The World Cup is just around the corner and Russia 2018’s 32 guests are now known. This qualifying campaign has thrown up several surprises in the form of new comers and prodigal sons. And ever since the start, this qualification process has been filled with drama, controversy, and fantastic stories.
All 210 FIFA member associations were eligible to enter the qualifying process, and for the first time in World Cup history, all eligible national teams registered for the preliminary competition.
But Zimbabwe and Indonesia were disqualified before playing their first matches. Bhutan, South Sudan, Gibraltar and Kosovo made their FIFA World Cup qualification debuts. Myanmar, having successfully appealed against a ban from the competition for crowd trouble during a 2014 World Cup qualifying tie against Oman, were obliged to play all their home matches outside the country.
It all started on March 12th 2015. Timor Leste beat Mongolia 4–1 and the former Portuguese colony was disqualfied for fielding Brazilian players.
On the same day as that 4–1 victory, Sri Lanka was taking on the world’s worst nation, Bhutan. Bhutan was making their World Cup debut. Lowest ranked team in the world. Their captain was also a pilot for the national airline. Bhutan scored late on & won their first ever game.
Then there was the story of Syria… The war torn nation caused a surprise by even reaching the final stages. They fought resiliently, to the displeasure of some and the disbelief of many, they beat China, and Qatar, they drew with Korea and Uzbekistan. Then came the final day, they were to face leaders Iran, the country that was yet to concede a goal. A win was needed for automatic promotion, and a draw would drag them through to the playoffs.
They took the lead and the entire world then paid attention to what could be the greatest footballing story ever, but Iran however were not to be messed with and scored two second half goals. Just as the world was ready to applaud the Syrians for their valiant efforts for a hard fought campaign, they scored a last second equaliser to keep their hopes alive.
They would meet the champions Australia in the first of a two part playoff. They finished their first game with a draw, and then they took the Socceroos to extra time, where hero Tim Cahill pulled another one out of the bag and gave them the advantage. Then in the final moment, Syria got a free kick and up stepped Omar Al Soma, with a tear in his eye he kissed the ball and took a few steps back with the weight of a broken nation on his shoulders, and oh he was so close but it was not meant to be…
The Asian qualifiers saw plenty of other stories, the resurgence of the Saudi team and the struggles of the Australians. The dominance of the Persians and the bottling of Uzbekistan continuing.
Moving on to Africa we saw a continent that was dominated by the Arabs. Egypt qualified with a last minute penalty after a 28 year long absence, and the drama lovers of the middle east wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tunisia returned to the world cup, and for the first time they were led by a local coach successfully. Morocco also qualified with style, finally repaying for years of disappointment. while Senegal will participate for the second time in the world cup… and I bet the French would be hoping not to be drawn with them again !!!
Meanwhile while all the African heavyweights like Ivory Coast, Ghana failed ; Nigeria stood firm and qualified once again to the world’s biggest stage.
Moving on to Europe, the continent had it’s fair share of brilliant stories, perhaps none more brilliant than the continued rise of the Icelandic national team, who qualified to the world cup for the first time ever. They once again proved that the continued rise over the last 4–5 years along with the Euro’16 performance was more than just a fluke.
Meanwhile the Dutch’s downward spiral continued after Euro’16 , and many thought that their absence would hold much of the chatter in the summer, however the Swedes made everyone forget about that by beating Italy, making the Netherlands even more irrelevant to the world cup.
Despite the tears of Buffon and co, The Azzuri will miss the world cup for the first time ever to many people. You’d have to be in your mid sixties to remember a world cup without them. Most of the regulars made it through unscathed, and for the first time ever three Nordic teams will participate in one world cup.
To North America where business was going as usual on the final day. Mexico and Costa Rica were through, the U.S only needed to take care of Trinidad and Tobago to go through, and even if they didn’t beat them they needed both Panama and Honduras to beat Mexico and Costa Rica. That would never happen, right !!
But it did, and it happened in the final minutes as well for added measure. Panama became the second nation to make its debut in the world cup after Iceland, Honduras took the playoff spot, and most surprisingly, The Yanks missed the world cup.
Moving on to South America, Tite and his Brazilian side dominated the qualifiers, they became the first country to qualify after Russia. The final day came and almost everybody but Venezuela and Bolivia still had some chance of making it, with the biggest name possibly to miss out was Argentina.
However, a Messi masterclass was in the works and everything was back on track. However the same can’t be said for the back to back South American champions Chile, who missed out on the world cup.
The Lovely nation of Peru were to take the playoff spot, and despite the kiwis best efforts, they beat New Zealand 2–0 in Lima to become team 32 in the 2018 world cup.