FIFA World Cup qualification
The FIFA World Cup qualification is the process that a national association football team goes through to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals. The FIFA World Cup is the largest international team sport competition in the world with a qualification process required to reduce the large field of countries from 211 to just 32 for the World Cup finals.
Qualifying tournaments are held within the six FIFA continental zones, and are organized by their respective confederations. For each tournament, FIFA decides beforehand the number of places in the finals allocated to each of the continental zones, based on the numbers or relative strength of the confederations' teams.
The hosts of the World Cup receive an automatic berth. Unlike many other sports, results of the previous World Cups or of the continental championships are not taken into account. Until 2002, the defending champions also received an automatic berth, but starting from the 2006 World Cup this is no longer the case.
The current qualification process is the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification which commenced in 2019 and finishes in 2022.
HistoryOver many years, the World Cup's qualification has evolved, from having no qualification at all in 1930, when the tournament was invitational and only 13 teams entered, to the current two-year process. The first World Cup qualifying match was played on 11 June when Sweden defeated Estonia 6–2 in Stockholm. The first ever goal in a World Cup qualifying match was scored 7 minutes into the game: it was scored according to some sources by Swedish captain Knut Kroon, or according to other sources by Estonian goalkeeper Evald Tipner.
While the number of teams which qualified for the finals has increased steadily, from 16 between 1934 and 1978, to 24 between 1982 and 1994, and finally to 32 starting from 1998, the qualification format has been basically the same throughout the history of the World Cup. The teams have been grouped continentally, and they competed for a fixed number of places, with one or two places awarded to the winners of intercontinental play-offs.
Qualification spots by continentThe table below lists the numbers of spots allocated by FIFA for each continent in each tournament. If no places were allocated to a continent as per the case of Oceania prior to 1966 and Africa in 1938-1954 and 1966, this does not indicate an exclusion of those continents by FIFA, but rather that no country from those continents made an entry to the aforementioned Cups.
A large part of Africa was under European colonial rule for the majority of the 20th century. Consequently, only three African countries were affiliated to FIFA in 1954: Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Egypt entered the 1934, 1938 and 1954 Cups, but not the 1930 or 1950 Cups, while Sudan and Ethiopia did not enter the Cup until 1958. Though an African country, Egypt entered in 1938 and 1954 in the European group, and therefore the table below gives no data about Africa for these two Cups.
Places in the intercontinental play-offs count as 0.[|5] spots, and numbers in bold represent the winners of the intercontinental play-offs. "+C" denotes an additional spot for defending champions, and "+H" denotes an additional spot for host nations.
[|1] In 1938, Austria withdrew after qualifying on being annexed by Germany and were not replaced, so only 15 teams, 12 of them European, played in the finals.
[|2] In 1950, India, Scotland, and Turkey withdrew after qualifying and were not replaced, so only 13 teams, none of them Asian and 6 of them European, played in the finals.
[|3] Initially in 1958, Africa and Asia together were given 1 spot, while Europe was given 9 spots. However, after Israel won the African and Asian zone without playing any matches due to withdrawals of other teams, a special play-off was arranged between them and a European team. So in effect, Africa and Asia together were given 0.5 spots, while Europe was given 9.5 spots.
[|4] In 1962, Europe was given 8 automatic spots, plus 2 additional spots in the intercontinental play-offs, in effect giving them 9 spots. The two European teams played an African team and an Asian team respectively, and both European teams won. Therefore, 10 European teams played in the finals.
5 In 1966, Africa and Asia were given one place, contested between the winner of a four team Asian tournament and three group winners from the second round of African qualifiers. All 15 African teams subsequently withdrew to protest FIFA's failure to allocate a place to an African team, leaving North Korea to qualify.
6 In 1994, there were two rounds of intercontinental play-offs. First, an Oceanian team played a team from North and Central America and Caribbean, and the winner then played a South American team.
