It has been 2 years since 209 nations started battling it out for the biggest footballing extravaganza in the globe, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Nations from 5 continents bleed to book the Russian ticket and 30 have achieved their dream while 4 nations are still sweating over the two spots left.
As usual there were quite a few surprises as four times champion Italy were knocked out by Sweden in the play-offs. Argentina were also struggling till the very last match before their talismanic striker Lionel Messi helped them get their passports. Switzerland displayed great form to win first 9 matches before Portugal defeated them to send them to the play-offs, however that just delayed their chance as they beat Northern Ireland in the play-offs.
Italy getting dumped out was the biggest surprise while Netherlands also missed out on the opportunity while Iceland also sealed a berth to become the smallest nation to book the berth. Senegal won 2-0 in South Africa to seal their first finals appearance since 2002, in a game that was replayed after the referee in the first fixture was suspended. Nigeria dominated a tough group containing Zambia, Cameroon and a disappointing Algeria side to reach the finals for the sixth time.
Brazil became the first team to qualify for Russia during a nine-game winning run, putting their 2014 nightmare behind them. Uruguay looked odds-on for qualification for much of their campaign but it took a final-round victory over Bolivia to make it certain.
Euro champions Portugal, defending champions Germany, Spain and most other had it a routine-affair qualifying for the event.
Qualified: Russia (hosts); Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Poland, Serbia, Iceland, France, Portugal; Switzerland, Croatia, Sweden (via play-offs)
Russia qualified automatically as hosts and were joined by Belgium which finished Group H nine points clear of Greece. Germany booked their place by finishing Group C with 10 wins out of 10. England were not as satisfying as they would have loved but they pushed through. Spain were back to best and won 9 of their 10 group matches.
South America (Conmebol)
Qualified: Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia
Argentina left it really late in their qualifiers as they had to come display a superb show in the final game to seal the berth. Brazil put their disappointing run by becoming the first team to sail through.
North and Central America (Concacaf)
Qualified: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
Mexico cruised through their groups and never looked in danger. However, Costa Rica left it late, too late in fact. They needed a penalty in the injury time against Honduras.
Qualified: Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia
Iran were the first Asian team to qualify, and did so way back in June with a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan. Carlos Queiroz’s side topped the group with maximum efficiency – going unbeaten with 10 goals in 10 games. South Korea came second in Group A to secure their ninth consecutive appearance at a World Cup finals.
In Group B, a tight three-way battle ended with Japan topping the group, one point ahead of Saudi Arabia who qualified after edging out Australia on goal difference. The Socceroos narrowly prevailed in a two-legged play-off with surprise package Syria, and will now face Concacaf’s fourth-placed side for a place at the finals.
Qualified: Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco
Morocco are back at a World Cup finals for the first time since France ‘98 after an unbeaten campaign ended with a 2-0 win over nearest rivals Ivory Coast. Senegal won 2-0 in South Africa to seal their first finals appearance since 2002. Nigeria dominated a tough group containing Zambia, Cameroon and a disappointing Algeria side to reach the finals for the sixth time.
Honduras, Peru and Australia earned another chance at qualification alongside Oceania winners New Zealand.
Peru v New Zealand (15 Nov, first leg 0-0)
Australia v Honduras (15 Nov, first leg 0-0)