I know most of you readers live in the US, but I can't bring myself to call this game 'soccer'. I know to you the name 'football' refers to a game that doesn't really involves one's feet very much, but please bear with me on this one. I've tried to avoid mentioning the actual name of the game, but I apologize for my rude 'south-americaness' anyway.
This past week my home country team of Peru played a couple of World Cup qualification games against Venezuela and Argentina that got me into some kind of (very) early World Cup Fever. Back in Peru, the way people see the Peruvian national team could be summed up by saying that when we win we are the best team in the world and when we lose (which has been most of the time for the past years), we are the worst team in the world.
This past week we actually defeated Venezuela and tied with Argentina, which got us out of last place of South America and had all peruvian fans taking out their calculators to see who we had to beat in order to qualify. I may have started to do just that, but I'm not a huge fan of math. What I am, as you may know from my love of award shows, is a fan of prognostication. I started to ponder which 32 teams we are going to see play two years from now when Brazil hosts the World Cup in South America for the first time in 36 years.
Brazil, as host, is obviously automatically qualified (this is a good thing for peruvians, because it means Brazil's usual qualification spot is open). From what I've read about the brazilian state of mind regarding the world cup, it seems to be divided by those who claim they will absolutely win the cup no matter what and those who think Brazil will make a gigantic fool out of itself and lose terribly. This latter group, ailed by the memory of the loss to Uruguay back when they last hosted the cup in 1950, seems to be the majority.
It is true that after dominating the World Cup landscape for roughly ten years (winning in 94 and 02), Brazil didn't quite live up to expectations, which let's be honest, are always terribly high. Every four years Brazil are inevitable favorites for the win and right now almost the whole world is awaiting a final game where Brazil plays Spain for the cup. So let's take a look at the confederations one by one to see who'll qualify.
CONMEBOL (South America)
Brazil leaving the spot open means four teams qualify and the fifth-ranked team goes on to an international play-off agains an asian team. South American football is getting kind of crazy lately, so I'd say the only sure-thing for the qualification is Argentina. They've had a couple of lackluster years lately, but can you imagine a world cup without them? The other usual suspects are Uruguay (who placed fourth at the last cup but seem to be having some trouble lately) and Chile (who are also having some minor troubles, but seem poised for a qualification). For the fourth team I'm pretty confident in picking Colombia, who are playing some impressive football and have just beaten Chile and Uruguay at their own countries.
As good as Peru has been in the last two games and much as I'd like to see my country get some world cup action for the first time in decades, that fifth-place play-off spot seems to be going to Ecuador right now.
CONCACAF (North and Central America)
Here you have three qualifiers and a fourth team going to a play-off against the Oceania confederation winner. The big guys in this confederation are, obviously, Mexico. Despite being a recurrent world cup player and famously "footballistic" country, they have yet to win. You can also expect the United States to qualify. Right now the best bet for the last spot seems to be Panama. The fourth spot could go to Jamaica or Honduras.
For some reason, I guess because the Oceania confederation must be relatively new, Australia plays in this confederation. From what Wikipedia tells me, they aren't doing that well right now, but I expect to qualify anyway. The asian countries that you can absolutely count in for a qualification are Japan and South Korea. The favorite for the fourth place is Iran. The fifth spot gets to play the South American number five in the play-off and it will probably be Qatar, who seem to be stepping up their football for when they host the 2022 World Cup.
Africa gets five immediate qualifiers. Ivory Coast (with its international stars, although Drogba is in his thirties now) and Ghana (with an impressive 2010 run) are the safest bets for a confederation where it seems like anyone has a chance of getting through. I don't really now what to predict so I'll go with what the football history of the country tells me. I'll go with Senegal (who surprised the world in 2002), Nigeria (who surprised at the 1994 Cup) and Egypt (who have won the African Cup more than any other team).
There is really no question that it's going to be New Zealand that will play the CONCACAF number five at the play-offs.
And now, the big one. Europe gets thirteen countries to qualify. Let's get the big ones first. Spain is the big favorite to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1962, so count them in. Despite lackluster performances in previous cups (Italy, France) or lackluster performances at the European Cup (Netherlands) or just not being able to win (Germany) expect the following to go through: Germany, Italy, Portugal, Netherlands, France, and England.
That leaves seven spots. The UEFA qualification takes place in groups of about six teams, so let's take a look at who has the biggest chance in the teams where the big teams aren't present. [goes off to look at Wikipedia] Ok, it seems like Croatia and Switzerland have a nice chance of getting in. And, surprisingly to me, so does Bosnia and Herzegovina who are doing pretty well and didn't reach the 2010 only because they didn't beat Portugal at the play-offs in a very tight game. From the other probable qualifiers, I'd say Russia (who somehow didn't get off the group stage at the Euro2012 despite playing very well), Sweden and Greece.
Whew, that was a long one. Come back in roughly a year's time to see how I did predicting the qualifiers. And in two years, when the actual cup takes place to see me try to predict who'll win. Nothing is is sure about the outcome of sports, but I bet we'll all be sick of samba music by the time the 2014 World Cup is over.