Posted October 14, 2013

Can Iceland make World Cup history?; flaws in qualifying system; more WC storylines

2014 World Cup, World Cup qualifying
Can Iceland miraculously become the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup?

Can Iceland become the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup? (Peter Schneider/Keystone/AP)

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.

Gallery: Countries who have clinched 2014 World Cup berths

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.

Edin Dzeko (11) and Bosnia's high-powered offense has it on the cusp of its first World Cup berth.

Edin Dzeko (11) and Bosnia’s high-powered offense has it on the cusp of its first World Cup berth. (Amel Emric/AP)

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.

WILSON: Four countries approaching their first World Cup berths

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.

WAHL: American Pharaoh: Ex-U.S. coach Bob Bradley has Egypt on the brink of the World Cup


All arguments aside, the idea that CONCACAF is over-represented because of the *number* of places is just bad research.  CONCACAF has 41 member nations, and with 3.5 places, that's 0.085 spots per team.  Put another way, each 11.7 teams in CONCACAF provide one representative to the WC.  

In CAF, the numbers are 0.096 places per member nation, or one spot for every 10.4 teams.  

The idea that CAF deserves one of CONCACAF's spots might be arguable *qualitatively*, but quantitatively, most of y'all have got it backwards.  


I fully agree. Concacaf has too many places, and CAF too few.
It's really, really hard to classify in Africa, and too easy for Mexico even fail after fail. And in they final phase Africans use to be better.
I would propose: Europe 12.5; Africa 6.5; Asia 4.5; South America 4.5; North America 2.5 and Oceania 0.5. The play-offs being Europe-Africa, Asia-Oceania and North-South America.
One direct place would go from North America to Africa, and one of europeans places should be disputed with an African team too.


African qualifying is very unforgiving.  Not only do you have to win your group but you also have to win a playoff.  Africa may want to consider the European model where group winners qualify automatically and save the playoff for 2nd place teams.  Tough pill to swallow for an undefeated team like Egypt in group play not qualify. 

Jesus Hitler
Jesus Hitler

Asia always gets a free pass in these discussions.  2002 was the only time these teams accomplished anything, and that was on home field with considerable help from the officials.  For the most part, the lowest-seeded Asian team at the tournament is outright terrible.

People make a logical error in jumping from the idea the "CONCACAF qualifying is forgiving" (very true) to "CONCACAF deserves fewer spots".  This really doesn't stand scrutiny.  How many spots a region deserves should be based SOLELY on performance at tournaments.  We have consistently put at 2 of our 3 teams into the knockout rounds, and the lowest seeded team has rarely embarrassed itself (see Saudia Arabia losing 8-0, etc).


3 spots is all CONCACAF needs.  That extra wildcard spot is unnecessary...


I agree that we (CONCACAF) have one too many spots.  But I'm glad we do.  LOL


I wish someone had a statistical study on why the regions have the number of bids they have.  I've tried slicing and dicing the FIFA rankings and points a handful of ways (yes, they're flawed, but at least rooted in history of performance) and keep coming to similar answers. 

Based on results, there's little difference between CONCACAF and the AFC.  If anything, the AFC is more over-represented at this point. CAF may be under-represented, but it's also hard to argue that CONMEBOL isn't as well.  

Pick the match-ups between comparably ranked CONCACAF and the AFC (world ranks in parens).  US (13) / Japan (42) at #1 in each,  Honduras (40) / South Korea (58) at 5, DR (87) / Iraq (105) at 10, Grenada (119) / Tajikistan (117) at 15, St. Lucia (137) / Thailand (139) at 20.  But the AFC gets 4.5 bids compared to 3.5 for CONCACAF.  I'm not sure where the complaining comes in here.

CONCACAF's qualification process makes it very easy for the better teams that make the last two rounds, but I don't see the problem with the number of teams.

If I'm money-loving, intrigue-wanting FIFA, I'd  say give UEFA 13, CAF 4, CONCACAF 3, CONMEBOL 5, OFC 0 and AFC 3 (that's 28) plus a host makes 29. Then, match CAF #5 vs. CONCACAF #4, CAF #6 vs. OFC #1, CONMEBOL #5 vs. AFC #4.  If the host comes from a region with a play-off team, I'd substitute them with UEFA #14.

In this year, CONMEBOL would get a guaranteed 6 (compared to the current 5 including Brazil plus a playoff) but their play-off spot would go to a European team.  In most WCs, Europe gets a shot at an extra spot, which seems about right..


Hold it a minute - do you really think the 6th best African nation could beat Panama or Mexico in a home-and-home fixture?  While the top African squads are of undeniable quality, that quality falls off dramatically beyond #2 or #3.  No one thinks you're a racist, so there's no need to bow to Political Correctness by making this suggestion.

I believe that Europe has by far the greatest number of quality soccer nations, and if any continent deserves a shot at an additional World Cup participant, it's that one.


@Jesus Hitler Yes, the lowest seeded Asian team is generally terrible (Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China). But nobody is advocating giving a CONCACAF spot to Asia, but rather to Africa.

CONCACAF also doesn't generally perform to that high of a standard either.

1998: 1 of 3 survived group stage

2002: 2 of 3 

2006: 1 of 4 (and Mexico had a pupu platter group that year, to boot)

2010: 2 of 3

Take away Mexico, and those numbers are atrocious. 


@positivewins I agree with you, I'd not give yet another spot to Africa. African teams always have two or three teams which are eliminated in the group stage without beating anyone. I'd take that half spot for North America and give it to Europe. So the nine second placed teams would go to the playoffs: eight among them, one against New Zealand.


@positivewins Yes, I think the 6th best African team is better than the 4th best CONCACAF team. CAF's main problem is that its far too short qualifying process means that the best 5 teams rarely qualify, and so it's hard to figure exactly who the 6th best team is. But I can't see how a team like Egypt, or a team like Senegal with players like Mohamed Diamé, Moussa Sow, and Papiss Cissé, isn't better than a team like Panama.

I do agree with you on Europe, but they've already got so many it's hard to feel much sympathy for them.


@positivewins The issue is that UEFA already has a high number of spots. AND there already is a Euro Cup which is highly prestigious to evaluate European football. I think it would be a disservice to turn the World Cup into a closer replication of the Euro Cup.

Other regions of the globe are steadily gaining on the European nations, just look at the improvement in many African nations and Asian nations.

Jesus Hitler
Jesus Hitler

@pablomiguez115 @positivewins Agreed.  This is a fashionable yet unsupportable argument.  People like to think of Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria as being common in Africa.  They aren't.  Angola and Togo were among the most worthless teams ever at a World Cup.  South Africa couldn't get out of a mediocre group on home soil.  5 spots is plenty.


@M20 @positivewins  

African teams have improved in the last decade....  but I still have a hard time believing their 6th best could beat  the current Panama team on a home to home scheduling.  Just my opinion.