By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The 2014 FIFA World Cup, taking place in Brazil next year between June 12th and July 13th, is beginning to take shape as the final round of qualifying games took place around the globe this week. With November’s final play-off series all that is left to decide the outstanding places, relieved eyes turn to the draw for the group stage to be made on December 6th in the north-eastern state of Bahia.
As host nation, Brazil qualifies automatically and has had a series of friendlies to help prepare their bid to land a sixth World Cup title. After a successful Confederations Cup outing earlier this year, optimism has seeped back into the team and they will go into the tournament among the firm favorites.
They are joined by fellow CONMEBOL members Argentina and Colombia. The Argentines had already confirmed their place at the World Cup before the weekend and were joined last Friday by Colombia, who fought back from 3-0 down against Chile to draw 3-3, earning the point they needed to reach the finals.
Last Friday’s 1-0 win for Ecuador over Uruguay gave them the edge over the two-time World Champions, and they snuck through on goal difference despite Tuesday’s defeat to Chile, for whom victory also guaranteed classification. As the fifth-placed side, Uruguay will enter a play-off against Jordan after the Middle Eastern nation defeated Uzbekistan on penalties last month.
In Europe, Italy and Holland were the first to book their tickets for Brazil and they were joined by Belgium, Germany and Switzerland all of whom remained unbeaten during the qualification stage. On a tense last night of qualifying, Wayne Rooney steered England to a 2-0 win over Poland, and Russia’s win meant they were also through.
Portugal will, however, have to face a play-off along with France, who finished second in their group to Spain. Elsewhere, Bosnia qualified for their first ever finals after beating Lithuania 1-0.
Denmark were the only second-placed team to miss out on a play-off from the UEFA group stage, pipped on points by Ukraine, Greece, Iceland, Romania, Sweden and Croatia who join Portugal and France in a fight for the final four European places next month.
In Asia, Japan were already safely qualified as far back as June. Australia followed shortly afterwards but since then, their World Cup preparations have been little short of disastrous. After suffering a 6-0 humiliation at the hands of Brazil they were beaten by the same scoreline in a friendly against France last week. Despite their qualification, the two woeful results cost head coach Holger Osicek his job.
From CONCACAF (North, Central America and the Caribbean), Costa Rica and the USA had already booked their places in Brazil, leaving Honduras and Mexico to battle it out at the death. Only a spectacular Raul Jimenez goal against Panama at the Atzeca stadium had kept Mexico’s slim hopes of automatic qualification alive, but in Tuesday’s late kick-off, Honduras needed only a point away to bottom side Jamaica to guarantee their place on the plane to Brazil in June.