Extending our gaze beyond what Gareth Southgate recently dubbed an ‘island mentality’, as well as even our homely continent, this week we are analysing the current standing of global qualification scraps to secure positions both at the World Cup 2018 group draw at the Kremlin Palace at the very start of December, but more importantly at the tournament itself, come June 14th next summer. A tournament drastically devoid of anticipation even close to that of Brazil’s era-defining effort back in 2014, Russia’s campaign – already overshadowed by the perilously violence-prone ‘fans’ of the systemically racist and homophobic inner-cities, from Saint-Petersburg to Moscow and beyond – the ominous signs presented by last summer’s escapades of booze-fuelled carnage-hunters do nothing to paint the Russians in glory. When considering the appalling lack of response from Kremlin officials, which while unacceptable in Western culture, seemed to reflect the general apathy of Russian citizens in a society wholly reliant on patriotism and furious defiance to outside practices, cynicism blossoms. Away from Moscow politics, however, there is still a tournament to commence – which considering the state of human rights in each bidding nation, would’ve been better suited to runners-up Portugal and Spain, or, in my opinion, third-placed Belgium and the Netherlands – and before any action can begin in the newly revamped Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 14th July 2018, 31 qualifiers have to be decided to join their ironically hostile hosts.
It would make sense, then, to see where we are in qualifying currently. With the 31 spots divided between six continental subdivisions of FIFA – thirteen available for the titans of UEFA, five on offer for Africa’s CAF, four or five (depending on inter-continental playoff results) for both the AFC of Asia and CONMEBOL of South America, three or four for CONCACAF of North America and either one, or more likely, no spots available for Oceania’s OFC – and with just 108 of the original 210 still standing, the competition for positions is intensifying like never before. World Cup admission is more financially rewarding for entire nations, let alone their footballing confederations, in the modern day, and to achieve a golden ticket – where odds can range from 22/1 for Pacific Ocean sides, to 4.15/1 for European nations and a further 2.22/1 for those fortunate South Americans – can pave the way for a far brighter footballing future for subsequent generations in a nation previously blighted with adversity.
Take Uzbekistan, geographically obscure and politically uncharted, or Saudi Arabia, rich in economic stance but untouched to date by blessing of a sporting nature, who both currently stand in positions to sneak qualification. The Uzbeks, lying in a third-place spot in the Asian Group A which would see them advance to a play-off with their Group B counterparts prior to an inter-continental decider, with fixtures against South Korea, group leaders Iran and China yet come, seem to have an intensely rigorous task ahead to achieve their first ever World Cup spot, but with a far-from-leaky defence, and a respectable array of promising younger squad options, they could yet spring a shock in a reputation-defying Asian qualifying tale. Saudi Arabia, themselves boasting the highest scoring rate of all Asians at this stage, sit proudly aloft Group B – containing distant favourites Australia and Japan – the former of which, while yet to lose in six matches, have drawn four consecutively, and the latter recovering in stages from a highly damaging opening defeat when hosting the UAE, yet to topple an unrelenting Arabian charge. Their chances will come, respectively, in June and September, and if the sands of time are to play to their part, I strongly expect this oil-fuelled soar from the ‘Green Falcons’ to hit turbulence on the road to Adelaide in June, when the perhaps waning force of Tim Cahill, captain Mile Jedinak and the (personally) fondly admired Robbie Kruse should hit a crest in front of the Aussie crowd.
Likewise, as the incomparable South Korean catalogue of 2017, certainly in comparison to 2010’s peak, dust themselves down from an inconceivable 1-0 defeat to rivals China this week; their form should recover to wrestle away momentum from competitors Iran and Uzbekistan in Group A in following fixtures. These are, in order, at home to the truly remarkable Syria, away to an unthreatening Qatar and with home advantage when taking on the Iranians, all before a final showdown with the Uzbeks in geographically testing Tashkent.
AFC Predictions; South Korea, Iran, Australia, South Korea (Automatic Qualifiers), Uzbekistan (Play-Off vs North American Candidate)
Setting route for a continent we covered extensively here during the African Cup of Nations just a couple of months ago, things seem a whole lot simpler within a CAF confederation blessed with natural playing talent, tainted though it is by the lack of political or economic development. Consisting of five equal groups of four nations, but rivalling another wave of AFCON qualification for relevance in the minds of managers, players and fans, the African system remains bluntly decisive – be the best in your group, or live to regret it. In many respects, then, good preparation for the reality of the World Cup, yet dragged out, just in this final of three stages, over the course of six matches each within around twelve months, this round-robin effect encourages glimpses of brilliance to assert dominance, rather than the repeated, patient mediocrity of UEFA’s fitness-friendly, establishment-biased approach. Seeing arguably a septuplet of sides already marginalised, with little hope of even claiming second place of their four, in Guinea and Libya of Group A, Zambia and Algeria, shockingly, in Group B, Cape Verde of Group C and Ghana and Congo-Brazzaville of Group D, clear favourites have emerged after just two rounds of fixtures to date – Nigeria, with six points in Group B, AFCON 2017 runners-up Egypt, with the same in Group E, and the Ivory Coast, on four points as the sole side to win a match in Group C to date.
