African revolution surprises the world

Treasure of Africa ... Didier Drogba will spearhead first-timer Ivory Coast's challenge in Germany 2006.-AP

Going by the World Cup Qualifiers, Germany 2006 could usher in a new array of stars and perhaps a fresh power equation, writes S. R. Suryanarayan

LET the show begin. This could well be the silent prayer on the lips of football fans the world over as their test of patience begins for the big day in the sport all set to unfold in Germany in June 2006. Everything is ready — the venues, the teams, the draw and even the players, no matter that some of them took a knock or two in the engrossing, at times, corrosive final phase of the qualifying rounds. And if action in the defining qualifying phase is anything to go by, the World Cup could usher in a new array of stars, perhaps a fresh power equation and, above all, a new insight into what science and technology has lent to the universally-acknowledged common man's sport.

It was, naturally, the climactic phase of the World Cup Qualifiers that was the highlight of 2005. There were 194 teams involved in the Qualifiers, 847 games were played and 2464 goals were scored. Not unusual for a preliminary competition, staged once in four years, with the intention of identifying the participants in the `biggest sporting event on Planet Earth'. Even though the number of teams in the Qualifiers remained the same as in the previous edition for determining the 31 qualifiers in the World Cup finals (excluding host Germany), the number of matches grew by ten percent and they were played across the six geographic zones. It is estimated that around 20 million spectators savoured the action in this phase. For the action in Germany, the spectator count could well go to an all-time high.

Football's best moments of the year were found not just in the continental championships and the various European premier leagues but also in the World Cup Qualifiers. The topsy-turvy turns that Real Madrid faced or Manchester United experienced were but one facet of this great sport.

The hotbed of revolution was in Africa, the continent that never ceases to puzzle. Every World Cup in the recent past has had its quota of surprises from Africa but the run-up to next year's edition surpassed everything else. The qualifiers from the continent, selected from the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and the African Cup of Nations, signalled the emergence of new football powers in this continent. The traditional forces gave way to new ones and the Qualifiers also signalled the emergence of exciting new goal-scorers. In short, the preliminary tournament has virtually redrawn the African football map.

October 9 had a special significance in the history of African football as four nations with no previous history of participation in World Cup finals celebrated their first-time qualification. Experts were unable to pinpoint what triggered the sensational changes but the fact remains that C�te d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Togo and Angola outlived all expectations to earn the passage to Germany at the expense of known giants Cameroon, South Africa, Senegal and Nigeria. World Cup 2006, therefore, will not feature names like Samuel Eto'o, El-Hadji Diouf, Mido and Shabani Nonda. Sharp-shooters such as Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor, Didier Drogba, Haykel Guemamdia and Akwa, all eager to showcase their gifted talent, will take their place. Africa's reputation for spawning attacking prodigies is in safe hands.

Of the lot, AS Monaco's lanky Togolese attacker Adebayor has the credentials to make it big. The Lome-born athletic player caught the eye of the administrators even as a boy and they put him in the Lome Sporting school. From there to the national youth team was the start of his journey, which has transcended the country with Europe beckoning him. Monaco accepted him and soon other clubs will vie for him. Adebayor was the top-scorer in the African preliminaries with 11 goals, ahead of Chelsea's Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba. More importantly, Adebayor, with his scoring abilities, was instrumental in pushing out rivals Senegal, scoring in both the home and away matches. The Togolese striker, who is an admirer of Nigerian Nwanko Kanu, should be the trump card in the scheme of things for Togo's Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi.

Towards the later stages of the World Cup Qualifiers and during the Confederations Cup, Adriano emerged as Brazil's striker number one.-AP

Drogba is another player to look for. The man who inspired Cote d'Ivoire to end Cameroon's traditional appearance in the World Cup is already one of the most feared strikers in Europe. In addition to Drogba, Ivory Coast coach Henri Michel's exciting collection of players includes Aruna Dindane, Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora. Observers also see Angolan captain Akwa playing a major role. The former Benfica player, now plying his trade in Qatar, may have struck just three goals but each proved crucial, in particular the one against Nigeria, which proved to be the all-important strike that sent the famed rival out of the World Cup.

