The confederation tournaments are over and it is now just 14 months until the 2022 World Cup. The last week has seen final qualifying groups get under way in Africa, Concacaf and Asia whilst in Europe and South America the big guns are now more than half way through their campaigns.
Sadly football was not free of Covid restrictions leading to farcical scenes in Brazil and numerous countries left without key players, meanwhile ugly scenes in Hungary saw the issue of racist abuse thrust into the spotlight. However, football is continuing and there was plenty of drama on the pitch as Qatar draws into ever sharper focus, so here’s how qualification is shaping up…
Here’s a quick guide to how the 31 teams to join hosts Qatar will be determined…
Europe (13 places)- Teams have been drawn into ten qualifying groups with the group winners qualifying. The ten group runners up will then enter the playoffs alongside a pair of wild card teams based on their Nations League performance, with the twelve playoff teams drawn into three groups of four to play a mini tournaments for the last three finals places.
Africa (5 places)- Teams are currently playing the second group phase of qualifying, divided into ten groups with the winners qualifying for the final round. In the final round the ten qualifiers will be drawn into five home and away ties with the winners advancing to the finals.
South America (4-5 places)- South America’s ten teams play in one group with the top four qualifying for the finals. The fifth placed team will go into the intercontinental playoffs draw alongside playoff qualifiers from Asia, CONCACAF and Oceania with a pair a two legged ties determining the final two qualification spots.
Asia (4-5 places)- Asia’s teams are currently playing the third qualifying round, consisting of two groups of six with the winners and runners up all advancing to the finals. The two third placed teams will playoff in a two legged tie with the winners advancing to the intercontinental playoffs where they will face a playoff team from either South America, CONCAFAF or Oceania.
CONCACAF (3-4 places)- The North & Central American teams are currently playing the third round of qualifying. The third round consists of one group of eight teams with the top three advancing to the finals and the fourth placed team advancing to the intercontinental playoffs.
Oceania (0-1 places)- Oceania is currently on hold due to COVID restrictions and is subject to change. However the current format sees eleven teams drawn into two groups with the group winners to face each other with the winner qualifying for the intercontinental playoffs.
The hosts continued their preparations by playing shadow qualifiers against European qualifying Group A. Qatar took a hefty 4-0 defeat to Serbia. Against Portugal, Qatar made a better account of themselves, going behind early but making a contest of the match with defender Abdelkarim Hassan marking his 100th cap with a goal in a 3-1 defeat. A 1-1 draw with Luxembourg rounded off a week that proved a learning experience for the World Cup hosts. With an unheralded team of home based players, Qatar’s strength lies in their vast experience of playing together with at present ten players holding more than 50 caps.
Canada haven’t made it to a World Cup since 1986, but they are sitting on a highly promising new group of players. Canadian optimism took a blow when they fell behind to Honduras in Toronto, but Besiktas striker Cyle Larin bagged an equaliser from the penalty spot to secure Canada an opening day point. Then came a tough looking trip to Nashville to face the USA. Canada fought well and after going behind early in the second half they soon countered with Alphonso Davies teeing up Larin to earn a 1-1 draw. At home to El Salvador, veteran captain Atiba Hutchinson sent Canada on their way with an early goal, with Lille’s Jonathan David making it two after just 11 minutes as Canada eased to a 3-0 win that puts them second in CONCACAF qualifying.
30. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia came into the final qualifying section on the back of five straight wins and contiued their good form this week. They opened up with a comeback win over Vietnam. Having gone behind in the opening minutes the Saudi’s got on level terms through a Salem al-Dawsari penalty early in the second half, experienced fullback Yasser al-Shahrani put them ahead and another penalty, this time dispatched by Saleh al-Shehri made it 3-1. Playing away to Oman proved a tougher ask, but al-Shehri continued his fine run of form with the only goal of the game to ensure a share of the lead in Asia Group B.
Norway haven’t been to a World Cup since 1998, before their current talisman was born. However, Erling Haaland is spearheading a promising team who are overcoming a poor start to the campaign. Haaland’s brilliant footwork got him clear to stab in the opener against Netherlands and although they were pegged back to 1-1 Norway held on for a crucial point. Away to Latvia, Haaland put away an early penalty and winger Mohamed Elyounoussi’s elegant strike made sure of the 2-0 win. A home game with Gibraltar always looked a case of how many Norway would score, Kristian Thorstvedt started the scoring and Haaland duly delivered a hat trick in a 5-1 win. Norway now sit second in Group G, tough trips to Turkey and Holland remain but Haaland always gives them a chance.
