World Cup 2014 Qualifying: Should we always back an underdog?

The first round of World Cup qualifying play-offs for teams outside of Africa drew to a close last week giving us a much better picture of the eventual line-up for Brazil in 2014. Among notable heavyweight clashes- the most prominent being Portugal against Sweden (or Ronaldo against Zlatan, as most media outlets have portrayed it) – Jordan took on Uruguay, Mexico played New Zealand and Iceland hosted Croatia.

These matches bring to mind the familiar clichés; David versus Goliath, underdogs, giant killings but is it really healthy for the tournament if the best players and teams to miss out? Jordan’s and New Zealand’s chances of progression have been all but eradicated losing 5-0 and 5-1 respectively. Some would say it is unfortunate that these ‘minnows’ miss out and the more familiar teams progress once again. New Zealand of course made it to last world cup and finished with the honour of remaining the only side to remain unbeaten (despite not making it out of their group) playing pretty uninspiring, backs to the wall football. It is surely preferable though, to see better teams playing attacking football rather than parking the bus.

That’s why I am pleased with these results, particularly Uruguay’s. Whatever one may think of Luis Suarez he remains a superb talent, always unpredictable and exciting. Edinson Cavani is another attraction, his bending free-kick the highlight of the first leg against Jordan. Mexico has fewer stellar talents, although Giovanni dos Santos appears to be realising some of his early promise with Villareal this season. However, the fact remains that the World Cup should be a celebration of the best football played by the best teams. This is not to say that smaller and non-traditional should not be at the World Cup but it is important that they are ready and can compete. Jordan’s and New Zealand’s results and performances show that they must develop more before being able to play at the highest level.

This is where Iceland differ and where the disparity between the different federations is shown. If Iceland qualify they will be smallest nation in terms of population to ever qualify and the only team to seeded sixth in their group to qualify. Whereas Jordan and New Zealand floundered, Iceland scraped a 0-0 draw against Croatia in Reykjavik despite their central defender Olafur Skulason being sent off early in the second half. Croatia have been struggling of late and have recently changed their manager but their team can still count Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Darijo Srna among their ranks. It is still unlikely that Iceland can beat Croatia in Zagreb (although their form at home as been poor-they lost 2-0 to Scotland in their last qualifier) but Iceland have already considerably overachieved.

Iceland came second in a group that was topped by Switzerland finishing ahead of Norway, Cyprus, Slovenia and Albania, a group that can be considered weak by European standards. Still, there is a large gulf between the teams Iceland beat and the teams Jordan and New Zealand beat. New Zealand came through the notoriously weak Oceania qualifying beating the likes of Tahiti and New Caledonia to get to this stage. Jordan came through Asia qualifying which is arduous (they played five rounds) but low on quality opposition. The point is that Iceland are simply at a higher level and would thus be more deserving of a place and they seem more likely to get it.

The World Cup should be about the elite level of football. Obviously not all the teams can be considered elite but Michel Platini’s suggestion that the World Cup should be extended to 40 teams is ludicrous. It will just further dilute the quality of the competition. Many would argue 32 is far too many. I am all for minnows and underdogs but only when they are ready and can compete with the traditional powerhouses of the football world. Quality should always be valued over inclusivity and that is why I will be hoping Iceland can qualify.

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