With the completion of the last set of qualifying matches, we now know which 32 national teams will compete for the World Cup in Brazil next year. Here is the list:
Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay
The United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico
Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, England, Russia, Belgium, Switzerland, Bosnia, Portugal, France, Greece, Croatia
Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon
South Korea, Japan, Iran, Australia
Brazil and defending champion Spain will be the favorites, probably in that order. Germany will be the next choice, along with Argentina if Lionel Messi is fully fit and its defense begins to look more credible. Colombia and Begium will be fashionable dark horse picks. England will favorites for elimination sooner rather than later on penalty kicks.
No important soccer power failed to make the field. Often that is not the case. In 1994, for example, neither France nor England qualified.
This time, four important teams needed playoffs to qualify, having failed to make it in the initial qualifying process. They were Mexico, Uruguay, Portugal, and France.
Mexico, saved by the U.S., easily defeated New Zealand in their two game (home-away) playoff. Uruguay, a semi finalist in 2010, had little trouble with Jordan.
Portugal needed two late goals to ensure qualification over Sweden. This playoff was billed as a clash between superstars Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden). And rightly so. Between them they scored all six of the goals in Portugal’s 4-2 aggregate win.
The most dramatic qualification was France’s. They needed to overcome a 2-0 deficit from the first leg against Ukraine. This they did with a convincing 3-0 win before a boisterous, and ultimately ecstatic, Paris crowd.
Veteran star Franck Ribery brilliantly led the attack and fellow veteran Kareem Benzema contributed a goal. But it was the performances of newer players — Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi in midfield and Mamadou Sakho and Rafael Varane in defense — that provide hope that the French can atone for their embarrassing 2010 World Cup performance and their less than satisfactory showing at Euro 2012.
Looking at the field as a whole, one sees that at least one-fourth of the teams probably lack the quality to contribute much in Brazil. This is inevitable given the inflated size of the field and the use of geographic quotas to populate it.
Moreover, history tells that another quarter of the teams will fail to come together as a credible force. In 2010, for example, France, Italy, and England — winners between them of six World Cups — all failed to deliver the goods.
On paper, though, there is enough quality to produce, with luck, some terrific clashes in the latter stages of the tournament. And we can be pretty sure that, in the earlier stages, one or two of the “minnows” will produce a little magic.
Next month, the teams will be divided into eight groups of four, each of which will eventually produce two teams for the Round of 16. The U.S. will be hoping for a group like the one it had in 2010 — England, Slovenia, and Algeria. At a minimum, it will hope to avoid a Group of Death, the formation of which is made almost inevitable by the competition’s ridiculously crude seeding system.
My next report will follow the drawing of the groups.