World Cup organizing Chief Danny Jordaan is relieved as one part of his wish has been fulfilled.
Argentina’s qualification for next year’s tournament in South Africa means Lionel Messi will be heading his way after Diego Maradona’s side secured the win they needed over Uruguay.
FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo—the other top star Mr. Jordaan wants in South Africa—is not there yet.
Neither are the likes of Thierry Henry or Franck Ribery. But both Portugal and France go into the European play-offs with renewed confidence after troubled qualifying campaigns.
Whether Maradona himself will be in South Africa remains to be seen. Argentina’s 1-0 win over Uruguay may have triggered a profane outburst from the playing legend against his critics but he could not say for certainty whether he would be staying on as coach.
“I don’t know, I have to talk with (Argentine football federation chief) Julio Grondona and then I will decide,” he told reporters.
Argentina had only failed to qualify for a World Cup once in their history—in 1970—but their win secured the fourth and final qualifying spot in the South America group.
It consigned Uruguay into the play-offs—against Costa Rica—for the third time running.
All eyes in Europe are now on next month’s play-offs featuring home and away matches between the eight best second-placed teams.
Portugal, France, Russia, Greece, Ukraine, Slovenia, Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina will discover their opponents when the draw is made on Monday.
Twenty-three teams have now qualified for South Africa, including the hosts as automatic qualifiers, leaving nine places up for grabs.
South Africa (hosts); Denmark, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland (Europe); Ghana, Ivory Coast (Africa); Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea (Asia); Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina (South America); United States, Mexico, Honduras (North, Central America).
European champions Spain will be regarded as one of the top favourites in South Africa after 10 straight wins, with 28 goals for and just five against.
Spain have lost only lost one game since 2006, against the United States in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup in June, but coach Vicente del Bosque is refusing to countenance the role of favourites.
“Our aspiration is to fight for the World Cup, but we know that will be very difficult. We are not favourites but we are among the hopefuls,” he said after an unfamiliar line-up hammered Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-2.
World champions Italy and three-time winners Germany were also undefeated to go into the 2010 tournament.
“The basis for a World Cup win is good,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said earlier this week.
The only other European team without defeat was Ireland who will be an un-seeded teamin the play-offs and could be drawn against Portugal, an improving France or Guus Hiddink’s Russia.
Despite this, coach Giovanni Trapattoni said his team could go into the play-offs “feeling confident and with belief” if they match the performance of Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Italy.
“This team can play against anyone if they have belief in our performance, our mentality and our plan,” he said.
Among the sides celebrating their tickets to South Africa were Switzerland and Slovakia who had to endure nerve-wracking final matches to win their groups, while there was huge joy in Honduras.
The national team qualified for the finals for only a second time thanks to a 1-0 victory over El Salvador and a crucial last-minute goal by the United States against Costa Rica.
Coach Reinaldo Rused expressed the hope that qualification will help unify a country wracked by civil unrest following a military coup in June.
“It’s a contribution toward peace,” he said.