World Cup qualifiers: Enjoy the drama of Italy’s exit, CAF thrillers and Australia tension while it lasts

Just one night into the last major push for World Cup places and the final qualifiers have already delivered a level of drama and tension that the tournament proper will do well to match. It’s a pity that the inevitable trajectory of football’s global competition and its continental brethren means that the events of Thursday will be fewer and further between.

The scramble to Qatar began in dramatic enough fashion in a sodden Sydney where two late goals from substitute Kaoru Mitoma guaranteed Japan’s qualification at Australia’s expense (Paramount+ airs all of AFC’s World Cup Qualifying matches). It has been 20 years since the Socceroos missed the World Cup, if they are to keep that streak alive they will have to win two single elimination games, first against one of the United Arab Emirates, Iraq or Lebanon before then facing the fifth best team South America has to offer.

With one matchday to go, three teams are still vying for that spot. Peru are in control of their fate but must beat Paraguay or risk being pipped at the post by Colombia or Chile. Further north no one is yet guaranteed to escape the Octagonal with just two more rounds of fixtures to be played. The USA’s 0-0 draw away to Mexico seemed to set the tone for a run in of looking nervously over your shoulder, reacting to the results of teams around you as you desperately attempt to scrabble together the points you need for a top three berth. 

Gregg Berhalter almost acknowledged that he had one eye on events away from the Azteca, telling CBS that the point they earned “will be a valuable point based on what happened today in the standings”. Panama had drawn with Honduras earlier in the day, while Costa Rica beat table-leading Canada 1-0 to move into fourth place, three points behind the two Concacaf titans who sit in second and third. Only the U.S. head coach knows how much that influenced the decisions he made in Mexico City.

As other federations delivered the tension, so Europe brought thrilling denouements to the qualification hopes of four teams. Sweden’s extra time win over Czech Republic, Portugal nearly blowing it against Turkey and Gareth Bale’s stunning clap back against his Real Madrid critics: all of them might have been serviceable A plots on another night. Instead, they were all relegated to a supporting role behind the great Azzurri psychodrama.

The Italian sports pages rarely underplay moments of calcio crisis and they were as reliably melodramatic as ever on Friday morning. “To hell” cried Corriere dello Sport. Less than a year after winning the European Championships (and seemingly modernizing Italian international football) Roberto Mancini was being instructed to consider his future by Gazzetta. Tuttosport, meanwhile, went full Darth Vader with a guttural cry of “Nooooo” stretched across their front page.

Mancini’s European champions had had more than their fair share of chances to book their passage to Qatar. It is hard to argue the World Cup will be a significantly worse tournament without a team who could not get past first Switzerland and then a resolute North Macedonia, no matter how much lightning they successfully bottled last summer. The pleasure of these qualifiers — particularly for those not involved — does not merely come in the ecstasy that Aleksandar Trajkovski brought to his nation but in the schadenfreude for the rest of the field. So often Italy have been the ones to ruin the tournament dreams of others; there will be a string of countries who are delighted that they will not have to find their way past Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in a knockout game.

All of Thursday’s drama promises to be something of an amuse-bouche for what is to come, not least in CAF, where the so-called Jollof Derby between Nigeria and Ghana headlines what is the most brutal of battles for spots at the World Cup. Both those teams, as well the pairings of Egypt and Senegal, Cameroon and Algeria, would grace Qatar but only three of them can.

That is the argument in favor of World Cup expansion, which will begin in 2026 when 48 teams gather in the USA, Canada and Mexico. CAF will be one of the most significant victors from this new tournament, its five representatives increasing to nine. This year’s Africa Cup of Nations showed that even that many teams may not be sufficient for a continent that provides some of the world’s brightest stars, from established names such as Mohamed Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the bright young things like Issa Kabore.

Opening further pathways to the biggest tournament is perhaps seen too often through the prism of FIFA’s elite grasping for power and votes, particularly in a European media landscape that still tends to dictate the lens through which institutional change should be made. Certainly Arsene Wenger’s faltering push to double the frequency of the competition did have the ring of a naked cash grab to it but moving up to 48 teams does have its logic. Short of convincing turkeys to vote for Christmas, there is no meaningful way to make future World Cups that little bit more global, to ease the hegemony European teams in particular have over qualification.

And yet, this new system is going to come at a cost. Every new spot at 2026 and beyond denies the world one more moment of jeopardy. One European giant tends to falter every four years, will they still do some when there are 16 spots up for grabs? In South America it will be harder not to qualify with six spots to be competed for by 10 teams. Meanwhile the days of Mexico and the United States vying for qualification to the World Cup may yet be a thing of the past, even after they have hosted the tournament.

Giving more teams the chance to play at the biggest football event on earth is, in theory, a noble goal no matter how clunkily Gianni Infantino and company may be making the case for it. But the World Cup itself has never been just about the one month festival of football, but the journey to it in the first place. That’s what was so artfully on display on Thursday. Rob qualification of the fine margins and heightened stakes that it still retains and a place in the tournament itself may yet lose some of its luster.