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MATTHIAS ERNE is a television reporter in the USA.

The qualifying competition for the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ began in Port of Spain on 4 March 2000 and drew to a close in Montevideo on 25 November 2001. 193 national associations took part in 777 matches and saw 2452 goals. Eventually 32 teams battled their way through to the final competition in Korea and Japan.

Australia’s Archie Thompson (no. 21) fired home 13 goals in one game – but the Australians still did not manage to qualify for this year’s World Cup finals. Photo: Reuters
It all began on 4 March 2000 in intimate and modest surroundings. The game between Trinidad & Tobago and the Netherlands Antilles was almost drowned out by the carnival in Trinidad. Unsurprisingly, the home side secured a convincing 5-0 victory in front of 3,000 spectators in Port of Spain, leaving the plucky amateurs from the Antilles with the scant consolation of knowing that they had been involved in the opening qualifier for the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.

Marvin Andrews of Trinidad & Tobago scored the first goal on the road to Asia. Then, 776 matches and 2,450 goals later, the final goal of the World Cup qualifying competition was struck in Montevideo on 25 November 2001 by Richard Morales in Uruguay's 3-0 win over Australia, handing the South Americans the 32nd and last place at the competition in Korea and Japan.

After opening the competition and despite the talents of star striker Dwight

Yorke, Trinidad & Tobago could not make it through to the World Cup finals, finishing last in the final qualifying round. However, having played 22 matches in the competition, the Caribbean team did contest more qualifiers than any other nation.

Caution from Socrates
Hundreds of entertaining, curious, and fascinating stories were written on the road to Korea and Japan. There were hapless, yet endearing, underdogs, like the brave footballers of the Netherlands Antilles, spurred on by coach Henry Caldera's promise of a USD 25 win bonus. Caldera did not have to put to his hand in his pocket – after one draw and one defeat his team were soon doomed to be the first team eliminated in their (vain) efforts to qualify for Asia.

Perhaps it was a bad omen for the motherland, because who would have thought that the Netherlands' high-earning attack-minded footballers would be the most prominent absentees from the final competition?

Denilson (left) and Roberto Carlos share a smile – but four-time world champions Brazil almost came unstuck in the qualifiers. Photo: Reuters
While the Dutch fell, a few other giants stumbled, before finding their feet again, including Brazil, the only four-time winners of the FIFA World Cup™. Three coaches bit the dust on Brazil's treacherous road to Asia and dozens of players were tested, before being found wanting. When the team finally scraped through, defender Roberto Carlos summed up what he and his team mates had put his 170 millions compatriots through: "I thank the whole of Brazil for suffering with us."

Like most of his fellow Brazilian internationals, Roberto Carlos immediately turned his attention to what lies ahead after the hard work had been done. And there is not a single member of the "Seleção" who sees his team as anything but hot favourites for the World Cup title. However, there are plenty of sceptics. "If we are not careful," says retired great Socrates, a member of the last magical "Samba" vintage of 1982, "we'll be left standing, and will be nothing more than spectators at the next World Cup."

These words are backed up by the facts. Brazil had previously lost only one World Cup qualifier, but this time they were defeated in three matches.

Like Brazil, other high-flying international football nations must also recognise that the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of footballing pedigree is constantly narrowing. Unable to hit the net in their final qualifying group match against Finland, Germany - the FIFA World Cup™ winners in 1954, 1974 and 1990 - were forced into a tense play-off with the Ukraine, causing German coach Rudi Völler's hair to noticeably turn a little greyer. Looking back on the two nerve-wracking games against the Ukraine, the 1990 World Champion realises that his players had no idea what pressure really meant. "As a player you have it good, but as a coach you can go almost completely mad," says Völler. "I could never have imagined just what a coach goes through."

In the end, Völler's suffering was rewarded as Germany booked their World Cup place in Asia with a 1-1 draw and 4-1 win in the play-off.

Thompson's goals in vain
In Africa too, the traditional pecking order has long been under attack. Nigeria, with an almost endless reservoir of footballing talent, blundered their way to the World Cup finals. Only a defeat at home to Ghana denied Liberia a first appearance at the finals. George Weah, Liberia's FIFA World Player 1995, who was the national team's star player, coach, manager, and financial backer all in one, felt the scorn of his nation's people after the defeat against Ghana. After incensed fans hurled abuse at his mother and showered beer all over his team mates, he announced his retirement from the national team. It required personal intervention from no lesser figure than Liberia's President Charles Taylor to make Weah change his mind (however, after the African Cup of Nations in Mali in February 2002, the striker did actually retire from the international game). But his team had already missed the boat to the World Cup finals. Nigeria won their last game, and the Liberian people wondered despairingly whether they would ever get such a chance again.

Historic goal: on 4 March 2000 Marvin Andrews (no. 4) scored Trinidad & Tobago’s only goal in their 1-0 victory over the Netherlands Antilles to mark the first goal of the qualifying competition for the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. Photo: Neale Harvey
The 777 games required to determine the 32 FIFA World Cup™ finalists marked one of many records set in the course of the qualifying competition. An Australian named Archie Thompson wrote his name into the record books in Coffs Harbour on 11 April 2001 by scoring 13 times in one match – his team's 31-0 victory over American Samoa! Wins over Fiji (2-0), Samoa (11-0), and Tonga (22-0) meant that Australia headed their group with twelve points and a 66-0 goal difference. After a brace of triumphs over archrivals New Zealand, the Aussies had only to get the better of Uruguay in a play-off to ensure a first appearance on the World Cup stage since 1974. But, as has been already said, it was not meant to be.

The newcomers always make an essential contribution to the allure of the World Cup, surging through with wonderful regularity at the expense of more reputed sides. This time there will be four rookies at the final competition: China, Ecuador, Senegal and Slovenia. "Yes we can" was the proclamation of thousands of joyous fans in Quito, when the Ecuador national team wrote history by qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ finals for the first time thanks to a 1-1 draw with Uruguay.

The traditionally strong sides from Morocco, Algeria and Egypt will be forced to sit and watch, after Senegal, previously considered one of the minnows in African football, ensured their first World Cup finals appearance. The two other debutants, Slovenia (population: 2 million) and China (population: 1.16 billion), will be the smallest and largest nations in the field for the competition.

A 1-0 victory over Oman ensured China's participation some time before the end of the qualifiers and provoked collective joy throughout the whole country. The architect of China's success is Velibor Milutinovic, known as "Bora" across the world, except in China, where they call him "Milu".

The Serbian maestro was already the only coach to have taken four different nations (Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, USA in 1994, and Nigeria in 1998) to the World Cup finals. Even so, China's qualifying games represented a personal first for the popular globetrotter – previously he had kindly left the stress of qualifying to others. That he took the risk with China no doubt also had something to do with the fact that the two biggest Asian rivals Japan and Korea did not have to go through the qualifiers as hosts of the final competition. Milutinovic has thus added another feather to his cap, and at 57 years of age, he will be leading a fifth nation to a FIFA World Cup™ finals.

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