The format was simpler in Europe this time; there were six groups of five from which the top two teams qualified, and one group of three with only the winner (Poland) going further. In a very balanced group England lost their away matches in Romania, Norway, and Switzerland but qualified anyway, one point behind Hungary.

In fact, qualification for all four British teams for the first time since 1958 looked a strong possibility. Wales just missed out in their group with Czechoslovakia taking second place from them on goal difference, behind the dominant Soviet Union. Scotland and Northern Ireland left Sweden and Portugal in their wake. Yugoslavia and Italy did not have much trouble, but things were closer for France, who ended up behind Belgium and just ahead of Ireland Republic on goal difference. Germany FR's record was impeccable - eight wins and a goal line of 33:3 putting them five points clear of Austria.

Of all the teams that had ever won the World Cup, the only one missing this time was Uruguay. Peru came through, and together with the undefeated Brazil and Chile completed the South American line-up.

The African qualifications saw Cameroon and Algeria come out on top, with Cameroon securing their place with a 2-1 home win over Morocco in Yaounde, in front of well over 100,000 jubilant fans. They had already won the away leg of the fixture. Algeria followed the same route, inflicting two defeats on Nigeria. Both of these teams were destined to hit the headlines during the final round in Spain.

In the final round in the CONCACAF zone in Honduras, the host team secured first place and denied favourites Mexico their place in the final round with a goalless draw in the final match. El Salvador won one more game and one more point than Mexico and earned the second set of tickets to Spain.

China PR had never come so close to qualifying for a World Cup, as on 10 January 1982. But they were thwarted at the last minute: New Zealand won the play-off between the two teams who were level on points and accompanied Kuwait, the group winners, to Spain.