Surprises and shocks galore

A record 204 nations out of the 208 member-countries of FIFA went through the rigorous qualification process. While it was quite easy for some, many others had to huff and puff their way to South Africa. S. R. Suryanarayan reviews the qualifying rounds.

Just over a year after Italy lifted the World Cup in 2006, the long, winding and arduous trek to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa began, not at the hallowed arena of Wembley or the historic setting of Maracana in Brazil but outside the Samoan capital of Apia. Tahiti and New Caledonia were the teams involved in the match that set the ball rolling for the qualifying rounds. Tahiti or New Caledonia did not make much progress, but Pierre Wajoka of New Caledonia will have a special place in the history of the championship for having scored the first goal of the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

A record 204 nations out of the 208 member-countries of FIFA — the previous best was 199 in 2002 — went through the qualification process. Except for South Africa, which qualified automatically for the Finals as the host, the rest of the nations fought for the 31 slots (13 in Europe, five in Africa, 4 or 5 in South America, 4 or 5 in Asia, 3 or 4 in North Central America and Caribbean and 0 or 1 for Oceania).

Following the preliminary competitions spread over two years that threw up surprises and shocks galore, Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria (Africa Zone), Australia, Japan, Korea DPR, Korea Republic (Asia), Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland (Europe), Honduras, Mexico, USA (North Central America/Caribbean), New Zealand (Oceania), Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay (South America) booked their tickets to South Africa. However, success did not come easily for the teams.

Take Africa for instance. An ever mysterious continent in terms of abounding football talent — something that has delighted the experts around the world — the African players figure virtually in every major club around the world. So surprises aren't new in this land. In fact the qualifiers produced a lot of drama, passion and excitement. After two rigorous rounds involving 53 teams, 20 sides comprising 12 group winners and eight best runners-up moved into the final round from where five qualifiers from Africa were spotted.

Of the five qualifiers, Algeria's passage to the Finals in South Africa was the talking point for long — it went through following a dramatic twist in the play-off against Egypt.

From the start both Algeria and Egypt had looked well balanced. But in the final group league match between the two in Cairo, Egypt won 2-0. This necessitated a play-off between Algeria and Egypt, who were equal on all counts including goal-difference, to determine the last berth from the African zone. It was substitute Emad Meteab's fifth minute stoppage goal that put Egypt on level with Algeria on goal-difference.

In the play-off — it was held at a neutral venue in Khartoum (Sudan) following violent incidents involving fans of both teams in Cairo — Antar Yahia's brilliant volley from a close angle, a little before half-time, enabled Algeria post a 1-0 victory and qualify for the Finals in South Africa.

Cote d'Ivoire had an impressive run. With talented players such as Didier Drogba in its ranks, the team had little worries. Drogba, indeed, proved to be Cote d'Ivoire's saviour. With the team requiring a draw against Malawi to qualify for the World Cup and trailing by a goal, Drogba ensured his team's place in South Africa by scoring the equaliser.

Cameroon's story was different. Listless in the beginning, the team replaced its coach Otto Pfister with Frenchman Paul LeGuen. The new coach not only made changes to the team but also appointed Samuel Eto'o as the captain. The transformation in Cameroon's fortunes was instant. And four wins in a row later, Cameroon qualified for the Finals for the sixth time, a record in the African zone. Ghana was the first side to qualify from Africa without much hiccup, but Nigeria, playing against Mozambique in a crucial encounter, was only a minute away from elimination before substitute Obinna Nsofor came from nowhere to rescue his side. The Super Eagles never looked back thereafter.

In the Asian Zone, Bahrain could have been the fifth team to qualify, but its hopes were doused by the Oceania winner New Zealand in the play-off (as per the format). Surprises were few in the zone as Australia, Japan and Korea Republic made it to the Finals, but Saudi Arabia and Iran disappointed and Korea DPR seized the opportunity.

Australia (the only team from the Asian Zone to go into the second round in Germany 2006) was unbeaten in the qualifiers and had much to thank its goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who conceded just two goals in 13 appearances. In Mark Bresciano and Tim Cahill the country had a duo that provided the spark in the attack.