Naturally, with a disobedience to authority, Africa is observing this international window with disdain – nations in contention for qualification organising friendlies to test tactical composure and squad harmony, while six minor nations enter the first stage of AFCON 2019 qualifying. It is, then, difficult to read how each group will subsequently unfold at this comparatively early stage, where the final four rounds of fixtures will take place from late August to early November, but with the majority of the old guard maintaining their positions of authority – albeit lacking Algeria, AFCON champions Cameroon and Ghana, the former duo trapped in a group of death in trailing an inspired Nigeria, and the latter struggling for identity with the retirement of Avram Grant and impending departure of Asamoah Gyan. The two West Africans, certainly, have plenty to look forward to in coming years, however certain their current misfortune appears, with youthful squads extremely capable of realising potential and national ambition in the future. Had they put together stronger runs of form prior to the draw for this stage of World Cup qualifying, you wonder, they may not have been in this mire they so miserably occupy, rather scrapping in the flimsy-looking Group A (where DR Congo lead Tunisia, Guinea and Libya) or taking advantage of low confidence in Group D, consisting of Burkina Faso, South Africa, Senegal and Cabo Verde, who all seem fully capable of qualifying, if not for their inability to handle pressure.
Intrinsically captivating will be how each side copes with the transition, come the early autumn period for us Northern Hemisphere citizens, from their AFCON campaigns. For the Ivory Coast, dramatically dethroned under Michael Dusseyer - whose sole tournament ended in tatters - opting for Marc Wilmots, the coach often uncredited for developing an astounding generation of Belgian ballers, has surely planted doubts in all competitors, with his reputation far exceeding his lack of experience in the region, and an exciting call for the future of football in the nation – where a similar array of youthful prodigies are at Wilmots’ disposal.
CAF Predictions; DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt (Automatic Qualifiers)
To a confederation which comprises members of both the drastically contrasting North Americas and Caribbean islands, and just six surviving competitors for qualification remain in CONCACAF. With another decisive round of fixtures to be completed as a write this tonight (Friday 24th), big hitters –socio-economically, politically and athletically – in the USA and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, will aim to regain pivotal ground on current leaders Costa Rica, whom all in England gained a newfound respect for during the 2014 edition of football’s most prestigious tournament. The titans of the United States, certainly, have scores to settle following an unthinkably disastrous start to their campaign – thrashed 4-0 by the group leaders in the immediate aftermath of a damaging 2-1 defeat to the Mexicans on home turf, only days after thou who shalt not be named was named President – signalling the demise of Jurgen Klinsmann, a cult hero to some with vast degrees of experience upon which to draw, but an unrealistic proponent of youth, whose dream blew up his face, to others. With former LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena the first name off the rink to be called upon for his second spell in charge (the first being a remarkably successful period between 1998 and 2006), hopes are high that, with only four players outside of North America in the current squad, a new – but at the same time, nostalgic – sense of national pride should be established in a squad headed by an anti-Trump chief in Arena. Favouring the plethora of experienced heads utilised by Bob Bradley, prior to Klinsmann’s term, Arena is banking on mental, rather than physical, agility, in his nation’s unintimidating fixtures against Honduras and Panama in this window, with relative relics Tim Howard, DeMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey all restored to the side. Whether a viable plan or not in the long term, few can argue with Arena’s logic that the old guard can hardly perform any worse than the youth-friendly squad deployed by Klinsmann in previous stages – after all, the USA need results quickly, and men they can depend upon to deliver them.
