WARM-UP: Baltics up against tough competition in the 2014 World Cup - a trial for the 2016 Olympics.
RIGA - The Baltic nations have been handed no favors following the draw of the European qualifying pools for the next football World Cup in Brazil in 2014. In what by many will be viewed as a trial for the Olympics in 2016, Brazil will first host the 2014 football World Cup. And although the event may still be nearly three years away, teams can now officially begin their planning for the long road through qualifying as they attempt to become one of the final 32 teams who will make the trip to Brazil.
For Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, that means attempting to qualify via the European qualifying zone – a feat that none of the Baltic nations have before achieved. The European qualifying path is arguably the most difficult, with the world’s top three ranked teams coming from Europe with a further 10 of the top 20 teams also heralding from Europe. Of the 53 teams that are attempting to qualify from the European group, 13 will go through to the final 32.
Following the draw, which took place in Rio de Janeiro on July 29, the Estonians find themselves placed in Group D, while Lithuania and Latvia have both been drawn to play in Group G.
Joining Estonia in Group D are South Africa, 2010 runners up The Netherlands, perennial underachievers Turkey, middle of the pack teams Hungary and Romania, and minnows Andorra.
Currently Estonia is arguably boasting the strongest Baltic football team, although their current world ranking of 79 may suggest otherwise. The biggest issue facing them is one of consistency, having in the past 12 months beaten Uruguay and Serbia, while in the same timeframe also lost to the lowly Faroe Islands.
Should Estonia be able to produce the consistency required, they have the ability to beat both Hungary and Romania before pushing Turkey for second spot in the group. A friendly match against Turkey on Aug. 10, should shed a better light on how Estonia can expect to fare against Turkey when qualification begins next year.
If Estonia boasts one of the eight best records of the nine second placed teams following the first round, they will then compete in a home and away series against three of the other second-placed teams with the four best placed teams following that round advancing to the World Cup.
Alongside Latvia and Lithuania in group G are Latvia’s old foes Greece, South Africa, 2010 quarterfinalists Slovakia, the ever improving Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a minnow who cannot be taken lightly, Liechtenstein.
Latvia and Greece have come to know each other well over the past years, having both been placed in the same group for their previous World Cup qualifying campaign. On that occasion, it would be Greece moving through ahead of the Latvians, who finished three points in arrears of the Greeks in third position in the group.
Lithuania is constantly the underachiever of the three Baltic nations when it comes to qualifying for major tournaments. Ranked the highest of the Baltic nations at 58th in the world, Lithuania has a tendency of beginning campaigns strongly before fading at the end. One only needs to look at their current qualifying campaign for the 2012 European Championships as evidence. Sitting on the verge of qualification, Lithuania became complacent and lost away to Lichtenstein to leave their qualifying hopes in tatters. Lithuania can ill afford to show the same complacency when they come up against Lichtenstein again in this qualifying effort. The Lithuanians also have experience of playing against Bosnia-Herzegovina in qualifying campaigns, having done so in 2006 World Cup qualifying.
The best result that a Baltic nation has achieved in a football competition was in 2003, when Latvia beat Turkey in a home and away series to qualify for the 2004 European Football Championship.
Qualifying for Brazil 2016 will begin in September next year.