Egypt had to do without talisman Mo Salah, but young forward Mohamed Magdy took over the penalty taking duties to dispatch an early spot kick and secure a 1-0 win over Angola. An away day in Gabon always looked a trickier assignment, but Mostafa Mohamed’s dramatic last minute goal ensured a 1-1 draw and put Egypt top of Africa’s Group F. With a critical doubleheader against Libya in October, Egypt will de desperate to get key duo Salah and Mohamed Elneny back from Covid travel restrictions.
Japan are looking to make it to a seventh straight World Cup, but got off to a disastrous start with a shocking late defeat at home to Oman. They then headed to Qatar to face China and a first half goal from veteran striker Yuya Osaka got Japan’s campaign up and running with a 1-0 win. Japan remain fancied to claim one of the two automatic qualification spots from Group B, but now shorn of the likes of Kagawa, Hasebe and Honda they do look vulnerable.
The Africa Cup of Nations holders got their campaign off to a flyer with an 8-0 hammering of Djibouti, with Lyon striker Ismael Slimani opening the scoring after five minutes and grabbing his fourth shortly after halftime. As expected Burkina Faso proved tougher opponents and despite taking an early lead through Sofiane Feghouli, Algeria were pegged back and had to settle for a point. Group A looks like being one of tighter battles in African qualifying and Algeria will host Burkina Faso in their final qualifier.
The Socceroos got their qualification campaign off to a perfect start with a 3-0 hammering of China, with the promising Awer Mabil opening the scoring. Australia then faced Vietnam in a humid Hanoi and came away with three points thanks to a first half header from fullback Rhyan Grant to move to the top of Asia Group B. The Socceroos may not have star names in the mould of Cahill, Viduka or Kewell anymore, but Australia are an experienced side who look well placed to make a fifth successive World Cup.
Tunisia got their campaign off to a flying start with a 3-0 thumping of Equatorial Guinea, after a tight first half defender Dylan Brunn got the breakthrough with Wahbi Khazri’s penalty rounding off the win. Khazri was on the spot again to despatch an early penalty away to Zambia. In a hard fought encounter Tunisia had to wait until injury time to secure the win with promising midfielder Anis Slimane grabbing the killer second goal. Tunisia are already in firm control of Africa Group B.
Ecuador ended their seven game winless streak with a hugely significant 2-0 win over Paraguay in South American qualifying. Defender Felix Torres grabbed a dramatic 88th minute winner and substitute Michael Estrada made sure of the points in the dying seconds to give Ecuador a vital win. Then came a battling point against Chile before a crucial encounter away to Uruguay. It seemed Ecuador had earned a big point in Montevideo, but cruel injury time goal saw Ecuador beaten and Uruguay leapfrog them in the table. Ecuador still hold the fourth qualification spot on goal difference, beating Bolivia and Venezuela in their next two games is vital to Ecuador’s qualification hopes.
22. South Korea
South Korea got off to a disappointing start to their campaign with an insipid 0-0 draw at home to Iraq. In Suwon, Lebanon proved stubborn visitors but Kwon Chang-hoon got the vital goal on the hour to secure a 1-0 win and a vital three points. Son Heung-min is inevitably South Korea’s talisman, but this is a battle hardened team who should have enough knowhow to make it to an incredible tenth straight World Cup.
After a good summer that saw the US regain the Gold Cup, qualifying got off to a shaky start. They began with a solid 0-0 draw away to El Salvador, without star man Christian Pulisic. The Chelsea winger did return to face Canada in Nashville, but Weston McKinnie was dropped for breaking Covid protocol. Despite taking the lead through Brendan Aaronson, the Americans were quickly pegged back and the 1-1 saw the US players leave the pitch to a chorus of boos.
Things started badly away to Honduras as the Americans trailed at half time. Gregg Berhalter switched formations at half time and it quickly paid off with Antonee Robinson and teenage striker Pepi scoring their first goals for their country with Aaronson and Seb Lletget scoring late to add gloss to the 4-1 scoreline and get the campaign up and running.
