Intercontinental and African World Cup Qualification Playoffs Preview
The 2014 World Cup is less than 8 months away, and most of the qualified teams have already been determined!
However, the last rounds of qualification are upon us, meaning that players from around the world will be engaging in some of the most important soccer games of their lives as they battle for the right to represent their country at the most famous sporting tournament on the planet.
While European soccer nations like Germany and Spain usually steal the headlines, the World Cup is unique in that it brings together teams from all over the world to a single location, in this case Brazil.
Teams from continents like Africa and Asia can often make a big statement at a World Cup, but it all starts with just getting there!
In Africa, these playoffs determine all 5 of the nations that will represent the region in Brazil. After the first legs, we can be nearly certain that Ghana will be at the tournament after a 6-1 drubbing over Egypt.
They play with high speed and flair, and have had recent success at World Cups, reaching the round of 16 in 2006, and the quarterfinals in 2010. Both tournaments saw Ghana defeat the United States, and only a Luis Suarez handball off the goal line prevented the nation from reaching the semifinals in South Africa.
Ghana has a good mix of veterans and talented youth. Superstars like Michael Essien, Asamoah Gyan, and Kevin-Prince Boateng have experience playing at the top clubs in Europe while youngsters like the Ayew brothers and Kwadwo Asamoah are looking to impress on the big stage. Capable of beating anyone on their day, Ghana is a strong team that cannot be overlooked.
Most of the other African playoff qualifiers are more evenly poised after the first leg. Cameroon and Tunisia are deadlocked at 0-0. While Cameroon has had the more recent success in reaching the 2010 World Cup, Tunisia found their way to the tournament in 2006.
Neither country has had any major World Cup success, though they each have a good crop of players. Tunisia will be looking for veteran striker Issam Jemaa to lead the line and have a few players that feature for European clubs. Cameroon has the most recognizable star in Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea. A club superstar at both Barcelona and Inter Milan, Eto'o will shoulder the load of this nation. Alexandre Song and Jean Makoun will be there for support. I do feel that Eto'o will take Cameroon to Brazil, but depending on their group draw, could be in for just a short stay.
The Ivory Coast got off to a good start in their playoff first leg against Senegal, coming away victorious 3-1. They have all the tools to succeed and I fully believe they can make an impact at this World Cup. Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, and the Toure brothers have all played for years at top clubs. Additionally, a great supply of young talent featuring Gervinho and Wilfried Bony mean that the country will have the young legs to navigate through the tournament.
Senegal has some talent like Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba, and Mohamed Diame, and feature a squad made up of mostly European based professionals, but I think the Ivory Coast is too strong, especially considering their 2-goal advantage from the first leg. Expect big things from the Ivory Coast in Brazil, possibly a serious run and the potential to upset a major nation. There is a ton of experience and talent here that is probably facing their last go at a World Cup.
The Ethiopia vs. Nigeria playoff has seen a 2-1 lead in favor of Nigeria. Nigeria has a far superior talent pool with guys like John Obi-Mikel and Victor Moses. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is mostly a locally based team, with only Saladin Said being a player of note. Nigeria has been at a decent amount of World Cups and sometimes does well. I think they will qualify, though they are another team whose success depends on the fortune of their draw. Once they face a superpower, they will probably be eliminated.
The final African playoff sees Algeria against Burkina Faso. Algeria reached the 2010 World Cup and has a squad of internationally placed players. Although there are no superstars, guys like Sofiane Feghouli, Adlene Guedioura, Saphir Taider, Islam Slimani, and Carl Medjani play for widely known European clubs. The problem for Algeria is that they are rather young and inexperienced, as evidenced by their 3-2 away loss in the first leg to Burkina Faso.
Burkina Faso has never reached the World Cup and is now on the brink. They have several decent youngsters like Bertrand Traore, Bakary Kone, and Aristide Bance. Their veteran striker Moumouni Dagano would love to reach the World Cup. The first leg ended in a controversial penalty kick giving Burkina Faso the lead, but they will have to hold on in Algeria during the second leg. This figures to be a thriller of a match at the greatest of levels. I think Burkina Faso, with luck on their side, will make it to Brazil, though I'd have serious doubts about their prospects at the tournament.
Away from Africa, there are two other intercontinental playoff qualifiers that still have to play their first of the two matches. The playoffs ahead are Mexico vs. New Zealand and Uruguay vs. Jordan. Both will be intriguing matches to round out the qualification.
Mexico and New Zealand represent polar opposites in the soccer world. Mexico is a regular at the World Cup, and typically does quite well. Meanwhile, New Zealand hardly ever qualifies, though they did manage the feat for the 2010 World Cup, where they managed 3 draws, including a tie with Italy.
They were not able to progress but they did avoid embarrassment. Now the team is hoping to build off of that success and make it to Brazil. They have several young players that compete abroad including Winston Reid and striker Chris Wood, in addition to a solid stable of veteran leaders that play locally including Ivan Vicelich, Shane Smeltz, and Leo Bertos. They have not played any serious competitors recently and will certainly be challenged in this tie. History is against them as well, as Mexico defeated New Zealand 3-0 in 2011.
However, a lot has changed for Mexico since then. This past year has been a nightmare. In the relatively soft CONCACAF region, Mexico finished 4th, after losing to Costa Rica, the USA, and Honduras, and drawing matches they really should have won against teams like Panama and Jamaica. Their once feared home at Azteca Stadium has not been the fortress it once was.
Numerous coaches have been fired, and many usual players like Javier Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos have been left off the squad for this match. Instead, a team of domestically based players highlighted by Aldo de Nigris, Oribe Peralta, and Rafael Marquez will carry the load.
While the casual observer would expect Mexico to progress easily, their recent problems leave this tie completely up in the air, especially given the recent success of New Zealand. This will surely be a delightful competition for neutral observers but a tense situation for Mexican fans. I think New Zealand may just pull out the upset and reach Brazil!
The other playoff tie should be less competitive. Uruguay has a squad of world-class talent boasting a striker force of Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan, and Luis Suarez. They reached the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup and won the 2011 Copa America tournament. However, they really struggled on the road through qualification, and that leaves them in this troubling playoff situation.
Jordan has never reached the World Cup. Although their team is comprised mostly of domestic players without international standing, they did succeed in a 6th place finish at the 2011 Asian Cup. They have improved in recent years and a trip to Brazil would be an incredible award. However, this Uruguay team simply has too much star power and will win the playoff easily.
And so there you have it. While the European playoffs will also be taking place in mid-November, there will be many more nations also involved from Africa and around the world. By the end of this month, the entire 32 nations set for the 2014 World Cup will have been determined, but until then we will get to witness some fantastic, high stakes soccer matches!
© Nicholas Spiller & Soccerphile.com