For Japan, the Nakamuras — midfielder Kengo and playmaker Shensuke — stole the show. But to Okazaki goes the credit for scoring the winner against Uzbekistan. Park Ji-Sung was Korea Republic's spearhead as it booked its berth to South Africa. Two exciting talents Park Chu-Young and Lee Keun-Ho are the team's assets. A sense of purpose outlined Korea DPR's approach where captain Hong Yong-Jo and Jong Tae-Se were outstanding.

The South American qualifiers provided plenty of excitement. At one stage even Argentina's chances of qualifying for the World Cup were in doubt. But as champion teams do, Argentina pulled off a remarkable recovery to make it to the Finals.

The Confederation Cup champion, Brazil, sailed through thanks to Luis Fabiano and Kaka in the main. Ironically, Argentinean Marcelo Bielsa was the inspiration for the new Chile squad which, along with Paraguay, had won most matches in the zone.

Argentina, which began under coach Alfio Basile before Maradona took charge, had a nervy run. A 6-1 loss to Bolivia followed by a 3-1 defeat at home to Brazil did Maradona's cause no good. However, the team squeaked through, its escape acts in the succeeding matches reflecting what the team had lacked earlier — class. In the process, Uruguay was forced into a play-off with Costa Rica but survived with a win.

Europe produced some sensational moments. While the giants strode on, several other capable teams such as Turkey, Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Poland (these teams in some edition or the other had been among the top four finishers), Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Romania bit the dust. Russia's exit was a big surprise and for Guus Hiddink, the coach with the Midas touch, a missed opportunity at managing four different teams in different World Cups. Finishing next to Germany in the Group, Russia went into the play-off as one of the best runner-up only to succumb to Slovenia, which had an impressive record of not conceding a single goal in the qualifying matches at home.

Ukraine's ouster too was unexpected — it was edged out by Greece in the play-off following Dimitrius Salpingidis' first-half goal. In the process one big name in the sport, Andriy Shevchenko, was denied his last World Cup hurrah.

Switzerland sprang a big surprise by topping its group and earning qualification. However, the front-runners like Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy grew stronger as the qualifiers progressed. So did England. Capello's boys with nine wins and one defeat were a revelation.

Portugal was another team which went through via the play-off after Denmark pipped it to the top spot in their group. Portugal's only loss in the group was against Denmark but without Cristiano Ronaldo's service, the team got past the brave Bosnia-Herzegovina in the double leg play-off.

The manner in which France booked its ticket to South Africa was shocking. Denied a direct slot by Serbia which topped its group, France, unbeaten in 11 competitive matches since then, faced Ireland in the play-off. Ireland too was on a dream run, remaining unbeaten in 12 matches. But as it happened, France scraped through with a draw at home for a 2-1 aggregate win. However, the blot on the equaliser by William Gallas that nullified Robbie Keane's goal remained long after the match was over. Thierry Henry who provided the pass for Gallas to score the goal had handled the ball while doing so. Henry admitted later that he had handled the ball, but FIFA ensured that the issue did not escalate by citing rules that put the onus on the referee. And the referee had not seen the French striker handle the ball in the first place.

Costa Rica was a strong contender from the CONCACAF region, particularly after its good initial showing. However, it failed to qualify by a whisker in the double leg play-off against Uruguay. The overall aggregate of 2-1 did not convey the passion with which ‘Ticos' played in the make-or-break encounter. Experts believed they gave their all but Uruguay had the last laugh.

There was no stopping the U.S. and Mexico, thanks to the form and class shown by their players. Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and the young Jozy Altidore stood out for the U.S. while Mexico owed a lot to its veteran C. Blanco. From Oceania, New Zealand made it only the way it could — through a play-off with the fifth team from the Asian Zone, Bahrain. Rory Fallow made New Zealand's dream come true in front of its cheering home crowd, scoring at the stroke of half-time to give his side the winning margin.