Hosts Germany, the eight group winners, plus the best two second-placed countries qualify automatically. The remaining six group runners-up go into play-offs over two legs, finally giving Europe fourteen representatives in the finals.
In Group One, both Holland and the Czech Republic coasted to comfortable away wins and look to be in pole position given that they have played a game less than their principal rivals Romania and Finland. Dutch victory came at a price as Ruud van Nistelrooy limped off injured but Chelsea’s Arjen Robben continued his good run, scoring his fifth goal in as many games. Liverpool’s hat-trick hero Milan Baros sustained a hamstring injury and will be out of action for a month.
AC Milan striker, Andrei Shevchenko, struck twice in the Ukraine’s Group Two 3-0 away win in Turkey, all but securing his country’s World Cup participation at this early stage. The former Soviet Republic has eleven points from five matches and is well clear of the competition that includes Greece. The European Champions recorded their first win since beating Portugal in Lisbon, finishing 3-1 victors over Kazakhstan. Georgia and Denmark shared a 2-2 draw that serves neither country well.
In Group Three, Portugal did not over-exert themselves in brushing Luxembourg aside 5-0.Cristiano Ronaldo, Maniche and Pauleta all found the net to top the table three points ahead of Slovakia who will be their next opponents onMarch 30. Russia stayed in contention with a 4-0 win against Estonia and Latvia won 3-1 in Lichtenstein.
Only Israel played within Group Four, their 2-1 win in Cyprus putting them level on points with the Republic of Ireland and France.
There were no games in Groups Five and Six, led by Italy and England respectively but in Group Seven, Serbia & Montenegro extended their lead at the top with a 2-0 away victory in Belgium. Lithuania remain in second thanks to a disappointing 1-0 result against San Marino.
In Group Eight, Hungary made up some ground with a 2-0 win in Malta but still have it all to do to trouble leaders, Sweden, Bulgaria and Croatia.
The eight group winners named below will be drawn into two groups of four next month. The top two finishers from each qualify directly, the third placed countries will play off and the winner then faces the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF qualifying competition for a place in Germany.
Four goals from former Bundesliga striker, Ali Daei, not only saw Iran qualify comfortably for the next stage with a 7-0 thrashing of Laos but also promoted the striker to a new goal-scoring record. 102 goals in 133 appearances for his country is an all-time best, way ahead of former greats Ferenc Puskas (84) and Pele (77).
Uzbekistan, Japan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, already assured of Round Two participation, went through the motions with differing enthusiasm – Uzbekistan celebrated with a 6-1 win against Taiwan whereas North Korea were content with a 1-0 defeat by the United Arab Emirates.
High tension was the order of the day in the remaining two competitive groups. Kuwait and China were equal on points at the start of play, with Kuwait just ahead on goal difference. A 7-0 win against Hong Kong, however, was just not enough for China as Kuwait’s 6-1 win against Malaysia saw the Arab nation go through on more goals scored. South Korea also needed a win to stay ahead of Lebanon. In the event, the former World Cup co-hosts beat the Maldives 2-0 while Lebanon could only draw at home with Vietnam.
All 10 hopefuls meet each other twice in the same group. The first four in the final table qualify directly for the World Cup Finals. The fifth place team goes into a two-leg play-off against the winners of the Oceania competition.
Last week, Brazil’s ten-game unbeaten run came to an end with a 1-0 defeat in Equador. The defending world champions remain in second place, two points behind new leaders Argentina who won 3-2 against Venezuela. With seven games to play, Paraguay and Ecuador are third and fourth, Uruguay currently occupy the play-off spot.
CONCACAF –North & Central America
The first two in each of the three groups compete against each other over two legs in the next phase. The top three then qualify for Germany with the fourth-placed team playing off against the fifth in the Asia competition.
In Group A, Panama pipped Jamaica, who drew with the already qualified United States, beating El Salvador with three first-half goals. In Group B, Canada’s 1-0 away win in Guatemala was too little too late as the Guatemalans joined Costa Rica in the next phase. Mexico dominated Group C, rounding off its group games with a resounding 8-0 slaughter of St. Kitts & Nevis. Trinidad & Tobago finished second to also progress.
