World Cup qualifying will take you places. It’ll take you places, man. And the best part about it is that you never quite know where.
It’ll take you to the banks of the Mediterranean, to the East Asian meccas, to the Himalayas, Rockies and Andes. To the equator and the edge of the Arctic, to the middle of deserts and the middle of oceans, and beyond. It’ll show you shredded pitches and makeshift scoreboards, empty stands and flare-lit grounds, flooded fields and plastic ones. It’ll take you on journeys halfway around the globe. It’ll bring you national holidays and crises.
And at the end of it all, only one thing is certain: the two-and-a-half-year, stop-start spectacle will not disappoint.
Ultimately, it is about the 32 teams that will be playing as millions watch next summer. And in the coming months, this column will look ahead to FIFA’s Russian extravaganza. But first, let’s take a second, and a couple thousand words, to look back. To relive the heartbreak, the joy, the controversy, the quirks, the eccentricity, and everything that makes World Cup qualifying so enchanting.
World Cup Touchline: The story of qualification
1. Precisely 979 days before the 2018 qualification cycle ended in Lima, Peru, and roughly 10,340 miles away across the South Pacific, it kicked off at 3 a.m. ET on March 12, 2015, at the Municipal Stadium in Dili, Timor-Leste. It kicked off with a 4-1 win for the home side, in part thanks to Brazilian imports with falsified East Timorese birth certificates. Later in the day, the lowest-ranked team in the world, Bhutan, won its first-ever qualifier, and celebrated with a trip to a Sri Lankan KFC. The following 31 paragraphs will attempt to tell the story of what has happened since.
2. All 211 FIFA members entered the 2018 World Cup. Zimbabwe didn’t last one day. Mongolia would be the first team eliminated on a football pitch the following week, but hours after Timor-Leste’s curtain-raiser, FIFA “expelled” Zimbabwe. Its FA had failed to pay off a debt to a former coach. Two months later, Indonesia was also banned for government interference in soccer. That, at the time, left 206 teams to fight for 31 spots in Russia, with the hosts already qualified. Kosovo and Gibraltar would later be admitted to the fray to bring the total to 208.
3. By the end of March 2015, first rounds in Asia and CONCACAF had narrowed the field to 194. By the end of the calendar year, it had been slashed to under 150. Twenty-three of CONCACAF’s 35 nations were already done, as were 34 of Africa’s 54. Here’s an inexact timeline of qualification, in the form of a chart that shows the size of the field over the past two and a half years:
4. Alright, enough numbers. What was the best feel-good story of qualifying? Chances are it’s never even been told. But among the widely publicized ones, it has to be Iceland. It has to be the smallest nation to ever qualify. It has to be the dark winter days, the snow, the soccer halls bustling with coaches and children of all ages. It has to be the fireworks, the Viking Clap, and the late-night celebration in Reykjavik. Iceland – a volcanic island of 340,000 people – is going to the World Cup, while countries of over one billion people are watching from home. Iceland. It’s still a bit hard to fathom.
5. Iceland, which debuted at a major tournament two summers earlier, emerged from a group that collectively boasted 15 major tournament appearances this century. It took one of the more obstacle-laden roads to Russia. Sweden’s, however, was the most treacherous. Drawn out of UEFA Pot 3 into a group with the Netherlands and France, it survived. Drawn into a playoff with four-time world champion Italy, it triumphed.
6. Nigeria’s navigation of a final-round group that featured three 2014 World Cup participants was also impressive. But more than anything, it speaks to the cruelty of Africa’s qualifying format. Having realized its 2014 format, which boiled all World Cup dreams down to a two-leg playoff, was absurd, the African confederation scrapped the playoffs altogether. But it moved back to five four-team groups, out of which only one team could qualify. No flexibility whatsoever. The draw, therefore, automatically eliminated two World Cup veterans. Those happened to be Africa’s top-ranked team at the time of the draw, Algeria, and the continent’s reigning champion, Cameroon.
7. Africa could only keep Egypt out for so long, though. Having perished in playoffs in 2010 and 2014, the Pharaohs entered the penultimate matchday of this year’s group stage knowing victory would exorcise all demons. With the game tied in stoppage time, an entire nation celebrated a foul in the penalty area like it had won a World Cup semifinal. And when Mohamed Salah converted the pen to send Egypt to its first Cup since 1990 … pandemonium.
8. The celebrations in Cairo reflected all the agony and angst of 28 bereft years, of turmoil, of gut-wrenching disappointment. If you were to attempt to quantify the emotional power of sport, the thousands of people, hundreds of flags, and dozens of flares and incoherent dance routines in Tahrir Square that night would certainly help. But if you wanted to truly explain that emotional power? To feel it? To witness what that moment meant to Egypt?
9. The only party that rivalled Egypt’s went down in Panama, where World Cup qualification arrived for the first time in the nation’s history. Roman Torres’ 88th-minute winner sent Los Canaleros to Russia. The final whistle sent Estadio Rommel Fernandez into a seemingly never-ending roar.
