The Uruguayans, who live next door, got there by way of Jordan, which is the global version of going from Dorchester to Southie by way of Brockton. The Mexicans made it by going through New Zealand, the Croatians via Iceland, the French via Ukraine. The Americans hopscotched among Mexico City, Guatemala City, and Panama City. But all of them ended up with reservations to Brazil for next summer’s World Cup soccer tournament, whose 32-team field will be drawn Friday morning in the beach resort of Costa do Sauipe.
“We will hope for the best but it’s like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates,” mused England manager Roy Hodgson, whose side is unseeded for the first time since 2002. “We will open it up and see what we get, then try and digest it.”
More than a few of the hopefuls may end up with dyspepsia thanks to FIFA’s complex ranking system that made for a random sampler of seeds for Pot 1, with Uruguay, Switzerland, and Colombia tossed in with the hosts, defending champion Spain, traditional powers Germany and Argentina, and Belgium, while former titlists France, Italy, and 2010 runner-up Netherlands are lumped in with the rest of the European qualifiers.
Which means that instead of one Group of Death, there could be several this time. “It’s unbalanced now with that seeding procedure and it will cause a lot of question marks, a lot of discussion, and debate once the groups are finalized,” predicted US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “It is what it is, but I’m not very happy with it.”
The Americans, who are hoping to advance out of their group for the third time in the last four Cups, have been dealt some rough hands in the past. They drew the Germans for their 1998 opener. In 2002, it was Portugal and host South Korea. In 2006, they were thrown in with Italy, the Czech Republic, and Ghana. Yet even when they received a break last time they walked the high wire, coming from two goals down to Slovenia, and waiting until the 91st minute to beat Algeria.
The current squad is coming off a superb year in which it won more matches (16) than any of its predecessors, topped the Hexagonal, the regional qualifying group, for the third straight time while winning all five home matches, sweeping through the Gold Cup and knocking off the Germans in a friendly. “It’s great to see the players going for it,” said Klinsmann, who directed his Teutonic homeland when it hosted in 2006. “It’s great to see them having that hunger to say we want to be a special team and challenge bigger nations.”
The US likely will have no choice this time. Since it’s the top team in Pot 3, which includes the rest of North-Central America (Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras) plus Asia (Japan, Iran, South Korea, Australia), it probably won’t get to feast on a minnow. If the Americans are unlucky they could end up with a nightmare draw like Brazil, the Netherlands, and Ghana, which has expelled them from the last two Cups, the last one in overtime.
The Brazilians, who survived a Group of Death that last time included Portugal, Ivory Coast, and North Korea before going out to the Dutch in the quarterfinals, would much prefer an easier passage this time. That’s why Pele, their immortal icon who played for three Cup champions, declined the offer to help draw lots, which he’d done on several previous occasions. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable in picking out balls which are not favorable to Brazil,” he said.
The Brazilians, who were beaten for the title by Uruguay in 1950, the only other time they’ve hosted, are obsessed with winning their sixth title. “This World Cup is a dream for us and all Brazilians,” said captain Thiago Silva. “So we’re working to win it. I think about it every day.”
Their stadiums still may be works in progress — half of the 12 won’t be ready by FIFA’s year-end deadline — and Sao Paulo’s was damaged recently when a falling crane killed two workers, and won’t be ready until mid-April. But the Selecao, which wrecked Spain in the Confederations Cup final, has played demanding tuneups all year against the likes of England, Italy, Portugal, and Russia, and is in promising form. “I think we have a great chance,” reckoned manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. “We shall be competing at home and we have a great team, excellent players, and have our fans behind us.”
The Brazilians also are used to playing in a vast country with stadiums ranging from the ocean to the jungle, from Porto Alegre to Manaus. That will be a long-distance novelty for the Europeans, who’ve won none of the seven previous tournaments staged in the Americas. They’re accustomed to short-hop qualifiers on the Continent and they don’t play nearly as many of them (10 maximum) as do the North and South Americans.
While four of the European qualifiers — France, Greece, Portugal, and Croatia — had to log extra mileage for home-and-home playoffs, they didn’t amass anywhere near the frequent-flier points that Mexico and Uruguay did. Los Tricolores, who won just one of five final-round matches in their Azteca aerie, did a round trip of nearly 14,000 miles to Wellington to take on the Kiwis. And Uruguay, which finished fifth in its continental table even with Brazil not having to compete, logged more than 15,000 in their jaunt to Amman.
One way or another, all 32 entrants managed to earn tickets to this quadrennial festival of feet. Now all the organizers have to do is get the dance floors ready by June. “In every wedding that I attended the bride was late,” sports minister Aldo Rebelo observed this week. “I’ve never seen a bride arrive on time. But I’ve never seen a wedding not happen because of that.”