Final 32 bids are clinched for 2018 World Cup
The road to Russia is set in stone for the summer tournament
By Dan Khavin, Sports Editor
It’s official, the final 32 nations have booked their ticket to the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup ready to be held in Russia from June 14, 2018 to July 15, 2018.
This will mark the first time a European country will host the event since Germany did in 2006.
With a total of 64 matches set to kick-off, The Reflector breaks down the fortunate participants who have paved their way into the final tournament.
No question the hardest qualifying road compared to the nations around Europe, the 14 nations make up almost half of the World Cup bids in the largest pool of qualifying teams in history.
Host country Russia will look to impress both the world and a very lively Russian fan base, as well as improve on their result from Brazil in 2014, where they did not make it past the group stages.
Bayern Munich and Polish superstar Robert Lewandowski lead the continent in goals scored during qualifiers with a whopping 16.
Germany, who won all 10 of their qualifiers, will be looking to defend their world title while Iceland will be coming in as the Cinderella team after their magical run in the Euro 2016 tournament two summers ago, making their first World Cup appearance.
England, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Serbia and Croatia round out the rest of the European slots.
Italy will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1958, giving world-class and football icon Gianluigi Buffon a bittersweet end to his legendary career.
Three teams went undefeated in the qualifying stage. England went 8-2-0, Belgium and Spain were 9-1-0.
Poland had a solid line of 8-1-1 record while Portugal only dropped one match to finish 9-0-1 in qualifiers. Serbia were the surprise of the continent, going 6-3-3 in one of the tougher groups beating out Gareth Bale’s Wales, a stacked Austria team and gritty Irish squad.
As mentioned, Iceland punched their ticket in by winning Group I at a 7-1-2 record, holding a slim lead over a very stacked and skilled Croatian team.
A total of five countries will be playing out of the continent of Asia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia will fly to Russia from the Middle East while Japan and South Korea will be the pacific coast representatives.
Undefeated in all of their games, a 6-4-0 Iranian squad will look to bounce back after finishing last in their group last time they made a World Cup appearance in Brazil two summers ago.
Saudi will make their World Cup return, last being featured in the summer of 2006.
Japan made easy work in their group, finishing 6-2-2 at first place and making the automatic jump into the final tournament.
Korea snuck in with a two point gap ahead of Syria who just missed out, along with Uzbekistan who were level with Syria on points but behind due to goal differential, while China was three points behind their Asian counterpart.
Australia qualified to the bid through inter-confederation playoffs and held on to the last playoff spot in the battle for one of the five slots.
They punched their ticket to Russia when they beat out qualifying surprise Syria in the playoff round, 3-2 in a two game aggregate battle.
Syria were two points behind South Korea for the automatic ticket in but fell short.
30 year old Mohammad Al-Sahlawi lead the way in goals representing Saudi Arabia, netting in 16 goals in a tie with U.A.E forward Ahmed Khalil.
The African continent also had five spots up for grab, with Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Nigeria and Egypt earning their way to the World Cup.
This marks Senegal’s second return to the summer tournament with the last being 2002, while Egypt lead by Liverpool F.C. star Mohamed Salah, scored a last minute spot kick to send his nation into euphoria and punch their way in for the first time since 1990.
Tunisia and Morocco make their fifth trip to the World Cup while Nigeria is the only nation in the pack to be featured in the last edition.
With six groups and only the top team claiming a spot in Russia, the games came down to who were the better teams and who can be consistent winners. Tunisia had the only scare, winning their group only one point ahead of Congo.
All five teams went undefeated in their six games.
Salah and Burkina Faso forward Prejuce Nakoulma both had six goals to lead Africa in scoring.
The North and Central American nations along with a handful of Caribbean nations battled for three slots.
Powerhouse Mexico, 2014 quarter-finalists Costa Rica and Panama booked their spots to Russia.
Panama made it over Honduras on goal difference.
Our home and native land Canada, was just one point shy of making the final six playoff round while the USA in a huge choke, finished below Honduras with a 3-3-4 record and were one point shy themselves in the final qualifying stage.
Rising star Christian Pulisic playing for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, netted seven in the qualifying round while goal scoring machine for Toronto F.C Jozy Altidore, totalled eight goals but wasn’t enough to send America to Russia.
Three groups played six matches with the top two qualifying to a big playoff round and the top three from the last six got the bid to Russia.
Fourth place Honduras qualified to that weird inter-confederation spot when they finished above the U.S., where they ultimately lost to the Aussies.
Guatemalan player Carlos Ruiz lead the pack with nine goals.
Finally, the South American continent held four slots with Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Columbia and making the cut.
Peru punched their way beating New Zealand in the inter-confederation playoffs meanwhile Brazil and Uruguay did their job by finishing one-two with 12-5-1 and 9-4-5 records. The battle for the final two spots was filled with drama.
Arguably the most stacked qualifying group filled with nothing but walking dollar signs such as Neymar, James Rodriguez, Alexis Sanchez, Leo Messi and many more, put on a show that lasted until the final matchday.
Arsenal superstar Sanchez and his Chilean squad crashed out of the qualifiers, failing to make the World Cup for the first time since 2006.
Chile had to beat Brazil but lost 3-0, while Argentina with the help of a Messi hat-trick, beat Ecuador 3-1 to secure their spot.
Columbia secured a point in a draw with Peru who were a point behind them for the final qualification spot.
PSG target man and Uruguay striker Edison Cavani netted ten goals to lead South America in goals.