Yes, it’s the middle of football season. Yes, it’s the middle of baseball’s playoffs. Yes, the United States has comfortably qualified for the World Cup, and so the U.S. Men’s National Team’s match with Panama tonight carries little consequence for the boys in the candy cane stripes (can we make those our regular home kits, already?).
If you’re a fan of dramatic sporting events, though, you ought to have at least two World Cup qualifying matches on your must-see TV schedule today, where drama will be in no short sale and at least two of soccer’s stalwart countries are playing for their World Cup lives.
First, it’s Europe. Defending champion Spain is all but in, needing only a win or draw against lowly Georgia to clinch its spot. Barring a Spanish disaster, France is all but assured to finish second in that group, meaning they’ll enter a playoff against another second-place European team for the right to proceed to Brazil. France’s match with Finland, then, is all about improving world ranking to give them a weaker playoff opponent.
Then there’s England, which plays Poland today (Fox Sports 1, 3 p.m. ET) with its World Cup berth on the line. Win, and the English can book their flights across the pond. But with only a one-point lead over Ukraine, which plays tiny San Marino today, a loss or draw will likely send England into a playoff too — an uncomfortable scenario for a fan base familiar with dramatic qualifying campaigns and gut-punching losses when it matters most.
Surely the English can’t lose to a waffling Polish team, right? Forty years ago, with a Cup berth on the line, they did just that.
And that brings us to Mexico, the struggling side that boasts some of the biggest names in the Western hemisphere but only Friday put itself in position to actually qualify by beating Panama. Mexico’s scenarios run the gamut: a two-goal win over already-qualified Costa Rica (Telemundo, 9:30 ET) and a Honduras loss could put El Tri in the World Cup outright. A win or draw, no matter Honduras’ outcome, would cinch them a spot in a qualifier against Oceania champion New Zealand. A loss combined with a Panama win against the U.S. (beIN Sport, 9:30 ET) would send Mexico home for good.
This is the beauty of international soccer. England, France, and Mexico all assumed early on that they’d be in Brazil come 2014, and yet, with only one regular qualifying match left to play, none of them are safe yet. Depending on what happens today, all three could be headed for tense playoff games to keep their hopes alive, and one of them — Mexico — may not have any hope left at all (as slim as that possibility seems, this El Tri side is too unpredictable to feel safe about anything).
So while your sports calendar may seem empty since the NFL hasn’t figured out a way to play Tuesday Night Football yet, don’t fret: there’s plenty of good futbol on today instead, and the stakes for entire countries are far higher than they are in your average NFL game.