Just in time for some-but-not-all of the first qualifiers to be determined, here’s part two. The oopsie I made in your slippers on Tuesday here.

Group E

Netherlands (World Cup: Final), Sweden (UEFA qualifiers Group 1: 3/6), Finland (Qualifiers Group 4: 3/6), Hungary (Qualifiers Group 1: 4/6), Moldova (Qualifiers Group 2: 6/6), San Marino (Literally the worst team ever)

Sheila, circa 1978. Yes, my mother did used to be Martin Lawrence.

This year, and quite unexpectedly, the Dutch reached the World Cup Final for the first time since my mother danced to the Bee Gees. (I can only assume.) They did this with an unfancied team, after the most faltering of starts, etc etc… It’s big, is what I’m trying to say. Only a year ago the Netherlands’ stars, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, were being unceremoniously dumped onto the transfer market by Real Madrid, a little taste of humble pie that culminated in a facefull of it for Madrid as the ex-galacticos showed what they could do for their new teams, both Champions League finalists, at Real’s home stadium. I guess there’s a reason the whole Spain squad comes from Barcelona.

Now that the World Cup is through they’re going to lose some people, most especially Van Bronckhorst. (Incidentally, does anyone know the convention for Dutch last names?  I know in French you drop the ‘de’ if the name is longer than a syllable – so ‘de Gaulle’ by ‘Lafayette’ – while in German ‘von’ indicates nobility so you’re always supposed to use it.) Hatchet man Mark van Bommel has been named their new captain, though, and everybody else is still on form. They have enough talent to overcome almost any degree of shakiness and the real danger is that, weighed down by scorn over their performance in Johannesburg, they pull back on their physicality too much. Like it or lump it, that’s how they got to the Final in the first place, and as the team reshapes around Robben and Sneijder it’s a useful stopgap.

Unlike some groups they’ll have stout competition. Sweden are under new management and they secured the instant coup of the return of petulant journeyman striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Not only is he a top class player, he’s a top class douchebag: Asked if he was getting his fiancee an engagement present he replied, “She gets Zlatan.” If I was called Zlatan and stood 6’20” I suppose I’d be slightly cocky, too, and Sweden have enough talent to justify him by building a squad around his striking prowess. Young midfielders like Martin Olsson are available in some abundance to fill out the now obligatory 4-2-3-1. (Or they might play two up front with new man Marcus Berg partnering with Ibra, though there’s not much evidence of how they’d work together.) Two goals from Olsson impressively put away Bosnia/Herzegovina in a friendly match in May, and on Ibra’s return Scotland – admittedly understrength, but when aren’t they? – were devastated.

Their partners from Group 1, Hungary, don’t look like challengers. Somewhat sad in a way, considering that Hungary are one of the two or three nations most conspicuous for their lack of international success. But they’re a smallish nation with no well-funded major league to promote their talent and Africa, not Eastern Europe, is now the growth area. They’re impressive enough, but the weak Sweden of 2009 was already too much for them. Sweden will be stronger this year – to say nothing of the Dutch.

One can’t be so sure about Finland. They don’t have much going for them but, not for nothing, they were the only team in qualification that Germany couldn’t beat. They finished a surprisingly strong third a mere four points behind Russia. Then again they drew to Lichtenstein and have never qualified for anything ever, and you’re hard-pressed to find a Finnish “name”. That could be a good thing – a bunch of players with some talent and small egos working together as a team, which is something of a Nordic trademark – but to face the other three in this group you need quality. I’m not sure they have enough.

The Dutch to win. Sweden second. Finland and Hungary have outside chances, but no better than maybe 3:1 or 5:1, respectively.

Key matches: All of them. Even the matches against the crappy teams: this group might come down to goal difference, which means scoring 12 against San Marino matters.

Group F

Croatia (UEFA qualifiers Group 6: 3/6), Greece (World Cup group stage: 3/4), Israel (Qualifiers Group 2: 4/6), Latvia (Qualifiers Group 2: 3/6), Georgia (Qualifiers Group 8: 6/6), Malta (Qualifiers Group 1: 6/6)

A big 2010 reunion here: Greece, Latvia and Israel were respectively 2, 3 and 4 behind Switzerland in Group 2 of the World Cup qualifiers.

