Highlights of World Cup 2010 Qualification: March 28 – April 2, 2009

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With the conclusion of FIFA World Cup 2010 qualifiers yesterday we move one step closer to determining which thirty-one other countries will be joining host South Africa to contest for the globe’s biggest sporting honor. A slew of matches across the world at all time zones really reinforces that no sport can dare rival football for supremacy in popularity but also, unfortunately, in tragedy.

That point was underscored by the tragic deaths of 22 fans in Cote D’Ivoire as a result of a stampede. Their memories were honored in midweek qualifiers where a minute of silence was taken before kick-off. Organizers from South Africa had to reassure fans and FIFA that no such repeat would happen at the World Cup Finals. While there was a measure of somber from this news, there was plenty of interesting takes on the matches over the past five days.

CONMEBOL: Argentina crash out to Bolivia, and Ecuador’s new hero

With the score being flashed on television as Bolivia 6 Argentina 1, you couldn’t blame a fan for thinking the television networks, be it Sky Sports or ESPN, reversed the order of names as an April Fool’s joke. But since the match was played in La Paz, or what some neighboring countries in South America equate as to playing in heaven’s basement, the score seemed to make some sense.

So much for the vociferous support by Diego Maradona for Bolivia’s right to play matches in the high altitudes of La Paz in the face of FIFA’s suggestion against having matches played in high altitude venues. Even “el Pibe” must have been biting his tongue as he dramatically declared each of the goals scored against Argentina in their 6-1 humbling at the hands of Bolivia and Joaquin Botero (who had three) was “a stab in the heart.” For Argentines the memories of that 5-0 loss back in 1993 against Colombia must have flooded back. The honeymoon period with Diego Maradona is officially over. Argentina remain fourth on 19 points, a precarious position as they sit only two points ahead of their nearest rivals, Uruguay, and two points ahead of automatic qualification.

Another highlight this round of qualifiers was Cristian Noboa of Ecuador, a “super sub” of sorts as he came on to salvage a point by scoring the equalizer against Brasil on Sunday and repeated the feat against leaders Paraguay. At this rate, Ecuador may want to contemplate starting the man as they, along with Colombia, sit only 3 points off fifth place Uruguay.

UEFA: Surprise Package Northern Ireland and Undefeated Spain

When the draw for Group Three was made, Northern Ireland supporters must have concluded that the “luck of the Irish” might have applied only to the Republic of Ireland. Drawn with Euro 2008 participants Poland and the Czech Republic, the chances were even more marginalized (at least on paper) by the presence of Slovenia and Slovakia. Well, seven matches later, Nigel Worthington’s men sit atop of the group after some brave performances along with a little luck, courtesy of an Artur Boruc howler. Granted that second place Slovakia have two matches in hand whilst Poland and the Czech Republic each have one match in hand, Northern Ireland’s chances of returning to the World Cup after a 24 year absence are vastly improved.

Spain has justified their number one status in FIFA’s controversial ranking system with an emphatic away win over Türkiye at the Ali Sami Yen stadium. Despite the hype surrounding the deadly strike force duo of Fernando Torres and David Villa, it was Spain’s more unsung heroes that carried the day; Gerard Pique’s goal in Madrid and Alberto Riera snatching the winner late in Istanbul. Riera’s performances, for both Spain and Liverpool of late, are raising his stock and he certainly made his intentions clear by nearly scoring a rifling shot early in yesterday’s match. For two countries whose football are dominated by two clubs, (FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe for Türkiye), Villareal managed to have a sizeable representation on the pitch with Marcos Senna, Santi Cazorla, Fernando Llorente, Joan Capdevila and Türkiye’s Nihat Kahveci. That may be somewhat reassuring for fans of the “Yellow Submarine” when they take on Arsenal in a week’s time.

More troubling for Türkiye has been the ascendancy of Bosnia-Hercegovina, who quietly dispensed with Belgium in both matches and sit second on 12 points, four ahead of Türkiye. Fatih Terim has his work cut out for him as four matches remain. Spain have still yet to lose and are undefeated in their last 31 international matches. More and more Spain are demonstrating again how they were duly crowned Euro 2008 champions.

AFC: Australia move closer and tensions between North and South Korea

Australia’s inclusion into the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 has paid off dividends nicely as they sit in a comfortable position to qualify for their second consecutive World Cup appearance. While they and Japan will ultimately duel as to who will end up first or second in Group A, everything else appears to be decided as Bahrain can only hope to qualify via the back door. The same cannot be said of Group B where first to third position is separated by a mere one point.

The political climate on the Korean peninsula has been dodged by speculation as to whether North Korea is preparing to test an ICBM or simply launching a satellite and recent tensions never fail to affect any meeting between South and North Korea in sporting matters. The two countries met in Seoul on Wednesday and despite the presence of Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung and veteran left-back Lee Young Pyo, South Korea could manage only to score off a Kim Chi Woo free-kick that weaved past numerous North Korean defenders and into the net. The fireworks came after when North Korean coach, Kim Jong Hoon, fired his own ICBM at a post-match press conference blaming intentional food poisoning by the South having taken its toll on talisman Jong Tae-se and his keeper.

One wouldn’t have guessed seeing how Jong nearly scored the opening goal off a header that was scooped out by a sprawling and somewhat overweight South Korean keeper, Lee Woon Jae. South Korea sit atop of Group B on 11 points with a match in hand, North Korea lie in second place on 10 points and a rejuvenated Saudi Arabia on 10 points but third on goal difference.

The other story was Saudi Arabia’s late win over Iran in Tehran on the weekend that ended in the dismissal of Iran’s coach, Ali Daei. Iran are looking to making themselves relevant again in this group but face an uphill road to qualification.

CONCACAF: Mexico loses again and Sven on the cutting board; US recovers

Prior to Mexico’s match against Costa Rica on the weekend, the buzz in Mexico was Shaktar Donetsk’s Nery Castillo’s tirade against the Mexican media in what must have been a very tense press conference. Perhaps feeling the pressures of having lost to the United States in Columbus, Ohio and still searching for virgin points, Castillo gave the Mexican media a piece of his mind.

A 2-0 win over los ticos in the Azteca Stadium along with the fans’ chanting “Nery” gave former England coach Sven Göran Erikson some breathing room and Mexico its first three points. On that same night, leaders United States were in San Salvador to take on a team that had not scored against the Americans since 1997: El Salvador. Before the Americans could recompose themselves in the midst of a raucous stadium, former DC United player Eliseo Quintanilla had ended la selecta’s drought by scoring and a second was added by promising youngster Cristian Castillo. Unfortunately for El Salvador, who have not appeared in a World Cup since 1982, three points dwindled down to a solitary point as Jozy Alitodore and Franky Hejduk salvaged a point and some pride after the Americans had looked somewhat lost during a good portion of the match.

The real United States showed up to dispense with Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday, but the bigger story was Mexico’s self destruction against Honduras and the continuation of Mexico’s woes in their qualification bid. Carlos Costly’s two goals may be the proverbial needle that breaks the back of the Mexican FA and their relationship with Sven Göran Erikson. With only three matches played, there is still a long way to go for CONCACAF until the dust settles and when it does only the top three advance with the fourth place team having to take on CONMEBOL’s fifth place team. Mexico currently occupies that fourth position on three points with El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago on two points each. With the prospect of having to face potentially a dangerous Uruguay side (that did away with Paraguay on Saturday), or with the way fortunes are turning out, Argentina, Mexico has all the incentive to find their winning ways.

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