Yesterday, we saw 53 European World Cup hopefuls get cut down to just 17. Nine teams—Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Switzerland, Bosnia, and Russia—advanced to next year's tournament in Brazil. There are still four spots up for grabs, to be fought for among the next eight best European nations. And now the fun starts.
That's because UEFA is the strongest and deepest soccer confederation by a long shot, and they're keeping the qualifying in house. While Mexico from CONCACAF and CONMEBOL's Uruguay will take part in playoffs against weak teams from other regions (New Zealand and Jordan, respectively), the Europeans don't have it so easy.
First, a refresher. UEFA's 53 competing teams were split into nine groups (eight of six teams, and one of five). Every team played everyone else in their group twice. When qualifying ended yesterday, the nine group winners had booked their tickets to the Brazil. Of the nine group runners-up, the eight best are set to compete in four separate two-legged playoffs to cut the 17 teams down to the 13-nation contingent that will represent UEFA in the World Cup. Denmark had the lowest point total of the nine second-place finishers, and they were eliminated from contention.
Remember those monthly FIFA rankings? It was a good index of where teams, such as the USMNT, stood relative to the rest of the world. But unless a country was on track to finish qualifying in the top eight in the world and be seeded in the World Cup, there wasn't much reason to pay the rankings any mind. Now, though, they matter. Because of UEFA's eight playoff teams—France, Portugal, Sweden, Greece, Ukraine, Iceland, Romania, and Croatia— the four teams with the highest FIFA rankings will be drawn against the other four. We'll get official word tomorrow, but all signs point to Croatia, Portugal, Greece, and Ukraine being revealed as the four playoff teams with the highest FIFA rankings. They'll avoid each other, and instead be drawn against France, Sweden, Iceland and Romania. It's going to get nasty.
What's vital here is that FIFA rankings take results over the last four years into account. For instance, though Croatia had the lowest point total of the playoff teams remaining, they've performed well over the last four years, and were seeded for the draw. Over the last four years, France have been wildly inconsistent when they're not consistently poor. They've had a recent resurgence, losing only once to in their group to defending World Cup champions Spain and boasting the second-highest point total among the playoff teams in qualifying, behind Greece. But because of their past form, they're unseeded. This means that even though they're an extremely strong team, maybe even the strongest of the eight sides remaining, there's potential they could get screwed by drawing, say, Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal.
Other strong teams are certain to match up against each other. Romania, for example lost only three times in their group, but two of those were heavy losses to the Netherlands, who are dealing everyone heavy losses right now. Sweden drew against Brazil favorites Germany last year, and were up 2-0 on Germany just yesterday before collapsing and losing, 5-3. There's not much separating any of these teams from Greece or Ukraine, who only lost once each in the 10-game group stage.
There's simply too much talent in the UEFA playoffs not to see two powers drawn against each other. And because there's so much talent and so much at stake, we're bound to see heartbreak. Remember this?
Although all of these teams are good, and a few can even count themselves among the best in the world, four hopeful nations will be watching the World Cup next summer from the comfort of their own homes. The draw is on Monday, which is when we find out the deciding matchups. The two legs will be played on Nov. 15 and 19.
Photo: Associated Press