Just because the Confederations Cup was billed as a dress rehearsal for next summer’s soccer World Cup doesn’t mean that it’s a preview of coming attractions for the hosts. “Nobody expected such an emphatic result, not against the world champions,” Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari conceded after his team’s 3-0 smothering of Spain last weekend inside Rio de Janeiro’s storied Estadio do Maracana. “But let’s not get carried away.”
Pele’s grandnephews also won the tournament among continental champions four years ago and ended up going out to the Dutch in the quarterfinals in the real Cup in 2010. This time, though, the Brazilians — Neymar, Fred, Jo, Hulk and the rest of their one-name companheiros — get to have the rest of the world drop by for the global festival of feet without having to qualify. Not so everyone who yearns to be on the 31-team guest list. Going into September’s stretch run only Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Australia have booked their Ipanema cabanas.
Most of the usual guests are well-positioned for return trips including the Americans, who lead their regional hexagonal by two points with four matches to go in the chase for three guaranteed tickets. “You couldn’t ask for a better situation,” reckons captain Clint Dempsey, whose teammates are coming off consecutive conquests of Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras and will meet the Hondurans again in the Gold Cup semifinals Wednesday in Dallas. “Nine points from three games, first place in the table, one win away from booking our ticket to the World Cup.”
That would make seven appearances in a row for the Yanks, who won their group ahead of England last time before going out to Ghana in overtime.
Among the planetary Bigfeet, only Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Spain can match that. All of them figure to be in the field when the groups are drawn in December but other familiar faces, notably England, France, Portugal, Mexico, and Uruguay have some legwork to do before then.
A look at the six continental races:
North/Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF): (three berths; fourth-place team faces New Zealand for another)/ 2010 qualifiers: USA, Honduras, Mexico.
While some of the marquee names from the Bradley Bunch are still in the lineup (Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Dempsey), coach Jurgen Klinsmann has reworked and refreshed the squad while keeping it competitive at the global level. Besides going unbeaten in their last 25 home qualifiers, the Americans have been stealing road points, winning three in Jamaica for the first time and drawing at Mexico. What’s left are road dates at Costa Rica and Panama and Stateside meetings with Mexico and Jamaica. One triumph anywhere will do it. Costa Rica, unscored upon in its San Jose cockpit in this round, has lost only to the US and is sitting comfortably. Not so the Mexicans, who have just a win and five ties on their résumé while managing only three goals and have played three scoreless draws at Estadio Azteca, where Los Tricolores once were invincible. They still should be able to grab the third spot, though, leaving Honduras and Panama to fight it out for the right to meet the Kiwis for the fourth one.
South America: (four berths plus host Brazil; fifth-place team faces Asian playoff winner for another)/2010 qualifiers: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay.
With the Brazilians in on a free pass, there’s a bonus invitation up for grabs. The four certain ones appear set. Argentina, which hasn’t missed the dance since 1970 and reached the last two quarterfinals, is three points clear with two matches left among bottom-feeders. Colombia, which hasn’t made it since 1998, is ensconced in second place after winning its last four at home, where Los Cafeteros haven’t given up a goal in 367 minutes, and drawing at Buenos Aires. Ecuador may not do much at sea level, where La Tri are winless, but they’re unbeaten in their high-altitude torture chamber in Quito. “To play here is very tough,” gasped Lionel Messi, whose Argentine teammates were happy with a deadlock there. While Ecuador plays three of its final four away, it already has piled up the points it needs. So, too, has Chile, thanks to a trio of road victories and a recent home resurgence. Not so Uruguay, which finished fourth in 2010 but has squandered half a dozen home points with draws. With a trip to Quito and rematches with Colombia and Argentina ahead, La Celeste will have to sweat to outpace Venezuela for the privilege of a trip to Amman or Tashkent.
Europe (13 berths; nine group winners plus four from playoffs between runners-up)/2010 qualifiers: Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland.
While several of last time’s guests likely won’t be back the perennial A-listers already can start packing. The Dutch, who reached the 2010 final, are rampaging through their group. The Germans are five points clear in theirs and the Italians, craving redemption after their worst-ever showing, are four points up after grabbing a point at Bulgaria. A few of the other heavyweights, though, have work to do. Spain, with two home draws already, is only a point ahead of France. England, which has been tied three times, is two points behind Montenegro with a game in hand and must travel to Ukraine. And the Portuguese, tied at home by Northern Ireland, could lose their group to the Russians, who’ve conceded only one goal in five matches. The Swiss, though, are looking good for a reprise. Bosnia-Herzegovina could make it for the first time. The Belgians, missing since 2002, figure to be back while the Greeks may need to win a playoff to stay in. The Danes, Serbs, Slovaks, and Slovenes, all of whom made it to South Africa, now are iffy at best. The best battle for second is between Austria, Sweden, and Ireland, which lost by five goals to Germany in Dublin but is unbeaten away from Eire.
Africa (five berths)/2010 qualifiers: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, South Africa (host).
There always are new faces coming out of this 52-country continent and this time they could be Ethiopia, Libya, or the Cape Verde Islands. The Indomitable Lions, who caught a break when their loss at last-place Togo was overturned after the hosts used an ineligible player, can reach the 10-team, final round by beating the Libyans at home. But they’ve taken an unnecessary tightrope walk. So have the Ethiopians, who forfeited their recent victory over Botswana for using a suspended player and now are up by only two points on South Africa going into their finale at the Central African Republic. Cape Verde, thanks to two forfeit victories over Equatorial Guinea, will advance by winning their finale at Tunisia. Egypt, which hasn’t qualified since 1990, has clinched its group as have Algeria and Ivory Coast. Ghana, Uncle Sam’s nemesis, needs only draw at home with Zambia to advance as does Nigeria with Malawi and Senegal with Uganda. Duking it out for the final spot are Congo, Gabon, and Burkina Faso.
Asia (four berths; playoff winner faces South America fifth-place finisher for another)/2010 qualifiers: Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea.
While the South Koreans qualified for the eighth straight time, they did it by goal differential over Uzbekistan, which gave up an own goal in Seoul. The Reds’ underperformance prompted the resignation of coach Choi Kanghee and the hiring of former captain Hong Myungbo. While the Aussies and Japanese earned their expected return tickets, the Iranians did it the hard way by upsetting the Koreans in Ulsan. Neither the Uzbeks nor the Jordanians ever has made the planetary list but one of them will at least get one trip to South America.
Oceana (winner faces CONCACAF fourth-place finisher for one berth)/2010 qualifier: New Zealand.
Nobody racked up as many miles to get this far as did New Zealand, which played at New Caledonia, Tahiti, and the Solomon Islands. The Kiwis made the most of their Cup visit last time, drawing with their three opponents, including Italy. This time they’ll likely have to go to Central America for their home-and-home playoff. If they win, they might as well stick around and take a bus to Rio.John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.