Croatia are by some reckonings one of the World’s top ten teams despite missing out on a World Cup playoff spot. They benefit from the consistency of Slavan Bilic, coach since 2006, despite the fact that he’s perpetually thought to be on the verge of resignation (as late as November he was talking up a Premier League move). His record is why: despite the disappointment of 2010 he has a .710 average with only four defeats in thirty-eight matches. Croatia have an embarrassment of riches for such a small nation, with a first team that boasts starters from the best leagues in Europe, including a trio at Tottenham Hotspur. They’ll need a serious inquest into their tactics after a string of middling results but they’ll have the opportunity to experiment a little with Latvia before their home meeting with Greece. (A box of wine and some Kenny G is probably a good place to start.)

The two meetings with Greece will decide which one will qualify automatically – though Croatia and not Greece will be a lock for one or the other of the top two spots. Brand new coach Fernando Santos has domestic experience but will be thrown into the deep end 7 September. In his predecessor’s nine year term, encompassing a 2004 European Championship victory, relatively few players saw action as an established, trusted side was played over and over. That was then: now they’re stale and were found out at the World Cup, where only two players were under 25 (versus eight 30+ and six who had fewer than 10 caps, including two who had never featured for the national team before). The country featured regularly in the advanced stages of European club competition, but the league has suffered lately and is now a lesser Scotland, with Olympiacos besting Panathinakos about once every six years. Constant European play lets the two big clubs buy players from outside Greece, which dilutes the talent pool for the national team. Lately, it’s showed.

Israel and Latvia both finished relatively solidly in an even group for the 2010 World Cup qualifying, mostly because it was also really awful. Latvia did especially well considering they have a squad that boasts nothing in the way of European competitors, while Israel often sends a team to the group stage of the Champions League (this year Hapoel Tel Aviv) but finds itself too Jewish for Asian competition and too poor for European.  Either of these teams have an outside chance – but only an outside chance – of stealing a march on Greece. Georgia and Malta do not (indeed I suspect football fans in the latter may wish they’d accepted the chance to fuse with England even after the World Cup).

Croatia should win. I’d like see Latvia or Israel sneak into the playoffs as rank outsiders but it’ll probably be Greece.

Key matches: Croatia against Greece for first; Latvia and Israel against Greece for second.

Group G

England (World Cup: Round of 16), Switzerland (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Bulgaria (UEFA qualifiers Group 8: 3/6), Wales (Qualifiers Group 4: 4/6), Montenegro (Qualifiers Group 8: 5/6)

Speaking of being on crack, I feel confident enough after England’s friendly win and the following tabloid reports in predicting the Three Lions as runaway winners in 2012 and Brazil 2014.

Why? For the lulz.

A well-researched dramatization of Fabio Capello giving the bad news to a hapless young Englishman.

Fortunately for dear old England, they’ll have the benefit of a slimmed down (and relatively anemic) fixture list. England aren’t so hard to upset, but of the other teams here only Switzerland’s a real contender to take points from them. The Special One allegedly-kind-of-but-not-actually thinks England is doomed under Fabio Capello. He can backpedal all he wants – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that a nation who cannot find the native coaching talent to have a national manage their team has no place in the first rank. Could you imagine Italy having a foreign coach? The Dutch? The Spanish? No, but you can imagine them winning something, too.

Qualification was supposed to feature the departure of the old guard and the arrival of new faces like Jack Wilshere, Adam Johnson and – one can only hope – Tom Cleverley. In the event of the promising youngsters only Johnson and Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs actually made it into the squad, with Wilshere sent back to the under-21s. Other overlooked players, including Darren Bent and Everton’s Phil Jagielka, did break the final squad, where they’re joined by Joe Hart. Though it’s too early to tell, Hart looks to be the first time England is in safe hands in almost a decade. Assuming he’s as good as his recent form you can expect him to be firmly in goal there for a decade or more.

Below that the group is perhaps the most finely balanced in the competition. At the very bottom I’d lay aside Montenegro due to youth (of the team, not the players); their first competition since independence was the World Cup campaign. There’s no reason they can’t emulate a nation like Slovenia, especially when the Euros expand in 2016, but I don’t see it yet. Switzerland were the only team in the World Cup to take points from Spain but it was an absolute smash-and-grab – and a classic on the level of any of these. Switzerland can’t often be accused of involvement in classics, since their last two World Cups have featured mostly long, dull, grinding games, including their draw against minnows Honduras when a win would have sent them to the round of 16. I don’t know how to say choke in French, Italian or German, but I bet a few people have been practicing.

