FIFA World Cup Qualifiers for Dummies Update – mid-June 2013

With four days remaining before the World Cup qualifying teams retreat until September (with one exception for a single game scheduled for August), you might be wondering, “What does this weekend even matter? The World Cup is still 363 days away!” First of all, props to you for the countdown. Well spotted. Second, what do you mean, what does it matter? Teams are dropping like flies, other teams are nearing the chance to book their trip to Brazil and it’s still awesome international soccer (or football, whatever).

That said, if you’re just going to soak up the FIFA Confederations Cup for the next 16 days or so “because it matters NOW,” here’s the quick rundown of why you’re wrong what you’re missing:

AFC (4.5 spots)

Japan has booked its trip to Brazil, and that’s kind of a big deal, but that still leaves two and a half spots for contention. Right now, of the 10 teams still playing, Lebanon, Qatar and Iraq are non-issues – they’re just minor speed bumps for the teams that still have a chance. Iraq will likely roll over for Australia, allowing the Aussies to seal in 2nd place in their group.

In the other half of the qualifiers, Iran and Korea Republic (South Korea to us Americans) are going to have a serious battle for top of group. Winner goes to Brazil; loser might get eliminated entirely. The other determining factor will be whether Uzbekistan can knock out Qatar (see: Minor Speed Bumps). If the Uzbeks (that’s not really a thing) can get three points, then the ramifications of that match could have a huge impact on what happens to the loser of South Korea-Iran. In short, these two matches will be CRITICAL in determining representatives for 2014.

Here’s how this works:
Uzbekistan loses or ties: South Korea and Iran are both through
Uzbekistan wins, South Korea/Iran tie: South Korea is through; Iran and Uzbekistan go to tie breakers by goal differential. Iran presently has a goal difference of +5; Uzbekistan has a goal difference of +1.
Uzbekistan wins and South Korea wins: Iran is eliminated
Uzbekistan wins and Iran wins: Iran goes through alongside whichever team has the best goal difference. At present, South Korea’s goal difference is +7, while Uzbekistan’s goal difference is +1.

In short, there’s plenty of math to keep you entertained, but Iran is fighting for its life while the Uzbeks would have to have a huge goal difference swing in their favor to knock out South Korea.

MATCH(ES) TO WATCH: Iran-Korea Republic/Uzbekistan-Qatar
FAVORITES: Japan (obvi), Australia, Korea Republic, Iran

CAF (5 spots)

The African Confederation has a longer road ahead of it than its Asian counterparts, but it has definitely eliminated a number of teams from its ranks already. For whatever reason, the CAF likes to put everyone in 10 groups of 4 and then take the winners of each of those groups and pit them against each other. Each group member plays six matches, and most of those teams will be playing their fifth of six matches this weekend (if they haven’t already). Here’s a quick rundown of who we could see secure a spot in the next round of qualifying elimination:
Group A – HUGE match Sunday as top contenders South Africa and Ethiopia face off. Central African Republic and Botswana are completely eliminated, so this match could lock it in for Ethiopia or give South Africa a little room to breathe going into September’s sixth match. In their previous face-off, play resulted in a draw, so this game should be one worth watching!
Group B – Tunisia is playing Equatorial Guinea, which it dominated last time 3-1. A win for Tunisia puts them through to the next round of qualifying. It seems safe to say we’ll see them go through, particularly given that their next opponent is last-placed Cape Verde Islands.
Group C – With two matches to play, Ivory Coast hasn’t officially sealed the deal, but a second win over Tanzania will save their spot in the next round of CAF qualifiers.
Group D – Zambia and Ghana are neck and neck in Group D, and they each have relatively tame opponents this time around. This group won’t be decided until September 6, when these two are forced to go head-to-head, but I’d give the edge to Ghana.
Group E – The Congo needs a quick win – or even a tie – to lock this group out of reach of Burkina Faso. Their last head-to-head resulted in a 3-0 win in favor of Congo, so I wouldn’t hold out much hope for Burkina Faso on Saturday.
Group F – This group has already played its fifth matches. Nigeria and Malawi will face off September 6 to see who advances. Their last head-to-head ended in a 1-1 draw. I think Nigeria will be able to hold Malawi off long enough to make it to the next round of qualifiers, but it could be anyone’s game.
Group G – Egypt. Just Egypt. The only reason they’re not officially through is because they’re ONLY five points ahead of Guinea, but they’ll get their points from Mozambique this weekend to lock that in.
Group H – Algeria has a clear edge over Mali going into this weekend’s matches, but the teams will each be playing the lower-scoring teams in the group. Algeria may be able to advance their standing in the group, but it’s really up to Benin to hand them the honor of Top of Group by knocking Mali out of the running.
Group I – This entire group is in a dead heat. Almost regardless of who wins this weekend, there will still be contention for top spot going into September. This group is something of a crap shoot at this point, but the numbers point toward Libya edging out Cameroon in September.
Group J – Much like Group I, this group has a very small gap between top of group and bottom of group at this point. Senegal is technically top of group, but only because they managed to hold onto a tie rather than an outright loss like Uganda. Angola can’t seem to do anything BUT play to a draw. If Angola holds Uganda to a draw, Senegal may have a chance to increase its lead with a win over Liberia (the only team in the group with 2 losses), but it will still be a very, very tight race going into September.

