By Wednesday, there will be no more ifs ands or buts. The field for the 2014 FIFA World Cup will be set in stone. Twenty-one teams have booked their places in Brazil. In the coming days, the last eleven spots will be filled. Those eleven spots will consist of five teams from Africa, four from Europe, and probably Mexico and Uruguay, who are so close to making qualification a certainty.
Here’s a preview up the last qualifiers on the long road to Brazil, as well as US TV/Internet times. All times are Eastern.
Croatia vs Iceland
1st leg, Friday 2pm, WatchESPN.com; 2nd leg, Tuesday 2:15pm, ESPN3.com
Iceland are Europe’s fairytale story in 2013. Trying to become the smallest ever nation to qualify for a World Cup, Iceland has been transformed from a soccer hinterland to a country with huge enthusiasm and dreams for their exciting young national team.
Led by the likes of Tottenham midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland play a progressive brand of soccer that is often easy on the eye. Aided by a soft qualification group, Iceland took second and then were handed a draw against the weakest of the seeded teams in the European playoff.
Croatia have talent, but they also have a bit of an identity crisis on their hands. Former Croatia captain Niko Kovac has been hired as manager after former boss Igor Stimac almost forced his own removal after a dismal end to the qualification campaign. Although Croatia boast stars like Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic, they only found the net 11 times, tied for the lowest total of the European playoff nations.
Iceland netted 17 times, and are led comfortably by the former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback. Iceland’s defense could be their undoing, as they have been leaky at the back. What we could see is a back and forth tie, especially if the goals start flowing in Iceland’s home leg on Friday.
It’s clear who the neutral’s choice will be. Iceland have one more hurdle to make their dream a reality.
Ukraine vs France
1st leg, Friday 2:45pm, WatchESPN.com; 2nd leg, Tuesday 3pm, Univision Deportes and WatchESPN.com
France disgraced themselves from this stage in the last World Cup campaign, and whatever happens against Ukraine, hopefully it will all be above board. But with France, you just never know. Take, for instance, the former captain Patrice Evra’s recent diatribe against the French media that employed grotesque language and sentiment.
France has the talent to see off a decent Ukraine team, but it’s a matter of which France shows up, and with what mentality. Les Blues struck hot and cold during their qualification campaign, but beating Spain to automatic qualification was always a tall order.
Ukraine must feel hard-done by. Just beaten out by England, they were seeded for the playoff draw only to be matched up with France, a team Ukraine wouldn’t have wanted to play even if they weren’t seeded and France was.
Ukraine will most likely play a tight game, and keep things close. They host the first leg, and it will be imperative that Ukraine score. France would be a big scalp, and a huge team to miss at the World Cup, but the fact is France is not a country playing like a soccer heavyweight right now.
Portugal vs Sweden
1st leg, Friday 2:45pm, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN.com; 2nd leg, Tuesday 2:45pm, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN.com
This is the glamour tie: Ronaldo’s Portugal against Ibrahimovic’s Sweden.
With Lionel Messi’s injury, the winner of this playoff may just take the Ballon d’Or.
Yes, one of these two great players could take their country to the World Cup, and one will surely miss out – a shame, as far as soccer is concerned.
But this tie is more about Portugal than Ronaldo. The Portuguese have quality running throughout their team. Paulo Bento’s players ply their trade at the top clubs in Europe, from Real Madrid, to Manchester United, to Porto and Zenit. Portugal should win this tie. It shouldn’t be close.
If this tie is a tossup between Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo, Sweden has a shot. If Portugal plays like the team that was an ill-fated penalty shootout away from the final at Euro 2012, they’ll win with ease.
Greece vs Romania
1st leg, Friday 2:45pm, ESPN3.com; 2nd leg, Tuesday 2pm, WatchESPN.com
It’s rather odd, but the Greeks have become a team you count on qualifying for the major tournaments. Greece have been to the last World Cup and European Championships, while their opponents in this tie, Romania, have not.
Greece have been made favorites for this playoff, and rightfully so. There’s a new style in for the Greeks, a step away from Otto Rehagel’s dour and defensive football, and while the updated play can’t exactly be called progressive, it’s a step in the right direction.
