Only twice before has a country been able to repeat as World Cup champions, with Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
If Italy are to pull off the rare achievement for the second time, they’ll have to start by navigating through a Group F that will feature three tricky ties.
Italy already know that New Zealand, pushovers as they may appear to be, are fully capable of giving them a game, after Italy needed to come back three times to beat an inspired New Zealand side in a pre-Confederations Cup friendly in South Africa last June.
The biggest threats, however, will come from Paraguay and Slovakia, both of whom were very, very impressive in qualifying and will give Italy anything but an easy passage into the knockout rounds.
And if Italy’s own qualifying campaign is any indication, their run to a repeat at the 2010 World Cup could be filled with just as many tight, nervy encounters as their thrilling run to glory four years ago in Germany.
Road to Qualification: 1st in UEFA Group 8 (7W-3D-0L – automatic qualifier)
The reigning world champions weren’t handed a draw as easy as the Netherlands, as they did have one serious challenger in Ireland, but even the Irish wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace in the long haul, as Marcelo Lippi’s side coasted to a chance to defend their crown.
There weren’t any dominant 5-0 wins on Italy’s slate, and they did things the hard way in almost all of their matches. A late winner and an Alberto Gilardino-inspired comeback were needed in their two wins over Cyprus, two second-half own goals (ironically by an Italy-based player in AC Milan’s Kakha Kaladze) saved them in a 2-0 away win vs. Georgia, and a last-minute Gilardino equalizer earned them a 2-2 draw in Ireland.
Add to a win turned draw on home soil vs. Ireland and a few other closer-than-expected wins, and it might have made for hard watching for Italy supporters. But in the end, it’s about getting the results and not looking pretty, and Italy got positive results every time out. Ireland would wind up finishing unbeaten as well, but their rash of draws over the final half of qualifying saw them drop off, as Italy went on to win the group with six points.
New Zealand (OFC)
Road to Qualification: Won 2008 OFC Nations Cup (5W-0D-1L), def. Bahrain 1-0 on agg. in OFC/AFC playoff
Turns out Australia’s move to the Asian group worked out fantastically for both sides, didn’t it? Not only did Australia book their ticket to South Africa, but they’ll be joined by their geographical neighbors. Without Australia, the Oceanic group was severely weakened, but it also opened up the way for New Zealand to play their way into the World Cup.
The easy part for New Zealand was advancing to the Oceania/Asia playoff, which they did by dominating the 2008 OFC Nations Cup, a home and away round-robin tournament. Led by Shane Smeltz’s eight goals, New Zealand won their first five matches, and a 2-0 loss in their final match, a rescheduled tie in November 2008 against Fiji, meant nothing, as their advancement had been assured with a 3-1 win in New Caledonia two months prior.
In the OFC/AFC playoff, New Zealand faced Bahrain, who had defeated Saudi Arabia in a playoff between the two third-placed sides in the final round of Asian qualifying. In the first leg in Bahrain, New Zealand held on for a 0-0 draw, putting themselves in a great position for the return leg at home. In the second leg in Wellington, striker Rory Fallon scored the decisive goal late in the first half, sending New Zealand to their first World Cup since Spain 1982.
Road to Qualification: 3rd in CONMEBOL qualification tournament (10W-3D-5L – automatic qualifier)
Paraguay qualified for their fourth World Cup in a row, thanks to being able to a fast start, being able to earn wins against the top teams, and avoiding many unnecessarily slipups along the way.
Paraguay picked up wins against all four of CONMEBOL’s other World Cup qualifiers, beating Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina at home, and they scored a resounding 3-0 away win over Chile.
Paraguay started fast in qualifying, winning six and drawing two in their first nine matches, which included their wins over Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil. That afforded them a little margin for error to coast to the finish, and even though they won only four of their last nine matches (lost four, drew one), they finished only one point behind table topper Brazil and nine ahead of fifth-place finisher Uruguay, who qualified for South Africa via the CONMEBOL/CONCACAF playoff.
Road to Qualification: 1st in UEFA Group 3 (7W-1D-2L – automatic qualifier)
Slovakia are one of the World Cup first-timers, and they certainly earned it, finishing top of a group that included the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Slovenia. Slovenia would have their number, winning both head-to-head matchups, but in between their two defeats to Slovenia, Slovakia did what even the Czech Republic couldn’t do and emerged as the team to beat.
Two turning points for Slovakia came at home against Poland in their fourth match, when they overcame a late 1-0 deficit with two goals in two minutes by Stanislav Sestak, and then away to the Czech Republic in their next qualifier, in which an 82nd minute winner by Erik Jendrisek earned Slovakia a 2-1 win and put them on 12 points through five matches.
From there, they put distance between themselves and the chasing pack by earning results against both the Czech Republic (a 2-2 home draw) and Northern Ireland (a 2-0 away win). A 2-0 home defeat to Slovenia in their next to last match opened the door for Slovenia to take top spot and an automatic World Cup place. But thanks to a Seweryn Gancarczyk own goal, Slovakia scored a 1-0 win in Poland in their final match, rendering Slovenia’s 3-0 win in San Marino irrelevant.
Back to 2010 World Cup Qualification History.