As many teams took a step closer to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup over the weekend, three teams actually booked their place.
The first team to join the South African hosts in the tournament were Japan who secured their qualification with a 1-0 win over Uzbekistan.
The first European qualifiers were Holland who won 2-1 in Iceland. The third team guaranteed to join South Africa were Australia who earned their place with a 0-0 draw in Qatar.
So what chance do these three teams have of success when the tournament begins next Summer?
Japan will be playing in their fourth world cup in a row. The all important early goal that secured their win was headed home by Shinji Okazaki. They had Makoto Hasebe sent off for elbowing late in the game but hung on for the decisive three points.
Japan coach Takeshi Okada said:
“We played according to our plan and clinched a very important win. I’m very pleased with my players’ performance in the match. They played with heart but it was a very well-disciplined performance.”
Presumably he meant well disciplined apart from the elbow on UzbekistanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s captain!
Danny Jordaan, the 2010 organising committee chief in South Africa said,
“Japan are a big team, both on and off the field, who have become a major force in world football. We are delighted that they today became the first team to qualify for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.”
Is Mr Jordaan right that Japan are a big team? Well they may have played in the last three world cups but they have never progressed beyond the second round. Their record in the finals reads, won two, drawn two and lost six. It is unlikely that record will be considerably improved in South Africa.
Australia, who have two more matches to play in Group A of the final Asian qualifying phase, have 14 points from six matches. They struggled in hot conditions as the Qataris went for broke but they maintained their record of not conceding a goal in the final qualifying phase.
They do have some big players, like EvertonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Tim Cahill, but are they real contenders in the tournament?
Well, they have only played in two previous tournaments in 1974 and last time out in 2006. In 1974 they failed to win a game but in 2006 they made it through to the second round where they were very unlucky to lose to Italy the eventual winners.
Whilst they are unlikely to be serious contenders for the tournament, a favourable draw could see them make significant progress.
Holland qualified in Iceland with goals from Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel.
Kristjan Orn Sigurdsson pulled a goal back for Iceland with two minutes remaining, but Bert van Marwijk’s team comfortably secured the victory.
Can Holland defy their history and turn brilliance, flair and potential, into an actual tournament victory?
As I say, history suggests that they wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. They have a very chequered record in world cups. In the 1950s and 1960s they regularly failed to qualify for the finals. The great team they had in the 1970s reached two world cup finals in Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978, but failed to win it on both occasions. In the 1980s they again failed to qualify but the great team they developed again in the 1990s saw them reach the second round, the quarter-final and the semi-final in 1990, 1994 and 1998.
This little run was followed by another failure to qualify in 2002 and then when hopes were high for success in 2006, they managed to get eliminated in the second round.
There have been few teams in history that can compare to the Cruyff team of the 1970s, the Van Basten team of the 1990s or the more recent Bergkamp team. However, they have never managed to turn that ability into world cup wins.
It is unlikely that will change in South Africa.
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