With a month and a half left until the final draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, most of the 32 eventual qualifying teams are set to book their tickets to Brazil. Brazil were automatically through as the hosts, and so far 20 other teams have made it through the qualifying rounds. And now, with the October 2013 world rankings released today by FIFA, the seeding for the top teams in the group stage in the final tournament have been determined, as well as the seeding for the European qualifying playoffs.
From Asia, four teams have qualified for the World Cup with another team going into the intercontinental playoff. Iran and South Korea topped their group over Uzbekistan, Qatar, and Lebanon to return to the World Cup. In the other group, Japan and Australia earned direct qualification over Jordan, Oman, and Iraq. For reaching third place in their respective qualifying groups, Jordan and Uzbekistan moved on to a playoff. Both teams have never made it to the World Cup. In the third place head to head playoff, both legs ended in 1-1 draws. In the penalty shootout, Jordan defeated Uzbekistan 9-8 to advance to the intercontinental playoff. While this is the furthest Jordan has ever advanced in World Cup qualifying, they face a tough challenge in Uruguay.
From Europe, 9 nations have qualified so far with 4 other spots open to the eight teams remaining in the playoff round. Many of the familiar big soccer names – Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and England – have already achieved qualification. The other teams that have already qualified are smaller but formidable teams. Switzerland and Russia are returning to the World Cup from relatively easy groups, with Portugal being Russia’s only serious competition in group F. Belgium’s young stars such as Romelu Lukaka and Eden Hazard have helped them secure qualification over Croatia and Serbia. Lastly, Bosnia and Herzegovina led a superb qualifying campaign to top Greece in group G on goal difference to reach their first World Cup tournament since independence in 1992. With the 9 group winners already through, the remaining four spots go to a playoff between the eight best second placed teams. Denmark was eliminated as the worst of the nine group runners up. The October rankings have determined the seeding for the playoffs, while the draw to see who faces who is not until the 21st. Portugal, Greece, Croatia, and Ukraine are in pot 1, while the lower ranked France, Sweden, Romania, and Iceland are in pot 2. The surprise in the rankings is France going into pot 2, where they could face Portugal and one of the top contenders could fail to qualify. Additionally, minnows Iceland are reveling in their journey to the playoff, but will face a difficult road no matter who they are pitted against.
The South American qualifiers were fairly straightforward. In South America, all nine nations in CONMEBOL aside from Brazil were in a single group and each team played each other twice. Along with Brazil, the top four teams in the group qualified while the 5th team went to the intercontinental playoff. Argentina and Colombia secured direct qualification at the two top spots in the group early, but the remaining two direct places remained contested by Chile, Ecuador, and Uruguay until the final day of qualifying matches. As Chile and Ecuador played each other and Uruguay played Argentina, a draw for either Chile or Ecuador would have been enough for direct qualification. Chile defeated Ecuador 2-1, while Uruguay beat Argentina 3-2. That tally put Chile ahead, while Ecuador ended tied with Uruguay at 25 points, but went through on goal difference. Uruguay will play Jordan in the intercontinental playoff in November.
The North American qualifying campaign ended on a very exciting last day of games. The United States, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Jamaica reached the final round of qualifying, known as the Hexagon. The six teams played in a single final group. Mexico, usually a definitely entrant in the World Cup, hit trouble from day one. The team is notably formidable at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, but during the first three home games had three goalless draws against Jamaica, the United States, and Costa Rica. Then against Honduras, they suffered only their second loss ever at home in a non-friendly match. Going into the last two match days, the United States and Costa Rica had already secured qualification. Mexico sat at 5th, while Panama was tied with Mexico at 8 points but ahead of Mexico on goal difference. With only the top four teams advancing, this put Mexico in a dangerous position. In the second to last match day, Mexico defeated Panama 2-1, putting Mexico back in the playoff position. On the last day though, things were not looking good for Mexico. For Panama to place ahead of Mexico, Costa Rica needed to beat El Tri while Panama needed to beat the United States. Until the final minutes of the matches, both Costa Rica and Panama were winning their games 2-1. The United States rebounded and ended up beating Panama 3-2, putting Mexico at 4th in the group. So Honduras qualified directly along with the United States and Costa Rica, while Mexico advanced to the intercontinental playoff against Oceania winner New Zealand.
Lastly, the African qualifying format has undergone some changes for the 2014 World Cup. Now, the ten teams that advance from the second round are split off into head to head playoffs for the final 5 spots. The first legs of the playoffs were played over the past week, with the second leg to be played in November. The new format has placed high level teams against each other. So far in these high stakes matches, the Ivory Coast defeated Senegal 3-1, Tunisia drew Cameroon 0-0, and Ghana in a surprising rout defeated Egypt 6-1. The other two playoffs feature teams that are looking to reach the World Cup for the first time. Burkina Faso scored a 3-2 upset over Algeria at home. They have a decent chance with only a draw in Algeria need to qualify, but if Algeria gets the upper hand the two away goals will be difficult to overcome. Finally, Ethiopia, which shook the qualifiers by topping South Africa in the group in the second round, fell to Nigeria in Addis Ababa. With Nigeria’s home leg next, Ethiopia is almost assuredly eliminated.
Now, with only a month left until the final lineup of teams heading to Brazil, the group stages are beginning to take shape. Along with Brazil, the top seven teams according to the October FIFA rankings will be seeded into each of the eight groups. The teams joining Brazil are Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Switzerland, and either Uruguay or the Netherlands depending on whether Uruguay qualifies. Of the teams that have already secured qualification, Italy and England have slipped in the rankings enough that they will not be seeded, and so some groups could have very difficult competition. The other teams that have secured qualification and will be joining the above mentioned teams are Chile, the United States, Bosnia, Russia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Japan, Iran, South Korea, and Australia. The final 11 spots will be settled in November, with the draw to lay out the group stage happening on December 6.