The long, arduous journey to the 2014 World Cup began two years ago, with 208 nations vying for the coveted 32 spots. So far, 148 teams have been eliminated and 10 have clinched berths to Brazil — including the United States. Fifty teams remain in contention for the final 22 spots.
The U.S. team qualified for its seventh consecutive World Cup with a 2-0 victory over Mexico on Sept. 10, and finds itself in elite company with an early qualifying list that includes former World Cup champions Argentina, Italy and host Brazil. Others already booking their tickets are Netherlands, Costa Rica, South Korea, Japan, Australia and Iran.
Going into the qualifying campaign, everyone figured Mexico and the United States would be the powers of CONCACAF, but Mexico has struggled mightily, opening the door for Costa Rica. The Ticos played in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but failed to get through in 2010, making them extra motivated this time around.
They lost only one of their eight qualifying games so far, won all their home matches, allowed only five goals total and scored 11.
“This feels really satisfying,” Costa Rica midfielder Celso Borges told FIFA.com. “More than anything, it feels almost like setting the record straight after what happened in qualifying for South Africa. The whole country is really happy because we managed to achieve a goal that we’ve had to work really hard for. The keys are our squad spirit and making our home stadium a real fortress.”
Mexico, meanwhile, sits in fifth place behind Honduras and Panama, and is in danger of not qualifying for the first time since 1982 (Mexico qualified in 1990 but was banned because the youth national team used ineligible players). It is hard to imagine a World Cup without the Mexicans, who reached the quarterfinals in 1986 and the Round of 16 in the past five World Cups.
Mexico and Panama play a crucial qualifying match Oct.11. Only the top three CONCACAF teams get automatic bids. The fourth-place team enters a playoff against New Zealand for another slot.
That same week in mid-October is when the African playoffs begin, and those, too, have huge implications. Egypt, with former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, remains unbeaten thus far and is trying to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1990. The Egyptian campaign has taken on extra meaning because of the political turmoil in that country. The “Pharoahs” play Ghana in a two-leg playoff. Other African playoff matchups are Ivory Coast-Senegal, Ethiopia-Nigeria, Tunisia-Cameroon, and Algeria-Burkina Faso.
In South America, Colombia is in second place three points behind Argentina, and is virtually assured of a spot. Chile is third with 24, Ecuador is fourth with 22, and Uruguay is just behind with 22, needing to make up goal differential. The top four get spots, the fifth enters a playoff.
The European teams are stacking up as expected. Group leaders now are Belgium (a hot team and good pick to go deep in Brazil), Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia, Bosnia, England and Spain. The nine group winners earn spots and the best eight second-place teams play each other for four more spots. Right now, those would be Croatia, Bulgaria or Iceland, Sweden, Hungary, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine and France.
Qualifying ends Nov. 20, and the World Cup draw is Dec. 6.