The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia may be over a year away, but qualifying tournaments are well under way as 211 football nations fight for a place in football’s quadrennial extravaganza.
Next year’s tournament is the 21st edition of the World Cup. The competition was first held in 1930 but the 2018 tournament would be almost unrecognisable to those who travelled to Uruguay 87 years ago. Back then, the group stage of the World Cup involved 13 teams competing in four unevenly-sized groups, with the group winners going on to the semi-finals.
Nowadays the World Cup is an altogether bigger affair. The 2018 edition will be the sixth since the group stage was expanded to 32 teams in 1998 and there are plans to increase participation even further, with the 2026 version set to include 48 teams.
The 32 teams that qualify for the group stage will come from every part of the football globe, with the precise representation determined by the relative strength of each continent. 14 teams will come from Europe, five from Africa, four from South America and Asia and three from North America. The remaining two places will be awarded to winners of two play-off games involving teams from Oceania, Asia and the Americas.
At the time of writing, only Russia, who qualify automatically as hosts, and five-time champions (a record) Brazil, have guaranteed their places in the tournament. Those two teams, along with the other 30 qualifiers, will be placed into eight groups of four for the group stages.
The allocation of teams to groups is carefully handled to ensure that each group contains a balance of stronger and weaker teams. The qualifying teams will be ranked initially by their position on the official FIFA rankings table. The top eight teams will be considered as top seeds, and one top seed will be allocated to each of the eight groups. As host nation, Russia will be included in the top eight regardless of their FIFA ranking.
Below the top eight, the other teams are allocated to groups on the basis of rankings and geographical locations, to ensure that every group contains a mix of football styles. Each group will feature six matches as the four teams play one another on a round-robin basis, with the top two teams in each group progressing to the knock-out stages.
In the event that any teams in a group finish on the same number of points, tie-breaking rules will apply, with a number of methods used to separate the teams, beginning with goal difference and goals scored, and ending in a points score based on the number of red and yellow cards that a team has accumulated.
Getting a good start in the group stage will be important, as it can give a team a cushion for their remaining Group games, but most groups will go down to the last two games, played simultaneously, which are sure to lead to some nail-biting, exciting finishes.