An Italian radio broadcast noted Saturday that Italy was in qualifying for the World Cup finals, ''which Brazil almost always wins but we have to try to get there, all the same."
Many of the qualifying groups will soon be perceived in a similar way. The powers of the soccer world will certainly advance to Germany for the June 9-July 9, 2006, event. But even though 13 European teams will qualify, plus host Germany, some very good teams might have to sweat it out to the end.
The Italians tied Norway, 0-0, in Oslo to maintain a 4-point lead in Group 5 with four matches remaining in European qualifying. Only Ukraine is in a more comfortable position than Italy. Ukraine holds a 5-point edge over Greece in Group 2 and the teams are matched tomorrow in Greece. The Ukrainians have never performed in the World Cup finals, though their players often provided the bulk of the Soviet squads in the World Cup and European Nations Cup.
Soccer in Ukraine is symbolized by national team coach Oleg Blokhin and Andrei Shevchenko, both winners of the European Player of the Year award but seldom recognized on the international stage because of their lack of World Cup success. But Ukraine will have to hold off the reigning European champion (Greece) and two teams (Denmark and Turkey) that have made strong showings in recent World Cups.
Portugal visits Estonia tomorrow with a chance to stretch its lead over Russia and Slovakia in Group 3. But the final standings in that group could well be determined by the results of Latvia-Russia Aug. 17 and Russia-Portugal Sept. 7. Russian crowds have caused disturbances in the UEFA Cup semifinals, hitting Parma goalkeeper Luca Bucci with an explosive, and in the qualifier against Latvia Saturday.
In both cases of crowd problems, the Russian teams were winning: CSKA Moscow blanked Parma, 3-0, and went on to win the final over Sporting in Lisbon; Russia defeated Latvia, 2-0, Saturday. This reflects both a lack of security and crowd sophistication. UEFA organizers took no action against CSKA, despite the fact that Bucci had to be replaced in the 17th minute and was hospitalized. But scrutiny of Russian crowds will surely increase.
In South America, Argentina and Brazil, who meet in Buenos Aires tomorrow night, are first and second. No. 3 Ecuador has the edge over every other entrant, but only Bolivia and Venezuela are losing hope. Colombia has been revived after a 5-0 win over Peru and will play host to Ecuador in Barranquilla tomorrow. Ecuador has been able to capitalize on Quito's elevation to hammer Paraguay (5-2) and Argentina (2-0) in its last two home qualifiers, but will be tested on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
In Africa, only the five group winners advance, so the questions will likely remain until late. South Africa took a big step toward winning Group 2 by defeating Cape Verde, 2-1, in Praia on goals by Delron Buckley and Benny McCarthy. But countries such as Cape Verde will retain incentive to the end, since the second- and third-place group finishers win a place in the African Nations Cup in Egypt.
South Africa almost has to win its group to be considered worthy of playing host to the 2010 World Cup finals. The host nation should not only be able to provide the necessary infrastructure; its national team should have earned respect. The US confronted a similar situation, squeezing into Italia '90 and profiting from a difficult experience to present a competitive team in 1994.
Iran and Japan appear to be on the way in Asia. Iran will be seeking revenge tomorrow against Bahrain in Tehran; an upset loss to Bahrain was costly to the Iranians in 2002 qualification. The North Korea-Japan match will be in Bangkok.
Mexico and the US, as expected, are distancing themselves from the CONCACAF field. The real drama will be for the third automatic qualifying place and fourth-place team, which will advance to a playoff with an Asian team.
Mexico hopes to capitalize on the elevation of Monterrey when it plays host to Trinidad & Tobago. Panama has never before been a factor in qualifying but the Canaleros have performed well at home. The US escaped Panama City with a 1-1 tie on a last-minute Cobi Jones goal last year but Mexico was upset as Alberto Blanco converted a 25-yard bicycle kick for a 2-1 Panama win in April.
The US Soccer Federation appears to be blazing new trails toward home-field advantages with games being played in Birmingham, Ala., Columbus, Ohio, Hartford, and Salt Lake City. The crowd of 40,000-plus at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City was apparently very supportive as the US stopped Costa Rica, 3-0, Saturday night.
The US' next two home matches are against Trinidad & Tobago at Hartford's Rentschler Stadium Aug. 17 and Mexico at Crew Stadium in Columbus Sept. 3. The final US home game against Panama has not been set, but Gillette Stadium is a likely candidate.
''It is great that US Soccer has always looked at us as a destination from both a results and spectator point of view," said Revolution general manager Craig Tornberg. ''They are only four games into qualifying, so there is a long ways to go and a lot things could change, especially when they are going on the road in Latin America. It would be very good either as a sendoff match or if they need the points -- like they did in 2001 when Joe-Max Moore put his stamp on the game and the US defeated Jamaica."
Twellman out 4 weeks
Revolution striker Taylor Twellman is expected to miss four weeks after a magnetic resonance imaging yesterday revealed a strained left hamstring. Twellman, injured in the second half of a 1-1 tie with Kansas City Saturday, could return for the Revolution's visit to Los Angeles July 4 . . . Massachusetts took a 3-0 win over West New York to win the US National Select Teams Cup regionals in Binghamton, N.Y., Sunday. Fortos Telekatankaza was named most valuable player of the tournament. Massachusetts also won the women's final, 2-1, over West New York. The Bay State teams, coached by Alex Tsalagas and Paul Athanasiadis, qualified for the national semifinals in Tampa in January . . . Former Revolution technical director and Boston Breakers general manager Joe Cummings has been named executive director of the New England Soccer School in Amesbury . . . Former Breakers star Kristine Lilly, the No. 2 scorer in US women's national team history, and Revolution midfielder Andy Dorman are scheduled to attend the Boston Public Schools CityKicks year-end jamboree from 2-4:30 p.m. today at Harambee Field, also known as Franklin Field, in Mattapan.