As we draw closer and closer to the first ever FIFA World Cup in winters (less than six months to go), the pot of the 32 nations who will be competing at the biggest sporting event of the year has almost been finalised. Twenty-nine teams have booked their tickets to Doha, and the remaining three spots will be filled by mid-June. This is the last edition of the World Cup which will feature 32 teams, as the format for the 2026 World Cup will be tweaked to cater for 48 teams.
THE QUALIFIED TEAMS
As per tradition, the hosts Qatar were the first nation to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, despite never having played at this stage before. They must not be mistaken for being mere pushovers though. They are the current Asian Cup holders and will be buoyed by the performance of Russia in the last World Cup, when they reached the quarter-finals against all odds in front of massive home audiences, bowing out on penalties against eventual finalists Croatia.
All the remaining 31 spots had to be earned through a series of qualifiers held by the federation of each continent. Every region’s qualifying system is designed in accordance with the number of spots they get at the main showdown.
Europe, owing to its large number of members being highly ranked in the official rankings, gets 13 spots. Africa has five, Asia and South America get four each, and North America gets three. The final two spots are decided through intercontinental playoffs: Asia vs South America and North America vs Oceania.
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The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) divided its member nations into 10 qualifying groups of five or six teams, with each group winner cementing a spot in the World Cup. The 10 runners-up and the two best Nations League group winners who failed to finish in their qualifying group’s top two were drawn into three play-off paths to decide the remaining three teams to go to Qatar. Each playoff path contained four teams, who took each other on in semi-finals, with the winners progressing to a final, the eventual winner of which would join the party in Qatar.
Most of the groups progressed seamlessly; the giant powerhouses swept aside the minnows to ensure most of the big names qualified automatically. Germany, England, Belgium, Spain and defending champions France qualified comfortably, topping their groups by big margins.
Surprisingly, however, Denmark was the first team to book their place through the qualification process, as it comfortably won its group, too. Netherlands, on the back of Memphis Depay’s qualifiers-leading 12 goals, ensured they turned around their fortunes after missing out on the 2018 World Cup. The 2018 finalists Croatia beat 2018 hosts Russia on the final matchday to edge them out by one point and qualify directly.
The big stories in European qualification were those of the last two European champions. Both Portugal and Italy failed to top their groups; Portugal beaten 2-1 on the last matchday by Serbia — who won the group — and Italy drawing against Northern Ireland to hand Switzerland the direct qualification spot.
If things were not on-a-knife-edge tense already, Portugal and Italy were both drawn into the same playoff path, which meant only one of them could participate in the World Cup.
Italy could not clear the first hurdle in the semi-final against North Macedonia, while Portugal brushed aside Turkey in the semi-finals and Macedonia in the final to ensure Cristiano Ronaldo will play at his fifth finals.
The other two paths were rocked by the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war. Russia’s disqualification handed Poland a bye in the semi-final, which they availed in full by beating Sweden in the final to reach Qatar 2022. Ukraine’s semi-final against Scotland was delayed, the winner of which would face off against Wales for a berth in the World Cup in June.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) seeded all its member nations according to the FIFA rankings and drew the bottom 28 to play home and away legs with each other. The 14 winners, along with the top 26 seeds, proceeded to Round 2 where they were divided into 10 groups of four teams each.
Almost all the groups progressed how you would expect them to. The big boys coasted through: Algeria, Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia. 2010 hosts South Africa and 2010 quarter-finalists Ghana finished their group with the same number of points and goal difference, with Ghana squeaking through on the basis of more goals scored.
Cameroon and Ivory Coast found themselves in the same group, a group won by Cameroon after Ivory Coast could not beat Mozambique away from home. Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo also went through after topping their groups.
These 10 group winners were drawn against each other for classic home and away legs showdowns. The five winners would represent Africa in Qatar. Morocco thrashed DR Congo, Tunisia beat Mali, Ghana cemented its position courtesy an away goal against Nigeria, and Cameroon made it through on away goals after extra time against Algeria.
But the biggest match was between the two Liverpool stalwarts Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane in a repeat of the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 final. In that instance, Senegal won the penalty shootout to take home the trophy after a 0-0 draw. This time round, the score across the two legs remained 1-1, but the result of the penalty shootout did not change. Salah missed his penalty in controversial circumstances, when Senegalese fans pointed lasers into his eyes just before he took his penalty.
All the 10 member nations of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) were drawn into a single group where they had to play each other home and away. The top four qualified for the World Cup, the fifth placed team proceeded to an intercontinental playoff.
Brazil and Argentina both finished the qualification process unbeaten, with them yet to play against each other — after Argentina walked off in Sao Paulo when Brazilian health authorities demanded some Argentinian players to quarantine because of a breach of Covid guidelines. Uruguay and Ecuador joined them as direct qualifiers, while Peru edged out Colombia to finish fifth and take the playoff spot.
The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) also used a seeding system. The bottom 30 ranked teams were divided into six groups, each group winner progressing to a home and away leg against another group winner. The three winners of the legs progressed to the next round wherein they joined the top five ranked teams in a group of eight. After a series of round-robin matches, the top three qualified directly, while the fourth-placed team qualified for the intercontinental playoff.
El Salvador, Canada, Curacao, Panama, Haiti, and St Kitts and Nevis won their groups in Round 1, with El Salvador, Canada and Panama going through to Round 3. Canada, Mexico, and the United States finished top three and qualified directly, while Costa Rica will face New Zealand in the playoff. Canada has qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) followed a similar format to the one used by CAF. The bottom-12 ranked nations played home and away legs against each other, with the six winners joining the top 34 ranked teams in being drawn into eight groups of five teams to play home and away round robin matches. The group winners and the four best runners-up progressed to Round 3. Since the first two rounds double as qualification to the 2023 Asian Cup too, Qatar took part in it too, despite having already qualified for the World Cup as hosts.
In Round 3, the 12 teams were divided into two groups of six teams to play home and away matches against all the others. The top two from each group qualified directly, while the two third-placed teams faced each other for a spot in the intercontinental playoff. Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan qualified directly, while UAE and Australia will face off in June for a chance to play against Peru in the playoff.
Pakistan lost out in Round 1 to Cambodia 4-1 over two legs.
The writer is a sports enthusiast with a background in supply chain management. He tweets @tahagoheer
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 29th, 2022