World Cup qualifying: Who's in?
Portugal, Argentina avoid disaster; Netherlands, U.S. lose out on berths
After nearly three years of matches, qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is drawing to a close and there's still plenty at stake for countries hoping to compete for soccer's top prize.
While the majority of qualification tournaments have concluded, there are still continental (and intercontinental) playoffs to watch, including major European powers vying for final spots in Russia.
The draw for the World Cup takes place on December 1, but these final matches promise to deliver plenty of excitement… and heartache.
Here's a look at where things stand in each region.
North & Central America & Caribbean
- Teams: 35
- Spots: 3½
- Qualified: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
The biggest story out of CONCACAF has to be the United States's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup following a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. The shocking defeat ended a run of seven straight American appearances at soccer's showcase.
Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama qualified directly for Russia following what's known as "The Hex." Honduras will face Australia in an intercontinental playoff for a place at the World Cup (hence the half spot).
- Teams: 54
- Spots: 13 plus host
- Qualified: Russia (host), Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Poland, Serbia, Iceland, Portugal, France
The nine group winners (plus host Russia) have already secured spots at the 2018 showcase, while the Netherlands failed to qualify for the tournament. De Oranje finished in third at the 2014 World Cup, and lost in the 2010 final to Spain, but the team has fallen well short of expectations in recent years.
Fans looking for a return of the "Viking Thunder-Clap" got their wish as Iceland secured its place in the tournament.
The final eight teams meet in a home-and-away playoff highlighted by a showdown between Sweden and Italy. The four-time champs are looking to qualify for its 15th straight World Cup.
The other pairings are: Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland; Croatia vs. Greece; and Denmark vs. Ireland. The first legs will be played from Nov. 9-11, with the return games from Nov. 12-14.
- Teams: 10
- Spots: 4½
- Qualified: Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia
Lionel Messi's hat trick in the final qualifying match saved Argentina from a soccer scare and propelled la Albiceleste into the World Cup.
Argentina joins Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia at the 2018 tournament, while Peru will face New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff with a World Cup berth on the line.
- Teams: 53
- Spots: 5
- Qualified: Nigeria, Egypt
Africa's qualification process has three rounds. In the final round, the top 20 are broken into five groups of four. Following round-robin play, where teams meet home and away, only the five group winners advance to the World Cup.
- Group A: Tunisia, Congo, Guinea, Libya
- Group B: Nigeria (qualified), Zambia, Cameroon, Algeria
- Group C: Ivory Coast, Morocco, Gabon, Mali
- Group D: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Senegal, South Africa
- Group E: Egypt (qualified), Uganda, Ghana, Congo
While Africa's qualifiers run until Nov. 6, Nigeria have already qualified. Egypt also booked its place behind a Mohamed Salah injury-time penalty on Sunday against the Republic of Congo.
The big surprise lies with traditional African powers Cameroon, Algeria and Ghana, who with one game left to play have already been eliminated.
- Teams: 46
- Spots: 4½
- Qualified: Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia
As the first confederation to start the qualification process, it's no surprise that the bulk of Asia's competition has already wrapped, with Australia ending Syria's World Cup aspirations with a 2-1 extra-time win.
The Socceroos will now face the Honduras in a home-and-away series in November.
- Teams: 11
- Spots: ½
- Qualified: None
Having weathered a multi-stage qualification process, New Zealand defeated the Solomon Islands in the regional final to become Oceania's representative in the next round. It will meet Peru in an intercontinental playoff for the right to compete in the World Cup.