The impressive statistics for the 1974 World Cup preliminary round showed 99 entries and over 200 qualifying matches for the first time, in the course of which a number of big name European teams were knocked out. The decline of Hungary continued, this time in a group which included Austria, Malta and Sweden. The Scandinavians were the team to come through after a hard-fought play-off against Austria in Gelsenkirchen.

England faced Poland in their final match at Wembley, and a draw for the visitors was enough for them to earn qualification into the final round. The performance of Poland's goalkeeper Jan Tomaszweski has entered football's book of legends. After a draw in their first play-off match against Chile, the Soviet Union refused to travel to the Chilean capital for the return fixture for political reasons, and so, in accordance with the regulations, Chile were awarded victory.

The most closely-contested groups were those involving Belgium and their neighbours and great rivals the Netherlands, plus the one with Spain and Yugoslavia. Both pairs of team ended up equal on points so play-off matches were required, with Netherlands and Yugoslavia winning through.

In addition to Chile and defending champions Brazil, the representatives from South America were Argentina and double World Champions Uruguay, who edged out Colombia on goal difference. In the North and Central America zone, a sensation occurred: playing at home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti took full advantage of the moment and of Mexico's weakness, the usual CONCACAF winners having played five matches against Trinidad and Tobago, of which they lost one 4-0 and drew two others. A 1-0 win in the final match against the host country, who until that moment had not dropped a point, was of no avail.

In Africa, Zaire came through a marathon of nearly fifty matches and qualified as the first sub-Saharan team for the World Cup final round. There was also a premiere in the Asia/Oceania zone. Australia played two matches against both Iran and Korea Republic, coming out on top and earning Oceania its first-ever appearance in the World Cup.