Final Six Months of FIFA 2022 World Cup Qualifiers Kicks Off
The final six months of qualifying tournaments for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar started this month, October 2021. By the end of March 2022, all being well, all six of the world's football confederations will have completed their qualifier competitions, and the winning nations can begin their preparations for the 2022 tournament in earnest. Twenty-nine countries decided through the qualifiers, plus Qatar - who qualified automatically as the host nation, will have until November 21st 2022, to lay their World Cup-winning groundwork. Two additional teams for the 32 team tournament line-up will be decided via the intercontinental playoffs in June '22.
The 2022 qualifiers have been more challenging than previous competitions due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. All of the confederations' contests have been postponed and rescheduled on numerous occasions. The majority of the tournaments have been blighted by illnesses, travel restrictions and strict quarantine rules that have seen many teams missing key players, games being cancelled or relocated to entirely different countries, and even teams dropping out of the competition. However, despite the disruptions, the qualifying tournaments are, in the main, rapidly approaching their conclusion. So, without further ado, let's take a look at each of the qualifying competitions' progress to date:
FIFA 2022 World Cup Qualifiers
Asian Football Confederation (AFC)
The Asian qualifiers are in the third and final round of the continental competition. Round Three began in September, and the twelve contesting teams made their initial claims in the standings during the two matchdays. The following two windows, October and November, will be important as they take the final round to the halfway point; teams that establish themselves as tournament leaders in the early days of the contest will have a greater chance of qualification.
From an original forty-six, the twelve finalists have been drawn into two groups of six for the third round. The teams in each group are battling against each other in a round-robin of home and away matches. The top two teams from each group will qualify for the 2022 competition. The third-placed teams from each group will go head to head to decide who will go forward to the inter-confederation playoffs in June 2022.
Currently, Iran and South Korea sit at the top of the standings in Group A on six and four points, respectively. The UAE sits in the middle on two points, while Syria, Lebanon and Iraq share the bottom rungs with one point each. Iran and South Korea are favourites to win. Lebanon is the underdog. However, so far in the competition, Lebanon has held their own in terms of its defensive strategy. If they can hold their nerve whilst upping the ante in their attack over the next few windows, they may give their counterparts a run for their money. However, both Syria and Iraq will be gunning to improve their standings and looking to displace the UAE. Both teams are capable of dominant football, and the UAE, which has had an up and down competition to date, will need to be on their guard.
In Group B, Australia and Saudi Arabia sit in first and second place on six points each. Australia is continuing their winning form, having added two more wins to the eight from eight scored from Round Two of the competition. Saudi also started the final round in top form and will likely give Australia a run for their money over the next few months. However, Japan, Asia's top team, is languishing in fourth place on three points; Oman beat them in their opening match. Oman now sits in third place, also on three points. Meanwhile, Vietnam and China also have some work to do to change their fortunes. Vietnam sits in fourth place on zero points, and China sits in fifth place, also on zero points.
Confederation of African Football (CAF)
Forty African teams are fighting for their place at the upcoming World Cup. The CAF qualifying competition is in its second round, which has four matchdays remaining. The first two matchdays, held in September, gave the competition leaders a chance to establish their initial stakes in the standings. The final four days will be held over the October and November windows.
Round Two consists of ten groups (A-J) of four teams. Each group is playing a series of home and away round-robin matches. At the end of the round, the ten winning teams will advance to a third and final round. The final round will see all ten teams drawn into five home and away ties over two legs. The five victors will take the five spots available to CAF members at the 2022 tournament.
Currently sitting in the top spots for each group are Algeria (Group A), Tunisia (Group B), Nigeria (Group C), Ivory Coast (Group D), Mali (Group E), Libya (Group F), South Africa (Group G), Senegal (Group H), Guinea-Bissau (Group I) and Tanzania (Group J). Having played just two matches from six, the standings are relatively close for each group. However, the next three matchdays will separate the minnows from the sharks. Teams such as Egypt, Ghana and Morocco, who are in the top ten best African footballing nations, will be looking to assert their dominance and move to the tops of their groups.
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF)
Only eight nations remain in the third and final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers tournament from a total of thirty-four. The concluding round is in its early stages, with another eleven matches out of fourteen to be played from now until March 2022. The final eight are battling for one of 3.5 slots at the 2022 World Cup - three direct slots and one possible via the inter-confederation playoffs.
Round Three of the tournament consists of the continent's top five football teams, as of July 2020, and the three winners of the competition's second round. The eight squads are playing a series of home and away round-robin matches. The top three teams will take their place at the 2022 tournament. The fourth-placed team enters the June 2022 playoffs. The final round will continue through the October and November 2021 and January and March 2022 windows - all of which, except for November, have been extended from 2 days to 3 to allow the competition, hampered and delayed by COVID-19, to be concluded by the June playoffs.
