2018 World Cup Update: Introduction, Sort Of

Well, there’s been a bunch of early round World Cup qualification action. As of today, of the 207 countries that entered and weren’t disqualified, 23 have already been eliminated. Since only 23 have gotten the axe, I’ll go ahead and list them. Sorry Brunei, Macau, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Anguilla, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Aruba, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, St. Lucia, Bermuda, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Suriname, better luck in 2019!

Astute observers will note a certain trend, though. Many of these places lack any sort of soccer tradition (e.g., Mongolia and Pakistan) or are places more well known for exporting rum than soccer players (e.g., those Caribbean island nations). Of course, other astute observers will not that some of those places aren’t actually countries (e.g., Macau and Puerto Rico), but that’s a discussion that can get complicated pretty quickly, so we’ll avoid it here.

So, let’s finally do a proper kick-off post for the 2018 World Cup.

Amidst all that unpleasantness during the FIFA Congress back in late May, they did get around to announcing the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. As expected, they remained the same, but the sake of convenience we’ll break it down it again.

  • Hosts: 1 bid
  • AFC: 4.5 bids (for 54 teams)
  • CAF: 5 bids (for 53 teams)
  • CONCACAF: 3.5 bids (for 18 teams)
  • CONMEBOL: 4.5 bids (for 10 teams)
  • OFC: 0.5 bids (for 11 teams)
  • UEFA: 13 bids (for 52 teams)
  • Total: 32

There are still some unknowns, so this post won’t be as comprehensive as I’d like. The preliminary draw for the World Cup will occur on July 25th, so look for an update after that. The main reason qualifying started this early at all is because FIFA modified the international calendar, which eliminated the confederations’ ability to schedule qualification matches in February and August.

Since the action has already started, I’ve been updating the 2018 Status page. I also added June’s FIFA rankings as well, mostly because I wanted to know what the highest ranked team eliminated so far was. The answer is 107th ranked Cuba. The lowest ranked side to advance in any confederation’s competition so far is 160th ranked Grenada.

The AFC is the Asian Football Confederation. It covers most of continental Asia except for countries that have ties to or are otherwise part of Europe (Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Armenia, and Cyprus), plus Israel (because… reasons) and Australia (which left the OFC in 2006 in search of stronger competition). By far the most successful Asian country is South Korea, which has qualified for the finals nine times (including every World Cup starting with the 1986 event in Mexico) and is the only Asian country to have made it past the Round of 16, finishing fourth when they co-hosted with Japan in 2002.

The AFC will receive 4.5 bids for the finals in 2018. What does it mean to get half a bid, though? Well, it means that four teams will qualify directly, while a fifth team will have to play-off against a team from another confederation for the last spot. Who that team will play has not been decided yet.

The AFC’s qualification process began back in March, with the 12 lowest ranked teams (according to FIFA’s rankings) were paired up to whittle the number down to 6. India, Yemen, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei, and Bhutan advanced. These six then joined the confederation’s 34 other teams to begin the second round, which divided the 40 teams into eight five team groups. This means that (almost) all of the confederation’s teams began participating earlier this month. (Indonesia was suspended by FIFA, so there are only 39 teams actually competing.) No huge surprises so far, but there’s a few amusing observations to be had:

  • Hong Kong and China were drawn into the same group. Both have played Bhutan. Hong Kong won 7-0, but China only managed a 6-0 win.
  • 2022 hosts Qatar were also drawn into that group, and needed a goal in the ninth (ninth?) minute of stoppage time to beat the literally tiny island nation of the Maldives.
  • Speaking of tiny island nations, go go Guam, which isn’t even technically a country! Home to 159,358 people according to the 2010 U.S. Census, they beat Turkmenistan (population: 5,171,943) 1-0, and then beat India (population: 1,210,193,422) 2-1.
  • One more from the “tiny island nations” file: Singapore drew Japan in Japan, 0-0. 
  • 2014 almost-darlings Uzbekistan (they totally should’ve qualified) aren’t starting off so hot this time around, with a 4-2 loss to North Korea.

The top team from each group, plus the top four runners-up will advance, but all five teams in each group play each other home-and-home through next March, so it’ll be awhile before we know. These remaining twelve teams will be split into two groups of six, which will then play home-and-home series through 2017, with the top two teams going to Russia and the third place teams duking it out for a shot at the inter-confederation play-off.

