I’ve done some research on the other countries in England’s World Cup qualifying group and even though the beginning of qualifying is months away, I wanted to come out with a guide/primer/preview of sorts of England’s competition in Group 6 while the topic was still fresh in people’s minds:
1. Belarus—Currently coached by former East Germany boss Bernd Stange, the Belorussians are captained and led by their most recognizable player, Arsenal midfielder Aliaksandr Hleb. Belarus has only had a national team since 1992 (before that, their players and those in the other Soviet republics played for the USSR). They haven’t participated in any World Cups as of yet; they finished 6th in their qualifying group in 1998 and 5th in 2006; in 2002 they finished 3rd and missed heading to South Korea/Japan by just two points. Belarus have also not qualified for any European Championships in their brief history either. In their most recent squad announced for these last two games of Euro 2008 qualifying, only two players currently play for domestic teams outside of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine (Hleb-Arsenal, Vitali Kutuzov-Pisa Calcio in Serie B).
2. Croatia—England fans know all about the Croatian national team and have probably seen more of them than they ever wanted to over these past few days after Croatia ended England’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008. Once again, this team is relatively new on the international landscape as Croatia only gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and their national team wasn’t officially recognnized by FIFA and UEFA until 1992. They are coached by a former West Ham and Everton player, Slaven Bilic, who is just 39 years of age and was part of Croatia’s third place team in World Cup 1998. He’s fluent in German, Italian, and English and is a hot prospect to manage a high-level club in Europe sooner rather than later. Croatia has a roster full of extremely underrated but talented players, most notably (at least to Premiership fans) Niko Kranjcar, Eduardo da Silva, and Australian-born Josip Šimunic. They haven’t lost a competitive match on home soil since 1994 and have participated in every World Cup that they’ve qualified for since becoming independent.
3. Andorra—Andorra are also new on the world stage as their national team hasn’t been in existence for even 10 years. There really isn’t much to say about this team; they’ve never qualified for a World Cup or European Championship, their highest ever FIFA world ranking is #125 in September 2005, and their current home stadium seats only 1,800 people. Andorra has only won three games in their brief history; their top goalscorer, Ildefons Lima, has four career tallies at the international level, and the team received more total yellow and red cards than any other country in Europe in World Cup 2006 qualification.
4. Ukraine—Aside from Croatia, Ukraine will be England’s most serious threat to either win Group 6 or qualify for the second place-playoff. Ukraine, just like all the former Soviet republics, has only been in existence as an independent country with a national team since 1992. They’ve qualified for only one World Cup, the most recent one in 2006 (they were knocked out in the Quarterfinals by Italy, the eventual champions). Ukraine’s first appearance in the European Championship will be in 2012 as they will cohost the event with Poland and thus automatically qualify; they didn’t qualify in 1996, 2000, 2004, or for the next one in 2008. Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko has the most career international goals for Ukraine (36 in 79 matches), and although they may benefit from the services of 33-year old midfielder and former Tottenham and West Ham player Serhiy Rebrov for some of the qualifying games, he almost certainly won’t be around for the whole campaign.
5. Kazakhstan–Ah yes, another former member of the USSR. Kazakhstan actually competed in the AFC (Asian Federation) until 2002 when they joined UEFA, although they didn’t win their first competitive match as part of UEFA until 2007, when they beat Serbia at home. Kazakhstan have never qualified for a World Cup, European Championship, or Asian Nations Cup and their most recent squad has only two players who play their club soccer outside of their home country (both play in Russia). Interestingly enough, they are coached by a Dutchman, Arno Pijpers, and he has experience in Kazakhstan having won the Kazakhstan Super League title in 2006 with FC Astana. Pijpers’ career record with Kazakhstan is respectable (5-7-7), and those 5 wins put him in a tie for second place in most wins with the former Soviet republic.