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World Cup Bubble Watch: Egypt qualifies, Ghana eliminated, Argentina in trouble

Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, teammates and fans celebrate World Cup qualification. (Reuters)

Making the World Cup is not a right; it is a privilege. Invitations to the biggest single-sport tournament on the globe are not given; they are earned. And the 2018 qualifying cycle is proving just that.

While Iceland is one victory over lowly Kosovo away from becoming the smallest nation to ever reach a World Cup, the likes of Italy and Portugal are far from assured of a place in Russia. Argentina, Chile, and Colombia are in real trouble. And Holland … well, Holland is done. Eliminated, barring a miracle. Watching from home next summer.

Meanwhile, Egypt qualified for its first World Cup since 1990 and kicked off an all-night party in Cairo.

But other African powers have been less fortunate. Ghana is out, and the Ivory Coast faces a must-win in its final match.

[VIEWER’S GUIDE: The most important October qualifiers, and how to watch them]

A whirlwind four days have whittled the World Cup field down to 51 nations. (Six were eliminated Sunday.) Of the 51, 15 have qualified, while 36 are battling for 17 available spots.

By our estimation, three of those 36 are near certainties. Four others are extreme long shots. That leaves us with 31 countries scrapping for the final 14 spots at the World Cup next summer. Here’s the breakdown:

Already qualified (15): Russia (host), Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Germany, England, Spain, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Poland, Egypt
Making travel reservations (3): France, Uruguay, United States
Feeling optimistic (7): Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, Iceland, Serbia, Tunisia, Senegal
On the bubble (13): Sweden, Northern Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Greece, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Australia
Fretting (9): Ukraine, Slovakia, Croatia, Ireland, Panama, Honduras, South Africa, Syria, New Zealand
Dreams fading (2): Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Still alive, but only technically (2): Netherlands, Cape Verde Islands

And here’s a more detailed look at where all 36 stand as of Saturday night:


World Cup berths: 13 (plus host)
Structure: Nine groups of six. Each group winner qualifies directly. Eight best runners-up go into playoffs for final four spots.
Status: Nine or 10 of 10 group games have been played. Matchday 10 Sunday through Tuesday. Playoffs in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Russia (host), Belgium, England, Germany, Spain, Poland

Before we delve into the bubble scenarios, an important – and complex – note: As mentioned above, only eight of the nine second-place teams go to the playoffs. The worst of the nine, when results against last-place teams are removed from the equation, is eliminated. After Scotland’s draw in Slovenia and Slovakia’s win over Malta on Sunday, that worst runner-up could come from Group D, F or I.

The various scenarios are reflected in our categorizations of teams, and are referenced in the blurbs below. But if you’re specifically interested in this niche of the World Cup bubble, ESPN’s Dale Johnson has a nice breakdown of the situation here.

Making travel reservations (1)

France — Blaise Matuidi scored two minutes in, and France held on for a 1-0 victory in Bulgaria that kept it atop Group A. A home win over Belarus on Tuesday will send it to Russia.

Feeling optimistic (5)

Switzerland and Portugal — Andorra held Portugal for an hour, but Cristiano Ronaldo broke the deadlock and set up Tuesday’s long-awaited clash in Lisbon. If Portugal wins, it goes to the World Cup. If Switzerland wins, or draws, it goes to the World Cup. Runner-up goes to the playoffs. All to play for, as they say.

Serbia — Serbia lost 3-2 to a late Marko Arnautovic winner in Austria. But the reason we had the Serbs “feeling optimistic” all along, and the reason we still have them here, is because they remain in sole possession of first place in Group D with a home match against Georgia remaining. With a win, they go to Russia. Shouldn’t be any more complicated than that.

Italy — Italy flopped at home against Macedonia, but the 1-1 draw was of little consequence. Spain would have won the group anyway. The Italians will likely enter the seeded pot for the playoff draw.

Iceland — Iceland is (probably) going to its first-ever World Cup! It spanked Turkey 3-0, while Croatia drew 1-1 at home against Finland. Croatia’s dropped points yielded top spot in the group to Iceland, and the Euro 2016 darlings get Kosovo at home on the final matchday. A win there, and they’d make history.

On the bubble (5)

Sweden — The Swedes didn’t just beat Luxembourg; they demolished the UEFA minnows 8-0. The margin – and their plus-19 goal differential – all but locks up second place in Group A. The Netherlands – at plus-7 after a 3-1 win in Belarus – would have to beat Sweden by seven goals on the final matchday to make up the difference.

Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland is playoff-bound despite two consecutive losses. But those losses have dropped it into the unseeded pot for the playoff draw, meaning it could face a tough task in November.

Wales — A win over Ireland in Cardiff on Monday will secure a playoff place. A loss would equal elimination. And a draw? Well, that one’s complicated.

Ukraine and Croatia are tied for second place in Group I. They kick off at the same time as Wales and Ireland on Monday. They’re also currently tied with Wales as the worst of the runners-up. So if Wales gets a point, but either Ukraine or Croatia gets three, Wales is out.

