Skip to main content

How Do National Football Teams Qualify for the FIFA World Cup?

A passionate Football (Soccer) fan who is into the sport as both a player, a fan, and in the future, a coach.

United States Men's National Team qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

United States Men's National Team qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The FIFA World Cup

The FIFA World Cup is an international football tournament that happens every four years. It's organized by FIFA, football's governing body. This tournament consists of national football teams from around the world. The inaugural tournament was held in Uruguay in 1930. The event has only been cancelled on two occasions in 1942 and 1946; this was due to World War II.

The 2022 tournament in Qatar was the first time the event has been hosted in the Middle East. The event will also be the last time one to have the 32-team format. The 2026 tournament will have the format change to 48 teams. The host country automatically qualifies into the brackets.

Continental confederations around the world.

Continental confederations around the world.


Before we head to the qualifying stages of the World Cup, we should start with confederations. A confederation is a continental governing body that oversees the competitions in a certain region. Each confederation has national associations as members. There are a total of six confederations covering six continents.

  • Asian Football Confederation (AFC) with 47 members.
  • Confederation of African Football (CAF) with 54 members.
  • Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) with 41 members.
  • Confederation Sudamericana de Futbol (CONMEBOL) with 10 members.
  • Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) with 13 members.
  • Union of Football Associates (UEFA) with 55 members
AFC confederation's road to Qatar visual

AFC confederation's road to Qatar visual

Confederation Tournaments

Each confederation will have its own tournament to determine who qualifies for the FIFA World Cup. Each confederation can only send a certain number of members to the tournament. FIFA decides on how many entries each confederation can send for each tournament. This will be based on the strength of the confederation. Qualifying tournaments are typically done in a round-robin format with the top two or three teams advancing to the next knockout stage.

Qatar is the host country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup

Qatar is the host country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup

Being a Host Country

With the amount of money spent to organize the World Cup, host countries are awarded a place in the tournament. They are usually the first team to play in the tournament. Usually, there's only one host country. The 2002 FIFA World Cup saw South Korea and Japan co-host the event. The 2026 tournament will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Qualifying for FIFA World Cup

Qualifications for the World Cup start as early as three years from the tournament's beginning, and they could last up to two years. It all depends on the confederation's organizing. As written earlier, FIFA awards each confederation a certain amount of spots that their members have to qualify for. The formats differ by confederation. For instance, AFC is the only confederation to add in the AFC Asian Cup qualification to the group stages.

While 29 teams can qualify automatically, there will be four teams from each confederation that will play in the intercontinental play-offs. This will determine the other two qualifying countries, which are from CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, AFC and OFC.

The teams that qualify for the World Cup will be eligible to play in the World Cup final tournament. This is the main event consisting of 32 teams. This is where qualified teams will be divided into four pots, where they'll have a draw to determine the groups.

Each group will have four teams. They will play in a round-robin tournament, with the top two of each group advancing to the round of 16 knockout stages. This will go to the eight-team quarterfinals, the four-team semifinals, and the finals to determine the World Cup winners.

The 1950 World Cup had the most external political involvement. Teams within the Eastern Bloc of the Iron Curtain withdrew from the tournament. Former Axis powers like Germany and Japan were not allowed to participate. It is also the first and only time India qualified for tournament, but they would withdraw from the games.

North Korea squad for the AFC FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

North Korea squad for the AFC FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Any Team Can Qualify for the World Cup

Confederations are there to control the qualifying process and to give every single team in the world a chance to participate in the World Cup. Although only 32 teams will qualify for the final tournament, there are 211 eligible teams that can qualify, regardless of strength.

There have been instances where underdogs surprised fans by going deep into World Cup qualification. In 2022, Vietnam shocked the AFC by making it to the final stage of World Cup qualifiers.

Dutch East Indies (Modern day Indonesia) in the 1938 FIFA World Cup.

Dutch East Indies (Modern day Indonesia) in the 1938 FIFA World Cup.

Underdogs Who Qualified for the FIFA World Cup Final Tournament

  • North Korea in 1966 and 2010 - North Korea is a country that finds itself on the wrong side of news most of the time. However, let's not forget that the hermit kingdom actually qualified for the World Cup twice.
  • New Zealand in 2010 - Football is not a popular sport in New Zealand. However, the nation did manage to qualify for the World Cup in 2010. New Zealand had a rough path to the tournament since Oceanic countries have to go through an intercontinental play-off before qualifying.
  • Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1938 - The Dutch East Indies were the first Asian country to qualify for the World Cup. This was quite an accomplishment for a colonial team at the time. This has been the only time a Southeast Asian team qualified for the World Cup.

© 2022 Nigel Koay Talks Football