World Cup Qualifying
The FIFA World Cup is the biggest single-sport event in the world today. Held every 4 years, it brings together 32 teams from all regions to play in a month-long tournament that features 63 games, culminating in a final that is watched by some 300 million people.
Most sports enthusiasts are aware of the World Cup, but only the most fanatical football fans follow the qualifying games that decide which 31 teams (the host country is automatically given a berth) make the tournament.
Each FIFA confederation runs its own tournament to fill its allocated spots. For example, UEFA, the European federation, has 13 spots, while the North and Central American Federation (CONCACAF), has 3 guaranteed spots and a chance to win a 4th in a playoff with a South American team. Games are held on international match days, when club teams release players to their national teams and most top-tier national leagues don't play. When a full slate of games is available in each region, such as on March 28th and April 1st, it is a football fan's dream.
A few surprises in the making
The best place to follow the qualification process is at Wikipedia. Each region's standings and schedule are easily accessible and allow for quick travel planning.
For the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, 204 nations took part in the qualifying tournament which began back in late 2007 and is still underway in each confederation except Oceania. The qualification period ends in November of this year, which means there are only a few match days left, and so we can start to see potential upsets in some of the qualifying groups.
The final African tournament has just begun, but already Cameroon and Morocco have lost to inferior opposition. The Ivory Coast won their first match, but it was marred by tragedy as 22 people died in a stampede, a seemingly regular occurrence in African football.
In Asia, Japan and Australia look like solid bets to qualify from Group A, but Group B is surprisingly led by North Korea. This Wednesday's game in Seoul between South Korea and North Korea is huge, but will get little recognition outside Asia.
CONCACAF is also in the early stages of their final tournament, and as usual, the USA, Mexico, and Costa Rica are leading the way, but there's plenty of football left to be played.
The South American tourney has passed the halfway point, and favourites Brazil are lagging in 4th place, still good enough to qualify but disappointing their legions of fans. The upcoming home match against laggards Peru should help Brazil solidify their place though. Third-place Chile host 5th-place Uruguay on the same day in a game that is critical to both teams chances.
The Oceania tournament has finished with New Zealand the beneficiaries of Australia's move to the Asian confederation. They will play the 5th place Asian team in a home-and-home playoff with the winner moving on to South Africa.
Last but not least is Europe, which hosts the most exciting tournament. With 53 nations participating in 9 groups, the chances for a major upset are high. Already we see Portugal and Sweden in trouble in group 1 as Denmark and Hungary have started quickly. It would be a shame if Cristiano Ronaldo did not have a chance to shine on the world stage.
Spain, England, and the Netherlands have solid leads in their respective groups, while defending World Cup holders Italy have the Irish hot on their heels.
Each of the remaining match days has several interesting encounters. I encourage you all to bookmark the Wikipedia page and follow along.
Trip idea takes shape
While looking at the upcoming schedule for the qualifying games, I noticed that Denmark's last two matches are at home, and scheduled against Sweden and Hungary. Given the potential for this group to go down to the wire, it seems like a good chance to catch some interesting and meaningful games while visiting an area of the world I've yet to see.
With cheap flights to London now available on Air Asia (who should be flying to Japan later this year), I'm already thinking of a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur, a weekend of English soccer and then a few days in Copenhagen for some World Cup games. I'll keep you posted on the developments.
Update: I had to find a job in October, so no Europe trip this year. Hoping for England and Spain in 2010.