World Cup Qualifying Explained

With the FIFA World Cup qualifiers starting this weekend, I thought it would be worth outlining how the whole process works.

Currently, there are 111 teams still in the competition across the six zones, and this needs to be whittled down to 32.

UEFA (Europe)– 13 places (9 automatic, 4 playoff)

UEFA has 55 members*, all of which are entering the World Cup, include Kosovo and Gibraltar for the first time.

The hosts, Russia, qualify automatically leaving 54 countries to take part in the qualification process for the 13 World Cup spots UEFA is given.

Last year, 52 teams were drawn into nine groups, seven of which had six teams, and the remaining two had five. Earlier this year, Kosovo and Gibraltar were both admitted as FIFA members, meaning they could take part in the qualification process. They filled the gaps in the five-team groups (no draw was made- Kosovo was placed in a particular group to avoid a politically-charged clash with Bosnia). Each team in the group plays every other team twice over the next 13 months (once at home, and once away, and who plays who when was decided by a drawing of lots), meaning each team plays 10 games each.

The groups are below (I’ve shamelessly screenshoted it from Wikipedia).

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.13.10

The team that has the most points in the group qualifies directly for the World Cup and can look forward to eight months of preparation.

The nine second-placed teams are then ranked according to their records against the teams that finish first to fifth in their groups (i.e. the results against the sixth-placed team are discounted). The reason for this is that, when the groups were drawn, not all the groups had six teams- the late entries of Kosovo and Gibraltar meant that this was no longer the case, but it still makes sense in that it discounts results against very weak teams that can make goal difference and points totals look better than the team’s performance warranted.

The second-placed team with the worst record is knocked out (as happened to Denmark in 2014 and Norway in 2010- maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing) and the remaining eight teams contest the playoffs.

The four teams with the highest FIFA ranking are seeded, and the rest unseeded. One seeded team is drawn against one unseeded team, and they will play each other over two legs in November 2017, with the winner proceeding to the World Cup in Russia.

Obviously, this means the process will be harder (and, hopefully more exciting) than for the recent Euros. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch for NI to get there, but Scotland have a better chance than many recent campaigns in qualifying. Likewise, England could well face a rough ride. It’s also entirely possible that one of Spain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands might miss out due to being the worst second-placed team.

CONMEBOL (South America)– 4 automatic places, 0.5 playoff

Easily the most competitive qualifying competition, CONMEBOL’s 10 members play each other twice over two years in a single qualifying group. The top four teams qualify directly, while the fifth placed team faces a playoff against New Zealand a team from Oceania.

It’s already well underway, with Argentina leading the way, but just four points ahead of seventh-placed Chile, so everything to play for.

CONCACAF (North America, Central America, and the Carribbean)– 3 automatic places, 0.5 playoff

Again, this is well underway, with the semi-final stage drawing to a close. Mexico, Trinidad, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Panama have already made it to the final stage with the US likely to join, as well as one of Honduras and Canada. The final six teams play in a home-end-away round robin (known as the “hex”), with the top three going on to the World Cup, and the fourth placed team going on to a playoff with an Asian team.

AFC (Asia)– four automatic places, 0.5 playoff

We’ve just started the final round where twelve teams remain- they have been drawn into two groups of six teams each, playing each other twice. The top two teams in each group qualify for the World Cup, while the two third-placed teams enter a playoff. The winner of this playoff enters another playoff versus the fourth-placed CONCACAF team for the right to enter the World Cup.

The remaining teams are Australia, China, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, Thailand, Uzebkistan, and UAE.

OFC (Oceania)– 0.5 playoff

There are six teams left, and they have been drawn into two groups of three. They play each other twice in each group, with the two group winners playing a two leg final, the winner of which faces the daunting task of playing the fifth place CONMEBOL team for a place in Russia.

CAF (Africa)– five automatic places

The final round consists of twenty teams, which are drawn into five groups of four teams each. They play each other twice in each group, and the group winner goes to Russia. All the continent’s big guns are still in the competition (the only vaguely notable absentee is Togo who qualified in 2006), though one of the groups does contain regular qualifiers Cameroon, Nigeria, and Algeria, and 2012 African champs Zambia. This stage will start in October.


*I’ve used the word “members” as opposed to “countries” or “nations” as different people will have different definitions as to what constitutes a country, nation etc..  As a side note, the number is so high because UEFA includes a number of members that are not recognised as sovereign countries by the UN (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Kosovo), a number of microstates (San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein) and a few countries whose place in “European” football is geographically dubious (Kazakhstan, Israel, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan). There are two recognised countries in Europe without a football team, namely Monaco and the Vatican- it’s unlikely either of these will be contesting a World Cup campaign any time soon.

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