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Your Viewing Guide for the Final Days of World Cup Qualifying

The USMNT just needs to win, but for Argentina and Lionel Messi, one more victory might not be enough

Brazil Global Tour - Brazil v Argentina Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

It’s been more than three years since Mario Götze’s extra-time volley crowned Germany the 2014 World Cup champion. Since then, 209 national teams from six federations have played more than 800 games and scored more than 2,300 goals, all with one objective: to earn one of the 32 spots in the 2018 World Cup. Now, as we enter the closing stretch of qualification, 17 teams have booked their trips to Russia. A handful of them secured their places this past weekend, and most of those remaining will know their fates by Tuesday evening.

Tuesday’s slate features 18 games. With more than 30 teams fighting over 15 spots, every match will have an impact on who makes it to Moscow next summer. By midweek, the qualification scenarios will get simpler. But for now, trying to understand the ramifications of a 2-1 road victory in Andorra can be daunting. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the second-degree tiebreakers and cluttered tables, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Here’s where every team left with a chance to qualify stands going into Super Tuesday.

CONCACAF — North and Central America

Tickets punched: Mexico, Costa Rica

Work left to do: USA, Panama, Honduras

Games to watch:

USA at Trinidad and Tobago, 8 p.m. ET

Costa Rica at Panama, 8 p.m. ET

Mexico at Honduras, 8 p.m. ET

North America has three and a half spots in the 2018 World Cup, which makes the last games of the Hex particularly important. (That’s three automatic spots and one place in a two-legged playoff.) Mexico and Costa Rica both already qualified, but can play spoiler for any of the three teams left in the hunt. After beating Panama 4-0 on Friday, the U.S. jumped from fourth to third and picked up some much-needed breathing room on goal difference. With a final game against last-place Trinidad and Tobago, anything less than an automatic qualification for the Yanks will be a failure.

A win guarantees the U.S. third place in the group and a spot in Russia, while a draw would do the same, barring a scenario in which Panama or Honduras make up a sizable goal difference (Panama is seven back, Honduras is 12). If they lose and either of the teams behind them win, they’ll be in fourth and forced to play the fifth-place finisher from Asia—the winner of Tuesday’s Syria-Australia tie. If both Honduras and Panama win, the U.S. is out. Panama, currently two points behind the USMNT, takes on Costa Rica. A win and an American loss puts them in third, while any other result from the Stars and Stripes likely keeps them in fourth. Honduras—tied with Panama in points, but fifth on goal difference—plays Mexico and almost certainly needs to beat Panama’s result against Costa Rica

CONMEBOL — South America

Ticket punched: Brazil

Work left to do: Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay

Games to watch:

Argentina at Ecuador, 7:30 p.m. ET

Chile at Brazil, 7:30 p.m. ET

Bolivia at Uruguay, 7:30 p.m. ET

Colombia at Peru, 7:30 p.m. ET

Venezuela at Paraguay, 7:30 p.m. ET

No federation has a messier final day than CONMEBOL. Six teams are fighting over the last three and a half spots in South America, and the third-through-seventh-placed clubs are separated by just two points. Uruguay, in second with 28 points, will qualify unless a perfect, unlikely combination of results (including Argentina overcoming a nine-goal difference) occurs.

Below them sit Chile and Colombia, both with 26 points; Peru and Argentina, each with 25; and Paraguay, with 24. Every team but Paraguay, who need some help from the squads above them, at least makes the playoff with a win. Chile takes on Brazil, who are 10 points clear at the top of the table and have no reason to risk injury and give significant minutes to star players—but also have plenty of stars on their bench. Colombia and Peru, fourth and fifth, respectively, face off with a win guaranteeing qualification for the former, and a finish no lower than fifth for the latter. Meanwhile, Argentina will take on Ecuador, needing a win to finish at least fifth, and some help to climb higher.

The headline here is that Argentina—last cycle’s World Cup finalist and the team for which Lionel Messi plays—is in danger of missing the tournament. The team secured only seven points in the eight games Messi missed due to injury and suspension. Even with the likes of Juventus’s Gonzalo Higuaín, Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, and PSG’s Ángel Di María, Argentina managed only six goals in Messi’s absence, and now they’ll likely be watching the Cup from home if they do anything other than win.

The top four finishers will qualify for the Cup automatically, while the fifth-place team will take on New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff in November. That team—whichever it may be—will be heavily favored to make it to Russia. CONMEBOL boasts six teams ranked 16th or higher by FIFA, so at least one won’t make it.

UEFA — Europe

Tickets punched: Belgium, England, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Russia, Spain, Serbia

Work left to do: France, Sweden, Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Denmark, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia

Games to watch:

Switzerland at Portugal, 3:45 p.m. ET

Sweden at Netherlands, 2:45 p.m. ET

Belarus at France, 2:45 p.m. ET

Gibraltar at Greece, 2:45 p.m. ET

Bosnia and Herzegovina at Estonia, 2:45 p.m. ET

After CONMEBOL, UEFA has the next-most chaotic qualifying campaign. Whereas the bedlam in South America is due to a logjam of good teams, the mess in Europe can be chalked up to a poor qualification layout. The winners of each of the nine groups automatically earn trips to Russia. Then the top eight second-place teams (why not just make eight groups?) are drawn into pairs and play home-and-away legs in November, with the four winners advancing on aggregate. Add the hosts, who automatically qualify, and 14 of the 32 teams in the tournament come from UEFA.

