The World Cup is one of the most exciting soccer events in the world, attracting thousands of fans from all around the world. The World Cup tournament is held every four years in a country chosen by FIFA’s council – with the selected country serving as its host.
The chosen country has automatic qualifications for the tournament. On the other hand, all other thirty-one national teams are chosen as winners from continental competitions.
The FIFA World Cup qualification stage is the process by which participating national teams of the Football Association (FIFA), the sport’s global governing body, qualify for the final tournament.
The tournament, which has changed in size and qualification process over the years, began in 1930, with exceptions in 1942 and 1946 when it could not be held because of the Second World War.
Currently, thirty-two national teams compete for the World Cup trophy, but that number is expected to increase to forty-eight from 2026 onwards, with the qualification process changing yet again.
This article discusses how soccer teams qualify for the World Cup, including a detailed explanation of the qualification criteria for each of FIFA’s six continental zones.
- How do soccer teams qualify for the world cup?
- How do soccer teams in Africa qualify for the World Cup?
- How do soccer teams in Asia qualify for the world cup?
- How do soccer teams in Europe qualify for the world cup?
- How do soccer teams in North, Central American, and the Caribbean qualify for the World Cup?
- How do soccer teams in Oceania qualify for the world cup?
- How do soccer teams in South America qualify for the world cup?
How do soccer teams qualify for the world cup?
Soccer teams are selected for the World Cup based on certain criteria established by their respective confederations. FIFA currently has 211 members, each with its own senior national soccer team (for both men and women categories) spread across FIFA’s six continental zones.
The six continental zones recognized by FIFA are Europe’s UEFA, South America’s CONMEBOL, North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF), Africa’s CAF, Asia’s AFC, and Oceania’s OFC.
FIFA prominently decides how each World Cup tournament’s 211 members are whittled down to a predetermined number for the finals.
It meets before the tournament and decides on the numbers allotted to each zone based on a variety of factors; including the relative strengths of the confederations’ teams.
Since the 2002 edition, the host team has received an automatic ticket into the tournament, with the remaining teams, including the defending champion (the national team that won the previously held tournament), having to prove their place in the tournament by succeeding through the selection phase. In addition, unlike in some other sports, the results of continental championships are not considered in World Cup qualification.
Qualification matches are governed by rules that apply to all six FIFA confederations. Typically, the qualification process consists of either group or knockout stages, or both.
The group stages make use of a point-based system to determine those that qualify for the Knockout stage and those who get eliminated. No point is awarded when a team loses a match, a point for a draw, and 3 points for a win.
If two teams in a group are tied on points, the goal cumulative differences of all matches determine the teams’ position in the group. If the teams are still tied, the number of goals scored in the group is used to separate them.
Even after taking into account the aforementioned factors, there’s also a possibility that a tie may still exist.
When this occurs, the larger number of points obtained in matches between tied teams, the goal difference in matches, and the highest number of goals scored in matches between tied teams are all taken into account.
If the tie is not broken after that, FIFA requires a playoff to be held on a neutral venue, with extra time and penalties if necessary.
However, this is only required if the match can be scheduled within the international calendar. If it is unable to do so, fair play is considered, with the drawing of lots as a last resort.
It should be noted that this rule did not become effective until 2010, with qualifiers for the 2006 finals having to rely on head-to-head comparisons.
The winner of knockout stages, which are typically two-legged (both home and away matches), is determined by the total number of goals scored. When this fails to determine the winner, extra time and a shootout are used.
For the qualifications proper, FIFA uses the qualification system set in place at the time for its World Cup qualification, months before the next World Cup. The following are detailed explanations of how World Cup qualifications work in each of its six confederations.
How do soccer teams in Africa qualify for the World Cup?
Senior national soccer teams in Africa qualify for the World Cup through a process established by the Confederation of African Football, CAF; the continent’s soccer governing body.
There was an earlier proposal to combine the World Cup qualifications for the finals in 2022 with the 2021 African Cup of Nations, the continent’s largest soccer event.
CAF, however, rejected this at a meeting in 2018, instead opting to use the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification format for the 54 teams of its member soccer federations.
The African qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 2022 were divided into three rounds: the preliminary round, the group stage, and the playoffs. Here’s a more in-depth explanation.
The Preliminary Round
The first round features teams that are lower in FIFA’s rankings. In this round, the top 26 teams would be given a bye into the second round and thus would not have to compete.
The remaining 28 teams would be divided into two divisions, with the 14 highest-ranked teams from this division playing against the 14 lowest-ranked teams.
