Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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On the Road Again - Part One

    With still well over two years to go to the big kick-off in Munich, and almost a year before the big European and South American teams start to even take qualification seriously, it may seem a little early to start looking forward to the qualifying matches for World Cup 2006. But FIFA – in its unadulterated wisdom – has decided that because the competition is getting underway in Conmebol, CAF and the AFC, we need a big, elaborate worldwide 'Preliminary Draw' to satisfy our need for all things World Cup. They are probably right though, aren't they!

    Though these draw ceremonies are little more than aggrandised FIFA get-togethers, they do serve to remind us that 2006 is not that far away anymore. It is already 18 months since Cafu stepped up to collect the World Cup, and in another six months the European Championships will be out of the way as well. Before you know it, we will be back in Munich, or Frankfurt or wherever to watch Sepp preside over yet another World Cup Finals draw. Time flies.

    My task over that time will be to guide you through the UEFA qualifiers, with the help of my esteemed colleagues here at PWC of course. We can already thank Peter Goldstein for his in depth look at the statistical side of affairs, so here I think we need to start off by taking a general overview of proceedings, and looking at what may – and probably won't – happen.

    UEFA opted as seems usual these days for 8 mini-leagues followed by the inspired play-off system, which has so revitalised qualification in the last 10 years. During the 1980s and early 1990s it was very easy for European teams to sneak into the finals by finishing a very poor second, sometimes as many as 5 or 10 points behind the group winners (anyone remember England doing just that in 1982?) Nowadays, even a team which misses out of automatic qualification on goal difference could still be faced with a daunting play-off in some frozen East European concrete superbowl in front of 60 000 baying fans. Ask Germany, Romania, Italy, Spain, Holland, Ireland, Wales and Scotland how much they have enjoyed the play-offs in recent years!

    So in many ways the fun and games element of the qualifiers will not be with us until November 2005, but we still have a lot to think about and discuss before then. First up, UEFA has finally bowed to G14 pressure and handed England, Spain and Italy smaller six team groups to compensate for the added pressures brought about by their clubs participation in the Champion's League. Now this does not mean that these countries have been handed qualification on a plate – although how much would Sepp and his marketing moneymen have wanted that. Instead they will play 10 qualifiers instead of 12, and as two of the final 13 European qualifiers will still be group runner's up, you would have to argue that things are quite nicely tilted in the G14's favour. It would be a major shock if any of these three teams did not make Germany. Sepp and his bank manager would probably have a heart attack.

    As I said before Peter has explained the ins-and-outs of qualification from a statistical point of view, so here it will be enough just to explain that the 8 group winners qualify as of right, along with the two second placed teams with the best record (most points, best winning percentage etc.) The other six second placed teams will enter into the play-offs where a blind draw and possible glory or disaster awaits. It's definitely a good system, and it should minimise the number of 'dead' games we have to endure. Now if only Conmebol could work that out, we would not have to endure more tedious Venezuela – Peru matches, when Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay and whoever has gained the altitude advantage this time have already long since qualified…

    Germany – as hosts – are the only team already certain of being finalists, as such are the first European qualifiers. Aside from that though, it's anybody's guess. Or is it?

    Some groups seem an awful lot harder than others. One of those is Group One, where Holland and the Czech Republic reacquaint themselves so soon after the Czechs beat Holland to European Championship qualification. If that was not enough – and when you consider that means Nedved, Smicer, Baros, Davids, Kluivert and van Nistelrooy – you find Romania, Finland and Macedonia waiting in the wings. In any other qualification region, including Conmebol, these five teams would be pushing for automatic qualification, and in effect we have a six-way fight for the two possible places. In reality though these teams are going to take so many points off each other that only the group winners are going to qualify directly - in the Euro 2004 qualifiers Holland played well and gained a lot of points yet failure to beat the Czechs cost them the top spot and forced them into a play-off with Scotland that they nearly lost. Well as near as a six-nil home victory can be to a loss anyway, but you get my point. Will the Czechs win out again? Probably. Since 1996 the Czech Republic has consistently worried Europe's more fashionable teams, while never making that final step. Will this be there time? A lot depends on how they fare in Portugal next summer. A good strong performance will push them on, a tough ride will hold them back.

    Holland are always hit-and-miss. The 1974 and 1988 vintage was virtually unstoppable; the 1998 and 2000 versions were pretty good as well. Dutch football is better than almost any other and for raw talent only Brasil can compete. Yet they could easily slip up in this group. Finland have been threatening to qualify for a major finals for 10 years now. In Jari Litmanen they have one of Europe's greatest ever footballers. They demolished Portugal 4:1 away just before the last World Cup. Will they make it? Possibly yet unlikely; Romania have a much better chance. Hagi may have long since retired, but Romania were good enough to outplay England and Germany just three years ago, and playing in Bucharest is always daunting. As is Skopje, where the Macedonians tormented England even more recently. If anything, you have to feel for Armenia and Andorra, who will be lucky to get a goal in this type of company. There is no doubt that either the Czech's or Dutch will emerge from this group, but who is with them – and which of the two it is – is impossible to tell yet. For what its worth, I will predict the Czech Republic to win the group, with Holland a close second, but destined for the play-offs again. Finland will just miss out, also yet again.