As it stands, seven of the nine groups have champions. Belgium, England, Germany, Spain, and Poland all claimed the top spots in their groups over the weekend (Poland, using some sneaky and selective scheduling, even managed to earn a spot in Pot 1 for the World Cup draw), and Iceland and Serbia joined them on Monday. The remaining two automatic spots—groups A and B—are still up for grabs, as are a handful of second-place spots. In Group A, France is one point clear of Sweden with a game against lowly Belarus. After shellacking Luxembourg 8-0 on Saturday, the Swedes are sitting confidently in the second position. The only way they won’t advance to at least the playoff is if the Netherlands—three points back, and on their third manager of the cycle—beats them by seven goals to even their points total and surpass the Swedes on differential.

Not technically impossible, but less likely than the Oranje faithful would hope, especially for a side that finished second at the 2010 World Cup and third in 2014. Games where teams have to score an ungodly number of goals to survive are always fun (remember PSG-Barcelona?), and the Netherlands still runs out some of the most talented players in the world. Arjen Robben admitted the Dutch are as good as done, but we’ll get to see him try to prove himself wrong.

Elsewhere on the continent, Switzerland and Portugal play with an automatic qualification on the line. With a win, Portugal moves into the top spot in Group B. Any other result means Switzerland advances, and Cristiano Ronaldo will have to will his team to European playoff victory. While the games determining group champions are mostly straightforward, the results that dictate which second-place team will be left behind are anything but.

Eight of the nine second-place finishers will advance to a playoff. Which teams make it is determined by how well they fared against the first, third, fourth, and fifth teams in their group. But not sixth, thanks, in short, to late entrants Gibraltar and Kosovo. Croatia, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, and Northern Ireland are already locked into the playoff, while the loser of Portugal-Switzerland and the second-place finisher between Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina will also qualify. And if Sweden can avoid losing to the Dutch by seven (assuming France stays atop the group), they’ll be in too.

The matchups between those teams will be drawn from two pots—one with the top-four teams based on FIFA rankings, the other with the remaining squads.

The FIFA rankings are far from perfect, but this time it looks like the algorithm got it right. The teams projected to end up in the seeded pod are significantly better than the unseeded ones. There are no lopsided placements, like when France was drawn from Pot 2 in 2014. As long as Les Bleus beat Belarus, and Greece holds off 206th-ranked Gibraltar, November’s playoffs should result in the best teams making the Cup. Then again, in European qualifying, nothing is ever simple.

AFC — Asia

Tickets punched: Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

Work left to do: Syria, Australia

Game to watch:

Syria at Australia, Tuesday, 5:00 a.m. ET

Syria wasn’t even supposed to make it this far. The Middle Eastern Cinderella advanced to the fifth-place playoff against Australia thanks to some late-game magic in the form of a 93rd minute goal against group leaders Iran. Now, they’re 90 minutes from the intercontinental playoff. In the first leg between the two teams, Australia struck first, scoring in the 40th minute before Omar Al Somah—Syria’s savior in the previous round—drew and then slotted home a questionable penalty in front of a “home” (Syria plays its home games in Malaysia) crowd.

The draw leaves Australia ahead on away goals. If the second leg finishes scoreless, the Socceroos will take on North America’s fourth-place finisher with their fourth consecutive World Cup appearance on the line, whereas a goal from the Syrians is required to make things interesting. 37-year-old Aussie legend Tim Cahill is likely to start for just the second time this qualification cycle, and Australia will need whatever magic remains in his boots if they’ll want to keep their campaign alive.

CAF — Africa

Tickets punched: Egypt, Nigeria

Work left to do: Tunisia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde

Games to watch:

Libya at Tunisia, November 11

Morocco at Ivory Coast, November 11

Guinea at Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nov. 11

Senegal v. South Africa, November 10, November 14

Cape Verde Islands at Burkina Faso, November 14

Egypt and Nigeria secured two of Africa’s five spots over the weekend—the Pharaohs with a stoppage-time winner from star attacker Mohamed Salah that put them past Congo, and the Super Eagles with a 1-0 victory over Zambia. Now seven teams are fighting for the top spot in the final three groups. The deciding games will take place next month.

Tunisia sits three points clear of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Group A, and has two goals in hand. So long as it manages to draw (or beat) Libya, it’s guaranteed qualification. In Group C, Morocco has a one-point advantage over Ivory Coast heading into their final matchup. The two teams drew last November, and anything other than an Ivorian win means Morocco will reach its first World Cup since 1998. And in Group D, Senegal sits two points clear of Burkina Faso and the Cape Verde Islands. Senegal was a quarterfinalist in its first World Cup in 2002. A win over South Africa (or a draw, depending on the result of the Burkina Faso–Cape Verde Islands contest) will send it back for the first time since that run. South Africa originally won this contest 2-1 in September, but FIFA ordered it be replayed after the referee was found guilty of “match manipulation” when he awarded Bafana Bafana a phantom penalty.

With two points and four goals in hand over its next closest competitor, barring any more shenanigans, it seems like a safe bet that Senegal will be playing in Russia.


Work left to do: New Zealand

New Zealand has been playing the waiting game since beating the Solomon Islands 8-3 on aggregate in September. The small Pacific nation will play the fifth-place finisher in South America in a home-and-away series in November, similar to the intercontinental playoff between Asia and North America. New Zealand was the last Oceanic team to make the tournament, qualifying in 2010, but lost to Mexico 9-3 on aggregate in the playoff before the 2014 edition. Since Oceania first conducted its own qualifiers separate of Asia in 1986, only Australia—now an AFC member—and the aforementioned 2010 Kiwis earned World Cup bids. Unfortunately for New Zealand, with Messi possibly awaiting them next month, it’s unlikely they’ll see the group stage again.