The various continental qualifying campaigns for the 2022 World Cup are reaching the final stages and will be wrapped up in the coming months ahead of the tournament next winter.
The majority of FIFA’s confederations use some form of play-off format to determine a portion, or sometimes even all, of their respective qualifiers, while the notorious inter-confederation play-offs will also provide a last chance saloon for handful of countries to make it to Qatar.
This is everything you need to know about the qualifying formats and play-offs, continent by continent, including key dates and those involved…
The majority of Europe’s 13 qualifiers are decided by the initial group stage, with the top team from each of the 10 qualifying groups securing an automatic place in Qatar next winter.
The countries that finished second, in addition to the two best 2020/21 UEFA Nations League group winners that failed to finish in the top two of their World Cup qualifying group, have now progressed to the second round play-off competition.
Those 12 remaining countries will be split into three separate ‘paths’ – A, B, C – each of which is a four-team mini tournament with one-legged semi-finals and a final. The three winners will join the 10 other European nations at the 2022 World Cup.
These European play-offs will take place in the next international break, with semi-final matches on 24/25 March 2022 and the three finals on 28/29 March 2022.
Path A: Wales vs Austria; Scotland vs Ukraine
Path B: Russia vs Poland; Sweden vs Czech Republic
Path C: Portugal vs Turkey; Italy vs Macedonia
There are no World Cup play-offs solely within the South American confederation.
The top four countries at the end of the marathon round-robin qualifying competition automatically qualify for the World Cup. But the team in fifth will still have another chance to progress via the the inter-confederation play-offs.
The round-robin will finish with Matchday 18 on 29 March 2022. Brazil have already secured one of the automatic qualifying places, with Argentina on the cusp of taking another. That leaves only two more automatic places for Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Peru to fight over.
Just two of them are guaranteed a place at the World Cup, one more will have a second chance in the inter-confederation play-offs, and two will miss out altogether, alongside Paraguay, Bolivia and Venezuela, who are probably too far back to get into the mix.
Africa’s third round of World Cup qualifying, scheduled for March 2022, is effectively play-offs.
The first round of CAF qualifying pitted the 28 lowest-ranked African teams against a single opponent over two legs. That produced 14 winners, who progressed to the second round group stage alongside 26 others, split into 10 groups of four.
The 10 group winners from the second round now progress to the third round, with no second chances for any runners-up. Each is drawn against another nation for a two-legged tie, with the five winners of these final play-offs securing a place at the World Cup.
Algeria, Cameroon, DR Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia are the 10 countries who will be fighting it out for those five places.
There are effectively four rounds of World Cup qualifying in Asia, which started with a preliminary round for the 12 lowest ranked teams. A second round featuring eight groups of five followed, including World Cup hosts Qatar as it also forms the qualifying for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
As Qatar won their group but don’t need to qualify for the World Cup, the seven other group winners and the five best runners-up advanced to the third round. At that stage, they were spit into two groups of six for the third round, which continues until March 2022.
The top two finishers in each group will take four automatic places at the World Cup finals. The two third-place countries will then face each other in a fourth round Asian play-off, giving the winner the right to progress into the inter-confederation play-offs for a last chance to make it to Qatar.
The fourth-round play-off will be a single match played in May or June 2022.
The CONCACAF region gets three automatic places at the 2022 World Cup and one place in the inter-confederation play-offs, determined by the third round qualifying round-robin.
All but the top five ranked countries started in the first round, with 30 nations drawn into six groups of five. The group winners progressed to round two, which was a two-legged play-off against a single other opponent for the right to join the five highest-ranked CONCACAF teams, all of whom got a bye to the final stage, in the third round of qualifying.
Each plays the other seven countries home and away over 14 matchdays, which will end in March 2022. At that stage, the top three automatically qualify for the World Cup and the team in fourth enters the inter-confederation play-offs.
The top four look set to be the United States, Mexico, Canada and Panama, who have opened up a lead on the rest. But exactly who finishes in the top three and who has to settle for an additional play-off route will not be known for a while yet.
Oceania has never been granted a guaranteed place at the World Cup, with whoever wins the regional qualifying section having to still go through extra stages. Historically, Oceania was paired with Asia, while more recently that has meant going into the inter-confederation play-off.
This time is no different, although the Oceania qualifying section has been beset by uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Plans kept getting delayed and revised and as of September 2021, the OFC said it could no longer arrange a qualifying competition within Oceania.
The hope is that OFC qualifying could be held in Qatar in March 2022 instead.
Whoever wins the OFC section, whatever the format may eventually be, will enter the inter-confederation play-offs for a chance to get to the World Cup. New Zealand have come out on top in every OFC qualifying campaign since Australia joined the AFC in 2005.
The inter-confederation play-offs are the notorious final chance to qualify for the World Cup.
By the time these play-offs begin in June 2022, 29 qualified teams from across five FIFA confederations will have already been decided, as well as hosts Qatar.
That leaves two final places up for grabs via the inter-confederation route.
Competing for them will be Asia’s fourth round play-off winner, the fourth-ranked team from the final round of North America’s qualifying campaign, the fifth-place team from South America and the qualifying winners from Oceania. The identities of these sides won’t be known until March 2022, later still for Asia.
The process is a simple one. The four teams are split into two ties, made up of home and away legs, with the winner of each securing a place for themselves at the 2022 World Cup.