For Costa Rica, a relative newcomer to the stage of international relevance, little seems to be impossible. Unfancied in a group of death last time the world saw them, with Italy, Uruguay and a sorry England in Brazil, their form under Óscar Ramírez, the successor (albeit interrupted by Paolo Wanchope’s brief stint) to Jorge Luis Pinto, the mastermind behind 2014, has been nothing short of astounding. Boasting few household names – other, perhaps, than Keylor Navas, Bryan Oviedo, Christian Gamboa and club colleagues Joel Campbell and captain Bryan Ruiz – and having only experienced their first defeat since a 4-0 dismantling from, who else, but the USA at the 2016 Copa America, in their most recent 1-0 loss to Panama (Edit; followed up by a 2-0 defeat to Mexico last night), they maintain great momentum, unrelenting in the wake of an outstanding tournament performance unlike that of Wales. Alongside a Mexican challenge unlikely to ever yield, led by a host of classy individuals in Javier Hernandez, Hector Herrera, Guillermo Ochoa and the evergreen Rafael Marquez, the North American tussle for positioning could be the most fiercely contested of all – especially when factoring the notoriously aggression-prone Hondurans, the little-known, but mightily stubborn and frugal Panamanians and the unfancied, yet unrepentantly positive Trinidad and Tobago faithful.
CONCACAF Predictions; Costa Rica, Mexico, USA (Automatic Qualifiers), Panama (Play-Off vs Asian Candidate)
Steering ourselves directly south to a continent perhaps best associated with the ‘beautiful’ element of the game, CONMEBOL plays host to another ten contenders, one of whom, it must be noted, eliminated after Thursday’s results in Venezuela, soon to be followed by Bolivia in the ‘nothing but pride to play for’ category. Having been the first continent so far on our global tour to adopt a straight single-stage match-off for a maximum of five spots (four automatic), the continent of Christ the Redeemer, Alpacas and Paddington Bear has so far seen an astounding 13 of their 18 rounds of games completed, with a distant leader in Brazil – achieving 30 of a possible 39 points and with a staggering +22 goal difference considering the attacking qualities of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez, to name but a trio. Argentina and Uruguay naturally follow the lead, but for the former, sat in third place with a mystifying +3 goal difference, a damaging 3-0 lesson from the Brazilians and the malaise of captain Messi have done little to aid the highly-respected, but ultimately insipid boss Edgardo Bauza in his primary international employment, nor acquaint the likes of Paolo Dybala, Angel Correa or Lucas Pratto to the trials of the global game. Their campaign has been far from disastrous, but with a generation fading into the history books as failures – despite the obvious skill of Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuaín, Nicolas Otamendi and Sergio Romero as a supporting cast to Messi – their World Cup hopes, even to equal the final appearance they achieved last time out, seem slim, especially when valuing the home losses to both Ecuador and Paraguay.
It is this brand of unsolicited shock that has kept the group alive as an entity, with just five points separating second-placed Uruguay from seventh-placed neighbours Paraguay, where Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Chile act as the filling, in order, to that particular sandwich. Goal difference does little to separate them either, so late bursts of form will be relied upon to secure places at training camps in the suburbs of Russia next summer. Chile, outside of the inter-continental play-off position, appear to have the most favourable fixture list; hosting Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela in Santiago, and having struggled on the road to date, the backing of local supporters could be decisive in their cause. Uruguay should be assured with Argentina the only other top-six side in their diary, while for Colombia away results in Quito, Lima and either Maturin or Merida (in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela respectively) will be the difference between comfortable qualification and the hassle of a play-off. Ecuador’s charge – while with home games in the notorious altitude of Quito – should falter in coming months, as with only a single lower-ranked outfit to face in Peru, their schedule appears ominous. As for Paraguay, well it would take a minor miracle to overcome the tour de force of Brazil, as well as Colombia and Chile, away, or even claim a result in Asuncion against Uruguay.
CONMEBOL Predictions; Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia (Automatic Qualifiers), Chile (Play-Off vs Oceanic Candidate)
Shipping ourselves over to my personal favourite of all the continents furiously competing, where in fact nobody expects even a sole representative in Russia, we wash up on the mesmeric, romantic shores of Oceania. Abandoned by Australia for being classed below their credible level of competition, and now including just eleven islands, which has since been narrowed down to six for the purposes of deciding two group victors to pit against one another in a two-legged tie in late summer, it is a continent decidedly ostracised by those within the halls of power and greatly undervalued in terms of spirit by the wider footballing community. If I was to dedicate an entire blog, or project, to any of these confederations, you can be sure the OFC would be, in a split-second, my choice, partly for the fact that four of its eleven members aren’t even recognised UN nations, and also due to its sheer dedication to the sport in the face of drastic little opportunity, from former British colonies such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to French-speaking regions in Tahiti and New Caledonia, the controversially American, would you believe it, American Samoa and the Portuguese-Spanish-Anglo-French melting pot of Vanuatu.