The Confederation of African Football has, thankfully, changed its format for this World Cup. It’s still not perfect, though. The main problem is that we probably won’t know the details until the preliminary draw takes place, but what we currently know is that the fourth round will consist of 20 teams playing five groups of four, and the group winners advance to the World Cup. The question is how they’ll get from 53 to 20 teams over the first three rounds, but we do know the first three rounds will consist of home-and-home fixtures between two teams with the winner advancing on aggregate, so it’s just a matter of the exact numbers.

As alluded to above, this is a change from CAF’s previous format, which saw 5 head-to-head ties to determine who went to the 2014 World Cup, which dearly cost Egypt last time around, as they drew Ghana instead of, say, Nigeria or Tunisia. This format should be much more fair.

The CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Football) an party began back in March with the first round, and the winners from that advancing to the second round. Both consisted of head-to-head, home-and-home matches with the winners advancing on aggregate. Four of the fourteen teams from the first round made it through: Belize, Barbados, Nicaragua, and Curaçao. Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, and Antigua and Barbuda entered in the second round and also advanced, joining Jamaica and Haiti in the third round. The draw for this round, also consisting of head-to-head matches, will take place on July 25. CONCACAF’s fourth round will consist of twelve teams contesting three groups of four, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the fifth round, the famous Hexagonal. CONCACAF’s top teams enter at this point: the four World Cup teams from last year (Costa Rica, the US, Mexico, and Honduras) plus Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. The draw for this round will also occur on July 25, meaning that the head-to-head winners’ groups will be pre-determined. The third round will commence on August 31st, and the fourth round no earlier than November 7th. (Yes, this means the US will begin World Cup qualification in November.)

As the name implies, the Hexagonal will feature six teams. The top three will qualify for the World Cup, with fourth places will play in an inter-confederation playoff, with the opponent to be determined. In 2013, Mexico’s (hilariously) woeful qualifying campaign was saved because CONCACAF had drawn the OFC as its opponent, which meant playing New Zealand instead of Uruguay. (Mexico probably would’ve beaten AFC’s Jordan as well, but there were a lot of teams Mexico was supposed to beat in that campaign.)

The Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol represents South America, with the exception of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. One of only two confederations to ever win a World Cup (along with UEFA, which represents Europe), this is the strongest confederation in the world (by average strength). It’s hard not to argue that usually half its members qualify for the World Cup. Its qualifier format is dead simple: ten teams play a double round-robin. The top four directly qualify, with the fifth place plays in, and usually wins, an inter-confederation play-off. Play will begin this October and continue through 2017.

The Oceanic Football Confederation consists of New Zealand and a bunch of tiny Pacific island nations. The time around, the OFC has decided to double up their continental cup tournament with their World Cup qualifiers, likely to prevent a repeat of what happened last time when New Caledonia  pulled off a shock upset of New Zealand. Tahiti than beat New Calendonia and went to the 2013 Confederations Cup, whereupon they suffered the worst ever loss in a FIFA-sponsored tournament and finished group play with a -23 goal differential. (The Confederations Cup acts as a “warm up” of sorts for the World Cup and is played in the host country the year before. The entrants are the host, the previous World Cup winner, and the winners of each confederation’s cup tournament, hence the name.)

OFC qualification will get under way in late August to determine the best of American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga. The winner will advance to the second round, where the winner will join the rest of the confederation’s teams, split into two groups of four, with round-robin home-and-home matches beginning in October. The top two teams from each group will advance to the final round, which will be played in similar fashion starting in August 2016. The winner will then advance to the 2017 Confederations Cup and play in the inter-confederation playoff for a shot at the World Cup.

Last, and most assuredly not the least, is the Union of European Football Associations. UEFA qualification will begin last, as the confederation is currently conducting its qualifiers for the European Championships next year. However, the draw for its World Cup qualifying will still occur on July 25th (when else?). The 52 teams competing for spots will be divided into nine groups (seven groups of six and two groups of five). The nine group winners will qualify directly for the World Cup, while the eight best runner-up will play-off for the four remaining spots. Qualification will get underway in September 2016.

That’s pretty much it for now! Expect more news after the draw on July 25th.