This is where the big news is - all the qualifiers here will be competing in their first World Cup, and there will be no Nigeria, no Cameroon and no South Africa (the hosts of the 2010 tournament). But then again, it's easy for us to think of this as surprising - Senegal were one of the surprise packages of the 2002 World Cup, and famously beat the holders France in the opening game of the tournament - but followers of African football would have been able to tell you that they were a decent side. They had been runners up in the African Cup of Nations in that same year. Tunisia are the current holders of the African Cup of Nations. Didier Drogba plays for the Ivory Coast, but otherwise they are apparently half-decent....
Very much the usual suspects here. Co-hosts of the 2002 tournament Japan will be hoping to build on their 1/4 final appearance in 2002... but I think all eyes will be on Korea: surprise semi-finalists in 2002. Will they be able to reach those heights again?
Serbia & Montenegro
Yawn. Good to see Serbia & Montenegro in there, and it will be great to see Andre Shevchenko grace the biggest stage of all with the Ukraine. Otherwise it's a little hard to get excited.
North, Central American & Carribean Zone:
Mexico are 5th in the FIFA World Rankings, The USA are 6th and Costa Rica are 23rd... so they should all be worth watching in Germany....
South American Zone:
No real surprises here: these 4 sides finished comfortably at the top of the South American qualificiation group (which was won by Argentina)
There are also a few play-offs to determine the final qualifiers
Norway v Czech Republic
Spain v Slovakia
Switzerland v Turkey
Trinidad & Tobago v Bahrain
Uruguay v Australia
A few big names in here: Spain (8th in the FIFA rankings) have never won the World Cup, and seem to have made a habit of performing even worse than England. The Czech Republic are ranked 4th in the FIFA rankings & should come through against Norway (36th). Turkey (12th) were of course semi-finalists last time around... It will also be interesting to see if Australia (60th) can beat Uruguay (18th) in a repeat of the play-off for the 2002 tournament....
Whatever happens next summer, you can guarantee a couple of things:
- England will be ranked amongst the favourites - regardless of how poorly they have performed in qualification
- The BBC coverage will piss all over ITV's
- those stupid George cross flags will be flapping from white vans across the nation
- the nation will apparently be utterly convinced that this time we can really do it
- we'll be knocked out disappointingly, probably in the 1/4 finals, and most likely on penalties
- we'll probably secretly enjoy the tournament more after England's elimination
- We'll all be glued to our TVs throughout.
Incidentally, I watched the last World Cup final on the big screens of the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival... just after Rolf Harris had finished his set. I was sloshed on cheap red wine drunk from a 500ml mineral water bottle, and because there was no commentary, my memories of Ronaldo's goals are of me dancing with my friends to the cheerful samba rhythms being piped through the PA.
I've never enjoyed a game more.