How are they performing in this edition of qualifying though? With New Zealand, clear favourites, sitting atop fellow modernists New Caledonia and Fiji in Group A, and the unforgettable Tahiti romping into a lead on the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea in Group B, our two finalists seem all but decided prior to even the unfolding of three final rounds of fixtures. With the New Caledonian Kanaks scrapping to achieve a highly credible 0-0 home stalemate with New Zealand, the sole side in the region boasting more than a couple of professional players, and with the Solomon Islands defeating the Tahitians 1-0 at home back in November, however, the battle for final spots may have allowed minor nations (in the context of the region) a glimpse of opportunity, one they will not easily give up fight for. New Zealand’s task, however testing in terms of squad harmony (with 16 different clubs and nine separate nations within the current squad of 22, Winston Reid having succumbed to injury) should be made a great deal easier by the international credibility of their options, and though stretched by battling amateurs and semi-professionals, their capabilities should see them home.
OFC Prediction; New Zealand (Play-Off vs South American Candidate)
The trudge back home from global adventurers is often a nostalgia-fraught one, and in this case it is no different, as we are forcibly reminded of the necessity of UEFA’s incessant programme of mass extermination – siphoning the wheat from the chaff in a brutal display of passing, passing and more passing in the own half of their most star-studded nations. It is rare not to realise the might of Germany, Italy, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands and Portugal, in something like that order, in these pedestrian parades of stamina, both mentally and physically, and for my money – though both Italy and the Netherlands are trapped behind immovable objects in Spain and France in their current stages of qualification – each of these sides are easy assurances of returns.
Without sufficient time, nor the will, to go into extreme depth on each group, I will at least offer my thoughts on the leading candidates, and the surprises; Group A, France performing professionally in the wake of a body blow in the Euro 2016 final; Group B, Switzerland spoiling the Portuguese honeymoon with impressive attacking turnouts; Group C, Germany making haste in dispatching vastly inferior opposition. In Groups D and E, arguably the weakest with only three of the top 19 European sides according to FIFA’s latest world rankings, Wales are another to be presented with a stark return to reality, four points off both a finally consistent Serbia and quietly blossoming Republic of Ireland outfit, while fending off Austria’s charge in the race to Russia, whereas Poland are assembling a tidy run of form in Group E, with Montenegro the surprise candidates for a play-off berth in the chasing pack, where Denmark and Romania would’ve been anticipated to apply pressure. Onto Group E, where Slovenia appear the only outfit capable of even testing Gareth Southgate’s familiarly ‘developing’ squad with a clearly weak underbelly in their wastefulness and inability to sustain meaningful stretches of possession, and the final result appears inevitable, yet reliable to deliver a few lessons to those who hopefully ease through. Things are altogether less predictable in Groups F, G and H, thankfully, with the mouth-watering domination of Mediterranean giants Spain and Italy impending – both on 13 points after 5 games, but threatened by Israel’s 9 – while Belgium, despite returning full points from their first four matches, have Greece and Bosnia & Herzegovina to thank for their high blood pressure, and Croatia are being pushed to their higher gears by the continually adept Icelanders, in a group of impressive technical ability.
The regular crowd should survive future threats, in my mind, and though a handful of second-tier nations seem highly capable of throwing away seemingly assured qualifications to sides, on paper, inferior to them – in the consistently frustrating Czech Republic to Northern Ireland, Denmark to Montenegro and even Wales to the ROI – few shocks should ultimately be sprung upon us, unless in the play-off stage, pressure strikes the Netherlands or Italy.
UEFA Predictions; France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia (Automatic Qualifiers), Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Republic of Ireland (Play-Off Winners)
There we have it then. 31 qualifiers decided (at least if I announce my beliefs that Chile would beat New Zealand in a play-off, and that Panama would edge a close battle with Uzbekistan), but whether, even after the events of this weekend of international football, they will be made to look foolish picks by the footballing gods, nobody yet knows. Such exclusive qualification rights should never be taken for granted as they often are in England, I believe is the moral of our global exploration, as the plight of Oceania’s finest, and the unbelievable trials passed by those in Asia, not to mention the extinguishment of hundreds of dreams to date, prove how valuable these golden tickets are. For now though, there is little we can do other than watch action unfold and count down the days to June 14th 2018, without, of course, naively ignoring the inglorious cultural sideshow that will, hopefully, not come to the fruition that some warn. As ever, I hope the experience is one of inspirational unity, expressing shared passions and goals, as football, in every crevice of its far-reaching resonance, has forever been in place to empower, not divide. If Russia can embrace this, and its 31 guest nations, then the ordeals of qualification will be made entirely worthwhile.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!