Bulgaria and Wales are odd things. Both have teams with skill anchored by quality players. Bulgaria feature several talented Petrovs. Wales can call on Robert Earnshaw and Craig Bellamy up-front – the latter, now back in Wales and out of the Premiership entirely, might be moved to focus more on international performance – as well as Gareth Bale, who has been something of a sensation lately. That’s never translated internationally, perhaps as he’s been played at fullback rather than on the wings in midfield. As the Welsh squad thins out space there may be space for Bale to grow into the team, which would be a godsend for them. Aaron Ramsey, sickeningly injured against Stoke in February, should be back at some point in the qualifying campaign. If they can be made to work, these four could carry Wales far indeed.

England to qualify outright, though with nothing near a perfect record. I’ll gives Wales the narrow nod to reach their first European championship ever, though Bulgaria with good odds as well. The Swiss are the favorites if you’re laying money on it but they’re like Midas, only with shit, and I don’t like them. So they don’t qualify. Simple, no?

Key matches: England away to Switzerland; any Wales against Switzerland.

Group H

Portugal (World Cup: Round of 16), Denmark (World Cup: Group E, 3/4), Norway (UEFA qualifiers Group 9: 2/5), Cyprus (Qualifiers Group 8: 4/6), Iceland (Qualifiers Group 9: 5/5)

Another evenly balanced collection. You know, I rather like these five-team groups. Five is a pleasant number, found often in nature, while six is bloated and grotesque. The more you know.

Carlos Queiroz letting us know exactly where we can put our drug tests.

A reunion for Denmark and Portugal, the World Cup qualifiers from UEFA Group 1. Despite finishing behind unfancied Denmark (in a group including Sweden and Hungary), Portugal clawed their way out of the World Cup group stage with draws to Ivory Coast and Brazil before their obligatory 1-0 rout to Spain. Carlos Queiroz remains for now as Portugal coach, which is a lucky break for their opponents, as are the retirements of Deco and Simao. (Watch this space, however: persistent accusations of interference with drug testers have led to a six month ban for Queiroz, which may prove too much for the Portuguese FA to take.) Cristiano Ronaldo remains on good club and solid international form, but the team was unsettled to the very end in South Africa and Ronaldo has never been well-integrated into the national side. He’ll be out injured initially, and their initial squad combines a core of experienced players with several younger, less tested options across the field. Portugal, until now somewhat old, need the experience.

Riddled with injuries and themselves looking even older than they actually were, their qualifiying group betters Denmark simply weren’t. Wholly deserving their demolition against Japan, they’ll look to engage in the same kind of comprehensive reconstruction as England, France and Italy. They’ll keep well-respected coach Morten Olsen through the 2012 campaign,by which time he’ll have the longest tenure of any national team manager in the country’s history. He’ll have his work cut out for him: the venerable but aged Jon Dahl Tomasson has retired and Dennis Rommedahl, at 32, can’t be far behind. With Bendtner out against Iceland there are no other stand outs in front, and both Rommedahl and Poulsen have more individual caps than the rest of the forwards and midfielders combined.

Fortunately, both teams’ meetings are interspersed with six competitive friendlies. Norway is the only other side capable of mounting any challenge and managed second place in the World Cup qualifying group only after a spastic display against Macedonia and Scotland. This group has real teams. The defining characteristic of the other three is not their ability to qualify – they won’t – but whether they take points off the two leaders. That will make the difference.

Olsen will have his work cut out for him, but is trusted and has some young talent coming through. He’s also relatively adaptable, which is good, as a thin bench will continue to force it upon him. Queiroz did barely enough not to get fired with a team that I could get to the World Cup Finals. (Half of which he missed, having been banned from the first two by his own country.) This is a case where the manager not merely matters but where switching them would almost guarantee a reversed result. Denmark qualifies automatically. Portugal second and a contender for best runner-up.

Key matches: Denmark and Portugal and not much else.

Group I

Spain (You damn well know), Czech Republic (UEFA qualifying Group 3: 3/6), Scotland (Qualifying Group 9: 4/5), Lithuania (Qualifying Group 7: 4/6), Liechtenstein (Qualifying Group 4: 6/6)

If Spain don’t win every match I’ll work in a poultry factory in Cambodia for a year. If their form slouches they might concede a goal on the way. The others might as well refuse to play them in the hope they get rusty without practice.