The format also requires that the first leg of the two-legged tie be held at the lower-ranked teams’ home, with the final round held at the higher-ranked teams’ home.
The Group Stage
The 14 preliminary round winners advance to the World Cup qualification group stage. These teams would be met by the 26 teams who had the automatic qualification for the group stage after being exempted from the preliminary round. With a new total of 40 teams to play, they are then divided into ten groups of four teams each.
Once again, the FIFA rankings would determine how teams were assigned to groups. The teams are seeded into four pots based on the rankings, and a draw is held to assign them to groups. The groups are formed in such a way that each group contains only one team from each pot.
The playoff is the next stage of qualification. In the previous stage, the ten group winners will be divided into two and placed in pots – once again based on FIFA’s ranking. Each of the five highest-ranked teams would play the five lowest-ranked teams, with the first leg of the ties taking place at the lower-ranked teams’ home stadium.
The remaining five playoff-winning teams will now represent Africa at the FIFA World Cup.
How do soccer teams in Asia qualify for the world cup?
Typically, the Asian Football Confederation sends four teams to the World Cup Finals. The AFC’s 46 FIFA-affiliated nations are all eligible for qualification to the finals. The AFC decides on the structure that determines which teams advance to the tournament. The structure is as follows.
The first round
The AFC’s 46 teams are organized according to their FIFA rankings, with the first thirty-four teams receiving a bye and thus being exempt from this round. The next twelve teams in the rankings seeded 35 to 46, play home-and-away games over two legs. The winners, a total of six, advance to the next round.
The second round
The six teams that advanced to this round by defeating their opponents will face the 34 teams that were already placed in the group due to their superior FIFA rankings in the first round. The total number of teams in this round will be 40.
The forty teams will be divided equally into eight groups of five teams each. In each group, each team takes turns playing against each other once, in what is known as a round-robin format.
The eight group winners, along with the four best group runners-up, will now advance to the next round as well as the AFC Asian Cup the following year. Just like what’s obtainable in other zones, should the tournament’s host come from this continental zone, only seven group winners will be chosen.
The third round
The third round of AFC qualification for the World Cup features twelve teams from the previous round. These teams are split into two groups, with each team in each group having to play every other team in that group both at home and away in a round-robin format.
The top two teams in each group will now automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the third-placed team will advance to the next qualification round.
The fourth round
This straightforward round consists of a single soccer match between the two teams that advanced from the previous round. The winner advances to the inter-confederation playoffs, while the loser is excluded from competing in the World Cup.
The Inter-confederation play-offs
This round features four teams from the AFC, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, and OFC confederations. Normally, the four teams are paired to play two-legged home-and-away games, but for qualifiers leading up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the teams would only play a single match, with the aggregate score determining which teams advance to the World Cup.
The continental playoff would be played for the first time in a neutral venue in Qatar, just before the World Cup Finals.
How do soccer teams in Europe qualify for the world cup?
The Union of European Football Associations through its executive committee devises the process by which the 55 European teams qualify for the World Cup.
The 2018 format was retained for the 2022 World Cup, rather than reverting to its 2010 template. The new UEFA Nations League played a role in the shift.
Two teams that finished outside the top two of their qualifying groups were invited to compete in a knockout stage alongside the runners-up. The group format was not changed, but the knockout round was. The formats used in the World Cup qualification process for European teams are detailed below.
During the group stage, the 55 teams are divided into five groups of five teams each (groups A-E) and five groups of six teams each (group F – J). The draws are made in such a way that the four teams who qualified for the UEFA Nations League Finals are divided into smaller groups.
The teams are distributed across the six available pots based on the FIFA rankings and after the conclusion of the Nation’s league. Pots 1-5 each had ten teams, while the remaining pot had six teams. The teams were drawn to the first five groups in order, beginning with the first pot and finishing with the last pot.
This ensures that the first five groups had six teams each, while the remaining groups had five teams in each group. In addition, each of the last five groups had one team from the first five pots.
Some prohibitions on group pairing were imposed using a computer. As previously stated, the four teams competing in the UEFA Nations League Finals are drawn into a group of five. For some political reasons, some countries are barred from being paired in the same group to avoid what they saw as forbidden clashes.
Furthermore, with the assistance of a computer, some teams identified as having excessive winter conditions are distributed across different groups, allowing them to play fewer home matches in winter conditions.
In addition, each group with computer assistance received a maximum of one pair of teams identified as having an excessive travel distance in comparison to other countries.
Group winners advance to the World Cup Finals, while runners-up advance to the next qualifying round.
