In the United States, qualifying for the World Cup isn’t supposed to be hard. Not only is the United States men’s soccer team no worse than the third-most talented team in its confederation alongside Mexico and Costa Rica, but CONCACAF offers perhaps the most forgiving format in the world.
All the United States has to do is finish in the top three of its final six-team group and it’s guaranteed a spot in Russia. The fact that the Americans could miss the World Cup for the first time in 32 years is a sign that it’s been a truly wretched campaign for them.
But elsewhere in the world, several good teams find themselves in a tight spot heading into the October match window. Good teams from Europe, South America and Africa miss out on the World Cup fairly regularly, and for these five contenders, the concern is very real.
A World Cup without Argentina seems unthinkable. The last time the Albiceleste failed to qualify for soccer’s greatest tournament was in 1970, and back then, only 16 teams qualified for the tournament. Plus, Argentina was the runner-up at the World Cup in 2014 and still boasts Lionel Messi, considered by some to be the greatest player in the world. Could this really go wrong for Argentina?
In a word, yes. In past cycles, a home matchup with Peru would have been the closest thing to a bye that CONMEBOL offers, but Peru boasts its strongest side in years and could secure its first trip to the World Cup since 1982 if it wins and gets other results to go its way. Should Argentina fail to get at least a draw, its final fixture is not encouraging: a visit to Ecuador. The Quito fortress hasn’t been as impenetrable as in recent years, but the prospect of having to win a match at 9,350 feet of altitude is always a daunting one.
Realistically, in order to qualify, Argentina just has to finish fifth and ensure that it faces no worse than an easy playoff with New Zealand. But to do that, they’ll need to win at least one of their final two South American matches. If they fail, Messi’s World Cup career might be over without him ever kicking a ball in Russia.
If one of the four semifinalists from the previous World Cup failing to qualify seems impossible, how about two of them? The Dutch have been a mess ever since Louis van Gaal’s exit following the 2014 World Cup, and a failure to come even close to qualifying for Euro 2016 was supposed to have been the low point for the Oranje.
Guess again. The Netherlands had a tough assignment in landing in a group with France and Sweden, but they were at least supposed to reach the UEFA playoffs and fight for a berth in November. Instead, they’ve proven unable to replace stars such as Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Mark van Bommel as they’ve aged out of contributing. Arjen Robben is the only main link to the squad that finished second in the world in 2010, and he’s struggled to get the job done with a new generation that hasn’t proven it can handle the responsibility. As a result, the Oranje will be hard-pressed to even qualify for a second chance.
The good news for the Dutch is that they face a winnable fixture with Belarus first and then host Sweden in their final qualification match. They trail the Swedes for second place by three points, so two wins would ensure no worse than a tie for second. The bad news is that Sweden also faces a minnow on Saturday when it meets Luxembourg, and the Swedes are already six goals up on goal difference. If Sweden puts up a big number on Saturday, the Dutch could be faced with a nearly-impossible task of having to beat the Swedes by five goals or more to win the tiebreaker and keep hope alive.
Chile isn’t the first team that comes to mind when people think of soccer powerhouses, but La Roja have won the past two Copa America crowns and qualified for the Round of 16 in each of the past two World Cups. However, 2018 might be a tournament too far for this aging squad. With star Alexis Sanchez suspended for Thursday’s match with Ecuador, Chile will have to find help from somewhere else to get the three points they desperately need to stay in the mix for qualification.
Even if the Chileans do survive their first test, they face a daunting trip to first-place Brazil on the final day of qualification. Their best hope might be if the Brazilians, who have already qualified and secured a seed, opt to field a lesser squad rather than risk injury in a match that means nothing to them. If that doesn’t occur, Chile’s chances look bleak.
The Azzurri are in much better shape than the three nations above them, as they sit in a comfortable second place in their qualification group, which would give them a spot in the UEFA playoffs. All they need to secure a playoff spot is a win or tie at home to Macedonia on Friday, an Albania loss or tie against Spain on Friday, or a win or tie against Albania on Monday and they’ll reach the playoffs. Realistically, Italy have nothing to worry about this weekend.
The problem is that Italy’s World Cup passage is far from safe. The Italians couldn’t get the job done against Spain over the course of 10 games, so now they’ll have to beat a fellow runner-up in a two-match playoff in November, something they haven’t had to do in 20 years. Depending on the seeds, they could face potential land mines in Wales, Sweden, Croatia or Slovakia. Italy will be favored in each situation, but in a two-match playoff, anything can happen. After falling at the group stage of the past two World Cups, the Italians can’t afford to miss out entirely this time.
Of all the teams on this list, Ghana is in the most trouble by far. It faces a must-win match against Uganda on Saturday, and even if Ghana gets the win it needs, it might not be enough. Africa’s notoriously unforgiving qualification format allows only one team per group to qualify this time around, and with Ghana four points behind Egypt with two matches to go, its hopes could be extinguished before the weekend is over. If Ghana wins on Saturday, all Egypt has to do is win at home against last-place Republic of Congo on Sunday and it qualifies for the World Cup at Ghana’s expense.
The one hope for Ghana is that if Egypt does stumble, the final qualification match sees the Pharaohs travel to Ghana in a winner-take-all showdown. But the chances of that occurring are slim at best. Regardless of what Egypt does, Ghana has to first find a way past Uganda without star players Asamoah Gyan, Jordan Ayew and Andre Ayew, an unlikely prospect.
Given that they’ve had to survive Africa’s format and travel, the fact that Ghana has qualified for the past three World Cups— and run into the United States in each tournament — is nothing short of remarkable. But chances are that this time, the U.S. won’t have to worry about facing Ghana in the World Cup — assuming they themselves don’t also fall short.