*In Africa, only Kenya were in action in a previously postponed game against Group 5 leaders Guinea-Bissau. A 2-1 win puts the East Africans in a strong position, two points behind their opponents but with two further games in hand. Morocco and Tunisia, in the same group, trail at this stage.
* There were no games in the Oceania section.
Eleven supposedly ‘friendly’ encounters between nations not engaged in World Cup qualifying ties also took place last week. Three games kept to the spirit of the occasion, 0-0 draws not hurting anyone apart from France who would dearly have wished for a more upbeat result against Poland.
Elsewhere, blood flowed. Germany’s new coach, Jurgen Klinnsman, continued his unbeaten run, while his compatriot and opposite number, Winfreid Schafer, found himself out of a job as three German second-half goals saw Cameroon slump to defeat. The ‘indomitable lions’ have proven increasingly toothless in recent times and their manager has paid the price.
Scotland had already dispensed with their German coach, Berti Vogts, before their encounter with Sweden in Edinburgh. Stand-in boss, Tommy Burns, was hoping for a psychological boost against the Swedes who were without heavyweights Henrik Larsson, Ibrahimovic and Arsenal’s Freddy Ljungberg and maybe a little compassion from Celtic goalkeeper Magnus Hedmann. But he was to be disappointed. Allback scored either side of the break and Elmander and Berglund made it four before McFadden snatched a late consolation penalty. This was Sweden’s first win in Scotland for 51 years.
However, all these calamities were capped by England’s excursion to Spain. There was nothing ‘friendly’ about the welcome extended, Spanish coach Luis Aragones having stoked the fire days ahead of the game with racist comments about black players. Vile abuse and widespread ‘monkey’ chants almost sparked a walk-out in the Bernabau Stadium and a “horrified” FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, has threatened severe action which could see Spain become the pariahs of world football. A Spanish government apology did little to diffuse the situation that has been condemned by all quarters.
Quite understandably, the game itself became secondary. England looked limp at best as they lost 1-0. Rooney lost his temper and was taken off by Eriksson to spare him further embarrassment and Beckham should have followed him for his crass ineptitude. On a bad night for football, there was only one type of winner – racist bigots.
•DC UNITED beat the Kansas City Wizards 3-2 to claim the ninth American Major League Soccer title in California. The victory also gave 15-year-old wonder boy, Freddy Adu, who came on for ‘Man of the Match’ Alecko Eskandarian, the first silverware of his professional career. San Jose Earthquakes’ London Donovan was voted ‘Player of the Year’, becoming the first to take the award three times.
•In Russia, Lokomotiv Moscow celebrated only their second ever championship pipping big-spending ZSKA at the post. Minnows Krylias finished third, thus qualifying for next season’s UEFA Cup.
•Skonto Riga has taken the Latvian League title ahead of Metalurgs. The club from the capital have now won every championship since independence from the former USSR and hold the world record for the most successive titles.
•UEFA has given the green light to a new ball containing a microchip which will send a signal to a device on the match official’s wrist if the ball has passed sensors placed in the goalposts. If tests are successful, the system will be used in the 2006 World Cup ending a long run of 1966-type goal controversies.
•Former Dutch international Arie Haan, most recently in charge of China’s failed World Cup qualification bid, has been relieved of his duties.
•In the biggest match of the Spanish League season so far, Barcelona re-asserted their current superiority over rivals Real Madrid at the Nou Camp Stadium in convincing fashion. The game, which also represented a Portuguese duel between Deco and Figo, ended 3-0 in the Catalan club’s favour, with Ronaldinho, Eto and van Bronkhurst finding the net.
•Brazilian football legend, Socrates, now aged 50, turned out for non-league side Garforth Town, near Leeds, last weekend. The heavy smoker puffed his way through the last 12 minutes of the game against Tadcaster Albion coming off the bench with the score already tied at two a piece. He could have become an instant hero but his thundering 20-yard strike was kept out by the Tadcaster ‘keeper. Socrates is on a month’s loan in England’s North-East.