The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football – or CONCACAF to give it its shorter name – has 3.5 slots at next summer’s World Cup in Russia. Three countries will qualify automatically for FIFA’s premier tournament from the final group stage, while the fourth-placed team will have to negotiate a two-legged play-off tie against Asia’s fifth-best before booking their tickets to Moscow.
Despite none of its teams ever winning the tournament, CONCACAF has a rich World Cup pedigree: Mexico hosted the tournament in 1970 and 1986, while the United States still holds the record overall attendance for the tournament it staged in 1994. Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, Haiti, Canada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have also qualified for the showpiece event in the past.
35 teams from CONCACAF started the qualification process for Russia 2018 way back in March 2015 and, after four rounds, the teams progressed to a final group stage, known as the ‘Hexagonal’ or the ‘Hex’ due to it being composed of six nations. Each team then plays home and away against each other to determine the confederation’s representatives.
Let’s take a closer look at who is playing in the ‘Hex’ this time round:
Having qualified for 15 World Cups – including each of the last six – Mexico is CONCACAF’s traditional powerhouse and, along with the US, they are virtually guaranteed to qualify for each World Cup due to their size in comparison to their neighbours. Having made it to the semi-finals at this summer’s Confederations Cup, Mexico – whose star players include West Ham’s Javier Hernandez and LA Galaxy’s Giovani dos Santos – will be keen to wrap up qualification as soon as possible so they can start to concentrate on next summer’s finals.
Currently hot on Mexico’s heels in second place, the Costa Ricans had a memorable World Cup in Brazil. After finishing top of the group of death – ahead of Uruguay, Italy and England – The Ticos were a penalty shootout away from becoming the first Central American team to reach the World Cup semi-finals. With the core of the 2014 squad still together, don’t be surprised if they cause a few more surprises in Russia.
For so long a laughing stock on the world stage, American ‘soccer’ has transformed beyond recognition in the past two decades and the national team has now qualified for each of the last seven World Cups, making it to the quarters in 2002. Still, with Landon Donovan now retired and Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey ageing, the team has struggled in qualifying so far, losing 2-0 to Guatemala and 4-0 to Costa Rica. They should still make it to Russia, but will need to improve if they’re to reach the knockout stages again.
The only team in the ‘Hex’ never to qualify for the World Cup, the Panamanians came agonisingly close to making it to a play-off in 2014, only for two late US goals to deny them. With an experienced, primarily South American-based squad, they should right that wrong this time and set up a do-or-die tie versus Uzbekistan or Australia.
Disappointing at each of the last two World Cups, Honduras look unlikely to make it three in a row. They’ve won just once in the ‘Hex’ so far and still have to play each of the top three.
Trinidad and Tobago
The group’s bottom side, T&T made it to the World Cup in 2006 but an inexperienced side has struggled this time, managing just one win in their first six games.