Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Final 32

Back in August I took a stab at trying to guess which teams would make it in to the final 32 that would qualify to travel to South Africa next year. At that time 5 teams had already qualified and there were 27 spots left to fill, and in the end I managed to correctly pick 19 of the teams that did manage to qualify, giving me an average of over 70% correct..! (If Yates had been on the ball, he could have gambled some money on my picks, and made a few dollars)

Of the teams that did not make it, the most disappointing result was in the qualifier between Northern Ireland & France. For a game of such magnitude with so much riding on it to be decided on such a blatant handball, clearly shows that something needs to be done to help referees get to the right decision on the night. Whilst I can understand that the introduction of video-technology has the potential to interrupt the flow of a football game, (stopping-and-starting the game), I think that the 10-15 seconds it would take for a TV referee to analyse goals & penalty claims, would have a minimal impact on a game. I mean the game stops for about 30 seconds after a goal or the award of a penalty anyway, so the disruption would be minimal, but the benefit to having games won fairly would be enormous. It's certainly something that could be considered.

Of the other surprises in this last stage of qualifying, Slovenia (ranked 33rd) beating Russia (ranked 13th) was a massive upset in terms of world football. Slovenia are a real European minnow with a population of only just over 2 million, compared to 140 million people in Russia. It was also good to see teams like Honduras, Algeria & especially New Zealand overcoming the odds to qualify, but I could have done without the Uruguayans sneaking in at the expense of Costa Rica.... Never mind...! There are some that say the World Cup is devalued by not having the top 32 strongest teams competing, but part of the magic of this tournament is the chance to see some of the smaller teams creating an upset against some of the world powers of Football. Just imagine New Zealand beating France or Portugal in the group stages, that would be something to see.... Next years tournament will have representatives from all of the 5 football confederations which indicates to me that WC2010 will be a global competition.

So now we have a couple of weeks before the final draw in Cape Town to mull over the possible combinations that we could end up with. The draw will be seeded with the top 7 teams, (based on FIFA rankings), plus South Africa, put in to Pot 1, and the remaining 8 European teams in Pot 2. The remaining 16 teams should be split along confederations lines, so here is how I see the pots working out: -

Pot 1 (seeded teams): Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Spain
Pot 2 (rest of UEFA): Denmark, Greece, Holland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland
Pot 3 (CAF + rest of CONMEBOL): Algeria, Cameroon, Chile, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Paraguay, Uruguay
Pot 4 (AFC + OFC + CONCACAF): Australia, Honduras, Japan, Korea DPR, Korea Republic, Mexico, New Zealand, USA

The draw will consist of a team being pulled from each of the pots to make up the 8 groups for the initial group stages of the World Cup.

From an England perspective, they will be a seeded team and I will keeping my fingers crossed that we don't get Holland or Portugal from pot 2, and maybe Ivory Coast from pot 3 or Australia in pot 4, (although I would not be too disappointed to see New Zealand in England's group just for the fun of it).

With the Australia, USA & New Zealand being in pot 4, it's all about which seeded team they get matched up with. There is a lot of hoping and praying going on in each of those countries that they get lucky and get drawn in the host nation, South Africa's group, as they are seen as the weakest of the seeded teams. I'm not sure whether this would be as good a result as some might think, the World Cup tends to give the host nation a bit of a boost. Looking back over the past 3 world cups, the host nation has made it to at least the semi-final on each occasion, so you never know....

My theory is that regardless of who gets drawn in any particular group, a team needs at least a win and a draw, (2 wins would be better), to have chance of progressing to the next round. This means that Australia, USA & New Zealand could potentially lose to the seeded team in their respective groups, and concentrate on beating the other 2 teams in their groups. Again, I wouldn't want to come up against either Holland or Portugal from pot 2, and I will predict that whichever group that Holland end up in will be known as the infamous 'Group of Death', so keep those fingers crossed. So therefore, from a Australia, USA & New Zealand perspective, a group with South Africa, Slovenia, & Chile would give them a pretty good chance... Again we will have to wait and see...

Finally, I would like to see any of England, Australia, USA & New Zealand drawn in group D as we currently have tickets for 2 matches in that group, but any group will do as long as we get a chance to see our favourite teams...

So keep them fingers crossed and your eyes focused on the draw coming up on December 4th in Cape Town... Less than 200 days to go...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

One Shot For Glory

This past weekend, Fiona & I travelled north to Wellington to support the New Zealand All Whites in their crucial 'do-or-die' World Cup Qualifying play-off match 2nd leg against Bahrain, and what a match it was....! The Kiwi's had it all to play for after managing to cling on for a 0-0 result in Bahrain, meaning that effectively only a win would do, (taking into account the away goals rule).

We arrived in Wellington on the Friday before the game, and even then there was a definite buzz about the city. The word had gone out that the team wanted all the fans to wear white to the match to create a virtual 'White-Out' in the stadium. We hunted down the shop selling the 'ALL WHITE on the Night' T-shirts, but they had already sold out of shirts, and we had to return after 5pm to get one of a new batch....