7 From the 2006 qualifiers on, the defending champion no longer has an automatic spot secured.
Qualification competition entrants over timeThe number of teams entering the qualification process and the number of matches played have been steadily growing over time. Although Egypt, an African country, entered qualifying in 1938 and 1954, it was in the European group; thus, the number of teams for Africa is considered to be zero in these years.
|North and Central America|
|Average goals per match||5.22||4.36||4.65||3.65||3.83||3.53||3.09||3.15||2.74||2.87||2.60||2.60||2.34||2.91||2.99||3.16||2.91||2.75||2.81||2.81||2.91|
- 1 Because the Oceania Football Confederation has used the World Cup Qualifiers as a phase of OFC Nations Cup, there is the possibility that non-FIFA countries may play in matches that double as World Cup qualifiers. In the 2006 qualifiers, New Caledonia were included in the tournament although they were not FIFA members at the date of close of entries. They are, however, included in the 12 nations listed as they joined FIFA during the course of qualification, even though they had been technically eliminated from contention a few days earlier. By contrast, Tuvalu competed in the 2007 South Pacific Games football tournament, which doubled as qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. As they were not FIFA members at the time of the completion of the competition, they are not included in the 11 OFC entrants, although their results counted towards the qualification of other teams.
- 2 From 1973 to 1989, the CONCACAF Championship and its qualifying tournament determined CONCACAF's entrant in the World Cup. The confederation's champion qualified outright.
- 3 "Teams played" is the total number of teams that played at least one qualifying match.
- 4 These numbers included Tuvalu and South Africa. Although South Africa qualified automatically for 2010 as hosts, they competed in the CAF qualifiers, becoming the second hosts to compete in World Cup qualifying and the first to do it since 1934. This is because the Confederation of African Football used its 2010 World Cup qualifiers as the qualifying phase for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament for which South Africa attempted to qualify.
- 5 This number includes Qatar. Although Qatar qualified automatically for 2022 as hosts, they compete in the AFC qualifiers, becoming the third hosts to do so. This is because the Asian Football Confederation used its 2022 World Cup qualifiers as the qualifying phase for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, a tournament for which Qatar are attempting to qualify.
First appearance in qualification by team
;Successor and renamed teams
;Teams' participations prior to their actual debuts in qualification
National teams results in World Cup qualification (1934–2022)Teams in bold are currently participating or are yet to start in the 2022 qualification. The table is updated to the matches played in November 2019.
Top scorers in preliminary competition (1934–2022)Players in bold are still active at international level.
|1||Carlos Ruiz||39||47||0.75||2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018|
|2||Ali Daei||35||50||0.70||1994, 1998, 2002, 2006|
|3||Cristiano Ronaldo||30||38||0.79||2006, 2014, 2018|
|4||Karim Bagheri||28||29||0.97||1998, 2002, 2010|
|5||Kazuyoshi Miura||27||25||1.08||1994, 1998|
|6||26||40||0.65||1998, 2002, 2006, 2010|
|7||Tim Cahill||25||36||0.69||2006, 2010, 2014, 2018|
|8||Carlos Pavón||25||37||0.68||1998, 2002, 2006, 2010|
|9||Edin Džeko||24||31||0.77||2010, 2014, 2018|
|10||Jared Borgetti||23||24||0.96||2002, 2006, 2010|
|11||Robert Lewandowski||21||28||0.75||2010, 2014, 2018|
|12||Paulo Wanchope||21||37||0.57||1998, 2002, 2006|
|13||Lionel Messi||21||45||0.47||2010, 2014, 2018|
|14||Luis Suárez||21||48||0.44||2010, 2014, 2018|
|15||Archie Thompson||20||15||1.33||2002, 2006, 2014|
|16||Stern John||20||49||0.41||1998, 2002, 2006, 2010|
|17||Vaughan Coveny||19||19||1.00||1998, 2002, 2006|
|18||Emmanuel Sanon||19||20||0.95||1974, 1978|
|20||Zlatan Ibrahimović||19||29||0.66||2002, 2006, 2010, 2014|
|21||Hernán Crespo||19||33||0.58||1998, 2002, 2006|
|22||Didier Drogba||18||19||0.95||2006, 2010, 2014|
|23||Moumouni Dagano||18||24||0.75||2002, 2006, 2010|
|24||Samuel Eto'o||18||29||0.62||2002, 2006, 2010, 2014|
|25||Raúl Díaz Arce||18||29||0.62||1994, 1998, 2002|
|26||Marcelo Salas||18||32||0.56||1998, 2002, 2006, 2010|
|27||Robbie Keane||18||37||0.49||2002, 2006, 2010, 2014|
|28||Clint Dempsey||18||43||0.42||2010, 2014, 2018|
|29||Iván Zamorano||17||11||1.54||1990, 1998, 2002|
|30||Deon McCaulay||17||16||1.06||2010, 2014, 2018|
|31||Mohammad Al-Sahlawi||17||17||1.00||2014, 2018|
|32||Yang Xu||17||19||0.89||2014, 2018, 2022|
|33||Kubilay Türkyilmaz||17||19||0.89||1990, 1994, 1998, 2002|
|34||Dimitar Berbatov||17||24||0.71||2002, 2006, 2010|
|35||Alexander Frei||17||25||0.68||2002, 2006, 2010|
|36||Ahmed Khalil||17||31||0.54||2014, 2018|
|37||Álvaro Saborío||17||41||0.41||2006, 2010, 2014|
Current formatCurrently, 32 places are available in the final tournament until 2022. One of them is reserved for the host nation, but if two or more nations co-host the competition, each is awarded a place.
