Argentina, four others qualify for World Cup

Associated Press

London, June 9:

With a year to go before the World Cup, five teams have joined host Germany in the 32-nation

field for the sport’s showpiece championship. Japan and South Korea, co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup, were among the four teams qualifying on Wednesday from Asia. They were joined by Iran and Saudi Arabia. In South America, two-time champion Argentina qualified for the ninth time in a row by beating traditional rival, five-time winner and reigning champ Brazil 3-1. Brazil, which holds second place in South American qualifying, needs one more victory in its last three games to maintain its record as the only nation to play at all 18 World Cups. The line of European contenders is led by a team that’s never made it to the finals before. With AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko in the lineup and two-time World Cup player

Oleh Blokhin as coach, Ukraine needs just one more victory from its last three games to reach the championship for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Shevchenko and his teammates could qualify at the expense of European champion Greece, while there’s a strong chance that Spain and France may also fail to make it. The Ukrainians beat Greece 1-0 to move seven points clear of their European Group 2 rivals. A 6-0 Turkey victory in Kazakhstan pushed the Greeks down to third in the standings.

In Europe, only the eight group winners and best two runners-up are guaranteed places in the June 9-July 9 finals. The other six second-place finishers can advance through playoffs.

The Netherlands and the Czech Republic, both high-scoring winners on Wednesday, could both qualify from their group as they chase their first World Cup titles. The Dutch overpowered Finland 4-0 in Helsinki. The Czechs routed Macedonia 6-1 with Jan Koller scoring four times. Poland and England, neck-and-neck in their group, could also clinch World Cup berths before they face each other in the final round of games at Old Trafford in October.

Three-time winner Italy is in a strong position to qualify for the 12th time in a row, holding a four-point lead at the top of its group. By contrast, France no longer looks like the dominant force that won World Cup and European titles in 1998 and 2000, and could be in danger of missing out on the 2006 tournament. Raymond Domenech’s team has slipped to fourth in its qualifying group, although the standings are so close the French could easily finish first ahead of Ireland, Switzerland and Israel. Spain’s chances of qualifying suffered a blow on Wednesday with a 1-1 draw at home against modest Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Spaniards needed an equaliser six minutes into injury time to avoid a stunning defeat. Serbia-Montenegro has a stronger chance of finishing first in the group.

The United States is in good position to make it for the fifth straight time after a 3-0 victory in Panama. Like group leader Mexico, Bruce Arena’s team needs to win two of its remaining five games. No team has yet qualified from Africa, which has emerged as a powerful force in world soccer since Morocco was the first from the continent to qualify in 1970. Coincidentally, the Moroccans are among the favorites to qualify, holding a four-point lead over Tunisia. South Africa, Togo and Ivory Coast are also clear group leaders. Nigeria, aiming to reach the finals for the fourth time in a row, is tied with Angola, which has never qualified.