In Group 9 for the World Cup, which featured a Dutch side that didn’t lose and four other teams, Norway lost out on a playoff spot with the worst second place record, 10 points from 8 games. With 14 final places up for grabs the best goes straight up rather than the worst straight down, so about that number will do for one of the three contenders. (The Purple Parrots of Liechtenstein will miss out on the trip to Space Camp but receive a gift certificate to FAO Schwartz.) Both Scotland and the Czechs were disastrous in the World Cup qualifiers, Scotland’s 1-0 result in a March friendly equivalent to being Best Underperformer.

Now, I like Scotland. I was impressed despite their loss to the Dutch in the final group game. And then I watched them get walloped by Sweden. Mass rejections of a Scotland call-up left coach Craig Levein with little of a first team and they were run down as Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his return. Neither Scotland nor the Czechs have an Ibrahimovic, though Chelsea keeper Petr Cech is almost as good and the various journeyman keepers Scotland can call on (the latest Blackpool’s Matt Gilks via his father’s mother’s sister’s cousin’s aromatherapist’s girlfriend in Inverness) are not. Which might have had something to do with the 3-0. In a race for who sucks less, it’s the Czechs by a country mile.

I’m sorry – what’s that? Lithuania? Oh. Well. No.

Key matches: Any Scotland and Czech Republic.

