World Cup dream flickers for European teams ahead of qualifiers

Philipp Lahm, defender of the German national football team, gives a press conference on September 6, 2012 in Barsinghausen, western Germany. (AFP PHOTO / Peter Steffen)

BERNE, Switzerland: The dream of a first World Cup appearance will flicker for 22 European teams, albeit briefly in most cases, as the region’s qualifying competition for the 2014 finals in Brazil kicks off Friday.

Other sides who have made a mark in the past, such as Austria, Belgium and Hungary, will be hoping to return after a long absence as the nine-group tournament gets under way.

A total of 53 teams are involved in the European qualifiers, ranging from European and world champions Spain to tiny San Marino with a population of 30,000 whose national side have only ever won one game.

The nine-group winners will go straight to the finals in Brazil while the eight best runners-up take part in two-leg playoffs for four more places in November next year.

The runner-up with the worst record will go out at the end of the qualifiers.

For the likes of Luxembourg, who have tried and failed a record 18 times before to qualify, Andorra and San Marino, past form suggests the dream is likely to be quickly extinguished with a couple of early defeats.

Others such as Bosnia, Latvia, Montenegro and Belarus harbor more realistic hopes of qualifying.

Finland, who have tried to qualify since 1938 and have endured 17 failed campaigns, are unlikely to end that run after being lumped with Spain and France in Group I, the only one that comes anywhere near deserving the cliched “Group of Death” tag.

Finland host France Friday while Spain have to wait until Tuesday before visiting Georgia.

Unlike most other regions, which hold preliminary rounds to remove the minnows, the European qualifiers consist of only one phase with all 53 teams going into the hat.

UEFA president Michel Platini has stood by the system, saying it allows the smallest teams the chance to learn and improve against the bigger sides.

Critics say it subjects the likes of Germany, Spain, Portugal and Italy to an endless sequence of matches which are little more than formalities.

Of the group favorites, Germany have been given an easy start with a home match against tiny Faroe Islands in Hanover in Group C.

Netherlands have a tough start at home to Turkey in Group D, arguably the evening’s top game, while Italy may not relish kicking off with a visit to Bulgaria in Group B.

The Italians will be without their Euro 2012 strikeforce as Mario Balotelli has undergone a minor eye operation and Antonio Cassano was left out by coach Cesare Prandelli, who did not consider him fully fit.

England, surprisingly ranked third in FIFA’s world ranking table, also travel east as they visit Moldova, ranked 141st, in Group H.

Of the teams hoping for a return to the spotlight, Belgium appear to have the best hopes though they are also under the most pressure.

They begin by visiting Wales in Group A as they attempt to qualify for their first tournament since the 2002 World Cup, while the Welsh, now playing under Chris Coleman following the suicide of coach Gary Speed last year, are looking to reach their first World Cup since 1958.

Belgium, who qualified for six consecutive World Cups between 1982 and 2002, have a highly talented crop of players with Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard and Manchester City captain Vincent Company among their 14 English Premier League players.

Despite this, they lost out to Turkey, themselves subsequently beaten by Croatia in a playoff, in the race to reach Euro 2012.

“We have a great generation but we have to do it on the pitch,” said Hazard.

“For the country and fans, the next two games are really important. With the squad we have now, we should be able to do something. In a way it’s now or never for Belgium.”

Austria, who last qualified in 1998, have high hopes of their new generation of players, many of whom are doing well in the Bundesliga, but they have to wait until Tuesday’s game against Germany in Vienna to enter the fray.

Hungary, who revolutionized football in the 1950s, have not qualified for a senior tournament since the 1986 World Cup but are now on the way up again, having reached a best-ever 27th in the FIFA rankings last year.

They should at least get off to a winning start at lowly Andorra.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 07, 2012, on page 15.




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