It’s hard to believe, but it has been only two years since France won the World Cup. More importantly, there are less than two years remaining until 32 teams head to Qatar to decide who are the new world champions. Because of coronavirus, these qualifiers will be unlike any others. With all of the qualifying fixtures to be played within two years, it will come down to depth and there will be quite a few surprising teams that qualify.
It is impossible to tell who will be in the World Cup two years from now. Form, stars, and qualifying groups can all change within that time. However, these are my educated guesses as to who could qualify for the next World Cup.
You can find a more extensive review of the Asian World Cup qualifiers here and here.
- Qatar have already automatically qualified for the World Cup as hosts. The defending Asian Cup champions have a good young team and will look to go far in their first ever World Cup. Another team who was never qualified for a World Cup,
- Syria came close to qualifying in 2018. Syria have won all five games in round two of qualifiers and won’t be denied this time.
- Japan are ranked 27th in the world by FIFA and have qualified for every World Cup since 1998. With young talents in Europe like Takefusa Kubo, Hiroki Abe, and Ritsu Doan, Japan should be guaranteed a World Cup spot.
- South Korea are arguably even more successful than Japan, appearing in every World Cup since 1986. In 2002 they even reached the semifinals, finishing fourth. Arguably the team with the most depth in Asia, they also have the best player in Asia: Son Heung-min. And that’s not just a personal opinion. Son won the Asian Footballer of the Year award in 2020. He’s also the five-time Korean player of the year, and the two-time defending Tottenham Spurs player of the year.
- Australia legend Tim Cahill may be gone, but the squad is largely unchanged and the Socceroos are undefeated in qualifiers so far. They should be guaranteed to return.
It’s been a rough start to the qualifying campaign for Iran. Ranked 29th in the world by FIFA, Iran have lost their last two games of round two against Iraq and Bahrain and are currently third in their group. Whilst I don’t think Iran can catch up to first-place Iraq, who are five points ahead of them, but I think they’ll finish second in the group and advance to round three. Iran has great depth as well, but something even better: an out of favor Premier League star. Alireza Jahanbakhsh has played just over 500 minutes for Brighton this season, but has star quality and will be well-rested for qualifiers and will also be playing for a transfer. He’ll be key for Iran, who will make it to the intercontinental playoff.
Side note: Because of tariffs, it is very hard to find new Iranian soccer jerseys. If you are a fan of the Iranian team, I recommend buying a retro jersey on classicfootballshirts.co.uk.
You can find a more extensive review of the African World Cup qualifiers here and here.
- Algeria went undefeated at the 2019 AFCON, and the future looks bright. Algeria have an absolutely star-studded team and will look to bounce back from their failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. However, Algeria aren’t even the highest ranked team in Africa.
- That award goes to Senegal, who lost to Algeria in the AFCON Final. Senegal qualified for the World Cup in 2018 and tied for second in the group with Japan. They were equal on points, goal difference, and head-to-head record but made history in becoming the first team ever to be eliminated from FIFA’s new fair play rule after having two more yellow cards than Japan. Senegal will look to go farther in 2022, but first they need to qualify.
- Morocco were another team that qualified for the 2018 World Cup that failed to make it out of the group stages. However, with emerging talents like Hakim Ziyech, Achiraf Hakimi, and Amine Harit, Morocco should quickly return to the World Cup.
- The final African team that qualified for the World Cup in 2018 that I think will return is Egypt. The Pharaohs will still rely heavily on Liverpool star Mohamed Salah, but they have better depth and a better league than I think most people realize.
- This final pick was a toss-up. I wanted to go with emerging Zambia, who have a brilliant trio of young players at RB Salzburg. However, I think I have to go with Ghana. They underperformed at the 2019 AFCON tournament, but they have a great team and have a great chance to return.
- One of the biggest surprises of the 2018 World Cup was the US Mens’ national team’s failure to qualify. Surely history won’t repeat itself, and USA should qualify comfortably with a young, improved squad.
- Mexico should also qualify comfortably, despite an aging backline. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa will be 37 by the time the 2022 World Cup, but he always shines internationally. Mexico’s strong attack should help them qualify with ease.
- Contrary to Mexico, Jamaica has a young team and with star winger Leon Bailey, Jamaica can qualify for a second-ever World Cup.
Two years ago I called Curacao dark horses to qualify for the World Cup, and I’m not changing my opinion now. Curacao has good young players coming in from the Netherlands and veterans like goalkeeper Eloy Room. Add legendary manager Guus Hiddink, who lead South Korea to a fourth-place finish in the 2002 World Cup. His ties with the Netherlands, having coached the Dutch national team (twice) and PSV Eindhoven (thrice), allow Curacao to get young Dutch players with Caribbean ties. Curacao will advance to the inter-continental playoff, minimum.
