Final path to victory to be mapped for last 32 of world football’s glory hunters
MORE than three years after qualifying began, 32 teams will go into the hat here in Cape Town next Friday for the World Cup draw, as the countdown to next year’s tournament begins in earnest.
The 90-minute ceremony will determine not just who plays who, but where they play.
The teams will be split into eight groups of four with the seedings and draw procedure only finalised next week, although no more than two European nations can be drawn together. It seems likely that the system used for the 2006 World Cup will be retained, whereby a team’s world rankings over the past three years and performances at the last two tournaments are taken into account .
This would make Brazil top seeds, followed by Germany, Spain, Italy and England.
Once the lineups are decided the focus will switch to next year and the opening game at the gleaming new Soccer City in Joburg on Friday, June 11 between teams one and two from Group A.
The 63 matches that follow will span South Africa, from Polokwane to Cape Town with 10 stadiums being used. The final will take place at Soccer City on July 11.
The qualifying journey so far has been dramatic. It all began on August 25, 2007, in Oceania when just 60 supporters turned up to watch Samoa play Vanuatu.
Since then, over 20 million fans have flocked to stadiums to witness 204 countries whittled down to 32, with Uruguay the last to book their ticket.
Thirty-one of the teams have been here before, with Slovakia the newcomer. Minnows New Zealand made it through and North Korea qualified for the first time since 1966, when England last lifted the trophy.
England are one of the favourites to do it again with Fabio Capello moulding a disciplined team, where morale is high and with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry as his linchpins. The Italian taskmaster has told them that reaching the final is the least he expects.
“Playing in the final would be success,” he said. “For now, playing in it will do, rather than winning it.”
Capello has identified Brazil as the team to beat, but coach Dunga is reluctant to accept the tag of World Cup favourite.
“I think Brazil is in balance, technically and tactically, and also the physical conditioning of the players is good,” he said.
“But it is not so long since people were saying we were not favourites at all. We need to look for our space to make our game and not pay any attention to what people are saying.”
France are on the plane, but only just, with the run-up to the draw mired in controversy after Thierry Henry’s blatant handball put Raymond Domenech’s side into the hat at the expense of Ireland.
The fallout has been so severe that Fifa president Sepp Blatter has called a crisis meeting for December 2 in South Africa to deal with the issue and also to discuss a current investigation into match-fixing in Europe.
European champions Spain are at present the world’s number one ranked team, running hot since Vincente Del Bosque took over with a perfect 10 wins out of 10 in qualifying.
But the former Real Madrid boss is not getting carried away.
“We must prove it on the pitch and not in our dreams,” he said.
Like Spain, no team from Africa or Asia has ever lifted the World Cup, and appears unlikely to do so next year.
But the prospects are brighter in South America with Brazil leading the pack, although an exciting and young Chilean side have also proved their credentials.
Mighty Argentina is an unpredictable element after only just hauling themselves over the line with Diego Maradona enduring a see-saw ride as the coach that generated more questions than answers – Sapa-AFP