FULL TIME. So that’s it. No denying the Dutch were good for this, especially after bringing on Elia (it would be incomprehensible if they can’t find a place to start him after a display like that). As for Denmark, all this means is that it won’t be 1986. They’re not running away with anything. But from today’s form I can see them taking results against both Cameroon and Japan, who play momentarily. Now they’ll need to; but that’s the hardest match out of the way. Thanks to Mike de Vries and Sean Carroll and Peter in Denmark, and to the surprising number of people who checked in on this. For a first effort, it was a gas.
90+3 min. Sneijder takes a knock and petulantly stays on the ground like a dead fish, spewing abuse at a Danish player.
90+2 min. A final, desperate run is wasted. The Dutch still have near-unchallenged authority in the two-thirds of the pitch near then. I came to work 90 minutes early for this.
88 min.  MASSIVE CLEARANCE! Elia fatally breaks into the box again and beats Sorensen, but the effort isn’t fast enough and a defender (Poulsen?) boots it off the line at literally the terminal moment. If it were close, that would have been the moment of the match.
85 min. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!! Elia breaks away with Kuyt on the two central defenders. Elia winds up, strikes half-powerfully and it bounces off the post, pass the outrunning Daniel Agger and straight to Dirk Kuyt. He boots it into the empty net.
80 min. Denmark actually moves again, but three times are either dispossessed or let the ball run away from them. How do you come back from this? Also, I think I was slightly unfair to Daniel Agger, but then so was the Jabulani. Though really I blame the vuvuzela. And international communism.
77 min. Remembering the match against Portugal, we know that Denmark comes on late. It’s their bread and butter. Van Persie off for youngster Affelay. Teams are getting younger and younger all the time… ESPN also wants you to vote for man of the match. My pick’s Daniel Agger (NED).
73 min. Elia is practically rioting on the Danish right, outrunning his men and crossing for van Bommel. The back line is holding but the Danes are not looking like winners. They need a chance and pronto. 18 year-old Christian Eriksen comes on for the effort.
71 min. Confronted with a big opening Mark van Bommel decides that charity requires the donation of his ball to some of the poorer neighborhoods on the opposite side of the city. A decisive man, he uses his right foot to send it express.
70 min. Elia gets away, but Sorensen calls out the militia and the effort is cleared away on a pass.
68 min. Van der Viart off, Elia on. American commentator says all that Mike de Vries just said for free and is richly praised by John Harkes.
66 min. A free kick for reckless glaring is awarded to Denmark. It’s a good ball in, but headed away, and a resulting cross back scorches away faster than Jay Leno’s ratings. “Thinking from a Dutch perspective we might see Affelay or Elia come on in order to stretch the Danish back line late on,” prognosticates Mike. We’re gonna hold you to that.
62 min. Striker Beckmann on for Bendtner! Probably insurance for Bendtner’s injury issues, but that doesn’t smack of much confidence of salvaging a result. Denmark are dropping passes everywhere and, like England, look like the error has got under their skin. How doesn’t it? “Remarkable that the Dutch haven’t scored any goals actually,” Peter remarks from Copenhagen. I think it’s more remarkable that they have. This performance is shaky. Probably good enough to hold on, but shaky.
59 min. Decent save by Sorensen. The mostly unmarked Van Persie passed to the entirely unmarked Van der Viart, who takes a stab. Not much for it, as the Danish defender was out of position to convert for the goal.
57 min. First sub. Enevoldsen off, Gronkjaer on, almost immediately gets his first touch.
55 min. Another Guardian commentator for Denmark, freshfromdk, remarks that he thinks the Dutch are playing a severe game and getting away with it. That it took de Jong so long to get booked is bizarre, but I’m not sure the Dutch aren’t just playing the physical game the Danes usually do but aren’t.
53 min. Another Dutch foul leads to another wasted Danish free kick. “Well a dull first half gives way to a dull opening goal! A lovely header from Poulsen takes a touch off his own man,” quips Mike de Vries. But it was a lovely header, was it not? I call that looking on the bright side.
49 min.Sean Carroll writes, “Come on Holland, a draw here is not good for Japan!” Yeah, Denmark’s stealing all that own goal thunder!
46 min. HORROR! – An own goal to Agger, though Poulsen is sensed to have some culpability. A quick rush by Van Persie sends him wide, but he maintains possession and flings it into the box, where the defenders convert. Some team talk they must have had.
Half -This match has rather been like a work by that Great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard – heavy with flashes of brilliance but long stretches of rather tedious digression. Fortunately that has not included many of the odd vowels favored by the Danes which, having never seen them on Sesame Street, I can only think heretical. (Come to think, do the Danes have Sesame Street? And what the Hell do the Japanese do?)
ESPN are so invested in this match they’re encouraging people to wake up their friends – for Japan and Cameroon. Thanks for that.
“The Dutch are too slow,” says Gullitt. I think the primary problem is that they’re a bit too fancy. But of course calling the Dutch slow is already too thinky for ESPN, which quickly cuts away to a report about Tim Howard’s injury as a result of Emile Heskey playing soccer in his general area.
It goes out for a corner which Bendtner fails to convert. “Right now these two Europeans – the giants – are looking to change things up for the second half,” says American. Denmark? Giant? Aw, shucks. We’ll see what Ruud Gullitt has to say about this fact.
Also, correction on 44: de Jong picks up his booking. About bloody time.
44 min. – de Jong brings down Bendtner – his tackles are coming with increasing nastiness – but he dodges the card. Christian Poulsen’s free kick is wasted, on Simon Kjaer or indeed anyone shorter than a Chinese NBA star.
43 min. – Van Persie gets clear in the penalty area, but can’t deliver a shot until Agger and Sorensen have all the roads covered. It goes agonizingly wide. In the commentary box, American commentator says blah-blah-blah. John Harkes says yes.
40 min. – “They don’t ever actually build up a play,” sighs Peter. “They just shoot it off to the Dutch and wait for a counter.” What else do you do? Denmark’s got a world class defense but players up front who don’t have the ability to carve up a packed defense. The breaks are the best chance. Inter did it successfully during the Champions League final.
38 min. – Absolutely deadly break leads to a shot from Kahlenberg palmed away for a corner. The resulting kick leads to a Sneijder breakaway, but though he’s good to win it he’s not to keep it. The Danish defense must be among the best we’ve seen so far.
36 min. – Denmark wins a free kick, which Kjaer rifles into the wall. The Dutch are dominating possession but two of the three best shots have come off a Danish boot. This is really tight stuff.
35 min. – On counter-attack the ball is crossed beautifully to Dennis Rommedahl, unmarked high on the right. Rommedahl rushes in and unleashes a zinger, which unfortunately goes straight into the arms of Martin Steklenburg. He’s definitely on notice after that one.
33 min. – Van Persie nearly has a sitter but Simon Kjaer forcefully muscles him off. Schneijder for the corner… leads to a close-range cracker from Kuyt!
32 min. – “Denmark are holding their defensive shape really well. They are frustrating the Dutch passing,” says Mike. And that’s exactly what they’ve got to do. Indeed it’s their only hope, that and finding the droids they’re looking for.
30 min. – Oh, for those just joining us for a little pastry trivia: the Danish call Danish wienerbrød, which means “Viennese bread.” But then what do the Viennese call it? Must get to the bottom of this. A fair challenge brings down Martin Jorgensen, who doesn’t get back up. Some players mill about like cops at a crime scene.

