The “summer of soccer” has been all about international play, with events like Copa America, the Gold Cup, the U-20 World Cup and of course the Women’s World Cup all dominating the soccer landscape. However, it all means things are inching closer to getting really real for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
On Saturday the next step in the direction of that event took place as the 2018 World Cup Qualifying draw was done. For Asia it meant little, as the confederation is already in to the first phase of its qualifying process. The folks in South America already knew the drill, only waiting to find out which teams filled which spots in the 10-team qualifying round robin.
Africa, well…let’s just say things are going to take awhile to figure out there and realistically the next few rounds are more about weeding out the minnows before anything of substance gets figured out.
That left the most intrigue for the regions of CONCACAF and UEFA — aka North America (and the Carribean) and Europe. In fact, over the course of the two-plus hour event those two regions provided about the only drama that wasn’t manufactured on stage in the form of weird song and dance routines.
So, how did drama get provided by these two regions? Let’s start with a look at CONCACAF, which has technically started the qualification process with the Caribbean already eliminating some of its teams before the major rounds of qualifying start.
The drama didn’t start until the 4th round of qualification pots were drawn, as the big six of the region join qualifying for the first time.
The 3 groups for Round 4 of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying pic.twitter.com/cjdEzxhzf7
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) July 25, 2015
As the three groups were distributed it became clear that things were going to heat up as qualifying begins in earnest in early November. Two of the groups stand out because of history, Group A and Group C.
Mexico and Honduras square off at the top of Group A, while Canada attempts to somehow find a way to break through in a region it has struggled to compete in since making the 1986 tournament in Mexico. While over in Group C the United States and Trinidad and Tobago are paired together with a potentially intriguing Guatemala side that has caused trouble in past World Cup qualifying tournaments.
The Guatemalan side tied the United States and went on to win three of its six overall matches in the fourth qualifying round for the 2014 tournament. No doubt this is a group that scare even the mightiest of teams in the process.
Of course, there’s history between the USMNT and Trinidad and Tobago, as the two sides have often found themselves squared off in a do-or-die scenario for both or either of the teams. Any mention of these two teams harkens back to 1989 and the “shot heard round the world” by Paul Caliguri, which sent the USMNT to the 1990 World Cup.
However, these two sides have met time and agains since that fateful day and plenty of love has been lost. Let’s also not forget that the famed Trinidadian ex-boss of CONCACAF, Jack Warner, is being brought up on charges here in the United States as well.
While the drama may be less in the fourth round, it’s safe to say someone is going to surprise us all and that side may well be the other half of Sunday’s Gold Cup final — Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz are slotted in to play Nicaragua in round three and should advance. However, being drawn in with Panama and Costa Rica may have been a blessing in disguise. Neither squad looked particularly strong at this Gold Cup and it may be the tides turning at the right time that would do Jamaica well in Group B play.
The continental slug fest of CONCACAF is well and good, but let’s be honest…it pails in comparison to what is going to happen as UEFA begins the arduous task of qualifying for the World Cup. Immediately upon the draws completion it was obvious which groups were going to highlight the action — Group A, Group D, Group F and Group G — all of them for very different reasons.
Perhaps the toughest group to be drawn in to were those pulled in to Group A, where three heavyweights are going to clash for just one guaranteed spot and another heading to a playoff for another. Those three heavyweights are Netherlands, France and Sweden. Joining them in the group will be Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg — and if any thought they had a chance, seeing France join Sweden was enough to dampen those hopes, let alone seeing the Dutch come out of the first pot too.
Group D promises to be perhaps the most dramatic and intriguing group of the whole of UEFA World Cup qualifying. Wales, who has shot up to 10th in the most recent FIFA rankings headlines a group that is more wide open than any other we’re going to see. Adding to the drama are sides like Austria and Serbia who appear to be on their way up in international soccer. Of coruse, Ireland, managed by Martin O’Neil can never be counted out either and that means four teams likely to be in a dog fight. Sorry Moldova and Georgia, this group has you in trouble for making any sort of noise. Look for the four top teams to dominate the minnows and for a mess to be had around it.
As fun as Group D promises to be, Group F brings out all the passion and then some. Getting bitter rivals England and Scotland in to the same group is mouth watering for not only the two fan bases but also for the neutral observer. But, don’t sleep on the two “S” sides of the group either, as Slovakia and Slovenia aren’t slouches and trips to those two countries won’t be easy for anyone in the group. Lithuania is also one of the best teams to be in “pot 5,” making this group dangerous if England sleepwalks at all.
No group provides two bigger names than Group G though, as perennial powers and former World Cup winners Spain and Italy square off at the head of the group. Israel could also be intriguing, but it appears a two-team race between heavyweights not just in Europe, but in all of international soccer will battle it out to guarantee advancement.
Imaging a scenario where sides like France or Italy or Sweden aren’t even involved in the final playoff round is certainly a real and frightening proposition for fans of those sides.
As we head in to the teeth of World Cup qualifying across the six confederations, let’s just say keeping a keen eye on CONCACAF and UEFA is going to be a good bet for entertainment and dramatic value.