Last week, the draw for the qualifiers of the 2014 World Cup took place. This was after some regions held initial qualifying rounds among their minnows. Thanks mostly to action in Asia, the potential pool of teams is now down to 175 nations (from 207). For more details on the overall qualification process, see this post. You can also see the results for these rounds on my pages for Asia and North America.
So what to make of the draw? Let’s break it down, region-by-region.
The Asian Football Confederation started with 43 teams and is now, after two rounds of competition, down to 20. None of the teams from the first round advanced to the third, and the only thing that could really be termed an “upset” is Indonesia defeating Turkmenistan.
Broadly speaking, a “group of death” is unlikely to occur even in the third round of this competition. There are 5 groups, and all the highest ranked teams remaining were therefore drawn into separate groups. However, there are potentials for surprises. The 2010 World Cup teams received byes to the third round, however, they were seeded according to their current FIFA Ranking. Japan, Australia, and South Korea retain their top spots as the highest ranked teams in the region, but Bahrain and North Korea each ended up in pots 3 and 4. (Taking their place in the top 5 seeds were Iran and China.)
The top two of each group advance to the fourth round, and all the top seeds will be sure bets to advance. The most interesting draw is probably Group E, with Iran, controversial 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, and 2010 qualifier Bahrain, along with Indonesia.
In the fourth round, the remaining 10 teams are divided into two pools of 5. This seeding has not occurred yet, but whichever group only gets one of the top three teams will be much easier for the remaining teams to qualify out of. The top two teams from each group qualifies for the World Cup Final, and the 3rd place teams playoff for the right to advance to the Inter-Confederation Playoff. In contrast to 2010, the draw for the Inter-Confederation Playoffs already took place, and so in November 2013 the AFC will face off against the 5th place South American team. Generally, this is not a desirable matchup, but lots can change between now and 2013.
The Confederation of African Football has not begun qualifying yet. 52 nations will compete, with the teams ranked 29th to 52nd playing the first round. This first round begins in November, and features 12 home-and-away matches.
The winners of the first round advance to the second round, where all 40 remaining teams are divided up in to 10 groups of 4. The winner of each of these groups advances to the third round, where the 10 teams will be paired in 5 home-and-away matches. The winners advance directly to the World Cup.
I personally think this format is, well, not that great. It sounds more exciting I’m sure but I generally like table-based systems that reward the top teams over a longer period of time.
A quick overview of the groups shows the other problems with 10 groups of 4. For reasons I’m not sure I completely understand, Burkina Faso is the 4th ranked team in CAF, higher than Nigeria, Senegal, and Algeria. I have a hard time believing this, resulting in Group E likely being the most volatile group, with the other seeded teams being Gabon, Niger, and the winner of a first round matchup involving Sao Tome and Pricipe versus the Congo. Group A may also be tight, due to South Africa likely being vastly overrated.
Europe has 53 teams competing for 53 bids. The qualifying format is simple. There are eight groups of six teams and one group of five teams. The nine winners advance directly to the world cup, and the eight best second place teams playoff for the remaining spots. (You may recall France’s controversial win over Ireland in 2009, which took place in one of these playoffs.)
A quick rundown of each group:
- Group A: Croatia and Serbia duke it out for the top spot. Belgium and Scotland may make threatening noises. The minnows here are Macedonia and Wales, though at least the Wales-Scotland games may be interesting for a rare competitive match between the Home Nations.
- Group B: If Italy has regained any of their former mojo this group is theirs to lose. If not, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria all figure to make things interesting. Armenia and Malta (as in, the tiny island) round out the group.
- Group C: Zee Germans are probably locks to win this one, resulting in a knife-fight between Sweden and Ireland for second place. Austria is also a possibility. The Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan, not so much.
- Group D: 2010 runner-up, the Netherlands, should be able to take care of business, as should Turkey for second place. Hungary and Romania are the other two teams worth mentioning, but for the sake of completeness let’s also point out the other two teams are Estonia and Andorra.
- Group E: This may be the tightest group on paper. Norway is the highest ranked team, but both Slovenia and Switzerland played in the 2010 World Cup. Three teams that could easily qualify, but again there are only two slots. The real victims here are probably Albania, Cyprus, and Iceland.
- Group F: Portugal and 2018 hosts Russia will finish in the top two, the only question is in what order. Israel is also in this group, probably sailing to a comfortable third over Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, and Luxembourg.
- Group G: I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one go according to seed. This has to be a dream draw for the Greeks, as they’ll face Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithunia, Latvia, and Liectenstein.
- Group H: Tell you what: England had better win this group. However, there are some plucky teams vying for second and a possible upset in the forms of Montenegro, the Ukraine, and Poland. Also here is Moldova, and the national team from one of the world’s smallest countries, San Marino.
- Group I: The current World Champions, Spain, are here. France is also, but luckily for them, the rest of the group is Belarus, Georgia, and Finland.
You may’ve noticed that one group has one less team than all the others, so matches against the last place teams in the other groups don’t count in determining the best group runner-up.
Thanks to the US being here, this is probably the region I know the most about. 35 teams entered the competition, however, 5 teams have already been eliminated in the first round. The five winners and the other 19 teams ranked 7th through 25th are now divvied up into six groups of 4. The only one of these groups that is likely to not go according to see is Group E. Grenada is higher in the FIFA rankings but Guatemala trounced them 4-0 at the Gold Cup, and I would say from a subjective viewpoint is better overall.
The third round is where CONCACAF’s big boys (Mexico and the US) enter, along with fellow 2010 World Cup qualifier Honduras, plus the next three highest ranked teams (Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Cuba). If everything goes according to seed (except for Group E), the three groups will look like this:
- Group A: US, Jamaica, Group E winner (likely Guatemala), Group F winner (Haiti)
- Group B: Mexico, Costa Rica, Group A winner (El Savador), Group B winner (Trinidad and Tobago)
- Group C: Honduras, Cuba, Group C winner (Panama), Group D winner (Canada)
Group C should be the most interesting of these three, unless the US or Mexico really screw up. The top two teams from each group then proceed to the fourth round, the a six team round-robin known as the Hexagonal. The top three teams automatically qualify for the World Cup finals, while the 4th place team plays a home-and-home playoff against the OFC qualifier (which will almost certainly be New Zealand).
South America’s qualification is as simple as it gets. Nine teams play a round-robin series of home-and-home matches. The top four teams qualify for the World Cup, and the 5th place team will face the playoff winner from the AFC. Brazil, as the hosts, are automatically qualified and will not participate. CONMEBOL did not lose any slots though, so this is a great opportunity some of the weaker teams in this region to get to the promised land. The remaining 9 are: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezual.
Last, and frankly, least is Oceania.With the departure of Australia after the 2002 World Cup, this region is New Zealand and bunch of tiny Pacific islands. There are only 10 FIFA members in the region, and if New Zealand doesn’t win the qualification tournament it would be a major upset. Anyway, the first round features the four lowest ranked teams (Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, and American Somoa) facing off in a single round-robin tournament, with the winner advancing to Group A in the second round along with Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Tahiti. Group B consists of Fiji, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. This at the 2012 OFC Nations Cup, so this is also a single round-robin. Finally, in the third round the remaining 4 teams will be play a double-round robin with the winner playing the 4th place team from CONCACAF for a spot in the World Cup.
And there you have it. There’ll be more news later this fall as more qualification rounds get under way, but after I update the AFC and CONCACAF pages I’ll be focusing my efforts on American football. So until then.