THE 2018 WORLD CUP is getting ever closer. It’s now just a few months away, and the hype is really starting to build. It will only intensify between now and next summer.
According to many online gambling sites, Germany are the favourites to win the tournament. They’re ahead of the likes of Brazil, Spain and Argentina in the betting, and that probably won’t change unless multiple players suffer from injury or a significant loss of form. It’s perhaps a little premature to be thinking about potential winners, however, as the qualification process is not entirely complete.
Of the 32 teams that will be competing in Russia for football’s ultimate prize, only 23 have been decided so far. Nine more spots are still to be confirmed, which will be happening over the next few weeks.
There will be a total of 14 European teams at next year’s World Cup. Russia was given their place automatically as hosts, and nine teams have earned theirs by winning their groups during the qualification process. A further four will qualify through the playoffs taking place in November.
The nine teams which topped their groups are as follows.
- France (Group A)
- Portugal (Group B)
- Germany (Group C)
- Serbia (Group D)
- Poland (Group E)
- England (Group F)
- Spain (Group G)
- Iceland (Group I)
There have been a few surprises in the qualification process so far, but Iceland booking their place in Russia has to be up there as one of the biggest. Despite impressing during their run to the quarter-finals during the last European Championships, few would have expected them to follow that up with their first-ever qualification for football’s biggest tournament.
With a population of just 325,000, Iceland has become the smallest ever country to qualify for the World Cup. It’s an incredible achievement, especially when you consider the strength of their qualifying group. Their opposition included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, and yet they qualified with a record of seven wins, one draw and two defeats.
Another surprise was the failure of the Netherlands to even make the top two of their group. Coming after their failure to qualify for the 2016 European Championships, it’s no wonder that there is now much debate about what caused the demise of Dutch football.
It will be interesting to see if there are any more surprises during the playoffs. These are being played over two legs next month, with the winning team from each of the following four booking their place in the finals.
- Croatia vs Greece
- Northern Ireland vs Switzerland
- Sweden vs Italy
- Denmark vs Republic Ireland
Africa will be represented by five teams at the 2018 World Cup. These teams will be decided at the end of a three-stage qualification process, of which the first two stages are complete. The third stage began back in October 2016, when the 20 teams that progressed from round two were divided into five groups of four. The winning team in each group will qualify for the finals in Russia.
Two teams are already assured of their place. Egypt is guaranteed to top Group E, ahead of Congo, Ghana and Uganda. Nigeria has secured top spot in B, ahead of Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia.
The other three African qualifiers will be known by the end of November at the latest. The following teams are all in with a chance at this point.
- Tunisia (Group A)
- Congo DR (Group A)
- Morocco (Group C)
- Ivory Coast (Group C)
- Senegal (Group D)
- Burkina Faso (Group D)
- Cape Verde Islands (Group D)
The South American qualifying process is refreshingly simple. The 10 eligible teams all play each other twice, with the top four teams automatically earning their place at the finals. The fifth-placed team then goes into an inter-continental play-off with a team from Oceania.
There was nearly a shock during the final round of fixtures when Ecuador took an unexpected lead against Argentina. Argentina was in fifth place at the time, and defeat would have meant missing out on automatic qualification. They ended up in third place, however, with a hat-trick from Lionel Messi helping them to secure their much-needed victory.
Joining Argentina in Russia will be Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia. Peru finished in fifth place and will be facing New Zealand in a two-legged tie in November.
In contrast to South America, the qualifying process in North America is somewhat convoluted. There are five rounds in total, with teams entering at different stages depending on their current rankings.
The fourth qualifying round features 12 teams. These are divided into four groups of three, with each team playing the other two twice. The top two teams in each group then advance to the fifth and final qualifying round. It was the following six teams that made the fifth qualifying round for next year’s World Cup.
- Costa Rica
- Trinidad & Tobago
- United States
These six teams all played each other twice. The top three – which were Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama – all earned automatic qualification to the finals. The fourth-placed team was Honduras, and they will now play in an inter-continental play-off against Australia.
Four teams from Asia can earn direct qualification to the World Cup. These are determined following a three-stage qualification process which culminates in a final group round with two groups of six. The top two teams from each group qualify for the tournament proper, with the two third-placed then competing for a place in an inter-continental play-off.
Group A was won by Iran, with South Korea finishing second. Both these teams are on their way to Russia in the summer. They’ll be joined by Japan and Saudi Arabia, who finished first and second respectively in Group B. The two third-placed teams were Syria and Australia. Australia beat Syria 3-2 over a two-legged tie and will proceed to the play-off tie against Honduras.
World Cup qualification in Oceania began with the 2016 OFC Nations Cup. The best six performers in that tournament progressed to a qualifying round consisting of two groups of three. A play-off between the top finishers in each group then decided who would progress to an inter-continental playoff for a place in the finals in Russia.
New Zealand won Group A, while Solomon Islands won Group B. These two teams then played a two-legged tie, with New Zealand winning 8-2 on aggregate. As a result, they’ll be playing in the inter-continental play-off against Peru.
In total, over 200 national teams took part in the qualification process for the 2018 World Cup. Within a few weeks, we’ll know the full line-up of teams that will be competing in Russia. On 1 December, the draw for the group stages at the finals will take place at the Kremlin in Moscow. And that’s when we can really start looking forward to next year’s tournament