27 min. – Does anyone else feel disconcerted to hear an American commentator? It’s like instant coffee, it just isn’t right. Meanwhile Dennis Rommedahl lifts in an excellent cross on a rare Danish attack; Bendtner heads narrowly wide.
23 min.Mike says, “I’m loving van der Wiel’s charging runs from deep. He’s causing a few issues. The Dutch are just starting to click into gear a little.” I was going to quip that that gear is neutral, but of course Denmark are wandering around at vague distance from their own goal, occasionally obligingly hoofing the ball towards the Dutch goal.

21 min. – Brilliant run by van der Viart ends in frustration some twenty yards out. He keeps possession but shoots well wide.

19 min. – The Dutch win a corner which comes to naught. No Rommedahl, but injuries seem today to favor Denmark, which was highly unexpected. “The danish players dont gain control over the ball at all. They just hit the ball randomly away from the Dutch,” Danish Peter complains. How very English of them. At least they’re not serving it up shined and on a doiley.

14 min. – Denmark are locked up tight but this far aren’t doing much but repelling slightly shiftless attacks. The vuvuzelas are eternally peppy, though. I can’t believe they want to ban them. I think they’ve got a delicious existentialist quality.

12 min.Sean reports that Japan favors the Dutch to take three points today. Surely this outcome is more likely than desirable. Peter in Denmark: “At least they haven’t scored.” Typical Danes.

8 min. – Good also to see Enevoldsen playing for Denmark; he made a bit of a splash in the qualifier against Senegal. First Van der Wiel makes a run and Kuyt follows up; both come to naught.

6 min. – Lousy DC bus system. I rush into work just in time to see a) a crunching tackle and missed Dutch free kick and b) Bendtner’s alive!  He’s alive!

It’s 7:00 and I’m alone in a windowless room, which means it’s time for my very own extraordinary rendition of the tried and true minute-by-minute. More speculative than a Greek government bond, it is my hope that this effort entertains, informs and failing that avoids the sort of humiliation normally reserved for a first-choice England goaltender. (No points for the observation that it’s far, far too late.)

Group E’s  juggernauts the Netherlands meet my own adopted Denmark in a match-up whose conditions bear some similarity to this year’s Arsenal-Barcelona tie in the Champions League. Both teams were automatic group qualifiers; both feature strong defenses and attacking players of individual brilliance; both share not merely a style but a shared experience of play, with many players on both sides hailing from the Dutch Eredivisie; and one is the obvious favorite, overflowing with talent, while the other looks in desperate need of their own hospital emergency room. The Dutch may be short the miraculous if folically-challenged Arjen Robben, but they have a side packed with players of unquestioned international quality like Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and the retiring Giovanni van Bronckhorst. By contrast Denmark feature a combination of old international hands and up-and-coming youngsters like defender Simon Kjaer and Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner, both of whom have been struck by the illness and injury plague that has also raised doubts over keeper Thomas Sorensen, striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, midfielder Daniel Jensen and even the coach, Morten Olsen. Olsen already ruled out Bendtner, though there are hints in the Danish press it may be a strategem, especially when he declares that he’d be perfectly satisfied with a draw. Given how badly outclassed Denmark is supposed to be, you don’t blame him.

But the teams’ histories are more complicated. The Dutch, of course, stand with Hungary and Spain as one of the best national teams never to win the World Cup. They created the total football that revolutionized the game but twice in a row fell just short of the prize, having to content themselves with a European Championship in 1988. They looked to repeat but the Danes, winners of the classic World Cup Group of Death six years before and admitted to the 92 Championship days before thanks to the expulsion of the collapsing Yugoslavia, saw them off in a thrilling semifinal penalty shootout on their way to a shock victory. Since then the Danes have been relatively unfancied and unimpressive, only reaching the World Cup Finals twice between 1986 and 2010, while the Dutch make regular appearances but never with the payoff they seek. As a result the teams rarely meet: the last time was  2008. Once again the Danes are the darkest of dark horses; once again the Dutch eye hungrily the prize that might very well, this year, be theirs.

