The World Cup qualifying competition reaches a dramatic climax on Tuesday when the European,South American and CONCACAF zones arrive at the point of no return. Coaches,players and fans in seven countries will rejoice or sigh as their teams join the 14 who have qualified for next years finals in Brazil. Four European teams will clinch their places,two from South America and one from CONCACAF,the North and Central American and Caribbean zone. Playoff places across all three regions will also be decided.
Generally,coaches who cross the finish line first will lead their countries. This group should include Vicente del Bosque,of world champions Spain,one of four European teams who can confirm their passage on Tuesday. Only one reigning champion has failed to defend their title since the World Cup began in 1930 Uruguay,who did not enter in 1934. Spain are unlikely to join them and share that distinction.
BUT Spain are in a tight two-way battle with 1998 world champions France for the automatic qualifying berth from Group I and will only qualify if they avoid defeat to minnows Georgia,in Albacete. Spain have 17 points and France 14,but if Spain slip to defeat,France would finish top if they beat Finland by enough goals.
While qualification is close for Spain and three other European sides Russia,Bosnia and England four rival nations,Portugal,Greece,Ukraine and France,are ready to pounce if they slip up.
Fabio Capellos Russia have 21 points and Portugal 18. Russia will qualify with a win over Azerbaijan,but if they lose and Paulo Bentos Portugal score heavily in beating Luxembourg,the Portuguese could finish first. In Group H,England lead with 19 points,one more than Ukraine,and Roy Hodgsons men will qualify with a win over Poland.
THE Poles may be out of contention,but their arrival at Wembley,in London,for the group finale brings back memories that have haunted English soccer for 40 years. Although they have beaten England only once in 18 matches over 47 years,the night Poland drew 1-1 at Wembley in October,1973,revives nightmares.
England cannot afford even a draw because Ukraine should win in San Marino. While England are just one win from their 14th finals, Bosnia will qualify for the first time if they win in Lithuania and force Greece into the playoffs.
The two are level on 22 points at the top of Group G and,with Greece at home to winless Liechtenstein,Bosnia know only a victory will do. Nine countries from Europe will aim to finish second in their groups. Only the eight best runners-up will take part in next months playoffs.
Those striving to qualify by this route include Iceland,who have never been to the finals,but will go into the playoffs as runners-up to Switzerland in Group E if their result in Norway,is equal and Chile look set to qualify from the South American zone,joining already-qualified Argentina and Colombia in making the relatively short trip to Brazil.
The United States and Costa Rica have alrready qualified from the CONCACAF zone while Honduras look set to seal the third spot on Tuesday,when they visit Jamaica. That would leave Mexico needing to beat Oceania winners New Zealand to make it to Brazil.