Once again there was a new record number of entries, and fewer than ten withdrawals this time. From the four groups of five in Europe, the two top teams per group would qualify and among the prominent teams eliminated were Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Romania. From the remaining three groups of four, only the top team would qualify directly.

Scotland were one of the runners-up in these groups and had to play off against the Oceania champions, Australia. A 2-0 win at Hampden Park and a no-score draw down under saw the Scots through. A further place in the final would go to the winner of the play-off between the other two runners-up in the groups of four. Once again this brought together Belgium and Holland, and in a great play-off battle it was the outstanding Belgian team of the 80s with Gerets, Scifo, Ceulemans and Vandenbergh that won through thanks to the away goals rule. Nine months later they would again impress in Mexico. England were the only team in the European zone to come through undefeated and their most noticeable triumph was an 8-0 win over Turkey in Istanbul.

The qualifying teams from South America included three previous World Cup winners: Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. They all won their groups and qualified directly. Paraguay earned their place thanks to a clear home win over Chile in a play-off, their first success since 1958. The one open CONCACAF place (in addition to hosts Mexico) went deservedly to Canada, who were undefeated in all their eight matches.

In the Africa zone the format this time was a knock-out competition, with home and away matches. Morocco and Algeria won all their home matches and qualified, already having considerable World Cup experience behind them (as several other highly respected footballing countries would testify).

In Asia the qualifying teams for the semi-finals of their zone competition, in addition to Japan and Korea Republic, were, rather surprisingly, Iraq and Syria. Japan lost both matches against their neighbours, while Iraq earned a draw in Damascus and defeated the Syrians at home, securing their country a place in the World Cup final round for the first time. China's exit was almost tragic; despite four wins in six matches and a goal-line of 23-2 they suffered a totally unexpected home defeat against Hong Kong and lost the chance of playing Japan in the second round.