The road to the World Cup finals

With football frenzy in full flow thanks to the FIFA World Cup 2018, Indians are, as usual, sadly forced to pick a #MeriDoosriCountry for the tournament. Every 4 years when the World Cup comes to town, the question that every Indian asks is when, or if, India will play in the World Cup?

The easiest way to play the World Cup is to host it. The host of the World Cup gets to play in the tournament by default. No qualification is required! And that is exactly how India managed to play in the 2017 Under 17 FIFA World Cup. But hosting the World Cup is another ball game altogether and it might take some time before we get that opportunity.

So the next option is playing the qualification rounds. To get an idea of how tough this is, let's look at the qualification process.

By the way, India has qualified for the World Cup finals only once. This was in 1950 when Philippines, Indonesia and Burma all withdrew, leaving India to qualify by default. However, AIFF decided against going to the World Cup, citing travel costs, lack of practice time, team selection issues and valuing the Olympics over the FIFA World Cup. So till date, India has never played in the World Cup.

The Structure

 FIFA (which stands for "Fédération Internationale de Football Association", which in turn is French for "International Federation of Association Football") is the governing body of all the member associations. Each country has its own football association, and each country's football association is part of a continental confederation. There is a total of 211 countries who are governed by FIFA.

As of date, there are 6 confederations as follows, with India being part of the Asian Football Confederation.

1) Asian Football Confederation  (AFC)
2) Confederation of African Football (CAF)
3) Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF)
4) Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL)
5) Oceania Football Confederation (OFC)
6) Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)
Note : Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol  is Portugese for South American Football Confederation.

The Selection Process

A total of 32 teams play in the World Cup. This number would be going up to 48 by the 2026 World Cup.  However, for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, there would be only 32 teams.

For the 2018 World Cup that is underway, all 210 countries had applied for the qualification process. (Russia qualified on account of being the host) To ensure a fair distribution across continents, FIFA has decided on an approach to divide the available 32 slots across the confederations. This is as follows.

As you can see, the European Federation gets the maximum number of slots and that is because of the better quality of national teams they have there. The rest get around 5 slots each.

The additional 0.5 indicates a slot which will be awarded to the inter-confederation play-off winners.
AFC, OFC, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF have an extra half slot.

So the  4th place country in CONCACAF plays the 5th placed country in AFC to decide who will be the last team to qualify from these confederations.
For the 2018 World Cup, Honduras from CONCACAF and Australia from AFC played in the inter-confederation playoff, with Australia winning the ticket to the final.

Similarly, the 5th placed country in CONMEBOL plays the topper from OFC in the inter-confederation playoffs.
For the 2018 World Cup, Peru from CONMEBOL and New Zealand form OFC played each other, with Peru winning and moving to the finals.

AFC's Qualifying Journey

If we talk about the Asian teams, we have a pretty long and arduous route to the finals. Let's have a look at what the Asian countries would need to do to make it to the 2018 World Cup.

As seen in the table above, there were a total of 46 countries from the Asian continent that were vying for a total of 5 slots to the finals. All the Asian teams are sorted by their FIFA rank as of January 2015, and go through four qualifying rounds to make it to the finals.

To understand how the ranking system works, go read this post.
LINK : The numbers behind the rank - The Indian Football Team

       NOTE : The numbers in the brackets indicate the overall rank.

First Round
In the first round,  the bottom 12 teams would be drawn against a team each and play a home and away match each. The 6 winners would proceed to the second round

Second Round
The top 34 teams got direct entry to the second round of the qualifications. The 6 winners from the first round takes the number of teams competing in the second round  to 40.

These 40 teams would then be divided into 8 groups with 5 teams each and play home-and-away round robin matches. The 8 toppers (1 each from each of the 8 groups) and the 4 best runners-up would make up the 12 teams that proceed to the third round.

Third Round
In the third round, the 12 teams would be divided into 2 groups with 6 teams each. After a round-robin set of matches, the top 2 teams from each group make up the 4 teams that get to play in the World Cup.

Fourth Round
The 2 third placed teams in each group move to the fourth round. They play each other and the winner gets to play the inter-confederation playoff. The winner of the inter-confederation play-off makes up the 5th team that goes to the World Cup.

India's Qualifying Journey for the 2018 FIFA World Cup

So how did India fare in the qualification rounds for the currently on-going World Cup?

The First Round

In the first round, India was drawn up against Nepal. India managed to beat Nepal 2-0 at home and drew the away game 0-0 to move into the second round. Both goals came off the boot of Sunil Chettri.

The Second Round

In the second round, India was drawn into Group D along with Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Guam.
Out of the 8 games India played, we were able to win only 1 match and lost all the others.
India placed last in the group with 3 points and with that our World Cup dreams for 2018 came to a premature end.

I did happen to go to the home game against Guam in Bengaluru, and as fate would have it, that was the only match we won.

Our chances for 2022 World Cup

As you can see India has as good a chance as any other Asian country, to make it to the finals of the World Cup. Ranking, history and names don't matter much. What matters are those 90 minutes. What we need to do, to go through to the finals, is win a lot of matches. The quality of competition would be high and it is not going to be an easy task, but then it is the World Cup we are talking about.

One great thing is the fact that in 2015 our ranking was 171. This has now gone up to 97 which is a great sign of how things are improving. We can now only hope that this rise in rankings also converts to a better show in the qualification rounds for the next World Cup.

However, one thing is going to change for sure next time. And that is, I will be in stands whenever India plays the qualifying rounds. Hopefully I'll bump into some of you there as well.

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