10. October 10, 2017 will be remembered for a long time. For lifetimes. The stories will be passed down from generation to generation. Over two-and-a-half whirlwind hours at eight Central and South American stadiums on a Tuesday night, insanity wrote a new definition for itself. There were impossible own goals and worldies. There was an indirect free kick scored directly, a phantom goal, and some preposterous time-wasting. There was collusion. When the dust settled, the greatest player ever had dragged an entire nation from the brink of disaster to the Promised Land with a hat trick. Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Panama were in. Peru and Honduras were still alive. The U.S. and Chile, shockingly, were out.
11. Chile was out despite a controversial FIFA ruling that awarded it a forfeit win and two extra points. Or, rather, because of that ruling. Last year, a FIFA disciplinary committee found that Bolivia had used an ineligible player in a 0-0 with the Chileans. Crucially, though, the player, Nelson Cabrera, had also featured in a 2-0 victory over Peru. The rest of South America fought the ruling, but Chile and Peru fought back, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport eventually upheld it. That turned out to be ironically catastrophic for La Roja. They finished sixth, one place out of the intercontinental playoff – level on points with Peru, two behind on goal differential. Had neither forfeit been awarded, Chile would have finished a point ahead, and would have been hosting leg two of a playoff against New Zealand on Wednesday night.
12. Chile wasn’t alone among notable qualifying failures. In fact, four – Chile, the U.S., Italy and Holland – made our list of the 20 biggest since 1950. And that’s not just recency bias. Italy’s – its first miss in 60 years – was the worst of the bunch.
13. Enough about heartbreak. On the other end of the spectrum, veteran Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk helped bring unexpected joy to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis didn’t even make it past the penultimate round of Asian qualifying four years ago. They finished third in their group behind Oman. This time around, they beat Japan on the final day of the final round to qualify and cap the qualification cycle’s best “worst-to-first” tale.
14. Poland and Mexico also achieved significant cycle-over-cycle improvement. Poland jumped from 13 points and fourth in its 2014 group to 25 and top of its 2018 pool. Mexico, which had snuck in thanks to the U.S. four years ago, cruised through CONCACAF’s Hex and qualified with ease.
15. And then there was Peru – the last of the 32 to qualify, and also one of the last nations you thought would have been in contention 14 months ago. Sure, La Blanquirroja impressed at the 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas, but after seven qualifiers, they found themselves on just four points, one spot above the bottom of the CONMEBOL table. Argentine boss Ricardo Gareca then led them on a remarkable run, boosted by the Bolivia forfeit, but punctuated by an unbeaten 2017. Fans packed the national stadium hours before kickoff Wednesday night, and sung their team to one more decisive victory. What a turnaround.
16. There were underdog stories hiding among failure as well. China reached Asia’s final round for the first time since 2002. Paraguay doubled its point total from four years ago. Northern Ireland nearly tripled its total, reached the playoffs, battled valiantly, and was only knocked out by a dubious Switzerland penalty.
17. The single biggest upset of the 30 months was Luxembourg’s inconceivable 0-0 draw with France in Toulouse.
18. And then there was Syria. You want a story? This was a story. Maybe the story. It was inspiring. Improbable. Captivating. But it wasn’t necessarily heartwarming. The links between the national team and the regime of heinous dictator Bashar al-Assad were indisputably strong. Thousands of Syrians wanted to separate sport and politics; they wanted an escape from a brutal, terrifying civil war. Some were able to enjoy the team’s run. Some celebrated its stunning last-gasp equalizer in Tehran to reach the playoff. Others were conflicted. And if they couldn’t derive joy from Syria’s winning, how could viewers around the world? It’s an impossible dilemma. An excruciating one. It even extended to players. It’s one that tears at heart strings and minds, and arises far too often. And one to which international soccer is certainly not immune.
19. In light of everything happening in the country, and the team’s grueling journey, which took it to Malaysia for home games, Omar al-Soma’s goal was surreal. And then there was this moment. The match resumed, with a few added minutes still to play. But time seems to stand still. And you freeze. And you realize: Holy s***. Syria is one goal away from the World Cup. It’s a feeling that’s engrained in soccer, native to the sport. It’s Landon Donovan, Algeria, 2010. Syria wasn’t the only one to experience it over the past few months. The U.S. felt it in Trinidad. Chile felt it in Brazil. Paraguay and Uzbekistan did too. When the goal materializes – like it did for Panama, and Egypt, and Costa Rica – there’s this cathartic, chaotic, potent release of tension unlike anything else life can offer. But when it doesn’t, there are four years of thinking about what might have been.
20. There are other kinds of what might have beens, too. South Africa has a particularly peculiar one. It was in the thick of a four-team Group D battle when FIFA ordered a replay of Bafana Bafana’s 2-1 win over Senegal from 10 months prior. The match referee, who had awarded South Africa a controversial penalty on the day, had been found guilty of match-manipulation and banned for life. South Africa’s three points were taken off the board. Senegal won the replay last week to clinch qualification.