The ten runners-up from the group stages will be joined in a knockout round by two teams from the Nation’s league.
The two teams are rated based on their overall Nation’s League ranking and must have been the league’s best group winners who did not finish in the top two of their qualifying group. This results in a total of 12 teams.
They are assigned to one of three playoff paths, in which a group of four teams competes once against each other for a spot in the final of each path. In each of the three playoff paths, the seeded team hosts the semifinals and, similarly, the seeded team hosts the final.
The three teams that win in each path join the ten teams that previously qualified for the World Cup Finals in the group stage.
How do soccer teams in North, Central American, and the Caribbean qualify for the World Cup?
The Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) is in charge of deciding how the thirty-four countries of North, Central America, and the Caribbean will qualify for the World Cup Finals. On July 27, 2020, the continents’ soccer body announced a new qualifying format for the World Cup.
It stated that the change was triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, which impaired its World Cup qualification structure due to an incomplete FIFA rankings cycle and soccer calendar postponements.
The new format included three rounds, each of which produced three teams for the confederation’s three automatic slots, as well as a single team for the continental playoffs. The Confederation has had 3.5 tickets at the tournament since the 2006 World Cup Finals.
The qualifying rounds are explained in detail below.
The first round
As with other soccer blocs, the top teams in the confederation based on FIFA rankings are given priority. The top five ranked teams have a bye in this and the following rounds, while teams ranked 6 to 35 begin play in this round.
These teams are divided into six groups of five and play each other once in a round-robin format, with each side playing two games at home and two away. Group winners eventually advance to the second round.
Given that a win earns three points and a draw earns one, the rule of thumb for teams hoping to advance to the next round and up until the end of qualifying rounds is to win at home and draw away.
The second round
The previous round’s three winners compete against each other over two legs in the next qualifying round. Following the completion of the home-and-away series, the three winners advance to the final round.
The third round
This is the round in which the five teams that received a bye in the first round compete. Together with the three teams that advanced to the second round, a total of eight teams are formed into a group – with each team playing each other once.
Previously, only six teams advanced to this final round, which meant that for the qualifications leading to the 2022 World Cup Finals, two additional teams competed for the same number of spots. The top three teams receive automatic qualification to the World Cup, while the fourth-placed team qualifies for the continental playoffs.
How do soccer teams in Oceania qualify for the world cup?
The Oceania Football Confederation’s qualification to the World Cup is straightforward, with only 9 teams in its soccer body. The number of slots retained for this confederation is only 0.5, clearly showing that it receives the fewest World Cup tickets from FIFA. It also has the probability of not even having a team in the World Cup being greater than the probability of having one.
The qualification process for teams in the confederation is as follows.
The qualifying stage
This is the stage at which two teams, the lowest-ranked men’s senior soccer team in the OFC according to FIFA rankings, get to play each other once. The winner of this match advances to the next qualifying round.
The first stage
The previous stage’s single winner will join the confederations’ seven highest-ranked teams, who were given a bye. They are divided into two groups, totaling eight teams. At this stage, each team plays each other once, with the top two winners of each group progressing to the next stage.
The second stage
Now that there are four teams, they are paired, with each team playing only one other team from the four. This one-leg knockout series produces two winners who advance to the next stage.
The last stage
This is a single match stage in which the two teams who qualified from the previous stage compete for a spot in the inter-confederation play-off to advance to the World Cup Finals.
How do soccer teams in South America qualify for the world cup?
CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation, determines how teams from the continent qualify for the World Cup.
Typically, South American teams are placed in groups of ten to qualify for the World Cup, with the four best performing teams from the group receiving automatic qualification to the World Cup Finals.
The fifth-placed team also has the opportunity to compete in the World Cup, as they automatically qualify for the inter-confederation play-off for a World Cup spot. To earn these spots, the ten teams must play each other twice in a home-and-away format.
CONMEBOL created a predetermined fixture template for the team before the 2018 World Cup qualification. This has been replaced, however, by a draw held before the start of the qualification process.
To ensure that neither of the confederation’s prominent teams, Brazil or Argentina, play any other team on any double match day, it was proposed that they be placed in positions 4 or 5 in the draw. This was overturned, however, when the CONMEBOL Council decided to make the draw fairly open.
Qualification for the World Cup Finals differs for each of the six FIFA confederations, as explained in detail in this article.
Even though each governing unit is free to choose the qualification process, FIFA establishes the rules governing the selection of winners in the group and knockout stages.
To qualify for the World Cup, all soccer teams from all confederations must compete in the group stage(s) and/or knockout stage(s) of the qualifying rounds.
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