The teams who will participate in the World Cup finals in South Africa next year are all but set, but it wasn’t with out shock, controversy and surprise. Heading into the days action, six places in the world’s biggest soccer competition were up for grabs across Europe and in Africa.
The biggest story of the days action revolves around the France v. Ireland game. With a precious away goal scored in 1-0 win during the first leg, France seemed to be in good position to make their way to South Africa. The tie was turned on its head when Robbie Keane of Ireland struck to even things up on aggregate. When full time was reached and overtime began, the match seemed destined for penalties and a terrible way for one team to lose. The thought of losing on penalties would not turn out to be half as bad as what actually occurred. In the 103rd minute, Barcelona and France striker Thierry Henry blatantly used his hand to corral a free kick before popping a pass in front of the net for teammate William Gallas to head home. The obviously illegal goal somehow stood and pushed France through to World Cup 2010. Ireland’s manager and the whole of a country were rightfully fuming when the final whistle blew. In this situation, there is no one to blame but the referee and his linesman as they failed to communicate and make the correct decision on such a gigantic ocassion. This event will not be forgotten; be sure to keep this in the back of your mind when future talks heat up about the use of replay or a goal line official in professional soccer.
Happening thousands of miles away, was something just as shocking, if not more. The playoff between Russia and Slovenia looked to be in total control of the Russians after 80 minutes of the first leg. Down 2-0 and being dominated for much for the game, the Slovenians scored a massively important late header to secure an away goal which meant they could advance with a 1-0 win at home in the return leg. Needing a single goal and a clean sheet, the Slovenians shocked the soccer world by doing just that and sending a highly rated Russia side home to watch the summer’s festivities on their couches.
In Bosnia, a Portuguese side minus the world player of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo, entered the final match with a slim 1-0 lead from the first leg in Portugal. While the lead didn’t look like much on paper, the Portuguese could all but lock up their place in South Africa by scoring a goal in the away match. Doing so would essentially mean the Bosnians would need at least three goals in order to advance due to the away goals rule. Ronaldo’s dream of returning to the World Cup was sealed when his Portugal backup and former Manchester United teammate Nani put Raúl Meireles through to slot home the winner.
More surprise was seen in Europe as 2006 World Cup quarter-finalists Ukraine were robbed of a spot in next summer’s finals by Greece. The Greeks punched their ticket to South Africa with an early strike by Dimitris Salpigidis that left the home Ukraine fans in shock.
Maybe the most passionate and fierce match of the day featured bitter rivals Egypt and Algeria. After Egypt secured a near impossible 2-0 result in the first game, the two teams were forced to play a sudden death playoff in Sudan. The hatred between these two countries can be summed up by the fact that 15,000! police and military were assigned to the game in order to create a ring of protection around the field. Ultimately it was the Algeria fans celebrating wildly as Antar Yahia cracked a smashing volley in the 39th minute that would turn out to be the winner.