- Brazil. The record-winning, five-time world champions have never not qualified for a World Cup, and this won’t change this year. Already at 12 points after winning all four games including a 2-0 victory over Uruguay.
- Only one other team is undefeated in CONMEBOL qualifiers, and that is Argentina. This has been a tough year for Argentina, with legendary attacker Diego Maradona passing away and controversy surrounding Lionel Messi. Add in the fact that the 2022 World Cup will probably be Messi’s last international tournament, and there’s no way that Argentina can’t qualify.
- Uruguay haven’t gotten off to the best start, winning just two of their first four qualifying matches. However, they have a strong squad with great depth and young talents as well as long-time manager Oscar Tabarez. Uruguay can and will recover.
- Colombia have an aging squad, are currently seventh in qualifiers, and have failed to put many new players in the squad, but should have the quality to qualify for the World Cup. The future is worrisome, however.
One team from South America advances to the intercontinental playoff, and I like Venezuela‘s odds. If Josef Martinez returns to national team duty, Venezuela’s strong attack in combination with young goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez will lead Venezuela to the intercontinental playoff.
- By far the biggest surprise of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers was Italy‘s failure to qualify for just the second time ever. However, Italy has replaced the aging stars that failed the team in 2018 with new players and can’t make the same mistake twice.
- Another team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the Netherlands had an old team with Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder in 2014 and the team for qualifiers was roughly the same. However with new stars like Frankie de Jong and Matthijs De Ligt, the Dutch should get past Turkey and Norway.
- However, Turkey have a great chance of getting to the World Cup via the second-placed playoff path. Turkey shouldn’t be considered underdogs having already beat France in Euro 2020 Qualifiers and with talent all around the globe, Turkey should return to the World Cup for just the third time ever.
- Defending champions France have a relatively easy path to Qatar, with just Finland, Ukraine, Bosnia, and Kazakhstan standing in the way. France are ranked second in the world, behind only Belgium.
- Belgium made it to the semifinals in 2018 and could go farther in 2022, as the Belgians are in the middle of a golden age.
- England are also coming off of a semifinal appearance for the first time since 1990. They should be expected to qualify with room to breathe, despite having a tough group with Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra, and San Marino.
- Another UK team I expect to qualify is Wales. Gareth Bale is reemerging, Ryan Giggs is a great coach, and Wales have great players all over Europe.
- Poland had a disappointing 2018 World Cup, finishing with just three points. Still, Poland have a talented core and should be able to win the second-placed playoffs.
- However, no team had a more disappointing 2018 World Cup than Germany. Germany, who had won the World Cup in 2014, lost against South Korea and Mexico and crashed out in the group stages. Coach Joachim Löw has come under fire many times since then, including a record 6-0 loss to Spain. There’s a chance he’ll be fired by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around, and his stubborn refusal to include record-setting Thomas Müller isn’t helping.
- Spain didn’t have a great World Cup in 2018, losing in the round of 16 to hosts Russia. Their form prior to the demolition of Germany had been shaky, with a loss to Ukraine and ties to Netherlands and Switzerland.
- Their Iberian neighbors Portugal have a tough group, facing Serbia, Ireland, Luxembourg, and Azerbaijan. Qatar are also participating in Group A with Portugal in order to gain experience before the World Cup. Despite this tricky group, Portugal have a good team thanks to some of the finest academies in the world in Porto, Benfica, and Sporting Lisbon.
- Qualification for Austria might be tricky, as they are facing Israel, Scotland, and Denmark among others. However, young stars like Yusuf Demir are making headlines and Austria have a great chance to qualify.
- I think the team that qualifies that will struggle the most is Croatia. The 2018 World Cup finalists have an aging squad. By the time of the 2022 World Cup, Luka Modric will be 37, Ivan Perisic will be 33, and Dejan Lovren will be 33. Still, they have enough quality to qualify.
By rule, one team from Oceania has to be in the intercontinental playoff. The past three qualifiers, New Zealand has won the Oceania qualifiers to advance to the intercontinental playoff. This won’t change in 2022.
The qualifying process will be strange, with an unusual, hectic schedule. It’s quite possible that clubs will block players from going on international duty, like Bayern Munich did for French wingback Bouna Sarr. This could benefit big teams with better depth, or it could benefit smaller teams who no longer have to face superstars every week. One thing is for sure: this will be an interesting qualifying process.
Image Courtesy of Franz from Saarbrücken, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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