September is a crucial month for those teams still in the running to earn a place at the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil next year. At the weekend, the 10 second-round winners from Africa were finalised, and they will now go into a play-off to produce the final five that will be on there in Brazil. The most notable success was that of Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde, a little archipelago of 10 islands in the Atlantic, with a population of 500,000. It’s high on my list of places that I would like to visit. Cape Verde won 2-0 in Tunisia, gaining three points to take their total to 12, thus leapfrogging the North African giants (who had previously qualified for four World Cups) to finish in top spot. Tunisia ended up with 11 and only had to draw to go through to the next round. If Cape Verde do go through I am sure they will be among the sentimental favourites or darling teams of the tournament.
Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt and Algeria had already made sure of winning their groups, but there were nail-biting finishes to the other groups. In Group A, Ethiopia, another team hoping to make their first appearance in the World Cup finals, won in the Central African Republic to stay 2 points ahead of South Africa, who thumped Botswana. So that is another surprise outcome, and a big letdown for South Africa, who hosted the last tournament in 2010. There were four matches in which the away teams had to beat the host teams to overtake them at the top of the table, but Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon capitalised on their home ground advantage to beat Zambia, Malawi, Uganda and Libya respectively. In Group E, Congo must be kicking themselves after they stumbled at the final hurdle, only drawing 2-2 in Niger and allowing Burkina Faso to go top by 1 point after they beat Gabon 1-0 at home. The draw for the play-offs takes place in Cairo on September 16.
In the CONCACAF qualifying group (North and Central America and Caribbean islands) Costa Rica beat the United States 3-1 to go top of the six-team group with three rounds to play. The US drop to second place but are still well placed to finish in the top three. Soccer giants Mexico, however, are in big trouble after losing 2-0 at home to Honduras, who are now 2 points above them in third place. Mexico play the US next and if they lose may have to vie with Panama for fourth place and possible qualification through an intercontinental play-off against Oceania group winners New Zealand.
In the nine-team South American group, second-placed Colombia beat fourth-placed Ecuador 1-0 to open up the gap between them to 5 points and join Argentina (who did not play) on 26 points with 3 games to play. Chile thumped Venezuela 3-0 to go on to 24 points but have just 2 games left to play. Ecuador (21 points with 3 games left to play) are still in fourth, but will be wary of Uruguay, who beat Peru away from home to move up to 19 points. Venezuela on 16 points with 2 games to play look to be out of contention, but Uruguay’s last three games are really tough ones, so anything could happen. The top four teams qualify, while the fifth has to play the winner of the Asian group play-off between Jordan and Uzbekistan. The first leg of that match in Amman finished 1-1 so Uzbekistan should fancy their chances with home ground advantage in the return match on Tuesday. Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea took the automatic qualifying spots from the Asian group.
Which leaves Europe. There are nine groups and 13 places at stake (four of which will be done through play-offs between group runners-up) and there are still 2 or 3 matches to play in each group, so the permutations are complicated. Things should be clearer after the next round of matches on Tuesday night. Just briefly, last week Belgium, Germany and Italy took huge strides and are almost certain to be there, as are the Netherlands, despite being held to a surprise 2-2 draw in Estonia. Romania beat Hungary 3-0 at home and if they can beat Turkey at home on Wednesday or even draw should qualify for the play-offs, although Hungary are not out of it yet. Switzerland still look well placed despite blowing a 4-1 lead at home to Iceland to draw 4-4. But if Norway (11 points) beat Switzerland (15) at home on Tuesday then it will be down to the wire in that group. Israel lost ground on Portugal and Russia in their group and must win in Russia on Tuesday to stay in with a chance. Bosnia-Herzegovina slipped up by losing at home to Slovakia and are now level on 16 points with Greece in their group. If Slovakia beat Bosnia at home on Tuesday that group will be wide open, but the momentum is with Greece now. Anything can happen between four teams in Group H but the forthcoming match between Ukraine (14 points) and group co-leaders England (15) will be crucial. Lastly in Group I France dropped two points in a 0-0 draw in Georgia, allowing title holders Spain, who won 2-0 in Finland, to go 3 points clear. Finland now have little chance of overtaking France for a play-off place.
And as for Brazil, well, they walloped Australia 6-0 in a friendly in Brasilia, which suggests Australia are in for a torrid time of it come the real thing next year.