How Does World Cup Qualifying Work?
The FIFA World Cup is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. The World Cup is a global soccer competition in which countries from all around the world compete, and takes place on a four-year cycle. Only 32 nations participate in this event (although starting in 2026, there will be 48), so qualifying for the World Cup is not always easy. Below, the World Cup qualifying process is discussed in detail. For simplicity, only the final qualifying round is discussed in each region, as some regions have multiple rounds.
The country hosting the tournament is the first team to qualify for every World Cup. No matter if they are the #1 ranked team in the world or one of the worst, the host nation will always get to participate and play the first match. This has been the case with every World Cup since 1938.
For example, Qatar hosted the most recent 2022 World Cup, so they automatically qualified for the event. After the host nation, each region of the world has a different qualifying process, and the different regions get a different number of qualifiers depending on the skill level of their teams. Each region is discussed below.
The CONCACAF region stands for the Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football. As the name suggests, CONCACAF encompasses North America, Central America, and countries in the Caribbean.
As for the final round of World Cup qualifying, eight teams make it to that stage of qualifying out of the 35 members. These eight teams play each other twice in a Round-Robin type format, meaning everyone plays everyone both home and away.
After these 14 matches are played, the three teams with the most points (three points for a win, one for a tie) qualify for the World Cup. The team that finishes in fourth place qualifies for a one-match Intercontinental Playoff with the winner of the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) group. The winner of that playoff match then qualifies for the World Cup.
The next region to be discussed is UEFA, which stands for Union of European Football Associations. In Europe, all 55 teams participate in a final round of qualifying. The 55 teams are divided into 10 groups, and similar to the eight-team CONCACAF group, the 10 groups play a round-robin style format, and the team with the most points in each group automatically advances to the World Cup.
From there, 12 additional teams advance to three separate playoffs to determine the final three sports. These 12 teams are the 10 that finished second in their respective groups, along with the two highest-ranked group winners from the previous year’s UEFA Nations League who were not among the top two teams in their groups. These 12 teams are then randomly drawn into three groups of four, and each group plays out a single-elimination four-team tournament. The winner of each mini-tournament then advances to the World Cup.
The South American FIFA region is called CONMEBOL, which is short for Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (“South American Football Confederation” in English). In this part of the world, there are only ten teams, so all ten compete in a round-robin tournament each qualifying cycle. After every team plays each other home and away, the top four teams qualify for the World Cup. The fifth-place team advances to an Intercontinental Playoff with a team from the AFC, or Asian Football Confederation. The winner of that match then advances to the World Cup. The specifics of that Asian playoff will be discussed later in the AFC section.
The Confederation of African Football, or CAF for short, controls the World Cup qualifying for Africa. Of the 54 African nations in CAF, 40 advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying. These forty teams are then drawn into ten groups of four and play a six-match round-robin schedule amongst themselves in each group.
The 10 teams that finish with the most points in each group advance to a two-match aggregate playoff against another group winner, meaning there are five African playoffs in total. The matchups are determined by a random draw, and the winner of each playoff is determined by an aggregate score between the two matches. Thus, the five top teams advance to the World Cup from the CAF.
The AFC is the Asian Football Confederation. In Asia, there are 12 teams that advance to the final round of World Cup Qualifying, and they are randomly drawn into two groups of six. From there, each group of six plays a Round-Robin style tournament.
At the end of the 10 matches, the two teams with the most points in each group qualify for the World Cup, making four in total. The third-place finishers in each group then play each other, and the winner advances to the aforementioned Intercontinental Playoff with the fifth-place team from CONMEBOL. That Intercontinental Playoff then determines a World Cup spot.
The final region is the OFC, or Oceania Football Confederation. This is the only group that is currently not guaranteed a team in each World Cup. In this group, eight teams participate in the final round of qualifying. They are split into two groups of four, and after a Round-Robin style tournament in each group, the two group winners and two group runners-up advance to a four-team tournament to determine the OFC winner.
In the semifinals, the winner of group A plays the runner-up from group B and vice versa. The two winners then play in the final, and the winner of that match advances to the Intercontinental Playoff against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF. Thus, the OFC may or may not get a team to the World Cup every four years.