The 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea is nine months away, but less than three months remain for the field of 32 to be determined.
So far, only nine countries have earned their spots: the two host nations, defending champion France, former champion Argentina and the five African participants.
Qualifying play moves into higher gear this week with key matches in Asia, Europe, South America and, oh, yes, this corner of the globe.
The U.S. plays host to Honduras Saturday at RFK Stadium in Washington, then travels to San Jose, Costa Rica, for a Sept. 5 game against Costa Rica, which leads the six-nation group.
The U.S.-Honduras game is nicely balanced. Coach Bruce Arena’s second-place Americans have not lost at home in this round of qualifying and Coach Ramon Maradiaga’s third-place Hondurans have not lost on the road.
Honduras, a deserving third-place finisher in last month’s Copa America tournament in Colombia, suffered a setback last week when Italian-based forward David Suazo was ruled out because of an injury suffered in that event.
Costa Rica can wrap up a World Cup berth with a victory over last-place Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Saturday, followed by a victory over the U.S. next week.
Mexico’s position is more precarious. Coach Javier Aguirre’s fifth-place team is at fourth-place Jamaica Saturday in a crucial match for both. The Mexicans warmed up by demonstrating their defensive shortcomings in a 5-4 victory over Liberia in Veracruz Thursday.
If Mexico can somehow end Jamaica’s 50-game unbeaten streak at Kingston, it can leapfrog into the top three because its next game is an almost certain victory at home against Trinidad and Tobago on Sept. 5, the same day Honduras hosts Jamaica.
After that, a clearer picture will exist of which three CONCACAF teams will be going to the World Cup. The focus also is becoming better defined around the rest of the world.
With 14 spots at stake in all, there are two huge matches and several important ones Saturday.
Germany can become the 10th nation to earn its place by tying or defeating England in a sold-out battle of former World Cup winners in Munich’s Olympic Stadium.
German Coach Rudi Voeller is confident. “We have huge respect for the English side, but we are playing at home, in front of our own crowd, and are in a good frame of mind,” he said, later adding that English midfielders David Beckham and Paul Scholes and forward Michael Owen are Germany’s concerns.
In Dublin, meanwhile, Ireland faces the Netherlands in a game both must win to retain any hope of reaching Korea/Japan 2002.
Portugal is favored to win the group, leaving the Irish and Dutch to fight for the runner-up spot that leads to a playoff with the eight other group runners-up.
Russia can all but clinch its World Cup spot with a victory against Slovenia on the road Saturday, and Poland can do likewise by defeating Norway.
The showdown between Turkey and Sweden in Istanbul on Sept. 5 will produce a World Cup participant. Also within easy reach of qualifying are Spain and Italy.
Scotland’s destiny is in its own hands. Currently in third place in its group, it plays second-place Croatia Saturday and first-place Belgium on Sept. 5.
Similarly, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria are locked in a three-way battle.
Qualifying resumes Sept. 4 with Uruguay at Peru and Venezuela at Chile. Last week, the leadership of Chile’s soccer federation resigned en masse and Coach Pedro Garcia also quit, saying he was “sick and tired of all the criticism.”
Garcia said he would stick around for Saturday’s friendly against world-champion France in Santiago and for the Venezuela game, but would then step down.
“I don’t think there’s any support for the national team and so I believe it’s a waste of time for me to keep on sacrificing myself,” he said.
First-place Argentina can damage fourth-place Brazil’s chances when the countries meet in Buenos Aires on Sept. 5. Coach Marcelo Bielsa decided not to call up Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina’s all-time leading goal scorer, for the game, but the AS Roma striker already has done his part to rankle the Brazilians.
He said he sees no difference between playing against four-time World Cup winner Brazil and South American doormat Venezuela. “You don’t celebrate a goal differently just because it’s scored against one team or the other,” Batistuta said.
Also on Sept. 5, sixth-place Colombia plays host to third-place Ecuador in Bogota with both teams desperate to win, and second-place Paraguay entertains slumping Bolivia in Asuncion knowing that a victory could all but clinch a spot.
Only the top four are guaranteed a berth.
Qualifying is finished and the five nations that will travel to Korea/Japan 2002 are Cameroon, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia.
Ten countries remain in contention, divided into two groups of five. Only the group winners will qualify directly, with the two runners-up playing off for the right to join the nine European runners-up in a final playoff series.
Coach Bora Milutinovic’s China opened its account Saturday with a 3-0 home victory against the United Arab Emirates; Uzbekistan and Qatar, which play each other today, and Oman round out the group. China never has qualified for the World Cup, but Milutinovic, the former U.S. coach, is upbeat.
“If this time China can’t make the finals, I will jump off the Great Wall,” he told Agence France-Press on Friday.
The other five-team group features Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and rivals Iran and Iraq.
Australia won the qualifying group and is waiting to see who its playoff opponent--the fifth-place finisher in South America--will be.