A World Cup without Ronaldo or Messi? Sounds absurd, but with Argentina and Portugal only two of several top teams stuttering in the qualifying campaign, it is anything but unlikely
With many having already written South Africa 2010 off as a tournament to forget before it has even begun, one wonders what the seemingly irrepresible doubters would have to say if Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Petr Cech, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o were all absent from the tournament. Would this be a good thing? Definetly not. With Portugal, Argentina and France – three genuine contenders and obvious favourites to win the competition each time it comes around in the minds of most – all potentially not boarding planes to Johannesburg, the World Cup would become a five-horse race between Brazil, Germany, Spain, Holland and England.
With all due respect to the two teams currently ahead of Argentina in the South American qualifying group – Chile and Paraguay – they can beat Argentina and Brazil in as many qualifiers as they like, but it’s hardly likely they’re going to be able to pull of enough upsets to win the World Cup. Italy, too, can not be considered clear contenders for their own crown in my opinion – no team, no matter what they did four years ago, who is humbled by Egypt and massacred by Brazil in the Confederations Cup can hope to be taken seriously as potential World Championships. Especially not in a squad of players aged, on average, 30. 30! No, without these big name nations – and their star players particularly – the World Cup will be even less of a success (in terms of the quality of the spectacle produced) than the sea of cynics are currently suggesting it will be. True, organisation and travel were near-disastrous in the Confed. Cup, but football fans would rather travel four hours in the pitch black through hordes of striking builders and angered, potentially violent locals to watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi than they would do to see Slovakia’s Marek Mintal or Gabon’s Fabrice Do Marcolino.
Yes, you heard me right – Slovakia and Gabon. While it is true we were all surprised when Togo made an appearance at the 2006 Finals, we can now see, fully aware of Emmanuel Adebayor, how they managed the miracle. Gabon, however, is another matter. Hull striker Daniel Cousin, who will be 33 when the World Cup comes around, is probably their most famous player, and they have never surpassed the Group Stages of the African Nations Cup. As for Slovakia, it is practically unheard of for a World Cup debutant to qualify from the highly proven and competitive European Qualifying section, never mind it by winning their group. Of course, it is superb that surprise packages such as these, as well as North Korea and (potentially) New Zealand and Bosnia-Herzegovina, continue to challenge our perhaps old-fashioned international football stereotypes. But anybody who says they’d rather see these minnow nations in South Africa come July 2010 than Portugal, Argentina, France or even Sweden, Mexico or the Czech Republic, is kidding themselves.
One minnow whose appearance in the Finals I certainly do look forward to is Honduras. Currently 3rd in a tightly-contested CONCACAF qualifying group ahead of Mexico and behind Costa Rica and the USA, the tiny Hondurans’ success should perhaps not come as such a surprise to us familiar with the talents of Wilson Palacios, his emminent Tottenham teammate Osmar Chavez and Wigan pair Maynor Figueroa and Hendry Thomas.
Although not as well equipped to face the World’s elite as faltering giants Mexico, who made up half of 2006’s one standout clash, incidentally with fellow big-name strugglers Argentina, it would be delightful to see Palacios and the rest of the European-based contingent (not forgetting Toronto FC playmaker Amado Guevara) make a name for themselves on the biggest stage. It would also present a fantastic opportunity for several of the undiscovered gems of North American football to put themselves in the shopping window. After all, on the evidence of Hendry Thomas and (probably) Osmar Chavez’s moves to the Premier League this Summer alone, there certainly seems to be a demand amongst English clubs for a Honduran fighting spirit – spirit they have needed in matches with fierce rivals El Salvador, whom they fought a war with in 1970 over no reason other than football.
And they we all were, doubting the footballing heritage of these “littler” countries – when was the last time England cared enough about winning football matches to go to war over it?.