2014 World Cup Qualifying : 6 Heroes and Villains
With such high stakes, it is no wonder that the various World Cup qualifying confederations have all produced their fair share of heroes and villains as the tournament proper in Brazil approaches.
Argentina, Brazil, Iran, South Korea, Australia, Japan, Italy, Netherlands, USA and Costa Rica have all booked their tickets to Brazil 2014, while a handful of other nations are on the verge of qualification.
Dozens more are already out of the reckoning for a spot in the tournament, and a few names who are usually present are teetering dangerously on the brink of elimination.
Here are three of the great success stories, and three more infamous characters that the qualification process has thrown up this time around.
Hero: Lionel Messi
Once derided in some quarters as a player who could only perform for his club side, Lionel Messi has dispelled any lingering doubts about his capacity to shine for his national team by leading Argentina to Brazil 2014 in dominant fashion.
The Albicelestes became the first South American team aside from the hosts to book their place at the World Cup with a 5-2 demolition of Paraguay on Tuesday.
Messi grabbed two goals from the penalty spot and was also Argentina's best in general play, as he has been throughout the entire campaign.
With his 10 goals in qualifying, Messi has surpassed Diego Maradona to move to second on Argentina's list of top scorers. He now has 36 goals in national team colors, and few would bet against him chasing down Gabriel Batistuta's 56 goals to become the all-time leading scorer for his country.
Villain: Jose Manuel de la Torre
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In terms of a black mark on a resume, it wouldn't come much more damning than masterminding a failed attempt by Mexico to reach the World Cup after seven straight qualifications.
Jose Manuel de la Torre has already been fired, so he won't be overseeing the critical final stages of the Mexican campaign, but he couldn't have left El Tri in a much worse state.
A stunning 2-1 loss at home to Honduras was the straw that broke the camel's back as far as de la Torre's tenure was concerned, but pundits were left wondering why the hapless manager wasn't jettisoned before the situation became so desperate.
Kyle McCarthy pondered this very question in his column on Fox Soccer:
For reasons beyond the comprehension of the Mexican public, José Manuel de la Torre received chance after chance to prove he could lead Mexico out of its protracted tailspin and into the World Cup.
De la Torre somehow lurched from disaster to disaster this year without prompting his own demise. The direction of the overall project took precedence over the instant results as the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) attempted to find stability where chaos usually reigned.
After a predictable loss to the United States in new coach Luis Fernando Tena's first match in charge, Mexico are in dire straits as far as their qualifying chances are concerned.
With two matches remaining, they sit fifth in the CONCACAF table, with only the top three qualifying for the World Cup automatically, and the fourth placed side taking on Oceania champs New Zealand in a two-legged playoff.
Whether Mexico crash and burn, or Tena manages to save the day and guide them to the big show in Brazil, de la Torre won't come out of the whole situation looking great.
Hero: Brilliant Belgium
It has been clear for a number of years that Belgium is currently blessed with a generation of exceptional footballers.
That group of talented individuals had never really managed to fulfill their collective potential, however, when it came to international football, having failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
The side has appeared much more firmly focused on the ultimate goal this time around, however, and are five points clear at the top of Group A with two games remaining.
Villain: Samuel Eto'o
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Cameroon's talismanic striker is clearly not happy with the way his country's football federation is governing the game, but he owes it to fans to stop flirting with retirement from the national team and make a clear decision one way or the other.
Samuel Eto'o allegedly told his teammates he would be walking away from national team commitments after Cameroon's recent 1-0 win over Libya, according to French newspaper L'Equipe (via The Independent).
Coach Volke Finke, is reportedly feuding with Eto'o refusal to confirm or deny the allegations, meaning the situation remains unclear for Indomitable Lions supporters.
The Chelsea forward has had numerous disagreements with Cameroonian football authorities and has threatened to retire before, but the lead in to a World Cup is not the time to be leaving his future in doubt.
Hero: Jose Pekerman and Colombia
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Los Cafeteros have not mathematically sealed qualification yet, but their place at Brazil next year is all but assured.
Former Argentina coach Jose Pekerman has guided Colombia through their campaign with style. They have never been far from the top of the South American table and have risen to third in the FIFA rankings thanks to their consistent performances over a long period of time.
Pekerman has at times been criticized for encouraging a more direct style of play than the one he favored while in charge of Argentina, but the results speak for themselves.
The driven side, that appears to be close to the peak of its powers, features top-class players like Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Cristian Zapata and should be considered one of the dark horses when at the World Cup.
Villain: Roy Hodgson
It is hard to be too critical of a manager who has guided his side to the top of its group in qualifying, but coach Roy Hodgson bore the brunt of some heavy criticism for the way his England side has approached the campaign.
One of the highest profile naysayers was former England captain Gary Lineker, who tweeted some harsh words about Hodgson's England during the recent 0-0 draw with Ukraine.
Sam Wallace detailed Linekar's Twitter tirade in The Independent:
During the course of the game, Lineker, who has been highly critical of Hodgson's England in the past, tweeted: “Awful. What happens to some of these players when they pull on an England shirt?”
He later deleted the tweet but went on to criticise the side's passing and Hodgson's failure to select Michael Carrick in midfield.
Lineker tweeted: “When you see England pass it like they've never been introduced to each other, it does make you wonder why Carrick doesn't feature.” At the end of the game he tweeted, with more than just a trace of irony, “Good result for England....Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina et al, you're in big trouble!”
The England great's withering comments reflect a dissatisfaction among many Three Lions fans at the dour style that the team persists with, featuring few creative players and precious little inventiveness or flair.
If this conservative footballing philosophy produced more impressive results, English managers and players would be granted more leeway, but while international success eludes them, the vilification will continue.