From 1934 to 2002, one berth was reserved for the winners of the previous World Cup, but in November 2001, FIFA announced that the defending champion would no longer get automatic entry to the subsequent tournament, starting with the 2006 finals. This decision was made to address the issue of the returning champions being at a disadvantage to their fellow competitors due to having not played a competitive match in the previous two years.
The problem was amply demonstrated at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, as returning champions France tumbled out in the first round, finishing bottom of their group without scoring a single goal. 2002 winner Brazil qualified for 2006 at the top of their qualifiers group, but Italy, defending champions from 2006, finished bottom of their group in 2010, despite playing in the qualifying matches. At Brazil 2014, 2010 champions Spain finished third in their group and failed to advance to the Round of 16, despite having qualified as first in their group.
FIFA decides beforehand the number of spots awarded to each of the continental zones. For the 2022 World Cup, the following numbers were used:
- UEFA – 13 berths
- CAF – 5 berths
- AFC – 4 berths, plus the host Qatar
- CONMEBOL – 4 berths
- CONCACAF – 3 berths
- 2 berths for the winners of intercontinental play-offs between the best team from the OFC, as well as additional teams from the AFC, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. The pairings for these play-offs will be determined by an open draw.
In early October 2016, it was announced that the World Cup would have featured 40 teams starting with the 2026 tournament, then FIFA President Gianni Infantino stated his support for a 48-team World Cup, mainly to address African concerns. On 10 January 2017, the FIFA Council voted unanimously to expand the World Cup to a 48 team tournament that will open with a group stage consisting of 16 groups of three teams, with two teams progressing from each group to a knockout tournament starting with a round of 32. The new format for the qualifying process has yet to be confirmed, other than a play-off tournament that consists of one team from each confederation and one additional team from the confederation of the host country for the last two World Cup berths.
These numbers vary slightly between tournaments.
Qualification in all zones ends at approximately the same time, in September–November of the year preceding the finals. For 2022, qualification will end in March, eight months preceding the Qatar tournament.
The formats of the qualification tournaments differ between confederations and over time. The systems used in 2022 are outlined below.
AfricaThe CAF qualification process reverted to the format used for the 2014 qualification. It began with one preliminary round to narrow the field of 28 entrants to 14 teams in September 2019.
The group stage consists of 10 groups of four, with the group winners advancing to the two-legged, home-and-away third round. The five winners advance to the World Cup finals.