I’ll be monitoring the match and updating regularly, so be sure to refresh the page. I’ll also be lucky to have the contributions of two of my fellow Group E fans from the Guardian’s band of international irregulars. Mike de Vries is a self-described “pessimistic Oranje supporter,” which did not stop him from effortlessly and rightly schooling me for my unintentional dismissiveness of a “youthful” Dutch side. (Average age: 27.7 – same as Denmark.) His blog is a great source of comment on these potential World Cup winners. Sean Carroll is a Tokyo-based writer and Japan aficionado who does, like, actual journalism, which I think will contrast nicely with my aimless blundering. Very much worth a look is his interview with Japan-based North Korea international Jong Tae-Se, which has kicked up quite a stir. Both gents have been good enough to lend their pith, mirth and insight on the match. I also hope to call upon my friend Peter Stockmann, who doesn’t have a website but is an actual Dane and can read Danish papers. Literacy is a huge advantage these days. The more you know.

(Starting off late here but feel free to e-mail your thoughts – wahlberg(dot)peter(at)gmail(dot).com. Sorry to be irritating, but I fear the spammers.

Whas happeni-oh wrong show

Wha's happeni-oh wrong show

The last day of qualifiers on three continents came and passed today.  In an effort to be more international – I guess – I’m going to try to hit all of them, especially since more of the story in Europe was already done.  (For the perhaps 1 of you who will read this in the absence of a gratuitous reference to a 80s-90s television celebrity, such as Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot.)


Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

The last two teams to secure automatic qualification clinched it today, both on the strength of just-barely-enough performances.  In weather conditons that can only be described as horrendous – or hysterical – Slovakia edged out Poland on the strength of an early own goal.  This was as expected, though the late challenge by second place Slovenia in the Slovakian capital last weekend transformed this match from a lame duck showing.

In sunnier climes, if one would like to refer to Basel that way, group winner Switzerland and Israel played to a scoreless and rather unexciting draw. (Though tell that to the Swiss fans in attendance.)  For the Swiss this was actually a rather close-run thing; had they lost by a single goal today, second-place Greece‘s 2-1 victory over Luxembourg would have been sufficient to propel them into pole position.  Both Switzerland and Greece seemed to be playing surprisingly conservatively, or at least without a great deal of verve; but with a Greek attempt to storm into first place out of their hands all parties may have just thought it best to be slow and steady.

Portugal and Ukraine were the last teams to nab playoff berths without being in contention for their respective top spots.  Portugal gained a decisive (and inevitable) victory over Malta, while Ukraine did the same over Andorra.  On a personal note I continue to be infuriated with the lackluster play England exhibited in allowing Ukraine both to ruin their perfect record and edge out Croatia for the playoff.  I will undoubtedly continue to air this opinion at every opportunity.

As predicted, Norway was excluded from the second-place playoffs on the basis of weak group performance. Perhaps ironically, had Scotland not experienced their calamitous defeat to the Norwegians, or had they overcome the Dutch in their last meeting, it would instead have been the Irish Republic excluded. I mourn for the benighted Scots and their benevolent, long-suffering fans. But soccer, like politics and alcoholism, is an enterprise which worships always towards the dawn.

Second-place playoffs

You kiddin me?!

You kiddin' me?!

The draws for the second-place playoffs will be next Monday. (I think…)  Because Sepp Bladder is a man I might only describe in a terms both inventive and exceptionally lewd, Europe will be having a seeding system for its playoffs.  The initial plan (though it was never shared with anyone, so how could we know?) was to have the eight second-place qualifiers randomly paired off, each to play one game at home and one away, with the overall winner of each to gain the final four places. However there is now to be seeding based on next week’s FIFA World Rankings, which orders teams by a variety of factors based on international performance. The top four teams will be placed in one pot; the bottom four teams in another. Teams will be paired only with those from the other pot, which assures that the “best” teams will face weaker opposition. These latter are furious, with Irish coach Trapattoni being especially vocal about it, but I don’t see Bladder backing down.

