Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal have taken long routes to the World Cup before. Eight years ago this month, in fact, they were 20 minutes and one goal away from missing the tournament altogether. Four years later, Italy reminded international soccer that its giants aren’t immune to qualifying failures. That the unthinkable can happen. That the sport’s bluebloods can miss out on its banner event.
And four years after that? Here we are again. Only this time, the road is even longer.
Qatar 2022 is 12 months away. Its field is essentially half-full. And for now, neither Portugal nor Italy is a part of it. The last two European champions suffered stunning upsets this past weekend, and stumbled into a perilous playoff round that could still send them to the World Cup, but also could send them home. Each will have to win two do-or-die games in March to avoid ignominy. They could even find themselves on a collision course that inevitably subjects at least one of the two to the unthinkable fate.
Oh, and they aren’t alone. World Cup mainstays from the Americas are struggling, too. None has outright missed the World Cup just yet. But a few are very much on the bubble as the 32-team competition takes shape.
What follows is a snapshot of that bubble after a wild November international window that concluded with 13 teams officially qualified; with 38 other nations realistically in play for 19 unclaimed spots; and with Canadians diving into piles of snow to celebrate a famous win over Mexico.
So, let’s dive in with them.
Already qualified (13)
Brazil — Unbeaten and nearly perfect in South America’s qualifying gauntlet
Argentina — Also unbeaten, and now officially en route to Qatar after Tuesday’s draw with Brazil. Last cycle took Argentina to the brink, needing a final-day hat trick from Lionel Messi. This cycle, by those standards, was smooth.
France — Uninspiring but never truly threatened in a weak European group
Belgium — Dominant yet again. Belgium’s last World Cup qualifying loss was in Estonia on Oct. 14, 2009.
Spain — Scraped by Sweden on the final two matchdays
England — Scored 39, conceded 3 in 10 games. British media have transitioned from moaning about their team to moaning that World Cup qualifying is a waste of time.
Germany — Stunned by North Macedonia early on, but cruised thereafter
Denmark — One of the first to secure qualification — and didn’t drop points until they had
Switzerland — The beneficiary of Italy’s final-day flop
Netherlands — Left it late, but held off Norway and Turkey to finish atop their group
Croatia — Had to beat Russia on the final day … and did, thanks to an injured defender’s clumsy, monsoon-aided own goal
Serbia — Stunned Portugal with a 90th-minute winner to send Ronaldo and Co. tumbling toward the playoffs
Qatar — Automatically qualified as the host. No business being at a World Cup otherwise. (No business being the hosts, either, but that’s another discussion for another day.)
The locks (2)
(Percentages in parentheses are each team’s qualification odds from We Global Football)
Iran (100%) and South Korea (99.9%) — On 16 and 14 points, respectively, in an otherwise astonishingly weak Asian Group A, where no other team has more than 6 points. The top two qualify automatically. There are four games to go. Those two will be Iran and South Korea.
The likelihoods (4)
Ecuador (98.2%) — Six points clear of fourth place in South America with four games to go. Two stumbling South American teams would have to pass the Ecuadorians. And with two of their remaining opponents, Brazil and Argentina, already qualified, a late collapse seems unlikely.
Saudi Arabia (86.2%) — Absolutely strolling through the tougher of the two Asian groups. The Saudis often struggle against World Cup-caliber opponents, but steamroll lesser foes.
United States (96.2%) — At first glance, the U.S. is right in the thick of an Octagonal dogfight. But it looks like the best team in CONCACAF. It still gets Honduras, El Salvador and Panama at home. Nine points from those three games should be enough on their own. Even a fourth-place finish would leave the Americans as likely favorites in an intercontinental playoff. “We're on the right track,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said Tuesday. And he’s right.
Canada (95.5%) — Unbeaten and roaring toward a first men’s World Cup berth since 1986. Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Mexico, in frigid Edmonton, felt like a crowning capital-M Moment. Yes, there are still only two points separating first and fourth place. But the Canadian’s look like strong favorites to qualify.