Iran won their opener as they edged past Syria thanks to Feyenoord’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s second half strike. Jahanbakhsh was on hand again to give Iran the early lead against Iraq. Porto forward Mehdi Taremi kept up his impressive strike rate with his 25th goal for his country to guarantee the win as Iran cruised to a 3-0 victory and the top of Asia Group A. It’s now nine straight wins for Iran and their typically their stingy defence have conceded just twice in that run.
After their successful Euros the Swiss have a new manager in Murat Yakin and his reign got under way without the key injured trio of Xhaka, Shaqiri and Embolo. They began with a friendly win over Greece in Basel before taking on Italy. The European Champions had the majority of the game but unlike their match in the summer, this time the Swiss held firm to claim a 0-0 draw. The Swiss then endured a frustrating 0-0 away to Northern Ireland with Haris Seferovic seeing his poor penalty saved. The playoffs look the likely route to the finals for the Swiss, but this is an experienced side who should find a cutting edge when they get their star players fit.
Colombia continued their qualification struggle with a disappointing 1-1 draw in Bolivia. Things looked to be going wrong in their next match in Paraguay as Arnaldo Sanabria’s strike gave the hosts the lead before halftime. Juan Cuadrado rescued a point from the penalty spot to keep Colombian heads above water. Then came a home match against Chile and striker Miguel Borja inspired Colombia with two goals in as many minutes to give Colombia a 3-1 win and breathing space in the playoff place. With key games to come Colombia really need talisman James Rodriguez to find fitness (and probably a new club) to spearhead their campaign.
The Super Eagles took flight in their bid for a seventh World Cup berth. At home to Liberia, it was Nigeria’s star man Kelechi Iheanacho who did the damage with both goals in a 2-0 win. Nigeria then fell behind early to Cape Verde, but a goal from Victor Osimhen got Nigeria back on terms. Nigeria pushed for the winner and eventually got it when Rocha Santos scored an own goal to send Nigeria top of Africa Group C ahead of their October double header against Central African Republic.
Mexico may be licking their wounds after losing the Gold Cup final, but they simply don’t do qualification failure. At an empty Azteca Stadium Henry Martin, who enjoyed a fruitful Olympics popped up with the 89th minute winner against Jamaica to give Mexico lift-off. A tough away match in Costa Rica followed and again Mexico’s backline held firm whilst Orbelin Pineda’s penalty on the stroke of half time secured a valuable three points. Mexico fell behind in Panama, but a second half strike from Jesus Corona secured a battling point that keeps Mexico top of Concacaf qualifying.
It was a week of two steps forward and one back for Sweden. Spain have become familiar foes, having faced the Swedes in both the Euro qualifiers and finals. The last time Spain visited Solna an agonising injury time equaliser denied Sweden a famous win, this time Sweden took a prized scalp. Spain went ahead early, but an error from Sergio Busquets let Alexander Isak in for a swift equaliser. Dejan Kulusevski proved a thorn in Spain’s side and his persistence played in Viktor Claesson to blast home the winner midway through the second half.
Sweden’s reserves then saw off Uzbekistan 2-1 in a friendly before travelling to Athens to face Greece. A win would have put Sweden in control of Group B, but despite hitting the woodwork twice they fell behind in the second half and were then caught out on the break to go two down. Robin Quasion pulled a goal back but it wasn’t enough, the loss means Sweden can still pull ahead of Spain in the group but will likely need at least a draw in Seville to win the group.
Despite the absence of Luka Modric, Croatia toughed out a 0-0 draw with Russia in Moscow, with Ivan Perisic coming the closest to scoring. They then travelled to Slovakia and with the game set for another draw, Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic powered in a stunning volley to give Croatia victory. At home to Slovenia, Croatia continued their good form with Mario Pasailic making the first goal and then scoring the second. West Ham newboy Nikola Vlasic came off the bench to make it 3-0 and give Croatia a slender lead in Group H, crucially Croatia’s tougher remaining fixtures will be at home.
