The road to 2010

World Cup qualifying proved easy for England, a pain for Portugal, a breeze for Brazil, fortuitous for France and anxious for Argentina.

The long and often bumpy road to South Africa began way back in August 2007 when 204 hopeful countries set out to try and secure one of the 31 places on offer – South Africa as hosts qualifying
automatically.

All of the beautiful games’ traditional superpowers made it across the line – some like defending champions Italy and Argentina leaving it late – others like Brazil cantering across with room to
spare.

In all there were 2 337 goals scored over 848 qualifiers, the whole selection process winding up in November in acrimony and recrimination.
Of all the qualifying goals in all the corners of the world the one that sticks in the mind – in the throat if you are Irish – came in extra time in the second leg of the Republic of Ireland’s play-off with France.

Ireland, who ran the Italians close in their qualifying group to reach the play-offs, had excelled against the French, and were minutes away from forcing the tie to penalties.

Henry’s handball
Then Thierry Henry stuck out his infamous hand, William Gallas scored, and Irish hearts were torn apart. The incident sparked a diplomatic spat between France and Ireland – with the two countries respective heads of state even drawn into the controversy.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter hardly helped cool Irish anger when laughing off their privately lodged request to be included as a 33rd team in South Africa after requests for a replay had been
refused.

Even the French public appeared collectively embarrassed by the way the 1998 winners and 2006 beaten finalists had qualified – with eight of ten people questioned in a poll declaring the team’s qualification “undeserved”.

For all the indignation and recrimination it was France, not Ireland, who went into December’s World Cup draw in Cape Town. That handball earned Henry a place in football’s chamber of
cheaters right up alongside Diego ‘hand of god’ Maradona.

Maradona was noticeable by his absence at the World Cup draw, the Argentina coach having to pay for his sexually-explicit foul-mouthed outburst to journalists after Argentina grabbed fifth and last place in South American qualifying after a ‘must win’ win over Uruguay.

South America
Aside from the continent’s two superpowers – who between them have won the World Cup seven times – South America will also be represented by Paraguay, Chile, and Uruguay.

European hopes will be shouldered by the buoyant Euro 2008 champions Spain, who boasted a perfect qualifying record of played
ten, won ten.

The only country to go close were Fabio Capello’s rejuvenated England, with a haul of 27 points.
For the side that had failed to make it to Euro 2008 they had two bits of uplifting news in December – the first came when they were named as seeds in the World Cup draw – the second a report that the players may be given Viagra to help cope with altitude in South Africa.

Germany duly made it to their 17th finals after seeing off Russia in their group, while Italy just outpointed the hapless Irish in theirs for what will also be a 17th appearance. For Serbia and Slovakia 2010 represents a historic milestone as
it will be their debut finals.

Africa, welcoming the first World Cup ever to be staged on their continent, are well represented with Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Algeria and hosts South Africa. “This is our best chance of lifting the trophy because if you study the history of the World Cup Brazil are the only team to win it outside their continent,” said African football legend Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew.

High drama in Africa
African qualifying ended like Europe’s in drama with Algeria’s highly charged play-off verdict with old foes Egypt, the tie having to be settled in Khartoum after both teams ended with identical
results.

Over in Asia North Korea qualified for only the second time — and they will be hoping to make a similar impact as in 1966 when they beat Italy and made it into the quarter-finals.

They are joined from the region by South Korea, Japan, Australia, with Oceania’s New Zealand joining this group after edging their play-off against Bahrain, the fifth-placed team in Asian qualifying.

Mexico, the United States and Honduras were the trio who made it through from the North, Central America and Caribbean region. – AFP

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