1998 FIFA World Cup France ™ Preliminaries
This time round all previous records were shattered: 174 entries (with 168 actually playing), 643 matches and over 15 million spectators. There were some individual records too: Iran beat the Maldives by the widest margin in World Cup history up to that point, the score being 17-0. Karim Bagheri scored seven of the total, also a new best.
Iran continued to capture the headlines as the surprise team: in an AFC/OFC play-off in Australia they were trailing 0-2 but Iran pulled level, to the consternation of 85,000 spectators in the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Already qualified were Korea Republic, now becoming regulars, and Saudi Arabia for the second time in a row.
In Europe, fixed play-offs were arranged between the group second teams for the first time. Norway, Italy, Spain, Germany and Romania came through undefeated, but even five wins and three draws was not enough to take Italy to the top of their group, which was won by England. A goal from Tony Cascarino for Ireland Rep. in the last match against Romania earned his team a 1-1 draw and ruined Romania's 100% record. In the play-offs, Yugoslavia rattled up an aggregate score of 12-1 against the poor Hungarians. Not unexpectedly, Croatia eliminated Ukraine and so one of Europe's new countries would be making a first appearance.
No fewer than 72 matches were played in South America, where the eliminations were held for the first time in a single group. The teams coming out on top were Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia (for the third time in succession) and Chile.
The longest qualifying round was, as usual, in the CONCACAF zone, where favourites Mexico and the USA were successful, encountering few problems along the way. Third place went to newcomers Jamaica, the "Reggae Boys" thus confirming the progress they had made over the last few years. Rather curiously, Mexico, who had been undefeated in the qualifiers and were sure of a place in France, released their coach Bora Milutinovic from his contract after a run of disappointing results.
In Africa it was the established teams that made the running; Nigeria, Cameroon, Tunisia and Morocco had all qualified on previous occasions. The only new name was South Africa, but their success was hardly a surprise, in view of the potential of their players and their victory in the African Nations' Cup in 1996. But Congo nearly caused a sensation on 16 August 1997 in Johannesburg, when a single goal decided that South Africa would get the final place, not Congo.