Four countries approaching their first World Cup berths
As the European and African World Cup qualifiers reach their climax, we take a look at four well-placed nations that have never previously played at the World Cup finals.
It was all looking so good. Bosnia had taken four points off Greece and had scored hatfuls of goals in taking control of group G. Fans who have suffered the disappointment of losing in the playoffs twice in successive tournaments began to think that this time they might make it through to a major finals for the first time. There is pressure; nobody is under any illusions that a generation of players this good -- Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic, Zvjezdan Misimovic, Senad Lulic -- will come around again any time soon. If Bosnia is to make it to a World Cup, it's now or, if not never, then at least not for a very long time.
Last month, Bosnia faced a double-header against Slovakia, the last major hurdle. In Zenica, it was flat, anxious, and lost 1-0. Greece pulled level on points. Four days later, Bosnia went to Slovakia, accompanied by 7000 fans. With 20 minutes remaining, it trailed 1-0. Then defender Ermin Bicakcic headed in a corner. Eight minutes later, young substitute Izet Hajrovic belted in a euphoric screamer, and Bosnia won 2-1.
They lead Greece only on goal differential, but wins at home to Liechtenstein and then away to Lithuania would see the Bosnians through.
Until this year, Burkina Faso had got beyond the group stage of the African Cup of Nations only once -- in 1998 when it hosted the tournament and reached the final. The team has risen dramatically under the controversial Belgian coach Paul Put though and, playing highly disciplined football, reached the final in South Africa before losing 1-0 to Nigeria in the final. Its defensive solidity remained in the qualifiers as Burkina Faso conceded only one goal in six games (although a 0-0 draw against Congo was recorded as a 3-0 defeat after the Stallions were found to have fielded a ineligible player).
There is attacking quality in the side, with Jonathan Pitroipa adding pace and a creative edge, Charles Kaboure playing an elegant central midfield and Aristide Bance giving Burkina Faso a committed and physical forward.
The Stallions face Algeria in the first leg of their playoff Saturday suddenly believing something few Bukinabes even dreamed was possible.
There is another strange aspect to its fairytale, and that is the redemption of Put, who was banned for match-fixing in Belgium. He insists he fielded a weakened team while coach of Lierse only because his children were threatened and that he accepted the ban only because FIFA permitted him to work elsewhere if he didn't contest it. A court case is pending.
Ethiopia was one of the early giants of African football, one of the four founding members of the Confederation of African Football in 1957. It won the Cup of Nations on its home soil in 1962, but since then there was been a steady decline. This year was the first time Ethiopia had so much as qualified for a Cup of Nations since 1982. Its vocal fans impressed in South Africa, but the team, which features only four full-time professionals, picked up a single point on its way to a group-stage elimination.
The improvement that carried the Walia Antelopes to Cup of Nations qualification has also carried them to a playoff for the World Cup after eliminating South Africa with its blend of uncompromising defending and the rapid breaks of Saladin Said and Adane Girma. Ethiopia faces the African champion, Nigeria, which beat it 2-0 in this year's Cup of Nations, both goals coming from late penalties.
"If you look seriously at that match, Nigeria were not a better team than us," insisted Ethiopia's coach Sewnet Bishaw. "Up to the end we were performing good. But in the last 10 minutes, they used their experience, so they got two penalties. I think we will have a better game in the coming match against Nigeria."
The smallest nation, in terms of population, ever to qualify for a World Cup was Trinidad and Tobago, which was eliminated in the group stage in 2006. It has a population of roughly 1.3 million. Montenegro's is around half of that, yet with two games remaining, it stands just a point behind England and level with Ukraine, with the advantage of a home game against Moldova -- which ought to be a secure three points -- to come as its final match. The key game, though, is Friday at Wembley Stadium, where it will face an England team to which it has not lost in three attempts. However, Montenegro will be without the Lille defender Marko Basa and, probably, the Juventus forward Mirko Vucinic, both of whom are carrying injuries.
For a country that only became a FIFA member in 2007, this has been a meteoric rise, based largely around the forward power of Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic. If, as expected, Vucinic misses out against England, he will be replaced by the FC Seoul forward Dejan Damjanovic, a perpetual understudy who is good enough to be the leading foreign goalscorer of all time in the K-League and whose goal in the semifinal helped Seoul reach the final of the Asian Champions League, to be played at the end of this month.