Saturday morning we wandered around the city watching the excitement build, with plenty of fans already in white filling up the bars and cafe's. We headed to Queens Wharf to watch the mini football tournament and grab a few pre-match beers, and even then the place was already packed with fans sporting all kinds of white costumes. Fiona & I played a game of 'spot the Premier League Football Shirts', (we saw 9 of the 20 team represented), among the myriad of NZ shirts and white boiler suits.

We had planned to head out towards the stadium at around 6pm and made the most of our early arrival to have a good look round the 'Cake Tin' as the Wellington Westpac Stadium is better known. The crowd was in high spirits as they began to fill the ground, lots of laughing at people dressed in white, or made up like Elvis and some even dressed as sheep. Just before kick-off the hero’s of the New Zealand 1982 World Cup campaign did a very well received lap of honour to the applause and cheers of the now full stands, especially when Winton Ruffer fell over.

As we got towards 8pm the atmosphere in the stadium started to crackle. Being a rugby obsessed nation, New Zealanders are not well known for their love of the 'Beautiful Game', but on this night there were over 35,000 Kiwi's that were fully behind their team and singing and shouting their hearts out. The boo's rang out when the Bahraini team came out on to the field, followed shortly after by a huge roar when the All Whites made their way out on to the pitch. After a respectful hush during the Bahraini national anthem, there followed by the best rendition of the Kiwi national anthem I have ever heard at any sporting event. And then it was game on....

The first 10 minutes were tense and nervous, especially for the All Whites who were taking their time to settle on the ball, with Bahrain having the lion share of the early possession, and even a few half-chances on goal. Mark Paston the kiwi goalkeeper made a few good saves early on, giving him a feel of the ball and staying solid behind the robust Kiwi defence. Midway through the 1st half the All White began to calm down a little more and started to play the ball out to the wings and make good progress down the field. Leo Bertos put in a few good crossed, and Fallon headed a sharp angled header that brought the best out of the Bahrain goal keeper.... Oooooh, so close. Coming towards the end of the half, New Zealand were well in command, and beginning to exert some real pressure. With a minute to go the Kiwi's got a corner that was taken by Bertos, who put in a great cross, straight to the head of Rory Fallon who rose highest to nail the ball into the back of the net. GGGGGOOOOOAAAALLLLLL....!

We could not believe it..... Half time and New Zealand were ahead with that most important of goals, and the cheering and chanted echoed around the whole ground. Because of the away goals rule, we knew that a one goal lead was vary precarious , and that the Bahraini team only needed to score just a single goal and they would qualify. Our fingers were very tightly crossed....

The second half got underway and the Kiwi team started very defensively, obviously that slender one goal lead must have been weighing on their collective minds. No sooner had the half started than Tony Lockhead put in a rash and clumsy challenge in the box..... PENALTY...!!! I could not believe it...., we had been so close, and now I sat with my head in my hands almost unable to watch.... And then the most remarkable thing happened...., Paston saved the penalty...!! UNBELIEVEABLE...... If the roar for the goal had been loud enough to hear all across Wellington, the roar the emanated from the penalty save must have been heard in Australia and beyond... Amazing..!!

The rest of the 2nd half went by so slowly for me, I could not stop looking at my watch and thinking that the All White were now only 'x' minutes away from the World Cup Finals. But deep inside me something had changed after the penalty save, I just had the feeling that New Zealand could not lose now, they could not throw it away after everything that had happened, and that "nothing could go wrong now", (although I kept that thought to myself). The Bahraini's were now having to throw more players forward and leaving gaps at the back. New Zealand were still controlling the game, and even had at least 2 more great chances to put the game beyond reach. 15 minutes to go, 10 minutes to go, and then 5 minutes to go, and we were still just hanging in there. The 4th official held the extra time board up showing just 3 minutes of extra time, which seemed to take forever to pass. The Bahraini's had a last gasp free kick on the edge of the area that went though the crowd of players and ended up in Pastons hands, but before he had a chance to pass the ball out, the referee finally blew his whistle for full time.


The built-up tension that everybody had been feeling was finally released in an emotional roar and the atmosphere in the stadium was unbelievable. The players were collapsed in a big heap and the coaching staff were running and jumping and punching the air. I don't think we could all quite believe what we had witnessed but that wasn't going to stop us chanting and singing while that belief sunk in. Fiona & I stayed in our seats while the team did a couple of laps-of-honour, and cheered each and every player out there. Finally we started to make our way out of the 'Cake-Tin' with many thousands and thousands of other joyous fans, singing and chanting our way back into town. “ALL WHITES...clap, clap, clap... ALL WHITES...clap, clap, clap “

It took ages to get out of the stadium, and at around 11:30pm we found somewhere to eat, and sat down exhaustedly. We swapped txt messages with friends and well-wishers from all round the world, and greedily wolfed down a pizza before heading back towards our hotel. The crowds were out in force in town, with cars hooting their horns and flying NZ flags as the moved around the city. We went to a bar near our hotel and after a few beers, being both emotionally and physically drained, we made our way back to our room around 1am.

I can say without any doubt that the match was one of the best games I have been fortunate to attend, and while the football itself was never going to be remarkable, the atmosphere and passion of the supporters made it a night that will be remembered by all that were there, for a very, very long time.