World Cup Bubble Watch: Everything we know about the Russia 2018 field

Henry Bushnell
Of the 32 spots at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 23 have been claimed. (Getty)
Of the 32 spots at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 23 have been claimed. (Getty)

The United States men’s national team will not be appearing at the 2018 World Cup. Twenty-four hours later, that’s still sinking in. But the Yanks’ failure obscured what was an absolutely insane final day of the October qualifying window. And now that the dust has settled, we have our clearest picture yet of what the World Cup field will look like.

The 2018 tournament will feature at least two debutants, but will be without several traditional powers. The field for next summer’s competition in Russia began to really take shape over the past six days, with 15 nations officially qualifying. The 15 included Iceland, which will become the smallest nation to ever appear at a World Cup, and Panama, which clinched its first-ever appearance by way of the U.S.’s failure and a phantom goal.

But the bigger story is who won’t be in attendance. And it’s not just the U.S. The list is headlined by the Netherlands, a finalist in 2010 and semifinalist four years ago. It also includes Chile, Ghana and Cameroon. And it could yet add the likes of Italy, Croatia and the Ivory Coast.

In total, 23 nations have qualified. Nine spots remain up for grabs. And 20 countries remain in the mix for those nine spots, on the World Cup bubble. Here’s what we know so far, with further breakdowns below:


Europe (13, plus host): Russia (host), Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Poland, Iceland, Serbia, France, Portugal, TBD-Playoff, TBD-Playoff, TBD-Playoff, TBD-Playoff
South America (4/5): Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia; Playoff: Peru (vs. New Zealand)
North/Central America (3/4): Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama; Playoff: Honduras (vs. Australia)
Africa (5): Nigeria, Egypt, TBD, TBD, TBD
Asia (4/5): Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia; Playoff: Australia (vs. Honduras)
Oceania (0/1): Playoff: New Zealand (vs. Peru)


The final nine participants will be decided between Nov. 6 and 14. Two of the remaining spots will go to the winners of intercontinental playoffs, one between Peru and New Zealand, the other between Honduras and Australia.

Four of the nine will go to the winners of the European playoffs. The eight best runners have been seeded for a draw that will take place on Oct. 17. Pot 1 is Switzerland, Italy, Croatia and Denmark. Pot 2 is Northern Ireland, Sweden, Ireland and Greece. All playoffs are decided on aggregate over two legs.

The final three will come from Africa, where one round of group matches remains. Here’s where things stand in those three groups …


Group A: Tunisia is three points ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with only Libya standing between the Tunisians and the World Cup. A draw would be enough. Congo DR needs a win against Guinea and a Tunisia loss.

Group C: The Ivory Coast and Morocco face each other on the final matchday with Morocco clinging to a one-point lead. The Ivorians, therefore, need a win. The Moroccans only need a draw.

Group D: This one is complicated. Senegal and South Africa both have two matches remaining, and they’re against each other. Senegal has a two-point lead on Burkina Faso and Cape Verde, both of whom only have one game to go. So one Senegal win clinches a World Cup berth. South Africa, which is four points back, would need to win both matches. Burkina Faso and Cape Verde, meanwhile, need the two Senegal-South Africa games to end in one draw and one South Africa win. The winner of their matchup also would need to make up goal differential deficits. So long story short, Senegal is a heavy favorite.


Over the past two months, we’ve been classifying teams based on the likelihood they appear in Russia. With many of the convoluted scenarios out of the way, we’ve changed the format for this edition of Bubble Watch. But here’s the simple breakdown, as we’ve been constructing it in the past:

Already qualified (23): Russia (host), Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Germany, England, Spain, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Poland, Egypt, Serbia, Iceland, Portugal, France, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Panama
Making travel reservations (0): None
Feeling optimistic (5): Switzerland, Italy, Peru, Tunisia, Senegal
On the bubble (10): Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Greece, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Australia, Honduras
Fretting (2): South Africa, New Zealand
Dreams fading (2): Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Still alive, but only technically (1): Cape Verde Islands


In the past, FIFA seeded the top seven teams in its October rankings, plus the tournament hosts, in Pot 1 for the draw. It then set the other three pots by confederation.

But last month, soccer’s global governing body announced changes to the format for the 2018 edition. At this year’s draw – Dec. 1 in Moscow – all four pots will be seeded based on the October FIFA Rankings.

The pots aren’t yet set, because the full field isn’t set. But the rankings are, so we have a pretty full, even if somewhat blurry, picture of what the draw will look like in less than three months. Below is a 1-43 ranking of the teams still alive, with cut-lines that provide a rough, BUT INEXACT, estimate of how the pots will be divided. The actual pot assignments, of course, will depend on who does and doesn’t qualify.

(Pot assignments for teams in bold have been confirmed, if that team qualifies. Teams in italics have not yet qualified.)


Costa Rica
Northern Ireland
Congo DR

Burkina Faso
Ivory Coast
South Korea
Saudi Arabia
Cape Verde Islands
South Africa

New Zealand

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.