The non-playoff bubble (9)
Mexico (97.3%) — So, on one hand, Mexico still has the top combo of talent and experience in CONCACAF; it has four of six remaining matches at home; it’s still in great shape to qualify. On the other hand, it’s reeling after losses to the U.S. and Canada. It could have a new coach when qualifying resumes in January. This feels a lot more like 2014 — when Mexico very nearly missed the World Cup — than 2018 — when it qualified comfortably.
Panama (46.2%) — Two massive comebacks have Los Canaleros punching directly up at Mexico and the U.S., level on points with El Tri in third place. If there’s a team that can unseat the current top three, it’s them.
Japan (90.3%) and Australia (49.8%) — Both trailing Saudi Arabia. One will nab the second automatic qualifying slot in Asia’s Group B, the other will likely win the Asian playoff. (Japan’s probability is so much higher than Australia’s because its one-point lead is more significant than you realize, because three of its four remaining matches are at home, and because it’s a much better team than the Socceroos.)
Colombia (72.2%), Peru (24.2%), Uruguay (46.3%), Chile (20.3%) and Bolivia (1.6%) — If we accept that Ecuador is in, these five nations, separated by two points, are scrapping for just one automatic qualification spot and one intercontinental playoff berth.
Colombia, narrowly leading the pack and with the easiest remaining fixtures (Peru and Bolivia at home, already-qualified Argentina and lowly Venezuela away), is in the best shape of the bunch. But Uruguay has the most talent and World Cup experience.
Bolivia, meanwhile, has been dominant in La Paz. A result in Venezuela in January could put it in position to pull off the biggest shock of the qualifying cycle.
The European playoffs (12)
Europe’s final three participants will come from a 12-team playoff field that’s chock-full of intrigue. The teams will be drawn into three pods of four. One-off semifinals and a final in each pod will send one team to Qatar and three packing.
There are six seeded teams, including Portugal and Italy, that can’t meet in the semifinals. But there’s nothing protecting them from sharing a pod, and potentially meeting in a high-stakes final.
Games will take place in March. Here’s the seeding for the Nov. 26 draw, which will determine matchups and brackets:
Seeded: Italy (49.5%), Portugal (44.9%), Sweden (32.6%), Wales (28.3%), Russia (28.1%), Scotland (22.2%)
Unseeded: Poland (20.5%), Austria (17.0%), Czech Republic (17.0%), Ukraine (15.8%), Turkey (13.7%), North Macedonia (10.5%)
The African playoffs (10)
In Africa, 10 four-team groups produced one winner each. Five of the 10 winners will be seeded, five unseeded for the playoff draw. Each playoff is two legs, with the victor going to the World Cup and the vanquished watching from home.
Seeded: Algeria (68.7%), Senegal (62.4%), Morocco (58.0%), Tunisia (54.4%), Nigeria (52.7%)
Unseeded: Cameroon (47.2%), Egypt (44.0%), Mali (42.2%), Ghana (37.8%), DR Congo (32.7%)
The intercontinental playoffs (1)
The fifth-place team from South America, the fourth-place team from CONCACAF, the winner of a playoff between two third-place teams from Asia, and one team from Oceania will be pitted against one another for two spots in Qatar. The matchups will be determined by a draw. Home-and-home series will be played in June 2022 — after the World Cup group stage draw has already taken place on April 1.
It’s not entirely clear how Oceania plans to choose its contestant in the intercontinental playoffs. But that contestant will almost certainly be New Zealand (43.7%).
The longshots (7)
Paraguay (1.0%) — No wins against non-Venezuelan opponents. Still only four points behind Peru in fifth, but with four nations to leapfrog to get there.
Costa Rica (8.1%) — A 95th-minute winner against Honduras on Tuesday night established Los Ticos as the best bet to crash CONCACAF’s current top four.
Jamaica (4.2%) — Seven points out of the playoff place with six games to go. Is it doable? With Michail Antonio and Leon Bailey in the fold, yeah. But likely? No.
UAE (3.1%), Lebanon (0.7%), Iraq (8.0%) and Syria (0.3%) — One of these four teams will meet Australia or Japan in the Asian playoff — where they’ll be a heavy underdog to advance to an intercontinental playoff, where they’d be a heavy underdog as well.
Still mathematically alive: Oman, China, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga and Cook Islands.