Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Road to Brazil lined with hardened foes

The All Whites' quest for back-to-back appearances at World Cup finals heats up next year. Michael Burgess looks at the opponents who could stand in the way

Assuming regional powerhouses Mexico and the United States qualify directly from the Concacaf region for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, four teams will contest the remaining two spots.

One is an automatic qualification spot, while the other is the play-off opportunity with the top Oceania team, which will be New Zealand if the All Whites earn at least a point against New Caledonia in March.

The subsequent matches on November 15 (away) and 19 (home) against the fourth-placed Concacaf team will be not just the most important since South Africa (another World Cup journey, prestige, rankings, bank balance ... ) but also the hardest.

The All Whites have faced some tough opposition in friendlies since the last World Cup but nothing will compare to these matches. Their opponents will have come through an arduous six-team play-off series and, with a ticket to the World Cup on the line, nothing will be left on the field.


HONDURAS

The Central American country has several similarities with New Zealand. Like the All Whites, they qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which represented their first appearance at Fifa's global showpiece since 1982.

Like the All Whites with Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid, Honduras rely heavily on a couple of players who appear at the highest level of the sport, significantly above many of their team-mates.

Defender Maynor Figueroa (Wigan Athletic) and midfielders Wilson Palacios (Stoke) and Roger Espinoza (Wigan) present a formidable Premier League trio, while gun striker Jerry Bengston (New England, MLS) will be a major threat in the penalty area. Bengston, who scored a hat-trick in the surprise 8-1 win over Canada which gave Honduras a passage to stage three, was also a star at the London Olympics, as Honduras reached the last eight.

Left back Emilio Izaguirre has been a revelation at Celtic and was the 2010-11 Scottish Premier League Player of the Year, while captain and goalkeeper Noel Valladares is a solid presence at the back.

Honduras, who currently hold a Fifa ranking of 58, reached the semifinals of the 2011 Concacaf Gold Cup, their progress halted only by eventual champions Mexico.

Nicknames: Los Catrachos, La Bicolor, La H.

Intimidation factor: Medium. Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano (capacity 40,000) can turn into a cauldron on match day and the passion of the locals can't be underestimated - this is the country that once went to war with neighbouring El Salvador over a football match.

History vs All Whites: A 1-1 draw at North Harbour Stadium in late 2010 (Chris Wood's first international goal) was followed by a celebrated 1-0 win in Dallas (Shane Smeltz) this year.


JAMAICA

As was seen in February, the Jamaicans are a dangerous team, especially on the counter-attack. Their side at Mt Smart was missing several first choice players. Coach Theodore Whitmore - a football icon on the island and who scored both goals in their only win at the 1998 World Cup - has revitalised the squad and their style of play. He has brought a new discipline to their traditional athleticism and technique and it is paying dividends after years of relative struggle.

They finished second to the Americans in round two of qualifying but pushed them close - losing 1-0 away before beating the Eagles 2-1 in the return match. They are currently ranked 56th in the world.

Along with a clutch of local players, Whitmore will have plenty of overseas-based stars to call on. Ricardo Gardner, recently released by Fulham after 14 years at Craven Cottage - the second longest spell for an overseas player in the Premier League - should return for the big games this year, while former Stoke striker Ricardo Fuller (currently at Charlton Athletic) is also likely to be back in the frame. Electric winger Dane Richards (New York Red Bulls) and all-time leading scorer Luton Shelton (Karabukspor, Turkey) will be key men on attack, while goalkeeper Donovan Rickets (LA Galaxy) provides a solid presence between the posts.

Nicknames: Reggae Boyz.

Intimidation factor: High. Jamaica enjoyed a 50-match unbeaten run at their national stadium (nicknamed The Office) between 1995 and 2001 and most visiting sports team feel a little uneasy in Kingston, recognised as having one of the highest murder and crime rates in the world. During November, the mercury hits an average high of over 31°C.

History vs All Whites: Jamaica won an entertaining match earlier this year 3-2 (Chris Killen, Wood) in Auckland while the the only other clash saw the Caribbean nation win 2-1 (Simon Elliott) in 2000.


PANAMA

Panama have never qualified for a World Cup but have been one of the region's big improvers in recent times. They made the last four at the 2011 Concacaf Gold Cup, upsetting the United States in Tampa en route to the final four (their first win over the Americans). They lost just one game in the most recent stage of qualifying (0-1 to Canada in Toronto) and finished equal on points with Honduras.

Panama are a defensively solid outfit and conceded just two goals in six games during stage three of qualifying, the best (along with Mexico) of the 12 teams. Their defence is anchored by Felipe Baloy, who plays for Santos Laguna in Mexico's Primera Division. The 31-year-old was a key player at the 2005 Gold Cup (where they finished runners-up), though he was rebuked this year after posing for photos with a young fan, while clutching a clearly visible copy of a freshly purchased Playboy magazine.

Highly rated midfielder Anderson Cooper, who plies his trade in Argentina with Godoy Cruz, is one of the main playmakers, while veteran striker Luis Tejada (Toluca, Mexico), who was outstanding in the historic win over the US, fires the bullets. Panama, ranked 51st in the world, will need to bank some points early in the six-team play-off series, as they finish with an away tie in Mexico on October 11 before hosting the US four days later.

Nicknames: They are known as Los Canaleros (the Canal Men) or La Marea Roja (the Red Tide).

Intimidation factor: Medium. The Estadio Rommel Fernandez has a capacity of just 32,000, and an athletics track leaves spectators a long way from the action. Panama City is a favoured spot for retirees, though the tropical heat and rain - November brings an average high of 32°C - will be a factor.

History vs All Whites: Never played.


COSTA RICA

Costa Rica are usually favourites to sit alongside Mexico and the US as automatic qualifiers from the region but have been in a period of transition over the past few years. They are the most successful side from Central America in the history of the World Cup - having qualified three times (1990, 2002 and 2006), reaching the second round in 1990 - but missed out on the automatic berth to Honduras, then lost a two-leg play-off to Uruguay in 2009.

Their squad is headlined by outstanding Fulham playmaker Bryan Ruiz and includes Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Cristian Bolanos (FC Copenhagen) and goalkeeper Keilor Navas (Levante, La Liga).

Hopes also rest on the shoulders of young striker Joel Campbell, who turned heads at the 2011 Copa America and was snapped up by Arsenal. On loan at Real Betis, he scored a stunning goal this month against Deportiva La Coruna, which has been tipped to rival many of Lionel Messi's efforts for La Liga goal of the season.

They scored an impressive 14 goals in six matches in stage three of qualifying and their only two losses came against Mexico. Costa Rica, ranked 66, will need a good start to the hexagonal play-off series, as their last four games see them host the US, travel to Jamaica and Honduras before clashing with Mexico in San Jose.

Nicknames: Los Ticos, La Sele (The Selection).

Intimidation factor: High. San Jose is recognised as one of the safer cities in Central America but the locals are used to football-ing success and will do everything possible to put off visiting teams. The altitude (almost 1200m) will present additional challenges and Ricki Herbert will have miserable memories of San Jose, with a 4-0 pasting back in 2007 representing one of the worst defeats of his international coaching career.

History vs All Whites: Mark Paston, Tony Lochhead, Ivan Vicelich, Shane Smeltz, Jeremy Brockie and Leo Bertos are survivors from a dismal 4-0 loss back in 2007, which saw Herbert experiment with a back three. The Costa Rican team contained only one player who appeared at the previous year's World Cup.

- Herald on Sunday

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