Sunday, October 20, 2013

Group of death awaits Socceroos at World Cup

Taste of things to come: It won't get any easier for the Socceroos when the World Cup kicks off in earnest in Brazil next year.

Taste of things to come: It won't get any easier for the Socceroos when the World Cup kicks off in earnest in Brazil next year. Photo: Reuters

The picture for the World Cup in Brazil next year is taking shape, and while it doesn't get any prettier for Australia, for all the neutrals and lovers of football out there it throws up some mouth-watering prospects.

The top group seeds became apparent when FIFA released its latest world rankings on Friday and there were some surprises, plus the possibility of more than one dreaded "Group of Death" at next year's showpiece.

The eight top seeds are the world's top seven ranked nations plus hosts Brazil. Here they are in order:









Yes, Switzerland, recent conquerors of Brazil. Sepp Blatter's home team rocketed seven places to seventh. That friendly victory over Brazil must have counted for a lot at FIFA HQ as their recent results include draws against the likes of Iceland and Cyprus.

Switzerland's meteoric rise edges out heavyweights such as England (up seven spots to 10th), 2010 runners-up Holland and 2006 champions Italy (equal 8th), who will be in the second tier in Brazil. Asian qualifiers such as Australia will be the bottom seeds in their groups.

So the Socceroos could find themselves drawn in a group with, say, Brazil and England, or Holland and Germany, Spain and Italy or Argentina and England just for old times sake, with an African nation thrown in for good measure. It's enough to give you goosebumps. At least we won't cop two Germanies as we did in 1974.

Old foes Uruguay's top seeding assumes they will beat Jordan (70th) in their playoff, which should be a lay-down misere for the 2010 semi-finalists. But should they slip up, Holland will squeak into the last top seeding on decimal points difference from Italy.

At least it's not Australia playing off with Uruguay – again – which could easily have happened but for Josh Kennedy's late header against Iraq.

Twenty-one of the 32 places in Brazil are now locked in: Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, England, Germany, Honduras, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Holland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and the USA.

The eagerly awaited pairings for the final European playoffs will be known late Monday night (AEDT). The top seeds in that sudden-death stage are Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Ukraine, with the other group comprising France, Sweden, Romania and tiny Iceland, who are fighting for a World Cup debut.

If you think the next Socceroos coach is getting a hospital pass, spare a thought for new Croatia coach Niko Kovac, appointed after Igor Stimac was sacked following the 2-0 loss to Scotland on Wednesday. Kovac has little more than three weeks to prepare Croatia for their double-header and the chance to join debutants and arch rivals Bosnia-Herzegovina at the fiesta in Brazil. No pressure there.

Didn't the Socceroos lose to Scotland by two goals last year? Hmm.

Croatia's situation pales against the crisis in Mexico heading into next month's playoff with New Zealand, who were great nuisance value at the last World Cup in South Africa. It's a much taller order for the All Whites than Bahrain this time around, except the Mexicans are in turmoil, on their fourth coach in just six weeks. Might be time to dust off the CV.

As for the hosts Brazil, they're back outside the world's top 10 on the vagaries of the FIFA rankings system, largely due to the fact they've been playing mostly friendlies after qualifying automatically as hosts. (Qatar's current ranking, if you were wondering, is $105 billion at zero interest.)

Incredibly, Brazil were languishing way down in 22nd a few months back after just two wins in nine games heading into the Confederations Cup, and looking most un-Brazilian.

They, and the football world, can thank the Socceroos for helping to play them back into samba form, but signs the slumbering giant was rousing were there in the 3-0 thrashing of Spain in the Confederations Cup. That helps put the subsequent 6-0 rout of Australia – the first set of our infamous "double bagel" – in some perspective. Well, just a little.

As a result, the Socceroos have slumped to 57th in the world rankings.

The full World Cup draw will be held on December 7. Then it gets real.
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