Can Iceland make World Cup history?; flaws in qualifying system; more WC storylines
The final round of World Cup qualifiers is on Tuesday, and while 14 teams have already qualified, there is plenty of drama still to come as the race for a spot in Brazil heats up. Here are five storylines to look out for before this week’s matches.
Can Iceland make history?
Talk about upward mobility. At the start of this World Cup qualifying campaign, Iceland was seeded sixth out of six teams and ranked 121st in the world; now it is 37th and one win away from finishing second in Group E to earn a place in the playoffs. Given the seeding structure that gives the four highest-ranked teams an advantage in the playoffs, matching them against lower-ranked four, Iceland still has a way to go before becoming the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup. But the fact that that it’s still even a possibility is barely believable.
So, how did a handball-obsessed nation of under 325,000 – a quarter the population of Trinidad & Tobago, currently the smallest country to have competed at a World Cup – turn its fortunes around so quickly? After all, in Euro 2012 qualifying, it only won one match.
An investment from the Icelandic FA in 2000 helped, making available indoor facilities for young players and increasing the opportunities for coaches, which has led to a spike in numbers. So has a generation of players who have succeeded abroad, among them Gylfi Sigurdsson (Tottenham Hotspur), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff) and two Dutch-based strikers on the verge of big moves, Alfred Finnbogason (Heerenveen) and Kolbein Sigthorsson (Ajax).
On top of that, coach Lars Lagerback deserves great credit. He helped Sweden to qualify for five straight tournaments in the 2000s, but getting Iceland to the World Cup would top any of those achievements. Of course, with Sweden confirmed as a playoff side, depending on the seedings, it would be typical for Iceland to be pitted against Lagerback’s former team.
Big-name coaches will be circling
It seems strange to qualify for a World Cup and then decide to change your coach but that’s just what Australia has done after suffering back-to-back defeats to Brazil (0-6) and France (0-6). German coach Holgier Osieck was shown the door straight after Friday’s loss in France, and the team has been linked to two previous Socceroos coaches, Guus Hiddink and Terry Venables.
They are not the only two men who might be keeping next summer free in their diaries. The legendary Italian Giovanni Trapattoni and former Argentina and Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa are currently out of work and could give a team a short sharp shock, while 2006 World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, currently with Asian Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrande, said earlier this season that working in Australia might yet be an option.
“Australia is a beautiful, wonderful country. If the opportunity to coach here came up, yes, I would think about it,” he said. Australia may yet appoint a local coach, but you can be sure one or two teams will be making late coaching appointments as Brazil 2014 comes closer.
Spotlight on goalkeepers at Wembley
Beware the Polish goalkeeper at Wembley. Forty years ago, English coach Brian Clough famously called Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski “a clown” before Tomaszewski went on to make a string of impressive saves to stop England from qualifying for the 1974 World Cup (in the tournament itself, Poland came in third and Tomaszewski became the first man to save two penalties at a World Cup).
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, while all eyes will be on England’s under-pressure goalkeeper Joe Hart, you can’t help but wonder how the Poles continue to produce such good goalkeepers. Artur Boruc, Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Fabianski and Jan Mucha (Slovakian) all came through the same youth academy at Legia Warsaw, whose goalkeeping coach Krzysztof Dowhan once turned down an approach from Arsenal.
“Our keepers were the first to go abroad and have great careers,” Dowhan said. “You can see in Poland now that young kids running around in their shirts wanting to be goalkeepers like them.”
The same cannot be said in England. In the last round of Premier League matches nine days ago, only three English goalkeepers lined up in England; compare this to 15 in Spain and 14 in Italy and Germany.
Bosnia deserves its chance
The World Cup could see another debutant side if Bosnia & Herzegovina is able to beat Lithuania on Tuesday, and neutrals should be hoping it does. Only Germany (31) and Holland (32) have scored more goals in qualifying than Bosnia’s 29, and its commitment to attacking football has helped Edin Dzeko (10 goals) and Vedad Ibisevic (7 goals) become two of the top three scorers in European qualifying (only Robin van Persie has more with 11 goals).
The Dragons, as the team is known, lost in two playoffs to Portugal ahead of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. After a slight wobble against Slovakia last month, Bosnia got back on track with a 4-1 win over Liechtenstein on Friday.
Its best result was beating Greece 3-1 last March, marking just the fourth time in 10 years that Greece has conceded more than two goals in a competitive game. Coach Safet Susic, who has been voted as Bosnia’s (and PSG’s) all-time best player, is committed to attacking football and has promised more of the same in Kaunas on Tuesday.
“With the players I have, there is no choice. It’s the only way we can play,” he said. Compared to Greece, who has the same points but has scored ten goals in nine games, Bosnia would be a welcome addition to Brazil.
Is the qualifying campaign even fair?
U.S. fans may not like to hear it, but the fact that CONCACAF has an allocation of 3.5 teams at the World Cup is at least one too many. SI colleague Grant Wahl alluded to this fact earlier in the campaign when pointing out that Mexico, with one goal in its first four home games and just one win in its first eight, could still qualify for Brazil. The system, he said, “allows you to mess up again and again and again (as Mexico has during this Hex) and still have a chance of advancing to the Big Show in Brazil.”
Not only that, but the CONCACAF team that finishes fourth also has a great chance of qualifying for this World Cup. In previous tournaments, that team would face a playoff against South America’s fifth best side (this year likely to be Uruguay, a semifinalist in 2010). This time around, it plays Oceania’s top team, New Zealand, a much easier playoff.
So, to whom would I give CONCACAF’s extra place? Africa. The 52 countries that started the campaign are reduced to five, which seems way too low. Maybe I have not got over the African champions of 2006 and 2010, Egypt, failing to make the World Cup in those years — it was good enough to reach the later stages too — but, for me, one more African spot would greatly improve the tournament.