MATCH(ES) TO WATCH: Ethiopia-South Africa, Ivory Coast-Tanzania, Congo-Burkina Faso, Mali-Benin
FAVORITES: Ethiopia, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Senegal

CONCACAF (3.5 spots)

In the Round of Six, your odds of actually being eliminated are less than your odds of going through, so you really have to botch the job not to be considered in the running at this point  *cough* Jamaica.  With so many matches left to play (4 for Mexico and Jamaica, 5 for everyone else), it’s hard to feel as though this weekend’s matches will have much of an impact with the exception of giving the US team a chance to increase its lead over Mexico to 5 points, but Costa Rica will have a chance to increase its totals as well. While the AFC and CAF games are knocking teams clean out of competition, the CONCACAF matches this weekend are mostly going to be continuing to jockey for position.

MATCHES TO WATCH: USA-Honduras, just because
FAVORITES: The usual suspects USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras

CONMEBOL (5.5 spots)

When you have 10 teams to start and one of them qualifies as the host nation, the remaining nine teams have a better chance of qualifying than of being eliminated. While CONCACAF had to go through three rounds of qualifiers to reduce its company to the final step before international play-offs, CONMEBOL can’t even be bothered to split anyone into groups, and now they’re not even playing again until September. This is nothing new for them, though. *insert resentment*

With 9 teams playing home and away series, that’s 16 games per team (down from the usual 18 – they can thank Brazil for their two extra rest days). Of those 16 games per team, about 3/4 of them have been played now. With 4 match days remaining, that’s a 9-12 point swing in the tank to mix things up.

All that being said, I think it’s safe to say Paraguay and Bolivia have been downgraded to “speed bump” status. As for the rest, call me when they get a better qualifying format. This one takes FOREVER. Seriously, though, Argentina and Chile will go through easily followed by three teams that are going to lose to Argentina an as-yet-undecided remainder of the pack.

MATCHES TO WATCH: (None remaining in June)
FAVORITES: Argentina, Chile

OCEANIA (.5 spot)

You’re kidding, right? New Zealand can’t do much of anything until CONCACAF sorts things out, so they’re just enjoying their summer, which is really a winter. Also, the water swirls the wrong way. Eventually, they’ll probably play Iran, Uzbekistan or Australia. I’d love to see Australia-New Zealand, personally.

MATCHES TO WATCH: Peter Jackson vs JRR Tolkien
FAVORITE: New Zealand (I don’t know why I even bother)

UEFA (392 13 spots)

And of course, last but certainly not least (at least according to them), UEFA. With 13 spots up for grabs, you’d think this would be like the CONMEBOL situation all over again, but UEFA gets organized about this lot and actually gives us a chance to figure out who has a shot and who doesn’t sometime before, I don’t know, October? While I’m still not a fan of the quick way they execute eliminate half their second-place teams, I suppose at least they know it may be coming early on. That said, they only have one match between now and the big September 6 date (lots of qualifiers kicking back off that day), so here’s where we stand at (roughly) the end of summer qualifying dates:

Group A: Belgium and Croatia are set to fight it out at the top – the other four are nearly mathematically eliminated.
Group B: If you expect a team other than Italy to go top of group, raise your hand. No one? Okay. Then for second place, we’ve got a tight race between Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, but I wouldn’t count Denmark out entirely just yet. There are still several games to go. (Malta, on the other hand … )
Group C: I’d love to see Germany and Ireland come out of this group, but it could just as easily be Germany and Sweden or, I begrudgingly admit, Germany and Austria. In short, Germany and _________. September should help split a few hairs on that race, but it’ll be close right up to the end.
Group D: While not mathematically official without at least one more win (or three ties), Netherlands is going top of group. Between Hungary and Romania, I’d put my forints on Hungary.
Group E: I’m getting tired of writing, so I’ll just say I’m thinking Switzerland and Norway. More to follow after September’s games.
Group F: Three of the six teams are essentially eliminated, and it’s unlikely Portugal won’t finish top of group. Russia and Israel will fight it out for second place, but I think Russia will probably come out on top in the end.
Group G: Bosnia and Greece are off to solid starts in this group, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them maintain that to finish in first and second respectively.
Group H: Montenegro leads the group only because they’ve played one additional game. My (metaphorical) money is still on England with Ukraine or Poland locking up second.
Group I: Spain over France for 1 and 2. ’nuff said.

FAVORITES: For top of group, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England and Spain; advancing to the head-to-head, I’ve got Croatia, Czech Republic, Ireland, Hungary, Norway, Russia, Greece, Ukraine, France

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