No team ever wants to miss out on a World Cup, with the greatest competition in football and sport seeing the best of the best come together in a feast of football. The tournament will see teams split into groups as they battle in one-off matches to escape these pools. The top two sides from each group will then move into the knock-out stages.
From here, teams will battle through the Round of 16, the quarter-finals and the semi-finals in an attempt to make it to the final. As is the same with most major football competitions, this match is a winner takes all event that sees one side elated, and one doubled-over wondering what might have been, with a team etching their name in history.
While everyone knows and loves the format of the World Cup, how do teams actually qualify for the tournament? With so many different teams from continents across the world all fighting for a place at the showpiece event, how the countries that will play at a World Cup got there can be quite confusing. Therefore, in this guide, we will look to shed some light on how each continent forces its countries to battle for a berth at the World Cup.
The Host Nation
The host nation always has a huge amount of pressure on them. It is not enough that their fans will be desperate to see them go deep in the tournament, they also have to ensure they have put on a World Cup that will be remembered for all of the right reasons.
The host nation is always the first side to qualify for the World Cup, meaning that whether they are the best team or the worst, they will play at their own World Cup. Each host nation since the 1938 World Cup.
How Do European Sides Qualify for the World Cup?
The European sides, which fall under the banner of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) have to battle to be one of the 13 top sides at the end of qualifying.
The 55 teams are split into 10 groups, with the sides in these groups playing each-other home and away. This means that every side must play through the advantages and disadvantages of being home and away, with this making it a fairer qualifying process.
The nation with the most points at the end of the qualifying campaign from each group will progress to the World Cup finals. Another 12 teams advance to playoff rounds, with this resulting in three more teams from Europe being added to the World Cup finals. These 12 sides are made up of the 10 runners-up from the World Cup groups and the two highest ranked group winners from the previous UEFA Nations League who were not in the top two teams from their group. The 12 sides are split into three one-off semi-finals before a final playoff match decides which one side advances from each of the three play-offs.
How Do North America/Central America/Caribbean Sides Qualify for the World Cup?
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) has a qualifying process that is made up of 35 teams, with only eight of these nations making it to the final stages of qualifying. The eight teams then play each-other in a round-robin format home and away.
The top three sides will then automatically qualify for the World Cup finals. The fourth-placed side goes into an inter-continental play-off with the winner of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). Whichever side wins that playoff is then given a place at the World Cup.
How Do South American Sides Qualify for the World Cup?
South America sides play under the ‘Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol’, which is the South American Football Confederation. The acronym for this member is CONMEBOL.
With only 10 teams making up the CONMEBOL World Cup qualification, this battle for places at the World Cup is incredibly fiery.
Every team will play the nine other sides both home and away, resulting in the top four sides qualifying for the World Cup automatically. The side that finishes in fifth is put into an inter-continental play-off with a nation from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The winner of this play-off advances straight to the World Cup finals.
How Do African Sides Qualify for the World Cup?
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) sees a total of 54 nations fighting for a place at the World Cup. A preliminary qualifying round sees 40 sides going into the final round of qualifying. The 40 nations are split into 10 groups made up of four sides, with each team playing their opponents both home and away. Only the top side from each group advances, with 10 sides moving into five two-legged play-offs that use aggregate scores.
An aggregate score sees the score from the first-leg or game taken forward into the second-leg, with the cumulative score seeing one side triumphing. For example, Egypt beat Ghana 2-1 in the first leg before Ghana win 3-0 in the second-leg. Ghana would progress as they won 4-2 on aggregate. The five play-offs are created by a random draw. The winner over the two-legs advances to the World Cup. This means that there are five spots available at the World Cup for African nations.
How Do Asian Sides Qualify for the World Cup?
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) sees 12 teams advancing to the final round of qualifying. Two separate groups are created via a random draw, and each side will play the other five teams home and away. By the end of the 10 games, the top two sides from both groups automatically qualify for the World Cup finals.
The sides that finish in third-place then play each-other, with the winner advancing to an inter-continental play-off. This process is a little different to most other confederations as there is usually not play-off between sides on the same continent which then leads to an inter-continental play-off. Europe uses a play-off system between European sides, while the CAF and CONMEBOL only have inter-continental play-offs. Clearly, the AFC sides have their work cut out for them as they go through a number of play-off steps. The winner of the AFC play-off then plays against a side from the CONMEBOL, with one team advancing to the World Cup.
How Do Sides from Oceania Qualify for the World Cup?
The final confederation is the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). This is the smallest of the qualifying pools, with only eight teams taking part. Two groups of four are created, with the group winners and runners-up advancing to a four-team play-off.
The winner of Group A takes on the runner-up of Group B, while the winner of Group B takes on the runner-up in Group A. The winner of these play-offs moves into the final, with one team then left standing. The winner of this final then takes on a side from the CONCACAF in an intercontinental play-off. This all means that the OFC is the only pool that is not actually guaranteed a spot at the World Cup finals.
Is World Cup Qualifying Too Complicated?
There are two sides of the coin to this question. When looking at the overall picture with regard to World Cup qualifying, there are a huge number of games and paths between all the different confederations. It simply means that when you look at the sum of all the qualifications routes, it seems complicated.
However, when you break it down into each specific confederation, it is remarkably simple. The only confusion comes from some continents having inter-continental play-offs, while Europe keeps their play-offs in-house. The Nations League in Europe also changes things as the best two ranked European sides that did not finish in the top two in their groups are given a place in the play-offs.
Ultimately, World Cup qualifying needs to give sides a good chance of making it to the showpiece event. The group-stages of qualifying are designed to test a team over a longer period, with a few bad games not terminal to a team making it to the World Cup.
Playoffs Also Exciting to Watch
Meanwhile, the play-offs are the perfect blend of excitement and pressure. After all, a one-off match can end in shocking results, just like North Macedonia’s 1-0 win over Italy in the semi-finals of Path C for qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. However, ‘normality’ was restored as Portugal ran out 2-0 winners in the final to make it to the World Cup. This sort of knock-out system after the group-stages is very exciting, and it gives any side in the world a chance of making it to the World Cup if they can get to the play-offs.
Despite the hard work of qualifying being over when a World Cup looms, each side that is lucky enough to be at the competition knows the hard work has actually only just begun. Despite the pressure and potential heartache that comes with major tournament, each and every side at the World Cup will believe that a few strong results, a lot of passion and a slice of luck could see them lifting aloft the World Cup trophy.