World Cup Qualifying: Europe

Will Northern Ireland's luck hold out and take it to the World Cup finals in South Africa? And what about Hungary, which shares the Group 1 lead with Denmark, and also hasn't qualified for the finals since 1986? On the other hand, the biggest disappointment in European qualifying has been Portugal, which can't buy a goal.

Will Northern Ireland's luck hold out and take it to the World Cup finals in South Africa? And what about Hungary, which shares the Group 1 lead with Denmark, and also hasn't qualified for the finals since 1986? On the other hand, the biggest disappointment in European qualifying has been Portugal, which can't buy a goal.

It's been almost a quarter century since Northern Ireland qualified for the World Cup, but it is the surprise at the halfway point of European qualifying, leading Group 3 with a team of no-name players, many of them playing in the second level of English soccer.

Back-to-back victories over Poland and Slovenia in Belfast suddenly put Northern Ireland in first place in Group 3. It's a remarkable turnaround for Northern Ireland, which started with only one point from its first three games

Coach Nigel Worthington acknowledged that his team didn't get the "rub of the green" in the early stages of qualifying, but Northern Ireland certainly got it against Poland and Slovenia.

Northern Ireland received a gift in its 3-2 win over Poland at Windsor Park when Polish goalie Artur Boruc failed to control a harmless backpass and watched it roll into his goal. Four days later, Northern Ireland was outplayed by Slovenia but got a break when Robert Koren's shot hit the crossbar. On Northern Ireland's only shot on target, Warren Feeney gave the home team a 1-0 win thanks to a glancing header late in the game.

"Everyone's got to have dreams, including me and the players," said Worthington, "and we're in a nice position."

Northern Ireland leads Slovakia by a point and Poland by three but it has played two more games than Slovakia and one more than the other teams in the group. Of Northern Ireland's three remaining games, two are away - at Poland in September and the Czech Republic in October - so it still has its work cut out for it.

Feeney, currently playing on loan to Scottish club Dundee United, has spent time at four clubs over the last two seasons.

He says it would be "phenomenal" if Northern Ireland rewarded the Green and White Army, its fans, and qualified for South Africa 2010.

"You would end up with thousands from all over Britain traveling to watch us," he guaranteed. "It would be amazing."

MAGYAR MAKEOVER. Like Northern Ireland, Hungary hasn't appeared in a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico but is in contention for a berth in South Africa. It is tied with Denmark for the Group 1 lead though the Danes have a game in hand.
The appearance in the 1986 World Cup was the last of nine appearances in the finals. Hungary was second in 1954 when the Magical Magyars were upset by Germany, 3-2, in the final.

The Hungarian domestic game is a shadow of its former self. Coach Erwin Koeman, the architect of the Hungarian resurgence, has relied entirely on players based abroad. The 11 starters in Hungary's most recent game against Malta were scattered across Europe in different clubs in eight countries.

Koeman is the older of the Koeman brothers who played on the Netherlands' Euro 1988 team and later went into coaching.

He says the fact that his players are all based abroad means they have a very professional attitude. His job has been to boost their confidence after a long drought on the international stage.

The big test for the Hungarians will come when they must face Portugal home and away in September and October and close at Denmark.

ORANJE IMPRESS. Three teams - England, the Netherlands and Spain - have perfect records at the halfway mark, while Germany has one draw to go along with five wins.

Perhaps the most impressive performance has been that of the Netherlands. In their most recent outings, the Oranje pounded Scotland, 3-0, and Macedonia, 4-0.

Dirk Kuyt and Klaas Huntelaar scored in both games. Coach Bert van Marwijk, who took over for Marco van Basten after Euro 2008, has an abundance of options up front.

Arjen Robben also started both games and was outstanding. Also battling for playing time are Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, teammates of Huntelaar and Robben at Real Madrid, Arsenal's Robin van Persie and Ryan Babel, Kuyt's Liverpool teammate.

The fierce competition up front has created some tension. Sneijder was openly ticked that he only played 25 minutes against Scotland. Van Marwijk, whose son-in-law is defensive midfielder Mark van Bommel, said he wouldn't expect it to be any other way.

 "Wesley handled the situation well," said Van Marwijk. "Disappointment is allowed, it's normal even, just so long as you stay within certain limits. Limits Wesley did not even come near to exceeding."

And van Marwijk went out of his way to praise Sneijder's performance in a starting role against Macedonia.

OVERPRIVILEGED PORTUGUESE. The biggest disappointment so far has been without a doubt Portugal, which is tied for third in Group 1, seven points behind Denmark and Hungary.

The Portuguese have been horrible at home, losing to Denmark, 3-2, and tying Albania and Sweden, both 0-0, in their most recent qualifiers.

Asked for his solution to Portugal's scoring problems, Coach Carlos Queiroz wasn't greedy.

"One goal per game," Queiroz said. "Just score."

The former MetroStars coach said his players needed to work harder.

"There's no reason why [Cristiano] Ronaldo, Nani, Simao, Maniche and Tiago shouldn't play as well when they are on international duty as they do for their club teams," he said before the Sweden game.

He also seemed to suggest the players were spoiled.

"You have to win first and then you have privileges," he said.

AMERICAN CONNECTION. A pair of Americans could be headed to South Africa with European teams.

Former U.S. U-17 defender Neven Subotic made his qualifying debut for Group 7 leader Serbia in a 3-2 win at Romania.

Subotic, who has been tipped as a future partner for Manchester United star Nemanja Vidic in the middle of the Serbian backline, came on in the 65th minute and was on the field for only seven minutes when he received his first yellow card. Subotic's wish to play for Germany, where he plays for Borussia Dortmund, was turned down because he didn't meet FIFA's rules for youth internationals switching allegiances, so he chose to play for his father's Serbia. Subotic was born in Bosnia, then moved to Germany as a child and later the United States.

After scoring four goals for Italy at the 2008 Olympics, New Jersey product Giuseppe Rossi was promoted to Italy's senior national team and played his first qualifier for the Azzurri in their 0-0 tie at Bulgaria last fall. He was on the bench for their most recent games, a 2-0 win at Montenegro and 0-0 tie at Ireland that left Italy with a two-point lead over Ireland in Group 8.

Europe has one of the most confusing qualifying systems. It will send 13 teams to the 2010 World Cup, so only the nine group winners are assured of berths in the finals. The eight best second-place teams will square in four series to determine the other four finalists. How the eight best runners-up are determined is the tricky part since eight groups have six teams and one has five. To even things out, the results of the second-place teams against the sixth-place teams are thrown out.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)     

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