The dream of making it to Brazil for next year’s World Cup has already come to an end for the majority of the 207 teams who entered the qualification process but, with a series of crucial matches taking place in all four corners of the globe over the next few days, it is crunch time for those who remain.
Going into today’s qualifiers, four teams representing the Asian Confederation – Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea – have already booked their places along with the hosts, with 87 other nations still battling it out for the remaining 27 spots.
Jordan and Uzbekistan drew 1-1 in Amman and will meet again in Tashkent for the second leg on Tuesday to determine who will play off against the fifth-placed side from South America. That looks increasingly like being a straight battle between 2010 semi-finalists Uruguay and Venezuela, who traditionally are seen as the continent’s makeweights as the only country in Conmebol never to have reached a World Cup finals.
Their meeting with Chile at the National Stadium in Santiago last night was surrounded in controversy owing to a protest organised by Amnesty International to mark the 40th anniversary of the country’s military coup. Using the hashtag #goldesilencio on Twitter, supporters had been encouraged not celebrate their first goal in memory of thousands who were tortured 40 years ago at the match’s venue.
Chile are in a good position to make it to their second successive World Cup finals, having lost to Brazil in the last 16 in South Africa, while Colombia, Equador and Argentina are the other likely automatic qualifiers.
After Ghana beat Zambia 2-1 to join Ivory Coast, Egypt and Algeria in the two-legged final play-off round for the five available places, Africa’s road to Rio comes to a crescendo on Saturday. There’s a three-way fight for one spot in Group A as Ethiopia face eliminated Central African Republic in Congo knowing that a victory on neutral soil will guarantee they go through.
Ethiopia had thought they were already in the hat but were stripped of their earlier victory over Botswana for fielding an ineligible player, meaning the winners of the match between Botswana and South Africa could still sneak in through the back door. In Ouagadougou, the African Nations Cup finalists Burkina Faso must beat Gabon and hope Congo slip up against Niger, while reigning continental champions Nigeria just need a home draw against Malawi to progress.
Tunisia also have a apparently straightforward task against Cape Verde in Rades tonight, with 2002 World Cup quarter-finalists Senegal in a similar position as they take on Uganda in Marrakesh.
The Moroccan city has been chosen to host the match after Senegal were banned from playing on home soil following riots after a qualifier against Ivory Coast in Dakar last year, with Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, even offering to help pay for some of his country’s fans to travel to see if the Cranes can spring a major surprise.
Elsewhere, New Zealand will be watching events in Mexico City and Panama City with interest. Already confirmed as the winners of the Oceania group, they must play off against the fourth-placed side from the Concacaf confederation, with Panama, Honduras and Mexico their most likely opponents.
The latter two were due to meet in the early hours of Saturday morning, with Panama facing Jamaica knowing a victory would vastly increase their prospects of a debut World Cup appearance. The United States and Costa Rica also met in San Jose last night but both are heavy favourites to qualify.
The real drama comes on Tuesday night when Mexico travel to Columbus to face the US with the prospect of missing out altogether. Not since they were banned from Italia ’90 for using overage players in a junior tournament have El Tri failed to qualify for a World Cup, yet four goalless draws in their six completed matches so far are an indication of their problems.