World Cup qualifying: Who's in, who's out?

After nearly three years of matches, qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is drawing to a close and there’s still plenty at stake for countries hoping to compete for soccer’s top prize.

Thus far, only eight countries have secured a spot in the 32-team tournament: host Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Belgium.

With only two games left for most confederations, the opening weeks of October promise to deliver plenty of excitement… and heartache.

Here’s a look at where things stand in each region.

North & Central America & Caribbean  

  • Teams: 35
  • Spots:
  • Qualified: Mexico

Following a multi-phase qualification process, the 35 teams in the region known as CONCACAF — which includes Canada — were narrowed to six: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, the United States, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago (three).

The final stage of qualification (known as “The Hex”) has these teams competing in a home-and-away round robin. The top three teams qualify directly for the World Cup, while the fourth-place team enters an intercontinental playoff against the fifth-place team in Asia (hence the half spot).

Entering the final two games (Oct. 6 and Oct. 10), Mexico has 18 points and has already clinched a berth in the World Cup. Next in the standings are Costa Rica (15 points), Panama (10), the United States (nine), Honduras (nine) and Trinidad and Tobago (three).

Costa Rica can punch its ticket to Russia with a win over Honduras. But the game to watch is the United States vs. Panama on Oct. 6.

If the U.S. wishes to retain control of its destiny, it must defeat Panama. If it loses, it surrenders any hope of automatic qualification, requiring it, at best, to play Syria or Australia in the intercontinental playoff for a World Cup spot. 

This scenario, however, assumes that Honduras doesn’t defeat Costa Rica. Should Honduras win, in tandem with a U.S. loss, then the Americans may be at the mercy of their archrival, Mexico. El Tri face Honduras on the final day of this round and, with a World Cup berth already secured and nothing to play for, they could field a weak side in order to help eliminate the U.S.

USA-Costa-Rica

Michael Bradley, left and Tim Howard of the United States react after being defeated by Costa Rica 2-0 at home during World Cup qualifying in September. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Europe

  • Teams: 54
  • Spots: 13 plus host
  • Qualified: Russia (host), Belgium

With the largest contingent of spots, Europe’s qualification process breaks its 54 teams into nine groups of six. The nine group winners automatically qualify, while the top eight runners-up are paired into a home-and-away playoff (to take place in November) to determine the final four qualifiers.

  • Group A: France, Sweden, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Belarus
  • Group B: Switzerland, Portugal, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Andorra, Latvia
  • Group C: Germany, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Czech Republic, Norway, San Marino
  • Group D: Serbia, Wales, Ireland, Austria, Georgia, Moldova
  • Group E: Poland, Montenegro, Denmark, Romania, Armenia, Kazakhstan
  • Group F: England, Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania, Malta
  • Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein
  • Group H: Belgium (qualified), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Cyprus, Estonia, Gibraltar
  • Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Turkey, Ukraine, Finland, Kosovo

European teams will play their final two games of the current stage between Oct. 5 and Oct. 10. While continental powers Germany, Spain, France and England look likely to top their groups, others haven’t been so fortunate.

The biggest surprise is the Netherlands, which is currently third in Group A. De Oranje will need maximum points in their remaining games, including a Oct. 10 showdown with second-place Sweden, if they are to have a prayer of qualifying.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are slightly better off — even if they don’t defeat Switzerland on Oct. 10, to potentially move into first place, they are assured a second chance as runners-up.

Those looking for a return of the “Viking Thunder-Clap” will want to keep an eye on Iceland’s Oct. 6 match against Turkey — this contest will likely determine the top two spots in Group I.


South America

  • Teams: 10
  • Spots:
  • Qualified: Brazil

One of the most competitive regions, South America sees 10 teams vying in a single home-and-away round robin. The top four teams qualify directly, while the fifth-place team enters an intercontinental playoff vs. New Zealand (the winner of Oceania).

Here’s how the standings look:

  • Brazil: 37 points
  • Uruguay: 27
  • Colombia: 26
  • Peru: 24
  • Argentina: 24
  • Chile: 23
  • Paraguay: 21
  • Ecuador: 20
  • Bolivia: 13
  • Venezuela: 8

Can you imagine a World Cup without Lionel Messi? It could happen if Argentina fails to secure maximum points in its remaining two games. Sitting just outside of direct classification and with three teams challenging it for the fifth and final spot, fans of the Albiceleste will want to watch both of their matches (Oct. 5 vs. Peru and Oct. 10 vs. Ecuador) with fingers crossed.

The deciding game, however, may very well be Brazil (which has already qualified) vs. Chile on Oct. 10. Should Argentina slip, its only hope will lie with its eternal rival, Brazil, which will likely not field a strong team against Chile —adding salt to a growing wound following two consecutive Copa America final losses to its Andean neighbours.

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Lionel Messi and Argentina are barely hanging on to the final South American World Cup qualifying spot heading into the final two games. (Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA-EFE)

Africa

  • Teams: 53
  • Spots: 5
  • Qualified: None

Africa’s qualification process has three rounds. In the final round, the top 20 are broken into five groups of four. Following round-robin play, where teams meet home and away, only the five group winners advance to the World Cup.

  • Group A: Tunisia, Congo, Guinea, Libya
  • Group B: Nigeria, Zambia, Cameroon, Algeria
  • Group C: Ivory Coast, Morocco, Gabon, Mali
  • Group D: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Senegal, South Africa
  • Group E: Egypt, Uganda, Ghana, Congo

While teams have only two games left, Africa’s qualifiers run until Nov. 6, with games also being played on Oct. 6 and 7. Nigeria will likely be the first to clinch, with Tunisia and Egypt also looking strong.

The big surprise lies with traditional African powers Cameroon, Algeria and Ghana, who have a slim to zero chance of qualifying this time around.

The group to watch, however, is definitely D, where one point separates all four teams, with two games remaining.

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Nigeria’s Mikel John Obi, centre, celebrates with teammates William Ekong, left, and Odion Ighalo after scoring against Cameroon in World Cup qualifying in September. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/Getty Images)

Asia

  • Teams: 46
  • Spots:
  • Qualified: Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia

As the first confederation to start the qualification process, it’s no surprise that the bulk of Asia’s competition has already wrapped. What remains is to determine whether Syria or Australiawill advance to the intercontinental playoff vs. the fourth-place CONCACAF team.

The home-and-away series between Syria and Australia will take place on Oct. 5 and Oct. 10. The playoff vs. the CONCACAF team, which is also a home-and-away, will take place in November.

Australia-WorldCup-Qualifying

Australia’s Massimo Luongo, right, vies for the ball against Hotaru Yamaguchi of Japan during a World Cup qualifying match in August. (Franck Robichon/EPA-EFE)

Oceania

  • Teams: 11
  • Spots: ½
  • Qualified: None

Having weathered a multi-stage qualification process, New Zealand defeated the Solomon Islands in the regional final to become Oceania’s representative in the next round. It will meet the fifth-place team from South America in an intercontinental playoff for the right to compete in the World Cup.

While it’s opponent won’t be known until South America’s qualifiers wrap on Oct. 10, as things stand New Zealand is looking at a November home-and-away series against Argentina.

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