Africa’s top ranked side got their group campaign off to a winning start with Sadio Mane grabbing the opener in a 2-0 win over Togo. Again Congo, Senegal were made to work hard but their superior class eventually told with Ismaila Sarr putting them ahead eight minutes from time and Mane making sure of the win from the penalty spot five minutes later. Senegal will be hoping to wrap up Group H next month when they face a double header with Namibia.
Louis Van Gaal is back and for his return he had a fit again Virgil Van Dijk. However the Dutch fell behind in Norway, but Davy Klaaseen poked home the equaliser as the Netherlands claimed a gutsy 1-1 draw. In Eindhoven, the Dutch gave a scintillating performance, with Memphis Depay scoring twice, Georginio Wijnaldum adding a neat third and PSV’s Cody Gakpo netting the fourth with a beautiful curling drive on his home-ground to round out the win. Then came the big showdown with group leaders Turkey and the Dutch turned in a masterclass. Klaassen put them ahead in the first minute before Depay took over as he completed a stunning hat-trick in just 54 minutes, Guus Til came off the bench to grab the fifth and Donyell Malen made is six in injury time to complete an excellent start for the returning manager.
Uruguay continued to do just enough in South American qualifying but still have work to do. In the absence of veteran strike duo Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Uruguay struggled to a 1-1 draw in Peru, with Giorgian De Arrascaeta grabbing a first half equaliser for Oscar Tabarez’s team. Bolivia provided a simpler test, with De Arrascaeta hitting a brace and 20-year-old striker Agustin Martinez rounding off the 4-2 win with a debut goal. Uruguay then got a lucky break against Ecuador with Gaston Pereiro’s dramatic injury time winner giving them a 1-0 win and breathing space in third place.
After a positive Euros, Spain continued their uncertain qualifying form as they lost their first World Cup qualifier for 28 years. They travelled to Solna to face familiar foes Sweden, Spain began brightly and Valencia’s Carlos Soler marked his debut with an early goal. Then a howler from Sergio Busquets let Sweden in for an immediate equaliser, Spain dominated possession but struggled to cope with Sweden’s pacey frontline and lost their proud unbeaten record. Spain got back on the horse by crushing Georgia, Joe Gaya’s deflected shot gave them the early lead with Soler adding a quickfire second, the 4-0 win was rounded off by a devastating counter attack finished off by Pablo Sarabia.
Away to Kosovo, Pablo Fornals celebrated his first start for Spain with a brilliant turn and shot to give them the lead. However Spain were fortunate not to concede and had to wiat until the 90th minute to grab a second and ensure the win. It means Spain retain the lead in Group B and despite playing more games than Sweden remain in control of their own destiny.
Much needed changes were afoot as Germany began the Hansi Flick era. The new boss reverted to a back four, recalled Marco Reus and restored Joshua Kimmich to midfield. They got off to a quiet start as goals from Timo Werner and Leroy Sane gave Germany a routine 2-0 win in Liechtenstein. For Flick’s home debut Germany clicked into gear to dismantle group leaders Armenia. Serge Gnabry’s early double had the game won inside 15 minutes, before Reus and then Werner made it 4-0 at halftime. Germany ran up the score to 6-0 to send a clear message that they are on the road to recovery. Iceland away could have proved a tricky away tie but Serge Gnabry got Germany off to flyer before Antonio Rudiger’s header and Leroy Sane’s fierce drive put the visitors out of sight in a 4-0 romp.
Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines yet again as he broke the international scoring record in dramatic fashion. Portugal surprisingly fell behind to the Republic of Ireland on the stroke of halftime. Despite constant pressure, it seemed the Irish would see out the win until Ronaldo got free to head home in the 89th minute and break the international goal-scoring record. Six minutes into injury time he popped up again to grab the winner and notch another game into his legend.
A much changed Portugal then powered past Qatar in a friendly with Andre Silva grabbing the opener in a 3-1 win. Despite the absence of Ronaldo, a trip to Azerbaijan never looked like causing Portugal too many problems and Bernardo Silva volleyed in a fine opener with goals from Andre Silva and Diogo Jota securing the win.
