For most qualification is now over, joy for some and agony for many, when the World Cup expands to its bloated 48 team format for 2026 I’ll miss the drama of qualifiers. The football is often ropey as teams try to fashion together performances from a few training sessions but the drama is incredible.
It’s like an endless run of playoff finals as teams fight for a place in the promised land of the finals knowing failure will send you into the footballing shadowlands.
The final round got underway on Sunday with England and Germany facing dead rubber games whilst Poland held their nerve to join those sides in Russia with a comfortable 2-0 win against Montenegro, a result that guaranteed Denmark a play off berth.
The drama came in Slovenia where Scotland were in town seeking the win that would keep their World Cup dream alive. The Scots got off to a great start and went ahead through the inform Leigh Griffiths but made the mistake of retreating too deep too early and conceded two goals as Slovenia dominated the second half. A late Robert Snodgrass effort drew the Scots level late on and Matt Phillips almost poked home a winner at the death but it wasn’t to be and Scotland’s 20 year wait for qualification will continue for another four. The result not only gave Slovakia second place in the group (and a nervous and ultimately fruitless wait to see if that would get them in the playoffs) it also guaranteed Northern Ireland a playoff spot.
Monday night saw a tense Battle of Britain (sort of) match between Wales and Ireland with both needing the points to get a playoff spot. But without the talismanic Gareth Bale Wales struggles to break down a stubborn Irish defence and a second half James McClean strike saw Ireland sneak a 1-0 win. Only 15 months on from their heroic run to the Euro 2016 semi finals Wales are out of the World Cup and their 60 year wait for a return to the World Cup will go on. Serbia as expected wrapped up the group with a home win over Georgia.
With Spain and Italy playing dead rubbers the only remaining questions were in Group I where Iceland became the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup with a home win over Kosovo. It’s a staggering achievement from a side who are consistently proving their Euro 2016 win over England was no fluke, this time the illustrious noses been pushed out of joint were Croatia’s. The Croat’s seemed to be in control of this group for long periods but some late slip ups left them needing a win Ukraine to make the playoffs- which they duly delivered and also means FIFA won’t have to deal with the awkward situation of Ukraine being on the guest list for Russia’s party.
Tuesday night saw the best match of the round; Portugal hosting Switzerland in a winner takes all clash. In a packed Stadium of Light (not the one in Sunderland) The Swiss looked compact throughout the first half but a dangerous cross on the stroke of halftime caused panic in the Swiss box and resulted in an own goal. Portugal were lucky to lead at half time but were imperious in the second half and scored a brilliant team goal via Andre Silva to secure their passage and send the Swiss to the playoffs.
The biggest casualty of European qualifying was also claimed on Tuesday night- Holland. The only surprise here was there was no surprise, needing to win by 6 against Sweden the Dutch gave their best performance of the campaign in the Amsterdam Arena and Arjen Robben hit a brace to earn a 2-0 half time lead. But this was never within the bounds of possibility and despite camping in the Swedish half they couldn’t find another 4 goals. In his final game for his country Robben gave the Dutch their sole highlight and the crowd gave him an emotional send off.
That result also guaranteed France qualified after an up and down campaign. And finally Greece beat the might Gibraltar to grab the final playoff place.
Qualified: Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Poland, Serbia, Iceland, Portugal, France
Playoffs: Italy, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Rep. Ireland, Croatia, Switzerland, Greece, Sweden
Incredible drama in Sydney where Syria and Australia played out a dramatic second leg of the Asia play-off. After the 1-1 draw on Tuesday most expected Australia to sail away with the home leg but Omar Al Somah didn’t read the script and gave Syria an early lead. The Socceroos hit back immediately through Tim Cahill (yes he’s still playing!) to make it 1-1 after 13 minutes. The Aussies threw the kitchen sink at the Syrians (not literally) but the Syrians held firm and forced extra time. Shortly into extra time the Syrians were reduced to 10 men and finally cracked with that man Cahill grabbing his 50th international goal. But there was still time for injury time drama as a Syria free kick smashed the Australian crossbar but the Socceroos survived, their reward is another playoff- against Honduras.
Qualified: Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan
Playoff vs Honduras: Australia
Sunday night saw Egypt become the second team to ensure qualification with a 2-1 over Uganda thanks to an injury time Mo Salah penalty, it confirmed Egypt’s first World Cup since Italia ’90. The other 3 groups will go down to their final round of matches next month.
Qualified: Nigeria, Egypt
In Contention: Tunisa, DR Congo, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, South Africa
So to the high altitude of Ecuador and could Argentina make it to Russia. It didn’t start well as Ecuador took an early lead. But in their hour (or even 90 minutes) of need Argentina’s genius came to the fore. Messi dragged his struggling side back into the game and then into the World Cup with a stunning hat trick as Argentina triumphed 3-1.
Elsewhere Colombia made it with a 1-1 draw with Peru that sent the Peruvians into the playoffs. It all meant Copa America holders Chile will miss out, surely the only confederation cup finalists not to reappear in the following years World Cup.
Qualified: Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Argentina
Playoff against New Zealand: Peru
There’s always someone who unexpectedly messes it up at the death- be it Steve McClaren and his brolly or David Ginola ‘killing’ Gerard Houllier’s France there’s always someone, but few thought it would be the USA.
It’s been a horrific campaign from the Americans but their thumping win over Panama at the weekend had them back on track and facing the already eliminated Trinidad & Tobago should have been fine. Oh dear, they fell behind to 2 first half goals and despite Christian Pulisic pulling them back into the game and dominating possession the US couldn’t muster an equaliser.
But this shouldn’t have mattered with Honduras & Panama both facing demonstratively better sides in Mexico & Costa Rica. But Honduras came from behind to beat Mexico whilst the real fun and games were in Panama. Costa Rica took a 1-0 lead into half time but then Roman Torres scored forcing home a set piece, according to the referee at least. The problem being it didn’t look to have crossed the line but the goal stood. Just to compound things Panama who were heading out until the 88th minute found another for 2-1 and leapfrogged Hondurans the US into automatic qualification.
It means the US will miss the World Cup for the first time since Mexico ’86, the inquest will be long and painful whilst the conspiracy theories will run all the way to next summer. Whilst Panama will join Iceland as first time World Cup qualifiers.
Qualified: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
Playoff vs Australia: Honduras