The eight stadiums are ready in Qatar and World Cup tickets have been on sale for a week. Now the mission to snap up remaining tournament slots resumes. (More Football News)
With qualifying disrupted by the pandemic, fixtures have been squeezed in over the next week or so for teams in the Americas and Asia.
It means Europe’s top leagues having to take a mid-season break even though the continent’s national teams aren’t playing next until March, when the World Cup playoffs are staged as scheduled.
Then attention will turn to the final tournament draw in Doha on April 1, which will take place ahead of the intercontinental playoffs in June completing the 32-team field for the Middle East’s first World Cup.
So far, 13 teams have qualified: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and Qatar as host.
Here’s a look at the final stages of qualifying for the Nov. 21-Dec. 18 tournament:
NORTH & CENTRAL AMERICA & CARIBBEAN
A chill will be in the air in CONCACAF for an unusual January international window featuring triple-headers.
The United States hosts El Salvador on Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio, where the expected temperature for kickoff was 25 degrees (minus-4 Celsius). The U.S. then travels to Hamilton, Ontario, to play Canada on Sunday, and moves on to complete the window against Honduras in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Seeking its first World Cup appearance since 1986, Canada has four of six remaining matches on the road — with games at Honduras and El Salvador in this window between the home meeting with the Americans.
The U.S., seeking to return to the World Cup after missing out on 2018, is second in the North and Central American and Caribbean region with 15 points after eight of 14 games, one point behind Canada.
Mexico and Panama have 14 points each, followed by Costa Rica (nine), Jamaica (seven), El Salvador (six) and Honduras (three). The top three teams qualify and fourth team advances to a playoff against the Oceania champion, likely against New Zealand.
The Americans are missing midfielder Gio Reyna, still sidelined by a hamstring injury sustained in the opening qualifier at El Salvador on Sept. 2.
The Canadians, who trained Monday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, are missing Bayern Munich star fullback Alphonso Davies. He has been sidelined by myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, after testing positive for COVID-19.
Apart from last-place Venezuela, seven other CONMEBOL countries are still in contention to join Brazil and Argentina in Qatar, with four qualifiers remaining.
Third-place Ecuador will edge closer to one of the four direct-qualification spots Thursday by beating Brazil, which won’t be playing Neymar. Peru and Colombia are both six points behind Ecuador going into their clash on Friday of fourth and fifth.
Sitting a further point down is Chile, which hosts Lionel Messi-rested Argentina on Thursday, and Uruguay, which plays at ninth-place Paraguay in Diego Alonso’s first match as coach following Óscar Tabárez’s firing. Bolivia plays at Venezuela on Friday with two points separating the eighth-place team from the qualification places.
The fifth-place team after CONMEBOL qualifying concludes in March can still make the tournament by beating an Asian team in the intercontinental playoffs in June.
Iran will qualify for a third World Cup in a row by beating Iraq on Thursday. South Korea, which is without the injured Son Heung-min, could also seal a spot from Group A from its doubleheader over the next week — against Lebanon and Syria — before the two remaining qualifiers in March.
But after featuring at four consecutive World Cups, Australia’s qualification from the other group is in the balance after three matches without a win. If the Socceroos miss out on the two automatic qualification places by finishing third in Group B, they would have to contest a playoff against the third-place team from Group A — currently the United Arab Emirates — to advance to intercontinental playoffs against South American opposition in June.
Looking down, Australia has a four-point edge on Oman. But second place is in reach with Australia only a point behind Japan, which takes on China and Saudi Arabia over the next week. Before closing Group B in March against current frontrunners Saudi Arabia and Japan, Australia on Thursday plays Vietnam, which is on zero points, and Oman on Tuesday.
The UAE, which qualified for its only World Cup in 1990, plays last-place Syria and Iran over the next week, trying to avoid being overtaken by Lebanon, which is a point behind, and Iraq, which is a further point back.
With the continent currently staging the African Cup of Nations, Africa’s five World Cup representatives won’t be settled until the playoffs in March featuring the 10 group winners.
There will be a clash of Liverpool teammates Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane as Egypt and Senegal were drawn together, meaning one of the countries won’t contest a second consecutive World Cup. There’s a meeting of Ghana and Nigeria, who have both failed to reach the African Cup quarterfinals.
Standing in the way of a World Cup spot for African Cup quarterfinalist and host Cameroon is Algeria, which exited the continental showpiece in the group stage last week with one point from three games.
Morocco, whose focus now is on the African Cup last eight, will play Congo home and away in March. Tunisia will also hope to be African champion before playoffs against Mali.
It’s a couple of weeks off now for European teams, with their playoffs not until March to determine the last three of the continent’s entry of 13 nations for Qatar.
The European playoffs feature the 10 teams that finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czech Republic — who won Nations League groups last year.
Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, are in the same qualifying playoff bracket, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament. Four-time world champion Italy, which failed to qualify for Russia in 2018, will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal in March. The bracket winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Looking to end a 24-year gap at the World Cup, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket. Wales’ only World Cup appearance was in 1958.
Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
Qualifying for Oceania will take place in a mini-tournament in Qatar in March with New Zealand the favorite to advance to a playoff in June against a team from CONCACAF.
Supporters have been able to register for the ballot for World Cup tickets since last week. But there are still no hotels available to book in Qatar until the official accommodation portal opens for business later in the year.