Mexico, the world's ninth-best football team and frequent visitor to the World Cup, are in first place after the opening three days of the third round in September. However, the continent's top team only managed to win seven of the nine points available. Close behind them, Canada sits in second place on five points. The rising stars will be pursuing the top spot in the hope of qualifying for the first time in over thirty years. However, also on five points and in third and fourth place, respectively, are the USA and Panama - the battle for supremacy between the three over the following four windows will be cut-throat. Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador in third, fourth and fifth place are all on two points each and will undoubtedly be working hard to get ahead of each other and capitalise on any mistakes the top four teams make. Jamaica, meanwhile, will need to pull out all the stops if they are to rise from the bottom of the standings on one point.
South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL)
The South American teams are halfway through their qualifying competition, and, with just nine matches to play, the form of the standings is coming into sharper focus. There are the leaders of the pack who will be focused on extending their advantage over the next few windows. Those just behind the top dogs will be working hard to keep their qualifying dreams alive. And those languishing at the bottom of the table who will be set on damage limitation.
Ten South American squads are in contention for the 2022 World Cup with only 4.5 slots available - four direct and one possible via the inter-confederation playoffs. The competition, which will run until the end of March 2022, is organised into a series of home and away round-robin matches over eighteen matchdays. The ten teams play as a single group.
To date, the majority of teams have played nine matches each. However, a head-to-head between Brazil and Argentina was suspended due to coronavirus restrictions and neglected protocols. The suspension result means that both squads are one game down - FIFA has yet to decide whether or not the match will be replayed. Despite the drama, Brazil and Argentina still occupy the top two spots on the table. Brazil has twenty-four points following eight straight wins, and Argentina is on eighteen points following five wins and three draws. Uruguay, despite a slow start to the competition, are in third place on fifteen points. While Ecuador and Colombia, with thirteen points each, sit in fourth and fifth position, respectively (fifth place takes the inter-confederation playoff slot). Just behind, though still in contention to take a spot at the World Cup, is Paraguay on eleven points. Meanwhile, Peru (eight points), Chile (seven points), Bolivia (six points) and Venezuela (four points) have a considerable mountain to climb if they want to qualify.
Oceania Football Confederation (OFC)
Of the six confederations, the OFC has yet to kick off its tournament. Due to begin in September 2020, the competition organisers were forced to postpone the tournament's start date on several occasions. Continued delays and issues with organising the competition within the Oceania region have meant that the contest will now be played out in Qatar in March 2022, which will certainly be cutting it finely in terms of timelines.
The OFC qualifiers will be contested by up to eleven teams across two rounds. The teams will be playing for 0.5 slots at the 2022 World Cup - the only way to qualify for the Oceania teams is via the inter-confederation playoff in June 2022.
In Round One of the OFC tournament, the eleven teams will be drawn into two groups, based on their FIFA rankings, to play single round-robin matches to determine the top two teams from each group. In Round Two, the top four teams from Round One contest knock-out two-legged home and away matches in a semi-final and final format. The winner advances to the inter-confederation playoffs.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)
UEFA teams are also heading towards the end of their qualification tournament. The final two matchdays will be held over the October and November 2021 windows. Each window will see 50 matches completed and the winners and runners-up announced.
Fifty-five teams are contesting the competition, but only ten will win the right to a direct spot at the World Cup in Qatar. The teams have been drawn into ten groups (A-J) of five or six teams. Each group is playing a series of home and away round-robin matches across ten matchdays to determine the outright group winners. The ten group runners-up will advance to a playoff tournament in March 2022 to decide the final three slots at the World Cup.
To date, Portugal (Group A), Spain (Group B), Italy (Group C), France (Group D), Belgium (Group E), Denmark (Group F), Netherlands (Group G), Croatia (Group H), England (Group I) and Germany (Group J) are sitting at the top of their respective groups. France, Belgium, Denmark and Italy are most comfortable in the standings with between six to nine points between them and their nearest rivals. Otherwise, Serbia, on eleven points, is hot on the Portuguese's heels on thirteen points. Sweden, on nine points and with a game in hand, is chasing Spain on thirteen points. The Netherlands, on thirteen points, are ahead of second-placed Norway by a goal difference of sixteen. However, Turkey isn't far behind either squad with eleven points. Russia and the Croatians, who sit in first and second place in their group, have racked up thirteen points each. However, Slovenia and Slovakia are still in the race and sit only a few points behind them on nine and seven points, respectively. Albania is four points behind England, who sit in first place on sixteen points, though Poland is nipping at the Albanians' heels on eleven points. And, Germany, though in the lead on fifteen points, need to keep an eye out for Armenia and Romania only four and five points behind.
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Portugal and Poland each secured a place at the FIFA 2022 World Cup after beating North Macedonia and Sweden in their final games of the European playoffs.