AsiaQualifying was altered significantly from the 2014 method, with changes to the structure of the preliminary rounds – which were held before the AFC's main draw. One home-and-away preliminary round reduced the 12 weakest entrants to six, which then joined the 34 strongest sides in eight groups of five, with the winners and 4 best runners-up advancing to the final group stage, comprising two 6-team groups. If Qatar is among the group winners or runners-up, only the seven other group winners will advance and the fifth-best group runners-up will enter instead. The winners and runners-up of the two final groups of six advance to the World Cup finals with the two third-placed sides playing off for the right to play in an inter-confederation play-off for a final World Cup spot. The first two rounds also act as the qualifiers for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
A total of 24 teams eliminated from World Cup qualification in the second round compete in the third round of 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualification, where they will be divided into six groups of four teams and compete for the remaining slots of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. The 24 teams consist of the 16 highest ranked teams eliminated in the second round, and the eight teams that advanced from the play-off round of 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualification which are contested by the remaining 12 teams eliminated in the second round.
EuropeThe European qualification was changed from the 2010 to 2018 systems. The 55 national teams will be divided into five groups of six teams and five groups of five, with the group winners qualifying directly to the finals.
The introduction of the new UEFA Nations League partly changed the qualifying format, although this has yet to be validated by FIFA. Two teams based on Nations League performance join the group runners-up to make it 12 teams drawn into three paths, playing two rounds of single-match ties in each path, for the remaining three places.
North and Central America and CaribbeanThe 2022 CONCACAF qualification process changed significantly from the 2018 qualification cycle. There are two separate preliminary group stages, one for the six highest-ranked teams and another for the 29 lowest-ranked teams, to be based on the June 2020 FIFA rankings. The top-seeded round – still referred to as the "hexagonal" because there are six teams involved – will see the top three teams advance to the World Cup finals, while the fourth-placed side will enter a play-off against the winner of the lower-seeded knockout phase for a spot in the inter-continental play-offs.
The lower-seeded round will have the remaining 29 teams divided into five groups of four teams and three groups of three to play home-and-away round-robin matches. The winners of each group will advance to a knockout phase, each of the quarterfinals, semifinals, and final to be played in a two-legged home-and-away series. The winner of the knockout phase will advance to a play-off against the fourth-placed team of the top-seeded round for a spot in the inter-confederation play-offs.
Oceaniahas yet to be finalised, but the following could be like this: The first stage will take place with one group of the four lowest ranked teams and the winner advances to the second stage. In the second stage with two groups of four teams each, the top three advance to the third round. Two groups of three teams contest the third round, or final group stage, and the winners of each group enter a two-leg final. The winners of this final advance to an inter-confederation play-off for a World Cup spot.
South AmericaAs in the previous qualification series CONMEBOL qualification consists of a single group of all entrants. Unlike qualifying tournaments where the fixtures were pre-determined as applied until the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, the fixtures were determined by a draw held on 17 December 2019.
The top 4 teams from the 10-team group advance to the World Cup finals, while the fifth placed team enters an inter-confederation play-off for a World Cup spot.
Intercontinental play-offsLike the previous 2018 tournament, the pairings for the two play-offs will be determined by an open draw on an unknown date. Intercontinental play-offs are played as home-and-away ties.
Qualification tournament rulesQualification tournaments generally consist of a number of stages, made up of groups or knock-out ties.
GroupsIn all group tournaments, three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss. FIFA has set the order of the tie-breakers for teams that finish level on points:
- goal difference in all group matches
- greater number of goals scored in all group matches
- greater number of points obtained in matches between the tied teams
- goal difference in matches between the tied teams
- greater number of goals scored in matches between the tied teams
- goals scored away from home in matches between the tied teams, if the tie is only between two teams
Note that this order of tie-breaker application has not always been applied. While it was used in the 2010 qualifiers, the qualification for the 2006 World Cup used the head-to-head comparison prior to goal difference. If these rules had applied in 2006, then Nigeria would have qualified rather than Angola.
Home-and-away tiesMost knock-out qualifiers are played over two legs. The team that scores a greater aggregate number of goals qualifies. Away goals rule applies. If these rules fail to determine the winner, extra time and penalty shootouts are used.
Occasionally – usually when one entrant lacks adequate facilities to host international matches – ties are played over a single leg, in which case matches level after 90 minutes will go to extra time and then to a penalty shootout if required.
Alternatively, "home" matches can be played in neutral countries, or occasionally one team will host both matches. In the latter case the visiting team will still be considered as the "home" team for one of the legs – which may determine which side advances under the away goals rule, as occurred in CONCACAF qualification in 2010.