South Africa 2010 will be a memorable World Cup. The first to be hosted by an African nation, it promises to be a riot of colour and spectacle and is eagerly-awaited by a soccer-crazy population. As always, the host country will be there, and their ups and downs will be passionately followed; but who else is coming to the party?
The first teams to qualify were a mixed quartet who all booked their places on 6 June. Australia finished top of their group and will be stronger than ever next year. Their squad will include familiar faces to fans of some of Europe’s top clubs and will be a match for many of the so-called ‘big’ teams.
Japan finished second in the group to achieve qualification, and will enjoy the support of a vociferous and passionate traveling army of supporters. Few will forget the incredible atmosphere they brought to the 2002 tournament.
Japan’s co-hosts in that tournament, South Korea, also qualified on 6 June. Their side has improved steadily over the last decade, and includes Manchester United’s midfielder Park Ji-Sung, a special talent and a real hero in his homeland.
The first European team to qualify was the Netherlands, who strolled through their group. On paper it looked easy, and so it proved. Norway, Scotland, Macedonia, and Iceland were unlikely to put up much of a fight against the Dutch, who will fancy their chances in South Africa. Any squad that features the likes of Van Persie, Van der Saar, Huntelaar, and Van Bommel will demand to be taken seriously.
The intriguing prospect of North Korea joining the World Cup party came true on 17 June, when they pipped Saudi Arabia to second place in their group. This is the first time that both Korean sides have qualified. One wonders of the repercussions if they have to play each other.
England are on the cusp of qualification, having won all six of their matches so far. Under the impressive stewardship of Italian Fabio Capello, England have been more than impressive in the campaign, and will arrive in South Africa in a confident mood.
As will Spain — the European Champions are ranked number one in the world now, and have begun to shake off the ‘Nearly Men’ tag that has dogged their past performances. Fernando Torres and David Villa are a highly impressive pairing, both with a keen eye for goal. These guys will take some beating.
No other European teams are home and dry yet, and several of the groups appear to be heading for a straight shoot-out between two teams. But whether it will be Serbia or France, Italy or Ireland, Denmark or Hungary, or Germany or Russia remains to be seen. Only group winners are guaranteed qualification, although thanks to a complicated system several second-placed teams will also qualify.
Several of the more fancied teams in Europe are struggling, and at the moment there’s a very real chance that next year’s absentee list will include Portugal, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Turkey. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid in recent weeks for a world record fee, but he may well be enjoying/enduring an extended holiday next summer.
Another possible absentee is Mexico. There’s still a long way to go in their group, but they look to have a fight on their hands. Costa Rica and the USA appear to be almost home and dry, but the final place looks to be between the Mexicans and a well-organised Honduran side.
The only country to play at all 18 World Cups is Brazil, and they’re well on their way to a 19th appearance. Currently topping the South American group, only a miracle will halt their progress. An impressive campaign by Chile looks to have sealed their spot as well. The last places will be fought out by Uruguay, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Argentina. The latter have had a disappointing time of it, although any team that features the mercurial Lionel Messi will be capable of beating anyone. If Argentina do qualify, and the alternative is unthinkable, they will be among the favourites to lift the trophy.
In Africa, the qualification process is still taking shape, and competition is fierce for the five available spaces. Only the winners of the five groups will go through, so several of the more experienced World Cup campaigners will miss out. Morocco and Cameroon are in the same group, likewise Tunisia and Nigeria. Ivory Coast have so far won three out of three, as have Ghana, a team that features the brilliant Michael Essien of Chelsea. So far, these two are the only sides who look to be in control of their own destinies.
Over the coming months, the final places will be settled. A staggering 204 teams will have been whittled down to just 32, and the mouth-watering prospect of another soccer fiesta will be on the way. Only seven countries (Uruguay, Italy, Brazil, Germany, England, Argentina, and France) have ever won the World Cup, and in 2010 there’s a good chance that Spain will join this select group.