Denmark are now the only team in Europe with a 100% qualifying record as they continued to blitz Group F. Two goals in as many minutes saw Denmark ease past an abject Scotland in Copenhagen. The Faroe Islands was expected to provide an easy three points, but Denmark were left frustrated until the 83rd minute. A red card for home defender Rene Joensen gave the Danes a free kick, which was whipped into the box for striker Jonas Wind to head home the only goal of the game. Denamrk then made it six wins from six as they thrashed Israel in Copenhagen, Yussuf Poulsen got the opener before Simon Kjaer headed in the second and Mikkel Damsgaard played in Andreas Skov-Olsen to make it three, as Denmark ran out 5-0 winners.
The newly crowned Copa America champions look unlikely to endure the qualification dramas that hampered them in 2018 as they tightened their grip on second spot. A routine 3-1 win over hapless Venezuela with Inter’s Lautaro Martinez keeping off the scoring cemented second spot in the group. Then in Brazil came the bizarre situation that saw the game abandoned over claims four of Argentina’s players had breached Covid protocols and saw the quartet deported. Argentina returned home to face Bolivia without their English based players and Lionel Messi wrote his own piece of history as his hat-trick made him the highest scoring players in South American history as Argentina won 3-0.
An awkward night for the defending champions saw France fall behind to Bosnia in Strasbourg. Antoine Griezmann’s header quickly restored parity, but defender Jules Kounde was red carded early in the second half and France had to settle for a point. A trip to Ukraine always looked a challenging tie and France again fell behind, this time to Mykola Shaparenko’s thunderous strike. France quickly regained their composure and the recalled Anthony Martial bundled in an equaliser early in the second half, but again they had to settle for a point.
On a run of five straight draws and with his critics becoming louder, Didier Deschamps switched to a back three to face Finland. The move worked and a beautifully worked goal between Griezmann and Karim Benzema saw them take the lead and Griezmann squeezed in a second to ensure a comfortable 2-0 win and gives France a seven point lead in Group D.
The world’s top ranked side fell behind early to Estonia in Tallinn, but they were level within 20 minutes thanks to Hans Vanaken’s header. Romelu Lukaku then took charge with a stunning brace to settle any Belgian nerves, but Estonia did pull a goal back late on in an entertaining 5-2 win for Belgium. Belgium then assumed control of Group E by thrashing a Czech side who’d held them to a draw back in March. Lukaku celebrated his 100th cap with an early strike, Eden Hazard made it two with a cleverly worked goal and Alexis Saelemaekers broke from midfield to complete a 3-0 win. A much changed Belgium then travelled to Belarus where Dennis Praet got the only goal of the game to give Belgium a nine point lead in Group E.
England shook off their European Championship final heartbreak by destroying Hungary 4-0 in Budapest, with Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish running riot at the Puskas Arena. On their return to Wembley, England’s undercard shook off a stubborn Andorra side with Jesse Lingard scoring twice and Bukayo Saka putting his penalty heartbreak behind him with the final goal in a 4-0 win. England faced a stiffer test in a hostile Warsaw, but still controlled much of the game against Poland with Harry Kane’s long range blast giving them a late lead. Poland fought back to equalise in injury time, but the 1-1 draw means England remain four points clear at the top of Group I.
Brazil can already be pencilled in for the finals as they continued to steamroller their way through qualification, despite the mass withdrawal of their Premier League contingent. An unfamiliar looking side took down Chile in Macul with veteran Everton Ribeiro continuing his impressive return to the squad with the only goal of the game. The much anticipated match up with Argentina was of course stopped by Brazilian health officials, with the game likely to be rescheduled. Meanwhile the spat with the Premier League rumbles on, but on the pitch Brazil maintained their 100% record with Ribeiro scoring again in a routine 2-0 win over Peru with Neymar adding the second.
Italy’s homecoming party was kicked off by Federico Chiesa’s early strike in Florence. However, unfancied Bulgaria proved awkward guests and equalised before halftime. Despite one way traffic in the second half Italy couldn’t find the winner and were held 1-1. Italy then laboured to a 0-0 draw away to Switzerland, a result that means Italy aren’t home and hosed yet in Group C. Then the Azzurri made history as they extended their unbeaten run to 37 games with a 5-0 hammering of Lithuania, with Moise Kean celebrating his recall with an early brace and his fellow 21-year-old Giacomo Raspadori also on the score sheet. Everything is working for Mancini’s men right now, ahead of the Nations League semi finals next month.