The World Cup of football and/or soccer is more than just a quadrennial reminder that Italians are a bunch of ref-baiting crybaby floppers, Englishmen are spineless, Frenchmen are rude, Germans are offensive, Americans are weak at heart, Canadians are polite enough not to show up, and Brazilians are genetically superior to us in every way.
More than a latent platform for gross mischaracterizations of national identity, the World Cup is also exciting for reasons of pure sport: cheering for that lovable underdog, who represents on the soccer pitch the underdog all of us are in relation to the universe.
One of the last boats to South Africa leaves tomorrow, and the Tuque Souq is desperately cheering for 3 great underdogs to be on it, so that when one of 'em upsets Spain or Holland at next year's World Cup, we can all feel that much better about ourselves.
In the first leg of the home-and-home Asia/Oceania playoff finale last month in Manama, Bahrain played New Zealand to a goalless draw, so the second match on Saturday is winner-take-all.
Bahrain are ghost-writing the same Cinderella story they penned for the 2006 World Cup qualifying round.
Four years ago, the Islanders stood at this very same threshold: in a two-legged playoff against Trinidad & Tobago to qualify for the last spot in the 2006 World Cup finals, Bahrain earned a draw in the Caribbean and needed only the same result or better at home to book a trip to Germany. Instead, they crashed out in front of their own fans.
For Bahrain, the formula this time is as simple as it is familiar: Win, or tie the game and score at least one goal. Bahrain's imported coach is ready to "live the dream" for his adopted country. Will Bahrain qualify for their first-ever World Cup?
Egypt are the reigning African champions. Earlier this year they rose as high as 15th in the FIFA world rankings. Their 90,000-capacity (including shabaab standing in the aisles) home stadium is almost as scary for opposing teams as it is for the home fans. So why do they find themselves needing a desperation win--by at least two goals--in the qualifying finale versus underdog Algeria to book a ticket to South Africa?
To be sure, Egypt have only themselves to blame for that inexcusable home draw versus Zambia back in March. But Algeria deserve most of the credit here. Were it not for a draw with Rwanda they'd have an umblemished record and would already be through to South Africa. They dispatched the Egyptians with ease in their first meeting in Algiers. The Desert Foxes are primed for a celebration, and need only play Egypt close to humiliate their rivals and qualify.
Algeria haven't reached the World Cup finals since 1986; they debuted in 1982, where they shocked eventual finalists West Germany in the preliminary round. Nearly half the country's population today wasn't yet alive when that game was played. Suffice to say, Algeria are ready to celebrate. Captain Yazid Mansouri (pictured above) is positively pushy: "We won't go to Cairo to defend. We'll do everything we can to take our chances. I know we can score over there."
Egypt captain Ahmed Hassan is ready to answer the challenge, and he's calling on the rowdy Cairo faithful to cheer the team to a badly needed victory. "I call on all our supporters to come and back us for the full 90 minutes, whatever the score happens to be. I expect lots of twists and turns in the game."
Here's the real twist: If Egypt win the game by exactly 2 goals, the two sides will finish with identical standings (wins, losses, goal differential, and head-to-head matchup). In that case, a one-game, neutral-site playoff would be needed, and it would be held in Khartoum next Wednesday.
Wee Tunisia, beloved of the Tuque Souq, are on the cusp of qualifying for their fourth consecutive World Cup finals. In Africa's Group B, they lead group favourites Nigeria by two points heading into the final day of qualifying. Les aigles de Carthage head to Mozambique in control of their own destiny. But a draw might not be enough, not if Nigeria defeat Kenya (in which case Nigeria would win the tiebreaker with Tunisia based on a superior goal differential).
With a victory Tunisia will equal Cameroon's record of consecutive World Cup appearances by an African nation. They are on a nine-game unbeaten run against fellow African opponents. Their trajectory over the last decade shows that the Tunisians are, out of obscurity, now one of the premier squads on the continent.
Fans of Morocco, your team is out of the running for the World Cup finals. But the disappointing side has a chance to finish the qualifying session on a high note and send a fourth colossal underdog to South Africa in the process. Morocco play at home Saturday against Africa Group A leaders Cameroon, arguably the strongest team on the continent right now. Should Morocco win, they'll allow lowly Gabon the chance to edge past the Indomitable Lions and into the World Cup finals, provided Gabon defeat Togo.
All games are Saturday at 13:00 GMT. The Tuque Souq will have the results.