The first week of September 2016 was abuzz with several World Cup qualification matches played all across the globe. These matches were part of the third and fourth round stages in qualification for 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The process of qualification began on March 12, 2015 and it will conclude on November 6, 2017. Inarguably, the quadrennial FIFA football World Cup is the only sporting event that matches the Olympic Games in the scale, popularity, sponsorship, media coverage, advertising revenue, new product launches and global viewership. Just as the Olympics, selection of the host country is based on bids, which are duly evaluated before the final selection could be made. The Russian Federation won the rights to host the 21st FIFA World Cup during June 14- July 15, 2018. That decision was announced on December 2, 2010 in FIFA headquarters in Zurich. The bidding procedure had begun much earlier in January 2009 with 9 countries placing their bids. Later, Mexico withdrew and Indonesia’s bid was rejected because that country’s government failed to officially support the bid. During the bidding process, USA, Japan and Australia also withdrew and the contest was reduced to four nations/regions namely; England, Russia, Netherlands/Belgium, and Spain/Portugal. In the end, it was decided that 2018 FIFA World Cup will be held in 12 stadiums in 11 Russian cities with Moscow being allowed to hold matches in two different stadiums. However, FIFA’s flagship event comes with a long-drawn qualification process for selecting 31 teams out of 32 from different regions of the world with Russia qualifying automatically because of its host nation status. With almost every nation of the world having a football association, the qualification scenario for any football World Cup is extremely involved and time-consuming. Every nation needs to meet FIFA’s World Cup qualification criterion regardless of their performance in previous World Cups. The first qualification match for the 2018 World Cup was played on March 12, 2015, less than one year from the 2014 Brazil World Cup final. With 209 countries in fray for 31 spots, the extent of effort and time vested in planning and scheduling of qualification games is monumental.
The time span for the completion of the qualification matches exceeds 2½ years. FIFA has devised a quota system to select teams for the 2018 World Cup from various regions of the world. These regions are; Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Confederation of African Football (CAF), Confederation of North, Central American & Caribbean Association (CONCACAF), South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL), Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Of the final 31 teams for the Russian World Cup, 4 or 5 will come from 46 AFC nations, 5 from 54 CAF countries, 3 or 4 from 35 CONCACAF nations, 4 or 5 from 10 CONMEBOL nations, 0 or 1 from 11 OFC countries and 13 from 54 UEFA members. The uncertainty about 4 or 5 from AFC, 3 or 4 from CONCACAF and 0 or 1 from OFC will be overcome after one team from each of these regions play inter-confederation play-offs scheduled during November 6 and 15, 2017. The first, second and round matches of qualification process are already concluded and next rounds for different regions will begin on October 3, 2016.
Though every FIFA member nation was eligible to enter, some had already been expunged for the breach of FIFA rules. Zimbabwe were expelled for their failure to pay their coach, Indonesia and Kuwait were disqualified after FIFA suspended those nations’ Football Associations. After the first qualification game on March 12, 2015, more than 100 countries have already been eliminated as the qualification entered its 18th month with third and fourth-round matches in the first week of September 2016. India have already been eliminated as they lost in 7 out of 8 matches with their lone 2-0 win coming against Nepal. For nations of CONCACAF, even the fourth round qualification matches have been concluded and they will enter the fifth round now. There are 108 teams still left in the fray and their fates will be decided as time goes by. The next match day is October 6, 2016 and all 31 participants will be decided by November 14, 2017, when qualification deadline concludes with inter-continental play-off games.