There may still be just under two years until the first ever World Cup finals in the Middle East kicks off, but the draw for the UEFA qualifying groups – that took place in Zurich, Switzerland at the start of December – has re-ignited interest in the competition. In a ceremony thankfully free of the usual pomp and circumstance, and overseen by former players Daniele De Rossi and Rafael van der Vaart, the qualification paths to Qatar were laid out for all 32 nations.
There was an intense feeling of déjà vu for many countries, as familiar faces were drawn together. Spain and Sweden – and England and Poland – certainly don’t need to do a lot of homework on each other to be prepared for the campaign, but there were some more intriguing match ups scheduled as well.
The qualifiers begin in March 2021 and will run through until the end of the calendar year. Ten group winners will qualify automatically for the finals in Qatar, with the 10 runners-up joining two that perform well in the current Nations League campaign in the playoffs. Those final qualifying ties will be played in March 2022, ahead of the re-scheduled World Cup tournament in November. An added attraction will be Qatar playing in one of the groups, serving as a warm up for the finals. The host nation will also be taking part in the Copa America and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2021.
Although the seeding for the qualification draw ensures that most of the top teams in Europe should make it to the finals in Qatar in 2022, there will be some old rivalries renewed – as well as some very long midweek trips for some of the teams in Kazakhstan’s group in particular.
Portugal, Spain and France should all find their way to the finals without too much trouble – and Italy should also qualify after the humiliation of missing out on the World Cup in Russia in 2018. The Azzurri have greatly improved in the last two years and won every single game of their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. Switzerland should be the sternest test for Roberto Mancini’s side, but it would seem as though Italy will grace the Qatari stadiums in 2022.
Jogi Low looks like he may have been given a reprieve for some truly terrible recent Germany results and now has the chance to build up some much-needed support during what looks like a fairly straightforward qualification campaign. An exciting and youthful Romania might cause a few surprises in the group but Iceland is not the same team is was four years ago and shouldn’t be able to stand in Germany’s way. A dark horse in that group could be North Macedonia, who recently won their playoff to compete at the European Championship in 2021.
England can usually be relied on to swat aside most opponents during qualifying for major tournaments but there have been some less convincing displays recently from Gareth Southgate’s side – as well as some disciplinary problems – and the two games against Poland will be the ones to look out for in Group I. These two nations have played each other in six previous World Cup qualifying groups and also met in the group stage at the 1986 finals in Mexico. England usually gain the upper hand but Robert Lewandowski is scoring an incredible amount of goals for club and country and will be a huge threat to the Three Lions.
Most of the groups have two obvious contenders for the top two spots with a collection of other nations making up the numbers. But there are also some interesting developments in some of the smaller countries across the tournament that could play out over the next two years and throw up a few surprises.
Finland have just qualified for its first ever major international tournament and seem to have a golden generation of players, rather than the one star name the country has had in the past. Being grouped with World Cup holders France decreases their chances of topping the group, but also-improved Ukraine’s participation in Group A ensures that there may be some points spread around between those three.
Other nations previously regarded as minnows, such as Luxembourg, Kosovo and the Faroe Islands will be eagerly looking forward to their games during the upcoming campaign as well. Seen as the whipping boys in the past, these three have all vastly improved since the Nations League provided more competitive games throughout the season and will look forward to testing themselves against Portugal, Spain and Denmark respectively.
There always seems to be some kind of group of death – even with UEFA’s strict seeding system in place – and it looks like being Group G this around. Although Croatia, Slovakia, Russia and Slovenia battling it out for top spot in Group H promises to be fairly intense too.
The Netherlands have just about got back to the top table after sensationally missing out on the 2016 European Championship and the World Cup in Russia two years later. But now new boss Frank De Boer must navigate a group that includes Turkey, Norway, Montenegro, Latvia and Gibraltar. Those last two should be beaten fairly easily, but Montenegro could be a potential banana skin for any of the top teams away from home. But it is the enigmatic Turkey and Norway, led by young superstar Erling Haaland, that could pose some real problems for the Oranje. Haaland should be back from injury in time for the qualifiers kicking off in March and could play a huge part in how Group G pans out.
There are plenty of other match ups scheduled for 2021 that will provoke nostalgic feelings for fans of European football. Wales will enjoy reminding Belgium of the quarterfinal of the European Championship in 2016 – and there will be opportunities for revenge for Israel against Scotland, as well as Sweden against Spain. But one thing that can just about be guaranteed is that the next 12 months of qualifying games – and the drama of the ensuing playoffs – will build us up nicely for what will be a World Cup like no other in Qatar at the end of 2022.
The situation elsewhere…
Outside Europe, qualification for World Cup 2022 is well underway in some parts of the world, and yet to get going in others.
The European nations may have just started sorting out their travel arrangements and updating their frequent flyer accounts, but qualifying campaigns around the world have already begun. Some have been revamped and rescheduled due to the COVID pandemic that has gripped the world in 2020, but there has been some progress.
Possibly the most exciting qualification campaign, South America’s CONMEBOL, is just four games in but Brazil and Argentina already lead the way. There have already been some surprises though, with Ecuador currently sitting third in the 10-nation group.
The coronavirus has severely affected the Asian campaign. But Syria and Australia are both doing very well in their groups, with the improving Uzbekistan topping a group that also includes regional power Saudi Arabia. Qatar has already qualified for the finals as hosts and will be playing friendlies against nations in one of the UEFA groups.
The CONCACAF and Oceania campaigns have yet to get going as yet – and have needed some rescheduling this year. But games are expected to be played at the beginning of 2021.
The CAF began its qualifying way back in 2019 but was forced to put the campaign on hold in 2020. The groups are now all set to begin playing in May of 2021. With only one nation going through from each, there looks to be some very interesting fixtures coming up.
By: Dan Roberts