An entry of close to 150 countries, nearly 500 matches and once again more goals than in the past twenty years - these were the figures of the biggest World Cup preliminary in 60 years.
Two of Europe's big names failed to make the finals: England conceded an embarrassing goal after a few seconds in their final match in San Marino and although they won 7-1 in the end they were unable to overtake the Netherlands in the group, who qualified along with group winners Norway. In Group 6, France looked to be heading comfortably for the top spot two matches before the end, but lost surprisingly at home to Israel and then was beaten away by Bulgaria, thanks to a Kostadinov counter-strike in the dying seconds. It was thus Bulgaria who squeezed into second place and accompanied Sweden to the USA. Helped by good results against group winners Italy, Switzerland also qualified for the first time in nearly thirty years.
In South America the only team to come through convincingly were Colombia, undefeated in their group and ahead of Argentina. In the other group Brazil and Bolivia only managed to secure definite qualification in their very last matches. Argentina had to go into a play-off against Oceania winners Australia and were on a knife's edge until a narrow 1-0 home win got them through.
In Africa it was Nigeria (first time for them), Morocco, and Cameroon who qualified, but it was a close battle for all three against the second team in their groups. In a dramatic final in Qatar, Japan let a safe-looking qualification slip away from them at the last minute. After a 2-2 draw against Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic (only on goal difference) finally edged out Japan. After slipping up in Costa Rica and El Salvador, Mexico earned their passage in the direct encounter with their closest rivals Canada.