The shining lights in the Ghanaian team are captain Stephen Appiah and Chelsea man Michael Essien, who is the most expensive player in the history of African football. Sulley Ali Muntari, Asamoah Gyan and Dutch-based Matthew Amoah are the others who make Ghana an exciting side to follow.

Unlike in Africa, European World Cup Qualifiers had a different story. The change in the order has been reluctantly slow in Europe and this meant there is a chance again for the battle-scarred heroes to show their worth. Names like Zinedine Zidane, Lillian Thuram and Claude Makelele, who were set for entry into history books, will have to wait for some more time. These giants of French football came back from retirement, which is the story of former champion France's laborious qualification success.

Portugal had a fine run in the Qualifiers, but it was not Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Pauletta alone who filled Brazilian Felipe Scolari's cup of cheers but the return of Luis Figo after a long break. With its blend of the old with the new, Portugal can offer some heady stuff in the World Cup.

England, despite having some of the best players in the world led by the glamour boy David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, had to go through some edge-of-the-seat clashes in the Qualifiers before clinching a berth in Germany. The progress of Netherlands has been one of the most sought-after happenings in the continent. Marco van Basten has triggered a revolution and in Ruud van Niestelrooy, Rafael van der Vaart and Arjen Robben, the Dutch have a set of potential world-beaters. The surge of first-timers Ukraine meant that there was enough action already in Europe to portend some glorious chapters in Germany.

Who can conjure up better magic on the football field than the Latin Americans? And the qualifying tournament in the continent is always a humdinger. This time, the collective strengths of Brazil and Argentina simply took the breath away of many a football fan. The fact that Ronaldo, who would become the continental top-scorer in the qualifying round, went six games without a goal is a reflection of Brazil's strength: Adriano, Kaka and Ronaldinho (the 50th European Footballer of the Year award winner) compensated for Ronaldo's transient dip in form adequately. Collectively, the four plundered opposing defences 25 times.

The qualifying campaign has assured that there will be fresh faces from Latin America this time round. Apart from the dazzling Brazilians, Argentina proved that it is a hotbed of new talent. Teenage sensation Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme have all established their importance, while Paraguay discovered in Nelson Haedo Valdez a potent attacking alternative to Jose Cardozo and Roque Santa Cruz. Add the natural flair of young Ecuadorians Franklin Salas and Christian Lara, and South America's strength has been well documented.

From the Indian point of view, the World Cup campaign, of course, proved a disaster for coach Stephen Constantine, who had to quit after the country's dismal show in the qualifying phase. Sukhwinder Singh took over as coach but he too had to leave in unpleasant circumstances, paving the way for Syed Nayeemuddin to return to the helm. The Dhronacharya's first assignment gave Indian football some cheer towards the year-end when the country regained its supremacy in the South Asian region by winning the SAFF Cup, beating defending champion Bangladesh in Karachi. This is India's third victory in the championship.

A sample of the engrossing battle ahead in World Cup 2006 was provided in the Confederations Cup in June, a veritable rehearsal for the World Cup. It was a tournament to test the organising machinery in Germany and the efficacy of the venues. It was also an occasion for some of the powers in the sport to loosen up. And in the end Brazil showed why it is an overwhelming favourite for another World Cup title. The 4-1 thrashing of Argentina in the final was an emphatic signal to the doubters. Adriano (Adidas Golden Shoe winner), Kaka and Ronaldinho were in full flow to enthral not only the game's lovers but Coach Alberto Parreira himself. "We have achieved whatever we wanted to achieve," he said later, and that must be a great understatement.

The competition brought to the fore the skills of Argentina, for whom Riquelme and Luciano Figueroa were the pick. Mexico's goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez has indicated his candidature for a brighter role in Germany while the host itself, despite bowing out in the semi-final, has shown it had no less ammunition in its kitty. Michael Ballack is already known but watch out for Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger. They can be dynamites. Japan and Australia also took part in the Confederations Cup. Shunsuke Nakamura established himself as the new star from Japan while John Aloisi, who featured for Australia, struck four goals in three games and won a reward for his performance by his switch from Spain's Osasuna to Greece's Panathanaikos. 2005 laid the road to Germany, identified the combatants, set the trend. Now, it is all set for the action to begin.