FINALLY, the line-up for next year’s World Cup Finals was confirmed Thursday morning when Peru beat New Zealand 2-0 in Lima to claim the final 32nd slot in Russia.
The much-awaited draw of the world’s best 32 qualifiers will now be made on December 1 at the State Kremlin Palace concert hall in Moscow.
It’s been a mixed bag of shocks during the qualifiers as some of the biggest names in global football failed to make the cut – in particular, almost unbelievably, four-time winners Italy, who will be on the sidelines for the first time since 1958.
From Europe, hosts Russia and group winners Belgium, England, France, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Spain are joined by play-off victors Switzerland, Croatia, Sweden and Denmark.
Africa’s representatives are Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. From North and Central America and the Caribbean, it is Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama.
South America’s sides are Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and Peru. And the Asian qualifiers are Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Australia.
FOUR ARAB NATIONS
Notably, Morocco and Tunisia joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia, marking the first time four Arab nations have gone to the finals.
Yes, your guess is as good as mine: It’s a little premature to pick any obvious favourite but going on current form, defending champions Germany are the bookmakers’ best choice to win the World Cup, followed by Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France, Belgium and then England.
Joachim Low’s Germany is bidding to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cups since Pele’s Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
Germany, for the credible record, has not lost a World Cup Finals or qualifying game since the 2010 semi-final against Spain. They came through 2018 qualifying with 10 wins from 10 – scoring 43 times and only conceding on four occasions.
Notably, Belgium, Spain and England came through European qualifying unbeaten, too.
BRAZIL ALWAYS STYLISH
The stylish “samba boys” from Brazil cruised through South American qualifying – but only after replacing manager Dunga with Tite midway through the campaign. They had only won one of their opening six qualifiers, but under Tite they won 10 and drew two of their final 12 games to finish 10 points clear.
In Asia, Iran came through two different groups unbeaten – a total of 18 games without defeat that included a run of 12 consecutive clean sheets. They’ve former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz at the helm. The 63-year-old ex-Manchester United boss took Iran, ranked No 29 by FIFA – the highest in Asia – to its fourth World Cup in 2014.
Size or population hardly matters and here’s a humbling esson for Singapore: Iceland are the only country with a population of under one million to have ever reached a World Cup. The Nordic nation had never qualified for a major tournament before Euro 2016, when they beat England on their way to the quarter-finals.
Likewise, making their Moscow debut will be Central American nation Panama, which made the World Cup cut, thanks to an 88th-minute winner against Costa Rica, which also eliminated the United States.
SHOCK OF SHOCKS
Some of the biggest names in global football bit the dust and the shock of shocks of the qualifying campaign came from Europe: Four-time winners Italy missed out on a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, losing to Sweden in their play-off.
The Swedes had reached the play-off on goal difference in their group ahead of Holland, meaning the Dutch have failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments, having also missed out on Euro 2016.
It’s rather unbelievable that Italy couldn’t score in 180 minutes of football against Sweden in their play-off, failing to qualify for the first time since Pele was in his pomp for Brazil back in 1958!
Sad, it marked the end of an era, with a generation of players like the great Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon set to bow out from international football.
Former England striker Gary Lineker tweeted in a mockery of Italy: “Mamma Mia! Italy, Six-times World Cup finalists, four-times World Cup winners, ever-present in the World Cup finals since 1958 have failed to qualify. It won’t be quite the same without them. Arrivederci.”
Another iconic name to miss out from Europe is Holland, who outstandingly advocated “Total Football” in the 1970s. At best, they rank as World Cup finalists in 1974, 1978 and 2010 without winning the trophy. Rather mysteriously, the Dutch went out backwards to finish third in their group.
Also given the big boot were the Czech Republic, Wales, Scotland, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, among the other countries to miss out in the group stages – with the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Greece losing in the play-offs.
BEWARE OF BELGIUM
Keep a close watch on Belgium, who are perennially named as “dark horses” for every major tournament. But despite having world-class millionaire players like midfielders Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, striker Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, the Red Devils have yet to make a real impact on a World Cup.
In the Concacaf region, the United States finished below Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras as they failed to secure even a play-off berth. It is the first time since 1986 that they will not compete at a World Cup.
The Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Ghana – all of whom were in Brazil in 2014 – were among the big African nations to miss out.
Chile, ranked ninth in the world, went out in South American qualifying, missing out on a play-off on goal difference to 10th-ranked Peru.
Barring injury, the big teams should feature some of the best strikers in the world with England’s Harry Kane, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, France’s Antoine Griezmann and Spain’s Alvaro Morata all set to deliver on the world stage.
For Russia, it will be the biggest sporting extravaganza ever. The 2018 FIFA World Cup will take place in 11 Russian cities from June 14 to July 15. And the hosts are predicting a bonanza in tourism benefits with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko saying that “one million tourists are expected to visit the country during the 2018 FIFA World Cup”.
BIG MONEY REWARDS
Big, big, big bucks have been lined up for the winning team in Russia with a record US$38m (£29m) in prize money, after world football governing body FIFA boosted its financial offering to record levels.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said the prize money increase represented “a positive sign in terms of the healthy financial situation of Fifa”, despite the organisation’s US$369m loss in 2016.
A total prize money pool of US$400m represents a 12 per cent increase on the US$358m paid out to teams at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where victors Germany received US$35m.
How much the individual players will pocket is confidential as the money is paid to a nation’s football association, who will have negotiated their own financial agreements with their players.
The rewards for making it to Russia 2018 are eye-popping. Each of the 32 teams will be guaranteed a participation fee of US$8m. Progressing through to the first knock-out stage boosts the prize to US$9m while a quarter-final finish is worth US$14m.
In the much-derided third place play-off, US$42m is shared between the two sides with the victor taking home US$22m. Runners-up in the final can console themselves with a US$25m prize as the winners enjoy their US$38m.
The pride of making it among the world’s 32 best teams is probably best echoed by Australia Prime Minister Turnbull as the Socceroos became the penultimate team to make the cut.
“29 months, 22 games and we qualified and you’re on the way to Moscow and the World Cup,” Turnbull praised the yellow-shirted players after the 3-1 win over Honduras. “Today its 12 years since John Aloisi scored that goal against Uruguay and Mark Milligan was there. He was just a child at the time but still in the team.
“What a great game. Mile Jedinak, the captain, three goals. That’s a captain’s knock. Great job Socceroos, onto the World Cup, onto Russia, onto victory.”
Suresh Nair is a veteran Singapore-based sports journalist who has covered regional football for over three decades