Club football goes on pause for the first major international break of the year as select national teams are in action for the first time since November. Some of the world's leading footballing nations bid to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year.
17 of the 32 spots at the World Cup have been filled with another three European countries set to take their place at the 22nd edition of the showpiece event later this year. From Europe 10 nations (Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Serbia, Spain, and Switzerland) have already been confirmed to partake in the World Cup finals. Denmark and Germany became the first non-host nations to put their names into the hat for the tournament finals.
In total 13 European nations will be at the finals – more than one-third of all participating teams and tantamount to the number of countries from America and Africa combined (eight and five, respectively) that will be at the tournament.
The 2022 World Cup has space for just one of the two most recent European champions. UEFA Euro 2016 winners Portugal will meet the Euro 2020 champions Italy in the playoff finals provided they overcome Turkey and North Macedonia, respectively, in the semifinals on Thursday.
Currently 6th in the FIFA rankings, Italy are the highest-placed nation yet to qualify for the WC finals and the reigning Euro holders entertain North Macedonia (ranked 67th) with a spot in the playoff finals up for grabs.
After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the Azzurri are at risk of being unaccounted for at back-to-back tournaments for the first time in their history. North Macedonia came 2nd behind Germany in Group J of UEFA WC qualifiers and are bidding to make their first WC finals since the country gained independence in 1991.
Portugal have been present at all five WC finals this century and will be desperate to maintain that record for what is likely to be the last World Cup of skipper Cristiano Ronaldo's illustrious career. Conversely, Turkey have played in the WC finals just twice before – most recently in 2002. Spearheaded by Burak Yilmaz and Hakan Çalhanoğlu, the Turkish finished two points shy of Group G winners Netherlands.
Wales face off with Austria in the playoff semis after the former came 2nd behind Belgium in Group E qualifying, while the latter reached the playoffs as one of two best-ranked group winners from the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League who did not finish in the top two of their WCQ group. Ranked 20th in the world, the Welsh Dragons are eyeing a first appearance at the WC finals since 1958, meanwhile Austria have not been to the finals for 24 years.
Sweden and Czech Republic go to battle in the playoff semis as the Swedes were 2nd to Spain in Group B qualifying. Like Austria, the Czechs made the playoffs as a UNL group winner who failed to place inside the top two in WCQ.
Currently ranked 17th by FIFA, Sweden progressed to the quarter-finals at the 2018 World Cup after missing out on both the 2010 and 2014 editions. Their Czechia counterparts have played at only one of the last six World Cup tournaments, exiting from the group stage in Germany 2006.
Ukraine versus Scotland has been postponed until June while the Russia-Poland fixture was abandoned in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. As a result Poland automatically qualify for the playoff finals where they will face Sweden or Czech Republic. The winner of the Wales/Austria semi will play Scotland or Ukraine at a later date, and the three winners of the UEFA playoff finals will each book their spot at the World Cup starting November 21.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) are allocated fewer than half the amount of European sides that will be at the tournament, with only five African countries given the luxury of traveling to the desert to compete on the grandest stage. After being divided into ten groups of four teams, all group winners and runners-up progressed to the playoffs. The five winners will punch their tickets to the finals in Qatar.
Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) finalists Senegal and Egypt meet once again in the playoffs with one of them set to miss out on the World Cup finals. Following their triumph at the recent AFCON tournament, Senegal climbed to an all-time high FIFA world ranking of 18th. Ghana take on Nigeria, with a combined seven AFCON titles between the Black Stars and the Super Eagles. DR Congo play Morocco whilst Cameroon battle Algeria, and Mali tackle Tunisia.
South America (CONMEBOL) will have four – potentially rising to five – representatives in Qatar, with three (possibly four) coming from North and Central Americas (CONCACAF). Argentina and Brazil both sealed qualification with five matches to spare. Ecuador need one win from two remaining qualifiers to seal their spot at the finals. Victory for Uruguay over Peru will see La Celeste also on the plane to Qatar.
The fifth-placed nation from South America will meet Australia or the United Arab Emirates in an intercontinental playoff, with the Socceroos already confirmed to end 3rd in their Asia WCQ group. Australia lost to Japan, 0-2, on Thursday which means both Japan and Saudi Arabia are on their way to the World Cup, as are South Korea and Iran.
Canada, USA and Mexico are all in prime position to confirm their places at the tournament. The final slot will be decided via a one-legged playoff between the nation that places 4th in the North/Central America WCQ (Panama or Costa Rica) and the winners of qualifiers in the Oceania region, which in all likelihood will be New Zealand.
The main draw for the 2022 World Cup group stage will be completed on Friday, April 1. The tournament is scheduled to kick off November 21, with the Final at the Lusail Stadium on December 18.