210 teams, 6 confederations.
23 countries have qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia next year. The playoffs match-ups will now be announced to zero down on the remaining 8 teams (Russia, being the hosts, are automatic qualifiers).
The final round of qualifiers in the first week of October was chaotic, and threw up a bunch of shocks, upsets and all-time moments – much like the final day of the English Premier League, when most teams are either battling for top spot or to avoid relegation.
Here are five major surprises of the two-year-long qualification campaign:
Netherlands no more
The 2010 World Cup finalists and third-placers of 2014 failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 2002. The “Oranje” are known for their ‘total’ football and the “beautiful” game, and often add great adventure to any major tournament. But in a group with France and Sweden, Netherlands finished third, with Sweden pipping them to the play-off spots on goal difference. Even though Netherlands defeated Sweden on the final day, they needed to win by at least 7 goals. Losses to Bulgaria and France during the qualification campaign cost them dear, with winger Arjen Robben announcing his international retirement moments after they crashed out.
Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick on a desperate final day, with Argentina defeating Ecuador 3-1 and jumping from a lowly 6th to 3rd (direct qualification), avoiding perhaps the biggest disaster of the impending World Cup. Any major tournament without Messi would be a loss to the universe in general, and the genius stepped up when needed the most, killing off speculation and dragging his underperforming team to the World Cup on the final day. They conceded a goal within 38 seconds, and were on the brink of elimination, but Messi – whose team reached the 2014 World Cup final against Germany – won it single-handedly in what could probably be his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona. Argentina were on the brink throughout the South American qualifying campaign.
Chile not so hot
Arturo Vidal retired from international football after Copa American Champions Chile had a nightmare final night – falling from a comfortable third to a disastrous sixth, not even earning a tie-breaker with Peru. They lost to first-placed Brazil 3-0, while Argentina took their place in third. La Roja also finished as runners-up to Germany in the Confederations Cup this year, but somehow failed to qualify after being present at the 2014 and 2010 World Cups. Things have gone downhill for Chile after coach Antonio Pizzi replaced Jorge Sampaoli, and it was imperative they qualified here, given that this was their “golden era” (two consecutive Copa America titles), and they stood a chance to reach the knockouts. Instead, they will watch Brazil, Columbia, Argentina and Uruguay compete in Russia.
The Viking thunder cometh
A year after taking the world by storm, upsetting England and reaching the knockout stages of Euro 2016, Iceland set a new record by becoming the “smallest” nation ever to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. This will be their first FIFA World Cup ever. With a population of 3,30,000, Iceland continued their international dream run, achieving perhaps their greatest-ever sporting moment after beating Kosova 2-0 in their final game and qualifying in a group that had Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey and Finland. Croatia finished second, and will move on to the play-offs, but Iceland made for perhaps the Qualifying campaign’s biggest fairytale moment. Their coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, is a part-time dentist, and will now travel to Russia with serious ambitions to cause a few more upsets and reach the knockouts. They aren’t around simply to fill the numbers.
The semifinalists of Euro 2016 were shocked by the Republic of Ireland in a desperate final game of their group. Gareth Bale watched from the stands. Martin O’Neill’s team eliminated the Welsh wonderkids, defeating them 1-0 and advancing to the play-offs in a group that Serbia had already topped. James McClean’s 57th minute winner meant that this Irish team will face either one of Italy, Croatia, Switzerland or Denmark in the play-offs.
In what would have been the most heartwarming tale of the year, a war-torn Syrian nation’s football team almost went through to the final play-offs. Tim Cahill’s second-leg winner made sure there was no penalty shootout. Australia defeated Syria (3-2 on aggregate) very narrowly, eliminating them a little more than a year after Syria embarked upon their miraculous qualifying campaign.