In six weeks, the last of more than 800 World Cup qualifiers will settle the 32-nation field for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Much remains unresolved.
Will CONCACAF titan Mexico and 2010 semifinalist Uruguay end up in separate playoffs? Does Ethiopia have any chance of toppling Nigeria? Can Bob Bradley lift Egypt? First time for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Burkina Faso? Will Spain and Portugal avoid the UEFA playoffs? Is England worried?
Where things stand heading into the Friday-Tuesday qualifiers around the planet:
Costa Rica (CONCACAF)
South Korea (Asia)
United States (CONCACAF)
Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Colombia, Chile, Honduras
AFRICAN PLAYOFFS (Oct. 11-14 & Nov. 16-19)
Tunisia vs. Cameroon (first leg Sunday)
Ghana vs. Egypt (Tuesday)
Ivory Coast vs. Senegal (Saturday)
Burkina Faso vs. Algeria (Saturday)
Ethiopia vs. Nigeria (Sunday)
PROBABLE UEFA PLAYOFF TEAMS
(Eight of nine 2nd-place teams participate. Draw is Oct. 21, matches Nov. 15-19)
Croatia, Sweden, Turkey, Slovenia, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine, France
TRADITIONAL TEAMS IN A TIGHT SPOT
Mexico is fifth out of six teams with two matches remaining and needs to defeat fourth-place Panama at home Friday to retain hopes of … reaching a two-game playoff against Oceania champion New Zealand next month. (Major frequent flyer miles and major jet lag.) American supporters are torn: They loathe Mexico but appreciate the fact El Tri has advanced out of the group stage in five straight World Cups, which reflects well on the region. Compromise: Hope they go through but make ’em sweat.
Uruguay is fifth in a CONMEBOL competition that offers four automatic berths. The next best must face Jordan in a travel-intensive playoff next month. La Celeste visits Ecuador on Friday — the teams are level on points but Ecuador has the advantage on goal difference. Uruguay finishes next week at first-place Argentina. Chile is just two points ahead of both of those sides and will play at Colombia on Friday. [Details here]
England is a point up on Ukraine and Montenegro and three ahead of Poland but can take comfort from two home dates to complete Group H: Montenegro on Friday and Poland on Tuesday.
Defending champion Spain is level with France but has played one fewer match and will close with Belarus and Georgia at home. Les Bleus is almost certain to toil in a playoff.
Portugal is a point behind Russia and will play its final two matches at home against Israel and Luxembourg. The Russians are on the road for both games but against the bottom-dwellers, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
WELCOME TO THE PARTY?
Bosnia is level with Greece on points but boasts a far superior goal difference, meaning a Bosnian victory at home against last-place Liechtenstein and a Greek loss or draw at home to third-place Slovakia will essentially seal it.
To realistically remain in contention for its first berth, Panama needs a point at Mexico (0-1-3 at Azteca) and then at least a point at home against the USA, which is near full strength despite clinching last month. Mexico’s finale is at Costa Rica. Panama and Mexico are even on points and goal difference but Panama has scored more goals.
Jordan will enter next month’s playoff against South America’s fifth team as a massive underdog. (Maybe Michael Jordan would help.)
Burkina Faso’s Stallions and Ethiopia’s Walia Antelopes in the World Cup? Inconceivable. Burkina Faso, though, does have a legitimate shot against Algeria. Ethiopia, not so much vs. powerful Nigeria.
On Thursday, I will post a complete list of qualifiers available on TV and via live streams Friday.