If both matches end in a draw, things get really complicated. Croatia would finish second in Group I on goal differential. But it would be even with Wales on goal differential. On the second tiebreaker, goals for, Wales currently sit one ahead of the Croats. But if Wales and Ireland draw 0-0, and Croatia-Ukraine ends 1-1? To the penultimate tiebreaker, discipline! The Welsh have picked up four more yellow cards throughout the campaign, meaning they’d be out – unless Croatia makes up the difference with at least four yellows or a straight red. And if it does? Lots!

Denmark — Denmark beat Romania Sunday, but Poland’s victory over Montenegro sent the Danes to the playoffs.

Greece — Scotland’s draw ensured Greece will finish as one of the eight best second-place sides – if it can beat Gibraltar. And that’s a very tiny if.

Fretting (4)

Ireland — The Irish took care of business against Moldova, but now must beat Wales on Monday for a playoff berth.

Slovakia — Slovakia locked up second place in Group F with its win in Malta. Now it needs either a Ukraine-Croatia draw or a Wales-Ireland draw. If neither comes to pass, it will be the worst of the runners-up, and will be eliminated.

Croatia — See the Wales section above. Croatia is in(to the playoffs) with a win. It’s out with a loss. It’s on the fence, and probably tipping toward the wrong side of it, with a draw.

Ukraine — Will need to beat Croatia at home on Monday to reach the playoffs.

Still alive, but only technically (1): Netherlands


World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure: One group of 10. Top four qualify directly. Fifth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Oceania (New Zealand).
Status: 17 of 18 games have been played. Matchday 18 on Tuesday. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Brazil

Making travel reservations (1)

UruguayBarring an unthinkable collapse, Luis Suarez and co. are in.

On the bubble (5)

Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay — After a wild Thursday night, the five teams sit just two points apart with one match to play and only 2.5 World Cup spots up for grabs. Any two or three of the five could qualify. We broke down all the convoluted scenarios here.


World Cup berths: 3.5
Structure (current round only): One group of six. Top three qualify directly. Fourth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Asia.
Status: Nine of 10 “Hex” games have been played. Matchday 10 on Tuesday. Intercontinental playoff in November.

Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Mexico, Costa Rica

Making travel reservations (1)

United States — The U.S. is effectively in with a win or a draw on Tuesday in Trinidad. A full breakdown is here.

Fretting (2)

Panama and Honduras — Both on 10 points, two behind the U.S. for the final automatic qualification spot and far behind on goal differential. So each would need a win and a U.S. loss to qualify directly. If the U.S. wins or draws, Honduras (vs. Mexico) will have to better Panama’s result (vs. Costa Rica) to reach a playoff against either Australia or Syria.


World Cup berths: 5
Structure (current round only): Five groups of four. Winners qualify directly.
Status: Five of six games have been played. Matchday 6 in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Nigeria, Egypt

Feeling optimistic (2)

Tunisia — The Tunisians came from behind again, this time to beat Guinea 4-1. They’ll qualify with a win or draw at home against last-place Libya in November – or even with a loss and a Congo DR loss or draw against Guinea.

Senegal – Diafra Sakho’s late winner has Senegal needing just one win from two matches against South Africa in November. Two draws would also be enough. One draw and one loss might even be enough.

On the bubble (2)

Ivory Coast and Morocco — With the Ivorians held by Mali, Morocco took the lead in Group C by way of a convincing 3-0 victory over Gabon. The two will meet with a World Cup berth on the line in November. The host, Ivory Coast, needs all three points. The Moroccans just need one.

Fretting (1)

South Africa — The task is difficult, but it’s simple: beat Senegal twice in November, and South Africa will go to the World Cup. Anything less, and it will be eliminated.

Dreams fading (2): Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso
Still alive, but only technically (1): Cape Verde Islands


World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure (current round only): Two six-team groups. Top two in each group qualify directly. Third-place teams advance to intracontinental playoff. Winner of playoff advances to continental playoff vs. CONCACAF.
Status: Group play concluded. Australia vs. Syria in the intracontinental playoff in October (Second leg Tuesday, tied 1-1). Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

On the bubble (1)

Australia — The Aussies will like their chances going back home after a 1-1 first-leg draw in Malaysia. They’ll also like their chances more against either Panama or Honduras than they would have against the United States in a potential intercontinental playoff.

Fretting (1)

Syria — A questionable late penalty gave Syria hope. But it will need a win or a score draw in Sydney against an Australian side that looked decidedly superior on Thursday.


World Cup berths: 0.5
Structure (current round only): Two three-team groups. Winners advance to intracontinental playoff. Playoff winner advances to intercontinental playoff vs. South America.
Status: New Zealand beat Solomon Islands in the intracontinental playoff. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Fretting (1)

New Zealand — The Kiwis eagerly await the results of South America’s Tuesday chaos. They’ll be hoping to see either Peru or Paraguay in the playoff, but will be underdogs against any of the five.

Previous editions of Bubble Watch: Aug. 29 | Sept. 2 | Sept. 6 | Oct. 3

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.