    Group Two looks much more open. Our no-hopers this time include the latest 'European' nation, Kazakhstan, from deepest Central Asia. The Kazakhs debuted in international football in the mid-1990s, reaching the final stages of the Asian Cup and pushing for Olympic and age-group championship qualification. So why do they suddenly appear in a UEFA draw? Well taking pointers from the progress of Israel and Turkey, Kazakhstan realise that competing against France, Germany, Italy and England will sharpen up skills much faster than taking on India, Bhutan or Tajikistan. As a former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan has an affiliation to UEFA going back half a century. But they are an Asian team, and qualification for the World Cup would surely be more plausible in an AFC tournament. Saying that though, the fact that only four AFC teams are guaranteed to be in Germany – Japan, Korea, China and Saudi Arabia you have to think – it might be better to get some European experience and hope for better luck and a nicer draw in the future.

    This is a fundamentally Eastern European group, with only Denmark playing in the CET time-zone. Turkey surprised the world last year by finishing third at the World Cup, but this fluke – aided by a weakened Japanese half of the draw – was underlined by falling off badly in qualification for Euro 2004. Losing to England is one thing, but Latvia? Latvia?

    Denmark, Greece and the Ukraine are formidable opponents at home, and all will take points off each other. It is the Danes who stand out, with the likes of Rommedahl, Tomasson and Laursen all experienced at the highest level. With this is mind, you have to look to Denmark to win the group, with Greece and Turkey battling for second spot – and another play-off berth, given the propensity for these teams to beat each other. Georgia and Albania will battle with the Kazakhs for the minor places, while the Ukraine will again be in mid-table limbo: hard to beat in Kiev, pushovers everywhere else. Prediction? 1. Denmark, 2. Turkey (just!)

    The last of the seven-team groups is also the weakest. Portugal and Russia stand alone in Group Three as plausible contenders for success. Given that recently that has meant little more than comprehensive drubbings at the hands of Finland, the USA and Korea, Portugal will be very happy that fate has brought them such a nice group. Outside of tricky away matches in Moscow and Bratislava, the Portuguese will be able to use the momentum they must surely pick up from hosting Euro 2004 to fire themselves into Germany. It is inconceivable that they will not at least make the play-offs, and given the easy nature of this group, the second placed team may well automatically qualify as well.

    Latvia shocked the whole of Europe by besting Turkey in November, and while they will be buoyed by that victory they will need to do something amazing in Portugal just to finish with a point. Even in this limited company (Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Estonia and Slovakia) the Latvians will have their work cut out. It is probably the easiest group to call: Portugal to win it comfortably, with Russia qualifying automatically in second spot as the team with the best record.

    Our final port of call for this part of the UEFA preview takes us to Group Four, and Paris, home of still the best team in the World, home of the two best individual footballers in the World, and home of the probable European Champions of next summer: France. In Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane France have the finest striker and the finest playmaker in football; they also have the likes of Thuram, Boumsong, Trezuguet, Viera, Makelele, Gallas, Cisse and Pires. Should the unbelievable happen and France does not make it to Germany, then we can all give up now and forget trying to predict anything. Bet your mortgage payments on France demolishing all-comers to win the group at a canter. Unless they meet someone like Senegal…

    Second spot in Group Four is much tougher to work out. Ireland are second seeds, but are in transition and might struggle away from Lansdowne Road. The Swiss are evolving quickly into a decent team, based on FC Basel's recent success in the Champion's League and UEFA Cup. Hakan Yakin is one of Europe's most outstanding prospects from midfield, and with a good mix around him the Swiss will do well. Israel will always perform well in such company, as will Cyprus and even the tiny Faeroe Islands – remember Berti Vogts' baptism of fire in Torshavn last year! Still, other than France, none of these teams is going to set the world alight, so we can safely predict France to win the group, and Switzerland to pip Ireland to second spot, and the play-offs.

    So that takes us to halfway, and means that so far we have the Czech Republic, Denmark, Portugal, Russia and France and Germany in the finals. Holland, Turkey and Switzerland are sat in UEFA headquarters listening to Lennart bore them senseless while they wait for their play-off opponents. Part two brings Italy, Scotland, England, Wales, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Sweden and Croatia. See you soon!



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