Soccer's international governing body claims to love all its children equally, but you can be certain there was a huge sigh of relief emanating from FIFA headquarters on Wednesday.
All's fair in love and soccer, yet FIFA had no desire to see two of its highest-profile superstars crash out in the qualifying stages of the World Cup.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the consensus picks as the best two players on the planet, both flirted with elimination but survived in dramatic fashion. Ronaldo's Portugal still needs to get through a European playoff next month to progress to South Africa, but the Portuguese seem to have weathered the storm after creeping into second place of Group One by winning four of their last five matches.
WORLD CUP SWEET 16
1. Brazil. No team has more talent and belief.
2. Spain. European champion won every qualifier.
3. Germany. Pulled out a huge win in Russia.
4. Holland. Keen to atone for Euro 2008 disappointment.
5. England. Lost in Ukraine but still looking good.
6. Ivory Coast. Best of the African nations.
7. Italy. Strong campaign made up for dismal Confederations Cup.
8. Argentina. Somehow escaped the jaws of disaster.
9. Portugal. Needs to improve but can't be discounted.
10. France. Has to come through a tricky Euro playoff.
11. Denmark. Strong and sharp but needs to produce when it counts.
12. Ghana. Slick and confident side can shine next summer.
13. Cameroon. Spectacular return to form in recent months.
14. United States. Can trouble the big teams but needs consistency.
15. Australia. Talented unit, but will it travel well?
16. South Africa. Host will be helped by home support and an easy draw.
It looked for a long time as if Ronaldo would be denied the chance to strut his stuff in elite company next summer, but now the Real Madrid star will most likely be handed the opportunity to further build on his reputation. The most expensive player in the world, Ronaldo has yet to really deliver in a major international tournament.
Messi's place in the finals is already secure, but barely. Argentina needed a last-gasp winner against Peru and a final-day victory in Uruguay to secure South America's fourth and final automatic berth.
FIFA makes only a half-hearted attempt to conceal the fact that, for reasons of finance and public interest, it wants all of its top names to be performing on the sport's biggest stage. Sweden, with Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has already slipped through the cracks, coming third in Europe's Group One behind Denmark and Portugal.
FIFA's wish list won't be complete until the end of the playoffs in November when it will anxiously hope France and Portugal survive. The top teams are protected at this point by a seeding system, which means Ronaldo's boys and Les Bleus are more likely to take on Bosnia-Herzegovina or Slovenia than Russia or Greece.
In soccer, profile equals money. And money talks loudly enough to override sentiment.
Here's the latest qualifying picture, with 23 of the 32 finalists now locked in.
North and Central America and Caribbean
Costa Rica came within a minute of booking its passage to the finals before Jonathan Bornstein's thrilling late equalizer for the United States dumped Los Ticos into a playoff with Uruguay. Honduras was the beneficiary of Bornstein's powerful header and qualifies for its first World Cup since 1982. Mexico and the USA already clinched last weekend.
Confirmed qualifiers: USA, Mexico, Honduras
Argentina's dramatic escape from deep trouble meant heartache for Ecuador, which missed its big opportunity by losing to Chile on the final day. Brazil was the class act of the region, but Paraguay and Chile also performed at a consistently high level and will be teams to watch in South Africa. Uruguay goes into a playoff, while Colombia and Venezuela reflect on what might have been.
Confirmed qualifiers: Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina.
Predicted qualifier (via playoff): Uruguay
With one round of matches remaining, only Ghana and Ivory Coast are guaranteed places. However, Cameroon, Tunisia and Algeria are closing in, while Egypt, Nigeria and Gabon need luck on their side.
Confirmed qualifiers: Ghana, Ivory Coast.
Predicted qualifiers: Cameroon, Tunisia, Algeria.
Sweden, Czech Republic, Croatia and Turkey were the big-name casualties in the European zone in failing to even reach the playoffs. Portugal completed its stirring revival after a dismal start and joins seven other second-place finishers for November's playoffs. Spain and Holland were the only teams with perfect records, while Italy and Germany were undefeated.
Confirmed qualifiers: Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy, Holland.
Predicted qualifiers (via playoff): Portugal, France, Russia, Greece
The Big Three of Australia, Japan and South Korea all had little trouble in qualifying directly and were joined by a surprising North Korea side. Bahrain has the chance to make it five Asian teams when it faces New Zealand in an elimination playoff.
Confirmed qualifiers: Australia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea.
Predicted qualifier (via playoff): Bahrain
New Zealand comfortably won the weakest of all regions and will take its shot at the World Cup in a playoff against Bahrain on November 14 in Wellington.
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Ivory Coast
- South Africa