EXPLAINER: State of play of World Cup qualifying for Qatar


The Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Even when the World Cup draw takes place next week, three spots will exceptionally still be vacant.

But around next week another 14 teams will qualify for the tournament and take part in the April 1 draw in Qatar.

As it stands, only 15 of the 32 finalists have been determined for Nov. 21-Dec. 18 tournament. They are: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Iran, the Netherlands, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, South Korea and Qatar as hosts.

Here’s what’s at stake in qualifying:


Three qualifying spots are up for grabs in the playoffs from Thursday, with most of the intrigue surrounding who of European champions Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal miss out. Or maybe even both.

Only one country can qualify for each of the three brackets of four teams. Italy and Portugal were drawn in the same bracket with North Macedonia and Turkey. Italy host North Macedonia and Portugal host Turkey in the semi-finals, potentially setting up a back-to-back shootout on Tuesday between two of the continent’s heavyweights for a place in Qatar.

For the 37-year-old Ronaldo, this may be his last chance at a World Cup. For Italy to fail to reach the world showpiece – for what would be the second time in a row – would be a massive setback and a remarkable downfall just eight months after winning Euro 2020.

Russia’s war with Ukraine impacts the other two installments. Russia was banned from the playoffs, so Poland earned a bye to Tuesday’s final, where the team will host either Sweden or the Czech Republic. Ukraine had been drawn to face Scotland, but that match was postponed until June. The other two teams in that bracket – Wales and Austria – will meet in Cardiff, with the winner having to wait up to three months before advancing to the play-off final.


Third-placed Ecuador need a win in their last two games – in Paraguay and at home to Argentina – to be sure of progress. He could afford to lose both matches, depending on other results, and still reach Qatar. Ecuador is three points ahead of fourth place.

Uruguay, Peru and Chile are battling to finish fourth to take the final direct qualifying berth, or fifth to make an intercontinental playoff in June against the fifth-place Asian qualifier. The Uruguayans could secure at least fourth place on Thursday by beating Peru at home if Chile do not win in Brazil. Peru would take fourth place ahead of Uruguay by winning in Montevideo.

Chile’s best hope of securing qualification is to beat Brazil and Uruguay. Seventh-placed Colombia can only qualify if they beat Bolivia and Venezuela and are helped by other results.

There is still the unresolved question of Brazil versus Argentina. The two teams have already qualified but have their meeting suspended from September 5, as requested by FIFA.


The start of Africa’s World Cup qualifiers on Friday will see Mohamed Salah’s Egypt take on Sadio Mane’s Senegal in the first leg in Cairo. It was a rematch of last month’s Africa Cup of Nations final which saw Senegal win on penalties.

It is one of five home and away games that determine which teams will participate in the World Cup.

Mali have never qualified for a World Cup and must face Tunisia, a five-time participant in the tournament, to reach Qatar. Algeria and Cameroon are both trying to avoid missing out on a second consecutive World Cup. Congo, coached by experienced Argentine Hector Cuper, face Morocco who are trying to reach the World Cup for the first time since their only appearance in 1974, when they played for Zaire. Ghana host Nigeria in the first leg of their West African derby. The return matches will take place on Tuesday.


Canada can clinch a World Cup berth for the first time since 1986 if they win in Costa Rica on Thursday at the start of a three-game. Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies remains sidelined with symptoms of myocarditis following an episode of COVID-19. The 21-year-old winger hasn’t played a game since December 17.

Canada leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 25 points and the US, is four points behind for second, ahead of Mexico on goal difference. Panama are four points behind in fourth position, with a one point advantage over Costa Rica. El Salvador are seven points behind in sixth place. Jamaica and Honduras were eliminated before the last three qualifiers.

The United States, which is trying to reach the World Cup after failing to qualify in 2018, faces Mexico on Thursday at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where the Americans have 12 losses and four draws in qualifying matches. The Americans then host Panama on Sunday in Orlando, Florida, and close on March 30 in Costa Rica. The United States have lost their last nine qualifiers in Costa Rica, including a 4-0 rout in 2016 that led the US Soccer Federation to fire coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

The United States would clinch a berth if they beat Panama and Costa Rica failed to win their remaining three games. Coach Gregg Berhalter is missing midfielders Weston McKennie (two broken bones in his left foot) and Brenden Aaronson (knee injury), defenders Sergiño Dest (strained left thigh) and Chris Richards (right ankle) and goalkeeper Matt Turner (foot/ankle).

Midfielder Andrés Guardado will miss the Mexico qualifiers, as will striker Rogelio Funes Mori and defender Julio César Domínguez. Guardado, the Mexican captain, injured his thigh while playing for Betis against Atlético Madrid on March 6. Funes Mori has injured his right leg and hasn’t played for Monterrey since March 5. Coach Tata Martino did not select Tigres defender Luis Rodríguez and Celta Vigo midfielder Orbelín Pineda, who have not played regularly for their clubs.


With Iran and South Korea qualified in Group A, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iraq are jostling for third place and a shot in the playoffs against a South American side. They will face the third-place team from Group B of which neither team has qualified directly yet.

Saudi Arabia are one point ahead of Japan and would be sure to qualify by beating China on Thursday before hosting Australia on Tuesday. Australia, who are three points behind second place, are at home to Japan on Thursday. Japan then hosts Vietnam on Tuesday, already eliminated in last place.

In Group A, the United Arab Emirates could finish third by beating Iraq on Thursday before hosting South Korea. Lebanon, who are three points behind the United Arab Emirates, host Syria, then play away against Iran.


Coronavirus travel restrictions meant Oceania only started qualifying last week in Qatar and the mini-tournament was hit by Vanuatu’s withdrawal, leaving Group A with just three teams. The top two from Groups A and B advance to the semi-finals on Sunday and the winner of the final next Wednesday will play the fourth-placed CONCACAF side in an Intercontinental Qualifier in June. New Zealand qualified in 2010 as Oceania’s last World Cup runners-up.

___ AP Sports Writers Rob Harris, Steve Douglas, Ronald Blum, Gerald Imray and Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report.


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