Written by Zach Lowy | Co-founder & Lead Writer at BreakingTheLines.com

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As we turn the page on 2021, there are plenty of things to look forward to in the coming year, but for soccer fanatics, nothing on the menu looks tastier than the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This upcoming tournament is unique for a number of reasons. It is the first World Cup that will be played in the Arab world, Qatar specifically. The tournament is also the first that will not be played in the summer months of May, June, and July; rather, it will be played from November 21 to December 18. Due to Qatar’s intense summer heat, the organizers of the tournament have held it from November to December and gone with a slightly reduced timeframe of 28 days. It may very well be the final tournament to feature the two greatest players of this generation – Lionel Messi will be 35 at the start of the tournament, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo will be 37.

What’s more, this upcoming World Cup will be the final one to be played with just 32 teams. The 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be co-hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, is set to include 48 teams for the first time ever. Thirty-two teams has been the standard number since the 1998 edition, which saw France defeat Brazil to claim their first-ever World Cup, but from 1982 to 1994, 24 teams contested in the quadrennial competition. From 1954 to 1978, only 16 international teams competed for glory in each World Cup, whereas the first four editions saw 13, 16, 15, and 13 teams, respectively, play in the World Cup.

Thirty-two years after the first international football match was played in Glasgow, Scotland, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was formed in Paris, France, to oversee international competition between the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Today, FIFA oversees 211 national associations. After the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, soccer became an official competition rather than a mere demonstration sport, with Great Britain edging out Denmark to the gold medal, and in 1920, the Summer Olympics saw the world’s first intercontinental competition contested between Egypt and 13 European teams.

Due to the success of the Olympic football tournaments, FIFA decided to stage a world championship itself, and Uruguay, who had won the past two Olympic soccer tournaments and who were celebrating their centenary of independence, were picked to host the 1930 World Cup. Rather than endure a long and costly trip across the Atlantic Ocean, European football associations were very hesitant to send their players to Uruguay, and it wasn’t until two months before the start of the competition that FIFA President Jules Rimet managed to persuade teams from Belgium, France, Romania, and Yugoslavia to join Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru, USA, and Mexico in the inaugural competition. In the final, Uruguay defeated Argentina 4-2 in front of 93,000 people in Montevideo.

Eighty-one years later, the FIFA World Cup has emerged as the most prestigious and the most widely viewed sporting event in the world, with a combined 3.5 billion people tuning into the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which saw France defeat Croatia in the final. The tournament has taken place every four years, except for 1942 and 1946 when it was postponed due to World War II, and every national association, apart from the host country which is guaranteed a berth in the World Cup, gets the opportunity to challenge for a place in the quadrennial tournament.

In order to qualify for the World Cup, parallel tournaments are organized by FIFA’s six confederations. The qualification process for the 2022 World Cup began on June 6, 2019, in a match between Mongolia and Brunei, and it will end in June 2022 with the inter-confederation play-offs. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifying stage will see the top two teams in Group A and Group B – both of which have six teams – automatically qualify for the FIFA World Cup, whilst the third-placed teams in both groups will face each other in the play-offs. 

In order to whittle it down to two groups of six, there are two prior rounds of qualification – the first one sees the 12 worst-ranking teams (according to the FIFA rankings) in AFC home-and-away two legs, with the winners and the 34 top-ranking sides in AFC being divided into eight groups of five teams to play home-and-away round-robin matches. As things stand, Iran and South Korea look like comfortable bets to advance from Group A, Saudi Arabia and Japan look well-set to advance from Group B, and the third-place sides, the United Arab Emirates and Australia, are set to play against each other in the third round to determine which side advances to the play-offs, but there are still four matches left for each team to play.

It is a similar process in the Confederation of African Football (CAF), as the bottom 28 teams in CAF play home-and-away matches over two legs, with the top 26 teams reserving a bye to the second round. The winners of the first round matches and the 26 other teams are divided into ten groups of four teams to play home-and-away round-robin matches, with the ten group winners advancing into the third and final round. These ten teams are Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, and DR Congo, and on January 26, 2022, they will be drawn into five home-and-away ties. The higher-ranked team will host the second leg, and after these fixtures are concluded in March, the five winners will progress to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) qualification process is slightly different, as all ten CONMEBOL sides will play each other at home and away, with the fourth-best teams sealing their place in the FIFA World Cup and the fifth-placed side advancing to the play-offs. Despite having played one fewer match than the other eight teams, Brazil and Argentina have each booked their tickets to the tournament in Qatar. With four matches remaining, Ecuador are in a strong position to qualify for the tournament with 23 points from 14 matches, whilst Colombia (17), Peru (17), Chile (16), Uruguay (16), Bolivia (15), Paraguay (13), and Venezuela (7) are set to fight it out for a spot in the quadrennial competition.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Oceania, the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) qualification will be held in a centralized tournament in Qatar from March 13 to March 30 of 2022. The two lowest-ranking teams (Tonga and Cook Islands) will first play each other to determine the eighth team in the group stage, with the winner of that match competing in a Group A featuring Solomon Islands, Tahiti, and Vanuatu, whilst Group B will consist of New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. The winner of Group A will take on the runner-up of Group B and vice versa, the winners of these two matches will face off against each other in the final, and the winner of the final will advance to the inter-confederation play-off.

As for the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the 55 European teams are split into 10 groups featuring either five or six teams. The winners of these groups – Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Croatia, England, and Germany – have all booked their tickets in the FIFA World Cup. The ten group runners-up are joined by the best two Nations League group winners, based on the Nations League overall ranking, that finished outside the top two of their qualifying group. These twelve teams were drawn into three play-off paths, playing two rounds of single-match play-offs, with the three path winners qualifying for the World Cup. 

The March international break will see the winner of Wales-Austria play the winner of Scotland-Ukraine, whilst the winner of Russia-Poland will take on the winner of Sweden-Czech Republic. The winner of Portugal-Turkey will also take on the winner of Italy-North Macedonia, which means that at least one of the last two European champions (Italy or Portugal) will miss out on qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

And what of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF? CONCACAF teams ranked 6 to 35 were drawn into six groups of five and played four single round-robin matches, with the six group winners advancing to the second round. The six winners from the first round play in a two-legged home-and-away series, with the three winners advancing to the third round. With six matches remaining, the top three sides – Canada (16), United States (15), and Mexico (14) – are set to advance to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, while Panama (14) are set to advance to the inter-confederation play-offs as the fourth-placed side. However, Costa Rica (9), Jamaica (7), El Salvador (6), and Honduras (3) are following in close pursuit.

After a jam-packed March international break, the inter-confederation play-offs will take place from June 13 to June 14 in Qatar to determine the final two spots to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The winner of the AFC Fourth Round match, which will be contested between both of the third-placed AFC teams, will play the fifth-placed team in CONMEBOL for a spot in the World Cup. On the other hand, the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF standings (currently Panama) will face off against the winner of the OFC Final in another one-off match. These two winners will become the 31st and 32nd teams to qualify for the biggest sporting event in the world, which, despite its irregular start date and its early kickoff times (games will be played at 4 a.m., 7 a.m., 10 a.m., and 1 a.m., so bring your coffee), looks set to be another mouth-watering month of soccer.