four years for their next shot at the World Cup finals.
In Group A, Belgium topped a group containing Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. A Belgian team led by young starlets from top European leagues took the group by storm, taking 26 points out of a possible 30. Croatia finished second with 17 points and Serbia’s strong defence could not hold their fellow European teams and they were third with 14 points. Wales led by the world’s most expensive player Gareth Bale and the in-form Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey could only finish second from bottom.
In Group B, Italy took top spot while Denmark finished second. However as they were the worst-performing runners-up they failed to reach the second qualifying round. In Group C, Germany swept the group with 28 out of 30 possible points as Sweden finished second with 20. In Group D, Netherlands equalled Germany’s record of 28 points and took the direct route to Brazil and Romania finished behind. Switzerland excelled in Group E with underdogs Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus while Iceland took second. Russia and Portugal tussled it out in Group F but the Russians eventually took top spot while the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portuguese team finished second with 21 points just a single point behind Russia.
In Group G the fight for top spot was even more intense! Both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece finished with 25 points but it was the Bosnians with Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko who took top spot. In Group H, England fought off stiff competition from second-placed Ukraine to snatch top spot. Last but not least, in Group I, defending World Cup champions Spain took top spot and France finished second.
Croatia, Sweden, Romania, Iceland, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine and France were then placed in the second qualifying round. Each team was to be drawn against another and the winner would progress to the World Cup. In probably the most high-key of these matches saw Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic square nose-to-nose with Portuguese and Real Madrid mega-star Cristiano Ronaldo, meaning either one of these star strikers would miss out on World Cup action. Eventually Ronaldo sent Portugal to Brazil with his many goals, along with France after a great comeback against Ukraine from being 0-2 down in the first leg to win 3-2, Greece who breezed past Romania and Croatia, who stopped Iceland’s fairytale run and dream of becoming the smallest country ever to qualify for the finals.
In Asia, the top ten teams from three qualifying rounds were split into two groups. Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon were in one group while Japan, Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq were in another. In Group A Iran qualified as group winners for the first time since the 2006 edition while South Korea also qualified as runners-up, albeit doing so less convincingly than expected. Uzbekistan finished third, level with South Korea on points but with an inferior goal difference. In Group B Japan took top spot as the first country to qualify for the tournament behind automatic entrants and hosts Brazil, while Australia finished second. Jordan played-off with Uzbekistan for a spot in the AFC-CONMEBOL play-off and the Jordanians beat Uzbekistan on penalties to finish fifth in the AFC qualifications.
In Africa, 52 teams were reduced to just ten after two rounds of qualifying. The ten teams were then matched up against each other with the five winners booking their places at next summer’s World Cup. Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Algeria qualified. Ghana qualified by thumping Egypt 7-3 on aggregate, including a 6-1 thrashing in the first leg.
A US player comforts his Panama counterpart as they narrowly miss out on a World Cup play-off berth by 90 seconds.
Meanwhile in CONCACAF, 35 North American teams were reduced to just six by the time the fourth round of qualifications came knocking. Three of the six teams won a berth at the World Cup while the fourth-placed team had to endure yet another play-off round. The three teams were the United States, who topped the six-team group, Costa Rica and Honduras. There was plenty of late drama on the final day of matches. Mexico, who had lost to Costa Rica were on the brink of missing out on World Cup action as Panama were leading 2-1 against a United States team who had already topped the group. Many thought that the United States would lower the tempo and let Panama win and deny huge rivals Mexico qualification. However, two late goals from Zusi and Johannsson ensured that Panama lost at home and Mexico booked a play-off berth against the Oceanian champions.
Argentina quaifies for the World Cup in neighbouring Brazil.
In CONMEBOL, the South American continent, nine teams squared off in a round-robin league format. Brazil, as hosts, did not participate in the qualifying competition as they had already automatically qualified according to FIFA guidelines that the World Cup host should automatically be entered into a World Cup. Argentina, led by the superstar strike force including Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi and others, topped the group. Colombia, led by star striker Radamel Falcao finished second. Chile, spurred by Barcelona attacker Alexis Sanchez, finished third. Ecuador, despite having to endure a sad period in the middle of the qualifying competition when striker Christian Benitez passed away due to a cardiac arrest, finished fourth and took the last straight South American spot at the finals. The Ecuadorian Football Association later announced that Benitez’s number 11 will be retired from the squad. Uruguay, despite boasting a forward line of the CONMEBOL qualifiation’s top scorer and Liverpool sensation Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan, Cristian Rodriguez and Paris St. Germain strker Edinson Cavani, could only finish fifth and had to face Jordan to qualify. Despite strong nationwide interest from the Jordanians, the Uruguayans proved too much for Jordan as they thrashed them 5-0 in the first leg before a goal-less display in the second leg saw Uruguay through.
In Oceania, the only continent not to have an automatic World Cup berth, the 2012 Oceanian Nations Cup was used as a second-round qualifier. Tahiti, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and New Zealand were drawn into a group. The New Zealanders, traditional Oceanian powerhouses, took the group by storm and won all 18 points at stake. Unfortunately, they lost 3-9 on aggregate to Mexico and the Mexicans with Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez took the last spot at Brazil.
It is just months now from the World Cup. Who will have their hands on the trophy?.
Let us wait and watch.