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October 16, 2009

Who’s in, who’s out and who still has everything to play for

Spain vs Belgium, 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifier, photo courtesy Vince Kmeron

With the majority of the final qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup having taken place on Wednesday October 14, 23 of the 32 available spots for next year’s event have been booked.

Surprisingly, among the list of those who will definitely not be coming to the mostly sunny but (a note of warning to everyone who thinks Africa is awash in suntan lotion and swimming attire 365 days of the year) chilly, at that time of year, South Africa, are perennial there-and-there abouters Sweden, 2002’s third-placed finishers Turkey, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Senegal and Colombia.

Among the 23 who have qualified are some familiar and expected flags with Brazil, Holland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, England, Paraguay (their fourth World Cup in a row) and the United States (their sixth World Cup in a row) taking up 10 of the places at next year’s football celebration.

Of the 13 remaining teams who are buying their travel guides and trying to work out how to pronounce “Baragwanath”, Ghana and the Ivory Coast join hosts South Africa from Africa; Honduras and Chile join from the Americas; Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia and Serbia make up the rest of the guaranteed European contingent; and Australia, Japan, North Korea and South Korea represent the Far East.

Uruguay or Costa Rica from the Americas will join the 23 above, while it’s between Bahrain and New Zealand for another of the coveted spots, leaving just seven available spots – four of which will be filled by countries from Europe with the remaining three coming from Africa.

And this is where it gets interesting. With eight teams battling it out in Europe and six in Africa for the remaining spots, what makes this particular set of final-round encounters so mouth-watering is the fact that it is by no means Muhammad Ali versus Steve Urkel.

Traditional African powerhouses Nigeria and Egypt head into their final qualifying fixture on November 14 knowing that even a win might not be enough to secure their place in next year’s finals. Nigeria trail Tunisia by two points, while Egypt are three points behind Algeria. As fate would have it, Egypt take on group leaders Algeria at home, while Nigeria will have to beat Kenya and hope that Tunisia falter away in Mozambique.

Meanwhile Cameroon can secure their place if they beat table bottomers Morocco away. A draw, however, combined with a win over Togo by the unfancied Gabon, will see them bow out of next year’s tournament.

For those who are more interested in what’s happening further north, on Monday October 19 the draw for the European play-offs takes place with France, Russia, Ireland and Portugal going into the hat with Greece, Ukraine, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. And while the former four names have more of a World Cup pedigree than the latter, let’s not forget that Greece stunned the footballing world in 2004 when they beat Portugal in the final of Euro 2004.

With the first leg set to take place on November 14, at the same time as the final round of African qualifiers, it’s all to play for.

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