World Cup qualification resumes on Friday in Europe and the Americas, continuing through the weekend with Africa’s third and final round. While a few teams have already booked their spots in World Cup 2014, there are still quite a few battles to be fought, with UEFA, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL all playing out their penultimate rounds.
More in-depth previews of each confederation will follow, but for now, a rundown of what’s at stake, and a recommendation of one match to watch on each continent:
When compared with qualifying systems in other large confederations, such as CONCACAF and CAF, the route Europe forces its teams to take to get to the World Cup is rather ridiculous. Rather than split qualification into stages, putting the lowest ranked countries into earlier rounds, UEFA places all 53 countries into one big qualification pool, dividing them into 9 groups of five or six. The first placed groups qualify directly for Brazil, while the second-placed teams enter a playoff round for the last three UEFA spots. Except, of course, for the second-placed team with the least amount of points — that team loses all chance of the World Cup.
Surprisingly, just two countries have qualified thus far: Italy and the Netherlands. Belgium and Germany are assured of a playoff spot at the very least, while Croatia, Bosnia, Greece, Spain and France will finish at least second in their group (although through some quirky twist of fate could still end up last of the second-placed finishers).
One game to watch
Croatia vs. Belgium
With so many spots still up for grabs in Europe, it’s tough to pick just one match. But this one has a lot riding on it. The visitors need just a point to book their ticket to Brazil, but after missing out on South Africa, Croatia are determined to get to this World Cup the easy way. They managed a draw with Belgium in the reverse fixture last September, but the Croats have slipped up recently, first losing to Scotland before allowing Serbia to come back into the game and get a draw. Belgium, on the other hand, have only dropped points in the draw to Croatia, and have won their last six straight.
From North and Central America, the top three teams at the end of the Hex get bragging rights and a trip to Brazil, while team number four is forced to play the winner of Oceania. With just two games left to go, there’s a mad scramble on to avoid that trip to New Zealand. The United States and Costa Rica have already qualified, while Honduras sits third, three points above both Panama and Mexico. If the ticos decide they still care and beat Honduras, and if one of Mexico or Panama take all three points, the final round could be very interesting indeed.
One game to watch
Mexico vs. Panama (Friday, October 11 at 9:30 p.m. ET)
I know, I know, you want to watch the USMNT crush Jamaica. But when you’re done cheering on the USA, tune in to watch Mexico and Panama, both with eight points, trying desperately to fight their way into third place. By the time this match kicks off, the result of Honduras – Costa Rica will already be in, so the sides will know if they’ve still got a chance at direct qualification, or if they’ll be battling to see who plays against New Zealand. Either way, we likely won’t see much cautious football.
In South America, the top four teams qualify directly for Brazil, while the fifth-placed side faces Jordan, who placed fifth in AFC qualifying.
Argentina have already qualified, while Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay are eliminated. Colombia, sitting second, host Chile, sitting third, on Friday night, with both teams almost certain to make it to the World Cup. That match might not provide a lot of tension or suspense, but if you’re a fan of free flowing, attacking football, tune in to see some of the best on the international stage.
One game to watch
Ecuador vs. Uruguay (Friday, October 11 at 5 p.m. ET)
Uruguay, South Africa’s third-placed team and current Copa América champions, are struggling this time around. They’re even on points with Ecuador, but currently sit in fifth thanks to Ecuador’s better goal difference. The good news for Uruguay fans is that the team seem to have turned things around, having won their last three qualifiers, against Venezuela, Peru and, perhaps most impressively, Colombia. Ecuador, on the other hand, haven’t won since they beat Paraguay 4-1 back in March, and could only manage a 1-1 draw with Bolivia last time out.
In Africa, qualification starts off with the 24 lowest ranked countries meeting in two-legged ties, with the winners moving on to the second round. That round, which finished in September, splits forty countries into ten groups, with the winner of each group moving to the third round. That’s where we are now: Five matches, home and away ties, with the winners of each getting to buy their tickets to Brazil.
One game to watch
Ethiopia vs. Nigeria (Saturday, October 12 at 9 a.m. ET)
Ethiopia are kind of the Cinderella story of this year’s CAF qualifiying. They started off with a 0-0 draw against Somalia, then came back and won the second leg 5-0. They then finished top of Group A, despite having a 2-1 win over Botswana nullified after Ethiopia were found to have fielded an ineligible player. Now it’s time to face Nigeria, who Ethiopia last met in January during the Africa Cup of Nations. Ethiopia held them off until the final ten minutes, when Victor Moses scored a brace. The Super Eagles went on to lift the 2013 Cup. With their unbeaten record in the second round, it’s Nigeria that are the heavy favorites.