As another exciting international break draws to a close, next summer’s World Cup in Russia has begun to take shape. Several nations punched their ticket to the holy grail of international football, while others saw their dreams come crashing down by failing to qualify. In total, 23 teams confirmed their places in Russia next summer. Of the 9 remaining spots, 20 teams are vying for qualification – through final group matches (CAF), a final qualifying playoff (EURO), or via an intercontinental playoff (CONCACAF/OFC).
With the final fixtures set for next month, let’s take a look at how the qualification action unfolded – and how some European nations sealed their place at Russia 2018.
In European qualification, nine teams booked their place by topping their groups. Each group features 6 teams, and each nation plays one another both home and away. After 10 matches, the group leader directly qualifies for the World Cup, while the runner-up qualifies for a playoff qualifying round (of the 9 runner-ups, the one with the fewest points does not go to playoff). 13 European nations will be represented in Russia.
Here are the nations who have already qualified:
France – Group A Winner
Following their defeat in the final of the European Championships, and given their history of qualification struggles, the French team was surely feeling the pressure to perform well in this campaign. Les Bleus did not disappoint, winning the group with just one loss, while only conceding 6 goals. With the likes of established superstars in Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, as well as exciting young talent in Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, France has to be one of the favorites next summer.
Portugal – Group B Winner
Reigning European champions, the Portuguese side continued a good run of form by topping their group with 9 wins, scoring 32 goals and conceding only 4. Their only loss came in their first group match against Switzerland, who also enjoyed success in the group. Missing out on winning the group only by goal differential, Switzerland’s 27 points is the most ever from a European group runner-up. If Ronaldo stays healthy and continues to score for fun, Portugal will be a dangerous team to watch.
Germany – Group C Winner
As the holders and current world champions, it only seems fitting that Germany put together what is perhaps the greatest qualifying campaign ever. Taking all 30 points, Germany were utterly dominant across the group, scoring a record 43 goals while allowing only 4. This isn’t the first perfect qualifying campaign (it’s actually Germany’s third), but the attacking firepower and staunch defense really set this one apart. It is hard to see Germany not making a real push to defend their title next year.
Serbia – Group D Winner
After missing out on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Serbia is back amongst the European qualifiers for 2018. Taking their group with 21 points, the lowest of any group winner, Serbia edged out Ireland and Wales, who also had only a single loss in the group. A team full of Premier League talent, the Serbs could easily be a dark horse in Russia.
Poland – Group E Winner
Returning to the tournament for the first time since 2006, Poland enjoyed a successful qualifying campaign, losing just once on their way to 25 points. Led by captain and deadly finisher Robert Lewandowski, Poland notched 28 goals across their 10 matches. Of those goals, Lewandowski netted 16, breaking Ronaldo’s group record on his way to becoming Poland’s all time top scorer. If the proven marksman continues his lethal form, he is sure to give defenses trouble in 2018.
England – Group F Winner
Following their historic exit in the European Championships after a loss to Iceland, the pressure was on for England in qualification. The Three Lions took hold of the group off the bat, and steamed through unbeaten. Defense was key for England’s qualifying bid, allowing just 3 goals to edge out Slovakia, the only runner-up to be eliminated. Next summer presents a big opportunity of redemption for England, who have not been successful at major tournaments for some time.
Spain – Group G Winner
Unsurprisingly, the 2010 champions cruised through their qualification group, winning 9 games and drawing against Italy. With an impressive goal differential of +33, Spain looked incredibly dangerous throughout their campaign. Another team that is chalked full of seasoned players in addition to exciting rising talent, Spain will be a major contender in Russia.
Belgium – Group H Winner
With a stacked roster of top level talent represented across Europe’s major clubs, Belgium is possibly the nation with the most potential for the future. Their stars delivered in qualifying, winning the group unbeaten, while scoring an impressive 43 goals (matching the record set by Germany this year.) In their last game of the group, brothers Eden and Thorgan Hazard shared a special moment as they both found the back of the net. With brotherly chemistry and top starpower, Belgium is a sure contender in Russia, and the team to watch in my opinion.
Iceland – Group I Winner
On the back of their enthralling performance at the EUROs, the Icelandic team was looking to prove that their success was no fluke. Iceland did just that, qualifying for their first ever World Cup in what is one of the feel-good football stories of the year. In what was far from an easy group, Iceland notched important wins against Croatia, Ukraine, and Turkey on their way to 22 points. The whole world will be watching Iceland next Summer, and many, myself included, will be cheering them on.
With the playoff draw coming tomorrow, Tuesday the 17th, the landscape of next summer’s tournament in Russia will begin to take shape even more.