ITALIA 90 also attracted well over a hundred entries for the preliminary round, although the total was slightly down on last time. The first qualifying match was in the Caribbean as usual, where Trinidad and Tobago defeated Guyana 4-0 on 17 April 1988.

By an odd coincidence it would also be Trinidad and Tobago who would play the last game in the preliminary round twenty months later. With a World Cup place within their reach, the island team lost against the USA in Port of Spain. The only goal of the match was scored by Paul Caligiuri and it earned the USA their first World Cup appearance for 40 years. Costa Rica (under coach Bora Milutinovic) won the other CONCACAF place (with Mexico being banned from taking part).

An unpleasant episode marred the South American preliminaries; during the match between Brazil and Chile a firework landed close to the Chilean goalkeeper Rojas who then feigned injury. His team refused to continue the match - they were a goal down at the time. But the scheme was quickly seen through, and the result was a long suspension for those involved and a ban for Chile from the World Cup 1994. In addition to Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia (for the first time since 1962) completed the South American contingent. Colombia had won through via a play-off against Israel, which produced just one goal in the two matches, Israel having come out on top in a group with the Oceania representatives Australia and New Zealand.

Europe's breakdown this time was into four groups with five teams and three groups with four; basically the top two teams in each group would qualify, with the exception of the poorest second team from the groups of four. A defeat in their last match against Romania put Denmark in this unfortunate position, and so the tournament was deprived of one of the most attractive sides of the 1986 competition. England and Germany FR both ended up second in their groups and that was enough. There were few other surprises, except for the case of France, for whom a 1-1 against Cyprus in Nicosia on 22 October 1988 came back to haunt them and saw Scotland a point ahead in the final ranking.

The usual long, drawn-out African qualifiers saw Egypt qualify for the first time since 1934, as well as Cameroon (who had been undefeated in 1982 in Spain). In an evenly matched battle between six teams in the final round in Asia Korea Republic and UAE both emerged undefeated, with the Arabs' record of one win and four draws being enough to get them through.