By Conor Harrington,
Sports Business Writer
As we enter the final stages of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, eight of the 32 teams have already assured themselves of qualification: hosts Russia, Belgium from the UEFA (Europe), Mexica from CONCACAF (North and Central America), Brazil from COMNEBOL (South America), and Iran, South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia from AFC (Asia)In the Oceanic federation, New Zealand has won that region’s sole play-off spot, and will play the COMNEBOL’s fifth place team for a spot in the tournament.
In UEFA, the winners from the nine groups will qualify as well as winners of four play-offs between the top eight runners-up. While only Belgium (Group H) has thus far qualified among 13 total spots, Switzerland (Group B), Portugal (Group B), Germany (Group C), and Spain (Group G) are all guaranteed a berth in the playoffs.
The current group leaders with two matches to go are France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia. Northern Ireland (Group C) is also has a particularly strong chance to assure themselves of a play-off spot.
The major shock in Europe is the continued fall of the former powerhouse Netherlands, who sit behind France and Sweden in Group A and look to miss their second consecutive major tournament, a massive drop-off from a team who has finished runner-up and third in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups respectively.
In CONCACAF, Mexico is the only to qualify before the final two matches. Second place Costa Rica will only need one draw in their next two games to clinch another World Cup berth. The Costa Ricans were the major surprise of the 2014 World Cup, winning their group consisting of Italy, Uruguay, and England, all former winners of the tournament.
Costa Rica also knocked out Greece in a penalty shootout in the round of 16, before falling the same way to the Netherlands in the ensuing quarterfinal. In third place is Panama, who sit one point ahead of both the United States and Honduras.
The USA sit in fourth over Honduras due to a superior goal differential. The team that finished third will qualify, fourth will enter a play-off versus a side from Asia, and fifth will be eliminated. The USA has the easiest schedule remaining and is only slightly behind Panama on goal differential so look for them to sneak into third and Panama to fall to the play-offs.
In COMNEBOL, 2014 semifinalists Brazil were on a warpath and finished top of the group easily. With two games remaining, seven teams sit separated by seven point: Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Ecuador
The three highest ranking of these seven will qualify, and the fourth highest will play New Zealand in a play-off for one of the final spots. This has been easily the most entertaining group, as players such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, Colombia’s James Rodriguez, and Chile’s Alexis Sanchez all stand a legitimate chance of missing out entirely, and at least one of them will have to look forward to play-off spot at best. But ultimately, I expect all four to go through, with Uruguay, Colombia, and Argentina qualifying directly, and Chile beating New Zealand in the playoff.
AFC (Asia) has finished their groups, resulting in group winners Iran and Japan qualifying, and runners-up South Korea and Saudi Arabia qualifying as well. Third place finishers Syria and Australia will have a play-off to determine which team will enter the play-off against CONCACAF’s fourth place team for the official spot. Australia had a stronger performance in a stronger group, but Syria’s football team has brought their nation together, so even though they are probably an inferior side, emotion may carry them through to a potential dream play-off vs the United States.
And finally in AFCON (Africa), no one has thus far qualified. Africa’s qualifying has been marred by controversy as a referee has been banned for life and a match between South Africa and Senegal will need to be replayed. Senegal sits third in their four team group, but if their result changes, they could jump into first. Africa has the simplest method, with the five group winners all qualifying and no other potential slots.
In Group A, Tunisia has a three point lead over the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and should hold on to clinch that group. In Group B, Nigeria has a three point lead over Zambia, so their match on October 7 could effectively end that group. In Group C, Ivory Coast leads by one point over Morocco, two points over Gabon, and five points over Mali. Ivory Coast is a consistent qualifier, so look for them to do it again. In Group D, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde each have a point advantage over Senegal, but this group will have a match replayed so this group is fully up in the air. And in Group E, Egypt is up two points on Uganda, and four points on Ghana. Egypt were runner-up in the most recent African tournament, so look for them to clinch.
The field of 32 will be set fully in just two months, but there is still clearly a lot left to play. Thie group stages are certainly gearing fans up for what should be another thrilling World Cup.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, September 12th print edition.
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