By Mike Collett
FIFA president Sepp Blatter might want an end to the World Cup playoffs but the excitement, drama, tension, joy and despair they will generate over the next week are unrivalled in the two-year qualifying process.
The final 11 spots for next year’s finals in Brazil are about to be filled with matches taking place across the globe from Amman to Wellington and Mexico City to Reykjavik with 22 teams facing their final chance of glory.
South American champions and former world champions Uruguay, semi-finalists in South Africa in 2010, will be out to stop Jordan reaching the finals for the first time.
Twice World Cup hosts Mexico are hoping for a return to form against Oceania zone winners New Zealand while Iceland, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, runners-up to Nigeria in this year’s African Nations Cup, are aiming for a first appearance on the big stage.
There will also be heartbreak, and joy, for one of the world’s top players.
The pick of the four European playoffs is the tie between Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden with little to choose between the teams before they meet in Lisbon on Friday and Stockholm next Tuesday.
HARD TO LOSE
Blatter’s comment that the playoffs ought to be scrapped because they are such a “hard way to lose” is not just based on the Swiss coming over all sentimental amid worries about the players’ feelings being hurt if their teams are eliminated.
Blatter rarely says anything officially without it having a political meaning for someone, and the comments follow on from other recent remarks that Europe has too many teams in the finals at the expense of Asian and African countries.
That provoked a response from UEFA president Michel Platini, who suggested a 40-team World Cup with an extra eight teams from Asia and Africa might be the answer.
However, while the two soccer chiefs try to score political points off each other, the real scoring action will unfold on the pitch in 17 highly-charged matches.
A World Cup in Brazil without neighbouring Uruguay is almost unthinkable and, with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani leading the line, they should be too strong for Jordan, who reached these playoffs after beating Uzbekistan in an Asian Zone playoff.
Uruguay famously beat Brazil 2-1 in Rio de Janeiro to become world champions in 1950, a defeat echoing down the generations in a country that would like nothing better than to finally get revenge – even if it means having waited 64 years to do so.
While Uruguay are seeking a place at their 12th World Cup to deprive Jordan of making their debut, Iceland, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso are also dreaming, with various levels of reality, of a first appearance at the finals.
Iceland, with a population of 320,000, would be the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup if they beat Croatia and, with experienced Swede Lars Lagerback as coach and a bright crop of talented youngsters, they could prevail.
Lagerback, who has coached Nigeria and Sweden in World Cup finals, will also no doubt be interested in how his native land are doing against Portugal, while the other European ties pit Ukraine against France and Greece against Romania.
France, 1998 world champions and runners-up in 2006, were helped through the playoffs four years ago by Thierry Henry’s infamous handball in the build-up to their winner over Ireland and might need all the help they can get to see off Ukraine.
The French, who finished second behind world champions Spain in their group this time, will not find it easy against Ukraine who had a chance of winning their section until the final stages before finishing second to England.
The two other possible debutants are from Africa – Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
Burkina Faso go to Algeria with a 3-2 advantage from last month’s first leg but Ethiopia, who scored first against Nigeria before losing 2-1 at home, would appear to only have an outside chance against Stephen Keshi’s well-organised African champions.
Ghana seem headed for a third successive World Cup finals as they take a 6-1 first-leg lead against Egypt to Cairo, while Ivory Coast will seek to protect a 3-1 lead in Senegal.
Cameroon will hope home advantage counts after a 0-0 draw in their first leg in Tunisia so they are among the 32 nations in the draw for the finals in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil on Dec. 6.