Almost assuredly, the high pot will consist of Russia, France, Portugal and Greece and the dregs with Ukraine, Ireland (I think we can dispense with this Republic business, yes?), Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We don’t know who will be paired with whom, of course, so speculation is early, but some conclusions are possible. Russia will qualify, knocking out whoever is set against them with indecent ease. (I dreamed they would do so to Portugal… alas.) Besides Russia the ironic truth is that none of the top teams are that good. France took second in a weak group; had any of the virtuous thirds like Sweden, Finland or Croatia been placed with them I doubt they’d have come this far. Portugal and Greece are notionally strong and rallied towards the end. Greece didn’t face a really tough group, so they have to be rated as faltering, but Portugal really were in a bad neighborhood with Denmark and Sweden and should be credited with a late rally. They’re not as sure a thing as Russia but they’re odds of their failure are 3:1 against.

What about the “dregs”? Again, without pairings this is speculation, but none of the four were deeply-impressive runners up. Ukraine is notionally the strongest, but they were pretty eh. B/H did just well enough to beat failing Turkey and a Belgian team in almost as bad a shape as their country. They could maybe beat Greece but they’re not giant killers. Slovenia fought their way through a very tough group, and did so as unexpectedly as forcefully, but the fact that they overcame an evenly-matched group doesn’t mean they beat a good group. Ireland, however, have been turning in powerful performances and went undefeated in their group, nearly holing the Italians in the process. (And even at half-speed Italy are no slouch.) I like their chances best, and am in fervent negotiations with the Almighty to ensure they’re not paired against Russia. In the atmosphere Slovenia and Ukraine are balanced for second-best-second, Slovenia on hustle and Ukraine on talent, with B/H trailing behind.


The North American section closed with a bang – indeed a veritable Soccer War – tonight as an excruciatingly-late stoppage time equalizer prevented the Costa Ricans from clinching automatic qualification in Washington, DC. A game at which I was not present. I didn’t know soon enough, I tell myself. I can’t afford it, I tell myself. And still wish I’d gone.

This was morally important for the US, as it left us at the top of the fourth round group (an all-important point above Mexico) in a week in which the US team was plagued with disastrous injuries. The last, a rather severe tendon issue with Oguchi Onweyu late in the second half, follows a day after Charlie Davies’ car accident outside the District and left the side Estadosunidense at ten men going into stoppage. Compounding the bizarre pageantry of the whole affair, Costa Rica’s coach Renê Simões was ordered off the field (along with an assistant) following some substitution clusterfuck – perhaps in view of the paucity of time left, the referee refused it and he got lippy. Retaliating, the referee left a full five minutes on the clock, allowing the Hail Mary goal that saw Honduras qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

Well THATS rather uncalled for

Well THAT'S rather uncalled for

I didn’t see much of the Honduras game, but it was apparently tight and pretty brutal.  El Salvador could easily have tied it up and left Honduras (as I’d predicted) to slug it out with the CONMEBOL fifth-place. But now it is Costa Rica that will go in their stead. In soccer as in life, someone else always pays for your success.


By comparison South America’s final night was somewhat humdrum if you weren’t secreted away in a Buenos Aires suburb with a spicy Argentinian lover and a deactivated Blackberry/wife and kids. Argentina frustratingly managed a desultory goal in the 84th minute of play that turned out to be completely extraneous, given that Chile sent Ecuador quietly into the good night. A sad end to the city that hosted the first World Cup, but Uruguay’s night was tinged with hope, as Ecuador’s loss also guaranteed them the playoff spot against the fourth-placed North American side. Their dog will have its day in two matches against Costa Rica.


I would generally rate Costa Rica the favorite. But Uruguay has done arguably better in an inarguably tougher milieu, and the endless series of qualifiers they’ve played starting two years ago has got to whet the appetite. Costa Rica will have something to prove, but the crushing nature of the draw to the US tonight has something to do with a sense of entitlement on their side.

But then again Uruguay’s wins haven’t been all that impressive. You get the sense Argentina rather deserved to go on if that was going to be their opposition. If Costa Rica faces similar they’ll seize the lifeboat of one of the last 2010 spots.

AFC-OFC playoff

Bahrain to win. Even if they weren’t a better team – it’s not clear – they’ll be away when they face New Zealand again, which means that a non-scoreless draw will see them through. I actually don’t know what happens if they draw scorelessly. Penalty shootouts, I imagine. New Zealand might have a shot there, as playing a tournament against Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia must be very like practicing penalty shots.


Oh for fuck’s sake.

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria