In exactly 367 days, the 2018 World Cup will kick off from Moscow. Qualifying for the tournament is, of course, well underway, and last night’s riveting tie between the United States and Mexico showed just how intense the process can be. Across the globe, continental rivalries are both established and contested by the best players in the world, all with hopes of guiding their nation to the most incredible tournament in the world. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the qualifying process for each confederation, and where things stand in that process.
UEFA (Union of European Football Associations)
Naturally, we should start in Europe, a region that sends more nations into the 32-team field than anyone. The format for UEFA World Cup Qualifying consists of two rounds: the first, where 54 nations are divided into nine groups of six and each group winner qualifies automatically; and the second, where the eight best second-place finishers are paired up and face off over two legs to determine the final four European entrants. In all, UEFA will send fourteen teams to next summer’s World Cup: the nine group winners, the four playoff winners, and Russia, who qualify automatically thanks to their status as the host nation.
Currently, UEFA is six games into the first round of qualifying, which consists of a total of ten—each team plays every team at home and on the road. Group A is one of the most interesting, as Sweden currently tops the group with France in second and the Netherlands third. Sweden caught France on thirteen points after a late goalkeeping blunder by Hugo Lloris when the two squared off this weekend, and they have a two-goal lead in differential. Holland, after an incredibly slow start to their qualifying campaign, have recovered and sit only three points back of both Sweden and France. Group B has come down to a two-horse race between Switzerland and Portugal for the automatic qualifying spot, with Switzerland currently three points ahead. Germany is dominating Group C, with a perfect record of six wins and no losses to go along with a 27/1 goals scored/goals conceded split, which is absurdly good. Northern Ireland sit in second on thirteen points, while the Czech Republic are in third with nine.
Serbia and the Republic of Ireland top Group D with twelve points each, while Wales and Austria sit just behind at eight, both within striking distance of the top two. Poland tops Group E with sixteen points, but the real story is Montenegro, who has come out of nowhere to sit second in the group, tied with Denmark on ten points. Group F is also a fascinating one—England leads with fourteen points, but Slovakia and Slovenia are close behind with twelve and eleven points respectively. Scotland trails those three with eight points after a late Harry Kane equalizer robbed them of three points against England this past weekend. Group G is another two-horse race, this one between Spain and Italy, who each sit on sixteen points currently. Belgium top Group H with sixteen points, while Greece is one point up on Bosnia & Herzegovina for the playoff spot. Rounding it out, Group I is anyone’s to win, with four teams within two points of each other. Croatia and Iceland each have thirteen points, while Turkey and Ukraine both have eleven.
CONMEBOL (Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol)
The South American region has a much different format than others due to the lesser amount of teams in the confederation. The ten teams play every other team twice, once at home and once on the road, and the top four qualify automatically for Russia. The fifth-place team enters an inter-confederation playoff with another nation to qualify. The teams are currently through fourteen games, meaning they each have only four remaining. Brazil tops the group with 33 points, and have already qualified for the World Cup. Colombia sits behind them with 24, while Uruguay and Chile are both tied for third place with 23. This would mean that currently, powerhouse Argentina (22 points) would have to make it through the playoff series to qualify—not that this would likely be a problem for them, as they would be facing a team from a less powerful confederation. Ecuador has 20 points and is in sixth place, while Peru is tied with Paraguay for seventh on 18. Bolivia and Venezuela are both already mathematically eliminated from qualifying.
CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football)
This is the confederation most Americans are probably familiar with, as it includes North and Central America and is the group the United States have to get out of to qualify for Russia. The initial rounds of qualifying have already concluded, and the final round involves the top six teams all playing each other twice in a format commonly known as “The Hex” (short for hexagonal). The top three teams go through to Russia automatically, while the fourth enters the inter-confederation playoff. Mexico currently tops the group with fourteen points, while Costa Rica is tied with the United States for second with eight. Panama sits in fourth with six points, Honduras in fourth with four, and Trinidad & Tobago is bottom of the group on three points. It is important to note that the United States and Mexico have each played one more game than the other four nations: while their rivalry was played Sunday night, the other two games are Tuesday night, so while Mexico is sitting pretty, the United States could drop back into fourth depending on the result.
AFC (Asian Football Confederation)
The Asian Confederation’s qualifying process is in round three of four, with two groups of six teams that play each other twice. The top two teams from each of these groups (four in total) will enter automatically into the World Cup, while the two third place teams move into the fourth round, where they play each other for a spot in the inter-confederation playoff—a playoff for the playoff, if you will. In Group A, Iran has already qualified, defeating Uzbekistan 2-0 to book their trip to Russia next year. They top the group with twenty points, while the Korea Republic currently claim second with thirteen points. Uzbekistan are in third with twelve, but they and Iran have played eight games, while the rest of the group has only played seven. Syria is in fourth place with eight points, while China and Qatar bring up the rear with five and four points, respectively (at least you’ll be there in 2022, Qatar).
Group B is much more tightly contested at the top, with three teams that are fighting tooth and nail for the two automatic qualifying spots. Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Australia are all tied with sixteen points thus far, but Japan has a game in hand on both of them. The United Arab Emirates sit fourth with nine points, Iraq are fifth with four, and Thailand brings up the rear with only one point.
CAF (Confederation of African Football)
The African qualifying is, to me, by far the most interesting due to 1) the traditional powers that are struggling early in the process, and 2) the seemingly imbalanced groups. In this final round, there are five groups of four teams who play home and away round-robin games, with the top team in the group advancing to the World Cup. It is worth nothing that of the six games each team will play in this round, the region is only through two, so a lot can change. In Group A, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tunisia sit atop the group with six points apiece, while Guinea and Libya have yet to get a point. Group B is absolutely stacked, with Nigeria, Cameroon, Zambia, and Algeria all fighting for one spot. Three of those nations competed in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the one who didn’t (Zambia) is a rising nation with some incredible young talent that led them to a successful U20 World Cup campaign, which included upsets of both Portugal and Germany. Nigeria tops the group with six points, Cameroon has two, and both Zambia and Algeria have one point.
Group C is currently led by Cote D’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) with four points—they lead Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon side and Morocco, who both have two points. Mali finished up the group with only a point. Group D is led, somewhat surprisingly, by Burkina Faso, who have four points and lead South Africa on goal differential. South Africa also have four, and Senegal (another side with some phenomenal young talent) sit third on three points. The Cape Verde Islands round out the group with no points, and have yet to score in group play. Group E is the final qualifying quartet and is led by Egypt, who top the group with six points. Uganda sit second with four, and Congo is in fourth with no points—but Ghana, who have historically been the darlings of the World Cup from the African confederation, are in third place with only a point through two games. Granted, they have plenty of time to make it up and emerge from a group they are expected to win, but there is work to do for the Ghanaians.
OFC (Oceania Football Confederation)
Oceania qualifying is fascinating because there are no automatic bids to the World Cup. Instead, the winner of the Oceania qualifying goes directly into the inter-confederation playoff, rounding out the four-team field. The final round is split into two groups of three, and the winners of the groups meet to decide who goes to that playoff. New Zealand has already won Group A, and their opponent will be decided by a clash between the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, which occurs tomorrow night (or early this morning if you’re an American). If the Solomon Islands win or draw, they will go through to face New Zealand; if Papua New Guinea wins by four goals or less, Tahiti will go through; and if they win by five or more, they will progress to the final playoff against New Zealand.
There are endless possibilities and scenarios that see vastly different fields of 32 in next summer’s World Cup, which will make the closing stages of the qualifying process all the more interesting. Be sure to stay connected with The Opener, and I’ll do my best to make sure you stay in the know.