Spain, England and Russia sealed spots in next year’s World Cup finals on Tuesday as Bosnia-Herzegovina delivered the feel-good story of European qualifying by also topping its group to reach a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation.
After a nervy final night of group-stage play across the continent, France and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were consigned to next month’s playoffs — just like in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup — but the rest of Europe’s leading teams are guaranteed to be in Brazil next summer.
With a population of just over 300,000, Iceland is the surprise name in the two-legged playoffs that will also feature Greece, Ukraine, Romania and Croatia. Sweden had already advanced to Monday’s draw, but Denmark had the worst record of the nine group runners-up and missed out.
Spain will defend its world title after securing top spot in Group I ahead of France by beating Georgia 2-0, with Alvaro Negredo and Juan Mata scoring either side of half time. The French overcame Finland 3-0 but needed
Georgia to pull off a shock in Albacete to climb above the Spanish.
“It may look practically routine but it’s important to remember how successful we’ve been at qualifying,” said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, whose team was one of seven to go through qualifying unbeaten.
England was another, although expectations won’t be so high on Roy Hodgson’s side in Brazil.
Wayne Rooney’s first-half header and Steven Gerrard’s late solo goal earned England a 2-0 win over Poland at Wembley Stadium, allowing it to stay ahead of Ukraine in Group H and reach a fifth straight finals.
“It is a great feeling to be in Brazil and hopefully we can go in with a little less pressure on ourselves and surprise a few,” said Gerrard, who calmed the nerves of England fans with his 88th-minute strike that wrapped up victory in his 107th international.
That meant Ukraine’s 8-0 win in San Marino proved immaterial.
The wins for Spain and England were overshadowed by events in Kaunas, where Bosnia-Herzegovina sparked scenes of delirium back in its capital city of Sarajevo by beating Lithuania 1-0 to reach its first World Cup since being granted independence from Yugoslavia in 1992.
For many Bosnians, football has been a rare cause for joy since the country descended into nearly four years of war two decades ago, killing more than 100,000 people and leaving a legacy of poverty, high unemployment and political strife.
The national team had missed out on the last two major tournaments by losing in the playoffs to Portugal both times, but this time Bosnia-Herzegovina got it right.
Almost 10,000 Bosnians jumped, cried and screamed ‘Vamos Bosnia’ — or ‘go Bosnia’ in Portuguese — in the
central square in Sarajevo when Vedad Ibisevic scored in the 68th minute for what proved to be the winning goal.
Fireworks exploded and fans headed to the airport to wait for their team to arrive in the middle of the night.
“What an excellent night,” Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Safet Susic said. “The players believed they could do it, I believed in them, and we made it.”
Greece defeated Liechtenstein 2-0 but lost out to the Bosnians on goal difference.
Russia only needed a point to guarantee first place in Group F — and a first World Cup since 2002 — and achieved it by drawing 1-1 at Azerbaijan. Portugal’s 3-0 win over Luxembourg was in vain, leaving Ronaldo’s side a point behind, and it must go through the playoffs to reach a major tournament for the third straight time.
It was still a nervy finish for Russia, which opened the scoring through Roman Shirokov in the 15th and was further boosted when Maksim Medvedev was dismissed for Azerbaijan in the 75th. However, the hosts equalized when Vagif Javadov headed home in the 90th but Russia, coached by former England manager Fabio Capello, held on.
Silvestre Varela, Nani and Helder Postiga were the goal scorers for Portugal, which was without Ronaldo owing to the Real Madrid forward’s booking in the costly 1-1 home draw with Israel on Friday.
Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany had automatically qualified for the finals before Tuesday.
The list of teams going through to the playoffs was also finalized and it proved to be a bittersweet night for Denmark, which beat Malta 6-0 to equal its biggest World Cup qualifying win but still missed out on the two-legged
playoffs, which take place on Nov. 15 and 19.
Iceland would be the smallest nation ever at a World Cup if it comes through the playoffs, having finished runner-up in Group E following a 1-1 draw in Norway. Slovenia could have gone second but lost 1-0 to the Swiss, who could now be top seeds in Brazil.
Romania pipped Turkey and Hungary to second place in Group D behind the Netherlands courtesy of a 2-0 win over Estonia. The Turks were second heading into the last games but lost 2-0 at home to the Dutch.
On Friday, Sweden became the first country to confirm its place in the playoffs by guaranteeing runner-up spot to Germany in Group C. The two teams met in their final qualifier, with Germany coming from 2-0 down to win 5-3 as Andre Schuerrle grabbed a second-half hat trick.
Croatia lost 2-0 to Scotland but had already virtually guaranteed a playoff spot through its second place in Group A behind Belgium.
There will be four seeded teams — determined by Thursday’s FIFA rankings — in the draw for the playoffs, and they are likely to be Portugal, Croatia, Greece and Ukraine. It leaves France as the most dangerous opponent among the unseeded countries.