“Absurd” was the word Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci used to describe the UEFA World Cup qualifying process after his team fell to North Macedonia in a single-leg playoff last week.
“You have to play a single game in which anything can happen as we have seen,” the veteran center back said. “There are teams that qualified after losing four or five games; we are at home after losing only one in the 92nd minute. It is truly madness.”
This was the first time single-leg matches were used in UEFA WCQ playoffs — although they were used in the Euro 2020 playoffs.
Bonucci has a viable complaint about this playoff system, but overall, the UEFA qualifying process is relatively fair and is far easier than the qualifying journeys of teams from other continents.
The path to the World Cup often depends on a team’s ability, but in some continents, countries also have to deal with an arduous qualifying run.
Which continents have reasonable qualifying paths and which continents offer up a proverbial gauntlet? Let’s take a look.
Which Continent Has Most Difficult World Cup Qualifying Process
From Easiest to Hardest
First Round: Two groups of four teams, round robin, top two finishers in each group advance to second round.
Second Round: First-place finisher from Group A faces second-place finisher from Group B and vice-versa in single-leg semifinal, winner advances to final, also a single leg. Winner of the final earns a spot in the inter-confederation playoff.
Total Matches Played By Qualifying Teams: 5
Unfortunately, Covid-19 forced five nations to withdraw from the qualifying rounds, leaving only six teams and making for some major shake-ups in the earlier rounds. In 2018, qualification for the World Cup was tied in with a competition called the OFC Nations Cup.
It began with the four worst teams played a round robin, with the group winner advancing to the second round. From there, two groups of four played another round robin with their groups, with the top two in each group advancing in the Nations Cup and the top three in each group reaching the next round of WCQ. The Nations Cup continued independent of World Cup qualifying.
From there, two groups of three played a double round robin, with the winner from each group advancing to the final round. The winner of the two-leg final then reached the inter-confederation playoff. Playoff qualifier New Zealand competed in a total of nine matches during the qualifying process that year, versus just five this year.
Easy is all relative here. Australia and New Zealand are the only teams to have advanced from Oceania qualifying, with their reward being an inter-confederation playoff. The playoff system, though, is out of their control, and thus Oceania will only be judged by the set up of matches within the region.
First Round: 12 worst teams play home-and-home qualifiers, winner on aggregate advances to second round.
Second Round: Eight groups of five teams, group winners advance to third round as do five best second-place teams.
Third Round: Two groups of six teams, double round-robin, top two in each group advance to the World Cup, two third-place teams advance to the fourth round.
Fourth Round (Playoff): Third place teams from third round face off in a single-leg playoff, winner advances to inter-confederation playoff.
Total Matches Played By Qualifying Teams: 18
AFC qualifying begins similarly to the UEFA qualifying process, with the 12 best teams advancing from a 40-team group stage. Then they decided, “Hey, let’s have another group stage, à la every World Cup held before 1986, and let’s make it 10 games.”
Having to travel halfway across the world for away matches in Australia isn’t ideal, but the length of AFC qualifying does a good job of separating the good teams from the bad ones.
North America (Concacaf)
First Round: Teams ranked 6-35 are divided into six groups of five, groups play round-robin with six group winner advancing to Round 2.
Second Round: Six group winners from Round 1 compete in two-leg playoffs, with three winners advancing to third round.
Third Round (aka the Octogonal?): Top five ranked teams plus three qualifiers from previous round play double round robin; top three qualify for World Cup, fourth place reaches inter-confederation playoff.
Total Matches Played By Qualifying Teams: 14, 20
When Canada qualified this year for its first World Cup, not only did it mark the first time it reached the cup since 1986, the Maple Leafs were also the first Concacaf team since Jamaica in 1998 to partake in the first round of qualifying and earn a spot at the World Cup.
Some might say this makes Concacaf boring, but isn’t the whole point of qualifying to give your best teams a chance to reach the World Cup? Concacaf is already an incredibly difficult region to win in on the road — away teams have won just 17.8 percent of qualifying matches starting with the 2010 WCQ cycle (international average is 25 percent) — so why put the good teams through strenuous away matches early in the qualifying process?
First Round: 10 groups, five with five teams, five with six teams, double round robin, group winners advance to World Cup, second-place finishers advance to playoffs.
Second Round (Playoffs): 10 second-place finishers from Round 1 plus two best UEFA Nations League group winners that finished outside of the top two in qualifying. Six one-leg playoffs (semifinals), winners advance to playoff finals, three winners of single-leg playoff finals advance to World Cup.
Total Matches Played By Qualifying Teams: 8-12
Every year, one or two elite European sides inevitably miss the World Cup; this year, it was Italy, in 2018 it was the Netherlands and also Italy. But overall, the top teams usually separate themselves from the pack. Romania — the 37th-ranked team in the world, the worst team in Pot 2 and the 20th-best team in Europe — was the best side not to at least make the playoffs.
Sure, Italy has a reasonable gripe with the playoffs being decided by a single match, but the Italians only have themselves to blame for draws against Northern Ireland and Bulgaria (matches in which they had at least 70 percent possession). Win 2-0 in either of those matches and Italy tops the group and is relaxing contently right now.
In UEFA, teams in limbo — that is in second-, third- or fourth- place in their group — can usually point to two or three matches that will be difference-makers. A draw against this team, a win away and that could be what separates them from qualification; and that’s what makes the process great.
South America (CONMEBOL)
First Round: Double round robin between all 10 teams in CONMEBOL, top four finishers advance to World Cup, fifth place gets spot in inter-confederation playoff.
Total Matches Played By Qualifying Teams: 18
The gap here between Europe and South America is enormous. The 18-match qualification path in South America is downright brutal, and the elevation of some of these stadiums only adds to the misery. Ecuador plays at an elevation of 9,350 feet, while Bolivia plays at an exhausting height of 11,942.
This year, Colombia and Chile — both top-20 teams in the FIFA rankings at the beginning of qualifying — failed to reach the World Cup, while ninth-ranked Chile also failed to reach the tournament in 2018. The process is simple, but I’m sure many countries would want to play fewer matches.
First Round: 27-54th ranked teams face off in two-leg playoff, winners advance to second round.
Second Round: 10 groups of four teams, double round robin, group winners advance to third round.
Third Round (Playoffs): Two-leg playoffs, five winners on aggregate advance to the World Cup.
Total Matches Played By Qualifying Teams: 8
While the qualifying process in South America is seen as long and arduous, at the other end of the spectrum is African qualifying, which largely takes place over the span of three short months. Teams must win their four-team group, and among the teams left out were 53rd-ranked Ivory Coast and 69th-ranked South Africa — both of whom finished second in their group (behind countries that eventually qualified) with four wins, one loss and one draw.
Three of the top six teams in Africa (Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt) failed to qualify, which suggests the qualifying process does not provide enough opportunities for the continent’s best sides to separate themselves from the pack. The process was altered this year after Africa’s top three teams all failed to qualify in 2018 but could still use some tweaks — namely adding more matches.
I mean, just look at this. Salah sails his penalty over… and surely anybody would, given the lasers.
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) March 29, 2022