SA passes first big WC test


Fifa General Secretary Jerome Valcke conducted proceedings as former players, association presidents, celebrities from across the globe and the world’s football press looked on in earnest to see which teams the stage assistants George Weah, Ali Daei, Marcel Desailly, Kasey Keller, Kaizer Motaung, Abedi Pele, Doreen Nabwire, Jomo Sono, Lucas Radebe and Christian Karembeu would pull out of the pots and into the respective qualifying pools.

Some of the national coaches present at the International Convention Centre will know their teams must negotiate testing groups in order to progress to the 19th edition of the Fifa World Cup.

Among them are Croatia, England and Ukraine, who will compete against one another in the European Zone’s Group 6, and Group 1 rivals Portugal, Sweden and Denmark.

Interestingly, the Swedes and the Danes have locked horns 100 times in senior internationals but never in a Fifa World Cup qualifier.

Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland will hope to provide reigning world champions Italy with a serious challenge, while Germany 2006 runners-up France will take on Romania and Serbia in their section.

England delegates looked shocked when the fates conspired to land them in the same European qualifying group again as Croatia. Only four days earlier, Croatia had caused a huge embarrassment by stopping England’s expected progress to the Euro 2008 finals with a shock 3-2 victory at a rain-drenched Wembley.

There were gasps from the audience when the AFC Zone pitted Australia, who narrowly missed out on a quarter-final place at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, against Iraq, the reigning Asian champions, and China PR, who participated in the 2002 finals.

Qatar, who have played Iraq five times in Fifa World Cup qualifiers (with two wins apiece and one draw), completed the pool, from which two teams will advance to the concluding stage of Asian qualifying.

South Africa, whose place at the tournament is already assured, will meet no less a power than Nigeria in Group 4, while Senegal and Algeria will face each other in an intriguing-looking Group 6.

Of the teams in the CONCACAF region, Canada were handed the stiffest Stage 2 challenge in the form of St Vincent and the Grenadines, whom they have never played but who impressed during the qualifying rounds for the 2002 finals.

Perhaps the most intriguing development was how the Stage 4 groups will appear if the favourites avoid upsets. Indeed, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and Honduras could do battle for two places in the deciding phase, while USA, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba and Guatemala may have to do the same.

In the Asian Zone, Korea Republic and Korea DPR will clash, with the latter looking to reverse two unanswered losses to their neighbours in Fifa World Cup preliminaries.

Kuwait will also be out to upset a trend: in six qualifiers for the competition against Iran they have failed to win.

Over in Europe, Czech Republic and Slovakia, the two sides that formerly made up two-time FIFA World Cup finalists Czechoslovakia, will face off, and memories are bound to resurface when Scotland take on Netherlands, whom they beat 3-2 in a memorable match at Argentina in the 1978 World Cup.

World champions Italy look sure to dominate a group in which only Bulgaria and Ireland should provide meaningful opposition and European champions Greece were exuberant at getting nothing harder in their section than Israel and Switzerland.