By Mike Collett
THE Netherlands and Italy celebrated becoming the first European teams to book places at next year’s World Cup in Brazil on Tuesday when the final pieces of the continent’s qualifying jigsaw began to fall into place.
The Dutch sealed their place after a Robin van Persie double gave them a 2-0 win in Andorra while Italy came from behind to beat the Czech Republic 2-1 in Turin with Mario Balotelli scoring the goal that sealed their berth from the penalty spot.
Later on Tuesday, Costa Rica and the United States both guaranteed places in the 32-team finals from the CONCACAF region, while Argentina became the first South American team to join hosts Brazil with a 5-2 thumping of Paraguay
Back in Europe, there was plenty for Germany, Switzerland, Russia, France, England and Bosnia to be happy about but there was gloom for Romania, Israel and Ireland plus the Czechs as their hopes either disappeared totally or became no longer feasible.
There is also some renewed belief in Iceland, who have never reached a major finals, after they beat Albania 2-1 in Reykjavik to move into second place behind Switzerland in Group E.
Bosnia, who have also yet to play in a finals, stayed top of Group G on goal difference after they won a rip-roaring game 2-1 in Slovakia and second-placed Greece beat Latvia 1-0 in Piraeus.
But the biggest cheers could be heard in Dutch and Italian towns and cities as they booked their places with two matches to spare.
The Dutch, World Cup runners up in 2010, had to wait until the 49th minute to take the lead against Andorra who have lost all eight games, scoring none and conceding 24.
Van Persie’s second after a goalkeeping error means the Netherlands will take part in their 10th World Cup next year.
Qualification represents something of a redemption for Dutch coach Louis van Gaal who failed to steer the country to the 2002 World Cup in his previous stint as coach.
“We have done the job. We could not have qualified quicker for the World Cup than the way we did. We are the first from Europe,” Van Gaal told reporters.
On the match itself, he added: “We did very well. We gave our all in the first half and we made the breakthrough after the interval. That’s just how we wanted it.”
Italy, one of only 13 teams who took part in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, made sure they would be among the 32 nations at the finals next year with their comeback win in Turin.
Libor Kozak threatened to ruin Italy’s celebrations when he put the Czechs ahead after 19 minutes but second half goals from Giorgio Chiellini after 51 minutes and Balotelli from the spot three minutes later gave the Italians the points.
Germany’s 3-0 win in the Faroe Islands thanks to goals from Per Mertesacker, a Mesut Ozil penalty and Thomas Mueller, means they will qualify if they beat Ireland at home in the first of their two remaining matches next month.
However, they cannot book their tickets just yet because Sweden’s 1-0 win in Kazakhstan means they could still pip the Germans to top spot in Group C. Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored after 27 seconds for their fastest goal in 101 years.
Switzerland’s 2-0 win over Norway in Oslo put them five points clear of Iceland at the top of Group E but their celebrations also had to be put on hold because they can be caught if they slip up in their final two matches.
Russia also look on course for Brazil after a 3-1 win over Israel put them top of Group F, a point clear of Portugal and means they still have their fate in their hands with visits to the bottom two teams, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, to come.
France also had a good night as their five-match run without a goal ended in a 4-2 win over Belarus although they had to come from behind twice before winning with goals by Samir Nasri, Paul Pogba and a double from Franck Ribery, including a penalty.
England escaped from Ukraine with a 0-0 draw that leaves them top of Group H with their fate in their hands and home games against Montenegro and Poland to come at Wembley.
San Marino scored their first goal of the campaign but have conceded 43 after losing 5-1 at home to the Poles who kept their remote playoff chances alive behind England (16), Ukraine and Montenegro (both 15). Poland have 11 points.
Nine teams have now joined Brazil in the draw for the finals with Italy and the Netherlands advancing from Europe along with Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea from Asia, Costa Rica and the U.S from the CONCACAF region, and South American giants Argentina.
In Ohio, second-half goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan gave Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States a 2-0 win over Mexico to move them to top of the standings on 16 points.
Costa Rica drew 1-1 in Kingston against Jamaica, taking them to 15 points, and with Honduras drawing 2-2 at home to Panama, none of the other four teams in the group can push the leading duo out of the top three automatic qualifying spots.
Mexico, next to bottom in the six-team standings, have eight points, as do a Panama team that has never qualified for the sport’s biggest tournament.
Honduras currently occupy third place on 11 points but with two rounds of games to come in October, the battle for the final automatic spot and fourth-place, which offers a playoff against Oceania winners New Zealand, is set to go down to the wire.
In Asuncion, Lionel Messi converted two penalties as Argentina booked their ticket to the finals with a crushing 5-2 away win over Paraguay.
Argentina lead the South American group on 29 points with two qualifiers remaining next month. The top four qualify automatically and the group leaders can now only be overtaken by Colombia and Chile.
Jordan took another step towards their first World Cup finals when they beat Uzbekistan 9-8 on penalties in Tashkent after their Asian playoff ended 2-2 on aggregate following Tuesday’s second leg which finished 1-1 after extra time.
Jordan will face the eventual fifth-placed South American team in the intercontinental playoff in November with the winners of that two-legged tie going to Brazil.
By Mike Collett