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.
- Qualification spots by continent
- Qualification competition entrants over time
- First appearance in qualification by team
- National teams results in World Cup preliminary competition 19342018
- Top scorers in preliminary competition 19342018
- Current format
- North and Central America and Caribbean
- South America
- Intercontinental play offs
- Qualification tournament rules
- Home and away ties
Qualifying tournaments are held within the six FIFA continental zones (Africa, Asia, North and Central America and Caribbean, South America, Oceania, Europe), 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 and/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 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification which commenced in 2015 and will finish in late 2017.
Over 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 1933 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 (own goal).
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 continent
The table below lists the numbers of spots allocated by FIFA for each continent in each tournament. If no places were allocated to a continent, such as in the case of Oceania prior to 1966 and Africa in 1950, this does not indicate an exclusion of those continents by FIFA, but rather that no country of those continents made an entry to the aforementioned Cups.
A large part of Africa was under colonial rule during part of the 20th century, mainly the first half of the century. As of 1954, only 3 African countries were affiliated to FIFA: Egypt, in 1923, Sudan, in 1948, and Ethiopia, in 1952. Sudan and Ethiopia made entries for no Cup prior to 1958. Egypt made entries for the 1934, 1938 and 1954 Cups, though not for the 1930 and 1950 Cups. Though an African country, Egypt entered in 1938 and 1954 in the European group, therefore the table below gives no data about Africa for these two Cups.
Places in the intercontinental play-offs count as 0.5 spots. Numbers in bold represent the winners of the intercontinental play-offs. "+C" denotes an additional spot for defending champions. "+H" denotes an additional spot for hosts.
Qualification competition entrants over time
The number of teams entering the qualification process and the number of matches played have been steadily growing over time. Though an African country, Egypt entered in 1938 and 1954 into the European group, therefore being zero the below indicator as for Africa in these years.
First appearance in qualification by team
Note: Only teams that played at least one match are considered for the purposes of first appearance. Teams that withdrew prior to the qualification, or that qualified to the World Cup by walkover due to other teams' withdrawals, are not considered.
National teams results in World Cup preliminary competition (1934–2018)
Teams in bold are still participating in the 2018 qualification. The table is updated to matches played in November 2016.
Top scorers in preliminary competition (1934–2018)
Players in bold are still active.
(update of FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifiers in progress, last update: 14 November 2016)
Currently, 32 places are available in the final tournament. One of them is reserved for the host nation, but if two or more nations host the competition jointly, each is awarded a place. From 1934 to 2002, one berth was reserved for the winners of the previous World Cup. 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. However, 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 2018 World Cup, the following numbers are being used:
The number of berths allocated per continent is widely debated, with the main point of contention being the extent to which berths should be allocated to regions based on sheer population vs. talent. A historically weaker continent, Africa has called for more places, as they are allocated only five in comparison to Europe's 13. 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.
These numbers vary slightly between tournaments (see above).
Qualification in all zones ends at approximately the same time, in September–November of the year preceding the finals.
The formats of the qualification tournaments differ between confederations and over time. The systems being used in 2018 are outlined below.
The CAF qualification process began with two preliminary rounds (to narrow the field of 53 entrants to 20 teams) in October 2015. Zimbabwe were disqualified and therefore ineligible.
The group stage consisted of 5 groups of 4, with the group winners advancing to the World Cup finals.
Bhutan and Guam entered the AFC qualification process, while Indonesia were suspended and therefore ineligible.
Qualifying was altered significantly from the 2014 method, with changes to the structure of the preliminary rounds – which were held before the main draw. One home-and-away preliminary round reduced the 12 entrants to 6, followed by a first group stage with the 6 first round winners joining the top sides and 4 best runners-up from 5 groups of 5 advancing to a final group stage. The winners and runners-up of the two final groups of 5 advanced to the World Cup finals with the two third-placed sides playing off in the fourth round for the right to play in an inter-confederation play-off for a final World Cup spot. The first two rounds also acted as the qualifiers for the expanded 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
A total of 24 teams eliminated from World Cup qualification in the second round compete in the third round of 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification (which is separate from the third round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification), where they are divided into six groups of four teams and compete for the remaining slots of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. The 24 teams consist of the 16 highest ranked teams eliminated in the second round, and the eight teams that advance from the play-off round of 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification which are contested by the remaining 12 teams eliminated in the second round.
The European qualification is unchanged from the 2014 system. The 52 national teams were divided into nine groups (seven groups of six teams and two groups of five teams), with the group winners qualifying directly to the finals, and the best eight runners-up playing home-and-away ties for the remaining four places.
With the admission of Gibraltar and Kosovo as FIFA members in May 2016, both national teams made their debuts in World Cup qualifying. With two groups of only five teams in the first round, Kosovo was assigned to group I as it was decided that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia should not play against Kosovo for security reasons, and Gibraltar was then added to group H.
North and Central America and Caribbean
The 2018 CONCACAF qualification process has changed significantly from the 2014 qualification cycle. The first three rounds have teams play home-and-away over two legs. A first preliminary round involved the 14 lowest ranked teams and the seven winners advanced to the second round. The 13 higher ranked sides received byes in the second round and were joined by the seven first round winners; the ten winners advanced to the third round. Two higher ranked teams received byes in the third round and were joined by ten second round winners; the six winners advanced to the preliminary group stage.
As in 2014, the remaining 12 teams play in 3 semifinal groups of 4 teams with the top two in each group advancing to a final six-team group.
The final round – often 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 an inter-confederation play-off for a final World Cup spot.
Qualification in Oceania was held as part of a further competition. The first stage took place with one group of four lowest ranked teams and the winner advanced to the second stage (which also acted as the 2016 OFC Nations Cup). In the second stage the top three teams advanced to the third round, among them Nations Cup champions New Zealand. Two groups of three teams contest the third round, or final group stage, and the winners of each group will enter a two-leg final. The winners of this final advance to an inter-confederation play-off for a World Cup spot.
As in recent qualification series CONMEBOL qualification consists of a single group of all entrants. Unlike previous qualifying tournaments where the fixtures were pre-determined, the fixtures were determined by a draw, which was held as part of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Preliminary Draw, on 25 July 2015.
The top 4 teams from the 10-team group will advance to the World Cup finals, while the fifth placed team will enter an inter-confederation play-off for a World Cup spot.
Like the previous 2014 tournament, the pairings for the two play-offs were determined by an open draw on 25 July 2015, as part of the aforementioned preliminary draw. Intercontinental play-offs are played as home-and-away ties.
Qualification tournament rules
Qualification tournaments generally consist of a number of stages, made up of groups or knock-out ties.
In 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
Where teams are still not able to be separated, the following tie-breakers are used:
- 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
Where teams are still equal, then a play-off on neutral ground, with extra time and penalties if necessary will be played if FIFA deems such a play-off able to be fitted within the coordinated international match calendar. If this is not deemed feasible, then the result will be determined by the drawing of lot.
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 (although this system was – where applicable – used in the 2006 finals themselves). If these rules had applied in 2006, then Nigeria would have qualified rather than Angola.
Most knock-out qualifiers (such as the inter-confederation play-offs, the second round of UEFA qualifying and many preliminary ties) 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.