It’s too early to make any definitive judgements about the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, but there were few interesting results from the latest round of qualifiers.
Much has been made of Argentina and Brazil’s poor results; Argentina were beaten 1-0 in Buenos Aires by Chile and Brazil were held to another goalless draw at home, this time by Colombia. There is bound to be talk of mounting pressure on Brazil coach Dunga and, to a lesser extent, Argentina’s Alfio Basile. But the results had more to do with improvements made by their opponents than any slip-ups by Brazil and Argentina.
“It seemed like there were 15 of them against 11 of us,” Basile complained after the defeat by Chile. But the simple fact is that the traditionally middle-ranked South American countries like Chile and Colombia are benefiting from the format of the South American qualifying section. The marathon nature of the campaign means they are get to play more competitive international games than they used to, with the resulting improvement in qualify when they face the big boys.
Amid all the attention on Brazil and Argentina, it’s easy to overlook Paraguay, who are have streaked into a six-point lead over Brazil and Argentina at the top of the South American qualifying section. The other eight countries will effectively be chasing the one remaining automatic qualifying spot and one play-off place.
Up in Mexico, the heat is on Sven Goran Eriksson after the national team’s surprise defeat by Jamaica and draw with Canada. The Mexicans are still favourites to qualify for the final qualifying round but the reasoning of the Mexican federation – that appointing a cool-headed Scandinavian like Sven would take the heat off the national team – is bound to be questioned.
While we’re at it, credit to Jamaica for beating Mexico and then also getting the better of Honduras, again by the single goal in Kingston. John Barnes does not take over as Jamaica coach until next month, so caretaker coach Theodore Whitmore deserves the plaudits.
Back in Europe, most of the big guns seemed to have avoided the early banana skins, although France face an uphill struggle to topple the in-form Serbia from top spot in Group 7. The Serbs lost in Paris last month but back-to-back wins over Lithuania and Austria have put them in a commanding early position.
If you’re looking for a big-name casualty from the European groups, look no further than Portugal, who could only manage goalless draw at home to Albania in Braga. With Hungary picking up useful points, and Sweden and Denmark always hard to beat, the Portuguese face a tough task in Group 1.
The most open European section looks like being Group 3, where Slovakia are the surprise leaders, ahead of Poland, Slovenia, Northern Ireland and Czech Republic.
In Africa, there were some big-name casualties in the final games of the second round section. Senegal, World Cup quarter-finalists in 2002, failed to make the cut of 20 teams who progressed to the third and final round after being held 1-1 at home by Gambia. Angola, World Cup qualifiers in 2006, also missed out.
World Cup hosts South Africa, who competed in the World Cup qualifiers because the matches double up as deciders for the 2010 African Nations Cup, also failed to make it through to the final 20. On their current form, Bafana Bafana are threatening to be the weakest hosts in World Cup history.