Fifteen teams have already booked their place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Forty-eight nations are still in the mix to join them, but only 17 places remain, and all but three will be settled in qualifying matches set to take place around the world in the next week and a half.
Below is an overview of the qualifications in each geographic area.
Canada’s 36-year World Cup drought is coming to an end.
With three games remaining, Canada are top of the table in the final CONCACAF qualifying with a 7-0-4 record, and enjoy an eight-point lead over fourth-placed Panama. The United States and Mexico are tied for second place, four points behind Canada. Costa Rica are fifth, trailing Panama by one point. The top three in the group of eight teams automatically qualify for Qatar. The fourth place team gets a chance to qualify through the intercontinental playoffs (more on that later).
Canada play away to Costa Rica (24 March) and Panama (30 March), and host Jamaica (27 March) in Toronto.
Victory against Costa Rica would seal a World Cup spot for Canada and send them back into the tournament for the first time since 1986 in Mexico, Canada’s only appearance at a previous World Cup. Even if Canada doesn’t win in Costa Rica, it could still clinch on Thursday if other results go along, especially the defeat of Panama.
Except for an unprecedented collapse, Canada will qualify for the World Cup. It is only a matter of when it will happen during this international window, although coach John Herdman and the players have insisted nothing has been achieved.
“It’s hard because there’s so much you hear, so much from the outside. Even my own family members: ‘Oh my God, you’re almost there.’ It’s hard to ignore,” said Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio.
“But at the same time, I’m trying to stay grounded. It’s still not happening. We have to make it happen.”
The United States and Mexico look to be solid bets to secure the other two automatic berths on offer at CONCACAF. However, they face each other Thursday in Mexico City, and defeats from both sides could potentially open the door for Panama and Costa Rica to qualify for their place.
The following 10 countries won their groups in the first round of UEFA qualification to book their place in Qatar: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Serbia, Spain and Switzerland.
That leaves the 10 second-place finishers and the two best-performing Nations League teams (Austria and Czech Republic) to battle for three places at the World Cup in the second round.
The 12 nations have been divided into three lanes, with four teams in each bracket playing a one-legged mini-tournament. The winner of each bracket is entitled to the World Cup.
Path C is the most interesting, as neither Italy nor Portugal will qualify for Qatar. Having just won Euro 2020, Italy are second in their group behind Switzerland, while a late goal from Serbia sank Portugal on the final matchday of the first half, forcing Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates into this series of extra games.
Italy host North Macedonia on Thursday, while Turkey visits Portugal on the same day. The two winners will meet on March 29 to decide who advances to the World Cup.
Italy faces a high chance of missing a second successive World Cup, having previously qualified for every tournament since 1958. Portugal have played in every World Cup since 2002, but like Italy, they too are in danger of missing out.
Path A sees Wales host Austria this week, while Scotland vs. Ukraine has been postponed until June due to the Russo-Ukrainian war.
In Line B, Russia was supposed to host Poland this week. However the Russian team was suspended from international competition by FIFA after Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic all refused to face them due to the conflict with Ukraine. Poland received a bye to the final of this section. Sweden host the Czech Republic on Thursday, with the winners meeting Poland next week.
Both Brazil (39 points) and Argentina (35) have earned their tickets to Qatar, but there is still a lot up for grabs in the CONMEBOL region. Two more automatic spots are up for grabs, with a fifth-place finish earning a spot in the intercontinental playoffs.
Ecuador (25), Uruguay, (22) and Peru (21) have the advantage in claiming two automatic berths and a playoff berth. Venezuela (10) and Paraguay (13) have already been knocked out of the competition, while Bolivia (15) can qualify for the World Cup only via intercontinental playoffs.
Colombia reached the knockout stages of the last two World Cups, but are in danger of not qualifying for Qatar. Colombia (17) sits seventh in the table, five points from automatic qualification and four points from the playoffs. Their two remaining matches – home to Bolivia and away to Venezuela – are winnable. But if Peru beat Paraguay at home in the final, Colombia will miss this World Cup.
Chile (19) are in a similar situation, having to overtake Peru and Uruguay to travel to Qatar. But their last two matches present a tough challenge, as they will host first-placed Brazil and then play away vs Uruguay.
Qatar qualified automatically as hosts, while Iran and South Korea have already secured their place at the World Cup by finishing as the top two teams in Group A of the third round of Asian qualifiers.
Both automatic spots in Group B are still available, with Saudi Arabia (19 points), Japan (18) and Australia (15) in the mix.
Australia’s only realistic chance in automatic qualification is to beat Japan at home on 24 March and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on 29 March, but even that may not be enough. Japan’s other match is against Vietnam, and assuming Japan win, they will be points tied with Australia, meaning last place in Group B will be decided on goal difference.
Even if Australia doesn’t finish in the top two, it can still qualify through the intercontinental playoffs. The two third-placed teams in the Asian region will meet in a knockout match on June 7 with the winners advancing to the intercontinental playoffs against the fifth-placed team from South America.
All five spots from the African region will be decided from March 25-29 when the 10 group winners from the second stage face off in the final round.
Five matches: Egypt vs Senegal, Cameroon vs Algeria, Ghana vs Nigeria, Mali vs Tunisia and Democratic Republic of Congo vs Morocco. The nations will face off in a home and home series, with the winners each clinching a World Cup spot.
The most interesting match is Egypt vs Senegal, which is a rematch of last month’s Africa Cup of Nations final. Senegal beat their Egyptian counterparts on penalties to win the tournament for the first time in their history.
Ghana and Nigeria are the two most populous countries in west Africa, and their rivalry is one of the fiercest in African football. It had been a decade since their previous encounter, but before that, they had collided in three successive African Cup of Nations tournaments, with Ghana beating Nigeria twice in the knockout stages.
New Zealand have already qualified for the semifinals of the region’s qualifying campaign, and will join the other three teams at the end of Thursday.
The semifinals and finals are scheduled for March 27-30, with the final teams qualifying for the intercontinental playoffs. As the perennial Oceania heavyweight, New Zealand is expected to win the region.
The final two World Cup spots will be decided in mid-June, when FIFA holds the intercontinental playoffs in Qatar.
The Asian qualifiers face the fifth-placed nation from South America and winners Oceania meet the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF in a singles elimination match. The winner of both matches will claim a place in the World Cup.
About the Author: John Molinaro is one of Canada’s leading football journalists, having covered the game for more than 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian football. Republic of TFC can be found here.
“Total troublemaker. Alcohol aficionado. Social media specialist. Friendly travel nerd.”