November 07, 2020

COVID-19 and Its Impact on the World Cup Qualifiers

The next FIFA World Cup football tournament is just over two years away. Six months ago, that would have seemed like plenty of time for preparations to be concluded, including the all-important qualifiers. However, COVID-19, the severe acute respiratory syndrome - coronavirus-2, has thrown a spanner in the works!

Back in March 2020, the worldwide spread of COVID-19 resulted in a plethora of global activities being ground to a halt, including football. Games and competitions at local, national and international levels were postponed. The qualifiers for 2022 were and still are severely affected.

Today things are slowly starting to recover, and the football world is tentatively trying to play catch-up. Football has been played behind closed doors in a growing number of countries since July. Teams are busily playing on revamped schedules squeezing in games before the new season. Gradually fans will be permitted into the grounds in limited numbers and with COVID-19 safeguards in place. But, COVID-19 still looms – players continue to be at risk from the transmission of the virus and countries are still having to go into lockdown as new outbreaks occur. And, while everyone is monitoring the situation - things change very quickly, and decisions have to be made on a day-to-day basis.

The question now is, how can national league games and positions be decided and how can international competitions and World Cup qualifiers in all the confederations be finalised safely and, for those postponed matches, without impacting on the new season and all of its associated undertakings?

There is no simple answer, but FIFA and the football confederations are working hard to manage the situation within their organisations during these very difficult and unpredictable times. National and international matches are being rescheduled and cancelled (at considerable loss of revenue). In some cases, whole tournaments have been reformatted to shorten the length of time required to conclude the process. FIFA recently opened up a new international window for January 2022 to replace the September window lost due to COVID-19. They have also added additional competitive matches to existing international breaks, in the hope of lessening the pressure on congested fixtures in 2021 and into 2022. In addition, the international play-offs (where one team from each of the AFC, CONCACAF, OFC and CONMEBOL confederations play for the final place at the competition) have been rescheduled from their original March 2022 date to June '22.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino recently suggested that to ensure the qualifiers are completed on time, more international windows, holding more than two matches, could be created. He also inferred that, rather than having 'home and away' contests, qualifiers could be held at one venue if required.

So, what progress have the qualifiers made to date?

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) started the joint qualifiers for the World Cup 2022 and AFC Cup 2023 competitions in 2019. However, with the problematic COVID-19 situation in many Asian countries, the remaining qualifier matches for Round 2 have been postponed. Initially, that postponement was until the final quarter of 2020. However, in light of the continued progress of the virus, matches are now delayed until early 2021. New dates for Rounds 3 and 4 have yet to be decided.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) is managing both the Cameroon 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the World Cup 2022 qualifiers by rescheduling all the relevant matches. Those for the Cameroon 2021 competition will hopefully be resumed in November 2020 with penultimate and ultimate games taking place in March 2021 – the actual tournament has been rescheduled until January 2022. The Round 2 teams in contention for the World Cup 2022 will commence the qualifiers again in May 2021. The qualifiers were postponed after Round 1, once due to the AFCON tournament rescheduling and again due to COVID-19 restrictions. Play-off matches are scheduled for November 2021.

The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) qualifiers format has been reformatted several times, not least because of the issues surrounding COVID-19. They finally held their draw for first-round qualifiers recently in August 2020. The plan was that Round 1 would be played during the 2020 international window of October to November. The second qualifier round would start in March 2021, and the third round in June 2021 through to March 2022. In a very short time since that plan was devised, the first-round matches have been postponed. Due to changing COVID-19 situation in some countries, the first-round is now officially due to start in March 2021.

The Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) qualifiers were due to begin in September 2020. However, with FIFA's postponement of the international window that month, the first-round qualifiers have been pushed back to March and June 2021. The second-round qualifiers are planned for September and October 2021.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has had to take significant steps to manage European football during the COVID-19 crisis. The EURO 2020 tournament was postponed for a full year, now being held in June/July 2021. The postponement allowed domestic leagues to be completed following the suspension of matches. It also avoided travel across the continent during the height of the pandemic. The knock-on effect of the EURO 2020 postponement is the rescheduling of the UEFA Nations League Finals from June '20 to September/October '21, and the rescheduling of the 2022 World Cup qualifier matches in June 2020 to a date, yet to be confirmed, in 2021. The postponed qualifier matches will need to be played before the end of November 2021 to enable the Group Stage to finish as planned. Similarly, the UEFA Nations League Finals need to be played out as scheduled as the four winning teams will automatically qualify for the World Cup 2022 qualifiers. To this end, UEFA has also added an additional match to be played in each of the October/November 2020 windows.

The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) qualifiers were originally organised to start in March 2020 and to conclude in November 2021. However, the COVID-19 situation across the continent put paid to the first four matchdays planned for the March and November '20 international windows. The current plan is for a revised start date in October '20 with a completion date in March 2022. Already the continent has a massive backlog of matches to catch up on in 2021, including the 2020 Copa America. The continental tournament is now set to kick-off in 2021 just a few days after the World Cup qualifying matches are completed in June. Even with an additional replacement international window in January 2022, if the October qualifiers do not materialise, the format of the current qualifiers may require some serious revisions.

Image: Mooinblack/

The Situation in Qatar

Meanwhile, in Qatar, the work to prepare for the World Cup is going ahead. And, despite hold-ups with supplies for construction and new requirements to ensure the safety of the construction workers, it is reported that all the necessary works at the venues are now 80% completed and the targets for completion remain the same. Indeed, the third World Cup stadium at Education City was officially completed in June, and a further two stadiums should be ready for action by the end of 2020.

The Qatari team is also back in action, training not only for the World Cup but also for the AFC Asian Cup. They are, in fact, currently at the top of their group with 13 points.

And, looking to a bright virus-free future, the Qataris are now bidding to host the AFC Asian Cup 2027. Let's all hope that their optimism (with the help of an effective vaccine) will result in the post-pandemic celebration that we are all hoping to see.

To understand more about the World Cup qualifiers, read our The Qualifiers - How It Works article.

Image: Noushad Thekayyil/

Main Image: hareluya/

Published: September 20, 2020
Last updated: November 07, 2020
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