Romania are a decent team that are worth their place in the playoff. Trying to make their first World Cup since 1998, the glory days of Romanian football have gone – but after an arduous rebuilding process after a disastrous 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, Romania is viable again.
The tie is poised very interestingly, but Greece’s tournament savvy and experience will make them confident of success. The first leg is in Athens before a difficult return trip for Greece in Romania.
This tie is clearly Nigeria’s. They have advantages everywhere, from playing at home, leading 2-1, to a vast talent differential. The African Cup of Nations champions were the biggest favorites in any of the African ties going into the first leg, and that status hasn’t changed.
Nigeria should have all their European stars available for the first time since the spring, and only an implosion would stop them reaching Brazil.
Ivory Coast holds many of the same advantages that Nigeria does, and while Senegal has more ability than Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast takes a 3-1 lead into the second leg.
Senegal did pull a goal back through Papiss Cisse in stoppage time in the first leg, which gave The Lions a lifeline and a crucial away goal. Still, Senegal has some dissension in the ranks, mostly courtesy of the coach’s decision not to call in players who do not play regularly for their clubs – meaning some big names, like Chelsea’s Demba Ba, have missed out.
The Ivory Coast, once Africa’s great hope, is trying to get to Brazil to make a last run with their golden generation. In the last two tournaments, Ivory Coast have been drawn in the group of death. Perhaps they’re due for some luck.
Cameroon got a solid 0-0 draw in Tunisia in the first leg, and will fancy their chances to qualify at home. Inspirational striker Samuel Eto’o is back on form, and back in the good graces of the Cameroon Football Federation after quitting the team and being reinstated all in the last few months.
Cameroon have traditionally been at World Cups since the days of Roger Milla in 1990, while Tunisia are looking to go for only the second time. Things could get hairy for Cameroon if Tunisia score, since they would lose on an away goals tiebreaker if the game ended in a tie.
One dream that is all but extinguished is Egypt’s. The fractured country came so heartbreakingly close to their first World Cup since 1990 in a time of dangerous divide, hardship and war. For some, the World Cup was a gleaming light at the end of a tunnel of pain and oppression and violence.
But after Egypt, led remarkably and bravely by American coach Bob Bradley, lost 6-1 to African powerhouse Ghana in the first leg of their playoff, the road back is near-unreadable. Egypt would have to win 5-0 to go through.
And this Egypt team, mostly employing players who don’t have a domestic league since Egypt’s league was shut down, looked like deer in the headlights against Ghana, who ripped them apart for 90 minutes. It was a dream game for the Black Stars, who appear headed to their third straight World Cup. After making the knockout round and then quarterfinals last time, Ghana is on pace for the semifinals.
Bradley most likely has just 90 minutes left in his Egypt coaching career. Turning around this tie would be his biggest miracle yet.
The first leg of this tie in Burkina Faso was one of the most exciting of the entire qualification campaign on any continent. Burkina Faso won 3-2 in a back and forth game, the winning goal was scored on a contentious late penalty.
Algeria aren’t in a bad position with a one goal deficit and two away goals, but Burkina Faso proved in the last leg they can play with Africa’s big boys. Burkina Faso are trying to qualify for their first World Cup, and much like Jordan, the country didn’t even exist in some of the football glory days of its opponent.
Burkina Faso are upstarts in this region, while Algeria have a well-deserved reputation for hot-headedness, and the Desert Foxes can run hot and cold.
The best bet for fireworks in the African qualifiers is in this game.
New Zealand vs Mexico
2nd leg, Wednesday 1am, ESPN, UniMas, Univision Deportes and WatchESPN.com
After Mexico’s 5-1 victory at home against New Zealand on Wednesday, El Tri are one step away from reaching World Cup 2014.
Similarly to Mexico, Uruguay convincingly won its first leg match, 5-0, putting the South American team in the driving seat to qualify for Brazil.
Programming note: Some of the games are being shown exclusively on beIN SPORT, beIN SPORT Espanol and DishWorld. Even if you don’t have a TV subscription to beIN SPORT, you can access those channels via online streaming service DishWorld for $10/month. Read our review of DishWorld. And sign up for DishWorld via their website.