21. The replay decision set a dangerous precedent. The matchday after it was made, Ghana fumed about a clearly incorrect offside call that cost it a win against Uganda, and protested to FIFA. But the result ultimately didn’t matter. The Black Stars were eliminated by Egypt’s win the following day – one of four 2014 World Cup contestants from Africa to miss out in 2018.
22. There’s been a lot of talk about attrition and turnover from 2014 to 2018. Only 20 of the 32 teams from Brazil will be in Russia. But that’s actually right in line with the historical trend. In 2002, the number was 20. In 2006, it was 20. In 2010, it was 19. Brazil 2014 was the outlier: 24. It was an unusually strong field, thanks to an unusually hiccup-free qualifying cycle. This one was a return to the norm.
23. Well, a regression to the mean. No qualifying cycle is normal. One of many farcical storylines was England’s Sam Allardyce debacle. The long-time Premier League manager was hired on July 22, 2016, a few weeks after the Three Lions’ shambolic Euro 2016 loss to Iceland. Allardyce led a revamped team into World Cup qualification, and won his first game thanks to an Adam Lallana stoppage-time winner. Incredibly, it would be his only game. Undercover Daily Telegraph reporters essentially coaxed Allardyce into outing himself as corrupt, and published the film. The following day, Allardyce resigned.
24. But Gareth Southgate took charge, quelled the kerfuffle, and led England on one of the quietly dominant qualifying campaigns. It finished unbeaten, on 26 points from a possible 30. But the real standard-bearers were the usual suspects. Brazil won CONMEBOL’s gauntlet by a full 10 points. Elsewhere in Europe, Portugal took 27 points out of 30. Spain took 28 with a plus-33 goal differential. Belgium, also with 28, was plus-37. And Germany – of course Germany – was the only one of 208 teams to finish perfect: 10 wins, 30 points, 43 goals for, four allowed, and well on track to defend a title.
25. On the goalscoring front, Robert Lewandowski was joint-top with 16. He and Cristiano Ronaldo went back and forth throughout the 10 games. Ronaldo finished with 15. But the other two names in the top four highlight the diverse, wide-ranging nature of qualifying: Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and the UAE’s Ahmed Khalil were level with Lewandowski on 16.
26. Lionel Messi deserves his own bullet point. It’s difficult for a G.O.A.T. to add to his or her legend. That night in Ecuador, Messi absolutely did. But it came at the end of a rocky few years. Messi missed eight of Argentina’s 18 qualifiers. He dealt with multiple injuries. He was suspended four matches in March for insulting a referee, but only missed one before the ban was reversed. Oh, and lest we forget, he retired from the national team on a bizarre, unforgettable June night in New Jersey, only to return without missing a game to beat Uruguay in September. From 10 games with Messi, Argentina gleaned 21 points. From eight games without him, it took just seven. So of course he came to the rescue in the end.
27. Evidence for whether qualifying struggles can predict World Cup failure is mixed. Argentina’s case must be considered as its own entity. Are there problems? Yes. Are they solvable? Probably. Will they be solved? Not a soul in the world knows.
28. The order in which teams qualified is almost certainly irrelevant, and is dependent on formats. But … the first five to do so were Russia (Dec. 2, 2010), Brazil (March 28, 2017), Iran (June 12, 2017), Japan (Aug. 31, 2017) and Mexico (Sept. 1, 2017). Belgium, South Korea and Saudi Arabia followed shortly thereafter. Fifteen nations joined those eight in October. The final nine spots were claimed in November.
29. The playoffs were dreadful. Truly dreadful. In 2013, 22 final-round playoff legs yielded three scoreless draws. Four years later, just 12 legs yielded six. The six matchups featured one apiece.
30. But they ended with a bang – specifically, with a Mile Jedinak hat trick. A freakin’ Mile Jedinak hat trick! He sent Australia to Russia roughly 24 hours after the country’s citizens voted overwhelmingly to legalize gay marriage. Doesn’t get much better than that. Then, 17 hours later, 16 time zones away, and 979 days after Timor-Leste and Bhutan had their moments in the sun, Jefferson Farfan brought glory to Peru.
31. With the World Cup moving to 48 teams in 2026, qualifying will soon change. There will be no more 2018 Italys and USAs. There will be less drama for the giants. But there will still be Perus, and Icelands, and Egypts, and Panamas. There will be more of them. An extra 16 spots will kindle an extra 50 dreams. They’ll incentivize the chasing of those dreams. They’ll bring more competition, more craziness, more joy, more heartbreak. The journey of World Cup qualifying will always be the journey. It just might take us elsewhere in the future.
32. The 2018 World Cup kicks off in seven months. The Quest for Qatar™ begins in roughly 16.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.