With Europe boasting such a plethora of heavyweight football nations, it is no surprise that the so-called old continent has produced some of the most memorable and keenly-contested FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers in history. Who can forget, for example, Germany and England's remarkable meetings en route to Korea/Japan 2002, or the way in which Israel and Bulgaria combined to ensure that France missed out on making a trip across the Atlantic in1994? Join FIFA.com on a trip down memory lane.
The popular wisdom is that the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resulting increase in competitors, has made the European nations' task of qualifying for a FIFA World Cup tougher than ever. However, even when groups were comprised of just three teams, there process could still be incredibly perilous. Just ask France, who finished bottom of a three-nation preliminary section for the 1974 FIFA World Cup, beneath both Republic of Ireland and the mighty USSR. The strength of the UEFA field was also neatly summed up by a Mexico 1986 preliminary section, one which West Germany topped ahead of Portugal, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Malta.
This section leaves us spoiled for choice. Memories are still vivid, for example, of the Ronald Koeman-inspired 2-0 win over England in October 1993 that saw Netherlands through to USA 1994 at the Three Lions' expense. England also served up a couple of incredible encounters against old foes Germany during the Korea/Japan 2002 qualifiers, losing 1-0 in the final match at the old Wembley Stadium before going on to beat the Germans 5-1 in Munich, Michael Owen's hat-trick the highlight of a memorable comeback win. This also set the scene for one of the FIFA World Cup preliminaries' most iconic goals: David Beckham's dramatic qualification-sealing free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford.
The bigger they come, the harder they fall, and several of Europe's giants have certainly been brought crashing to earth in FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Netherlands, for example, went into the 1982 preliminaries having made the Final in both 1974 and 1978, yet they failed to even reach the finals in Spain after claiming just one point from a possible six against a Republic of Ireland side still eight years away from their first FIFA World Cup finals appearance. Even more remarkable were the 3-2 and 2-1 home defeats Israel and Bulgaria inflicted on France in the autumn of 1993, results which combined to ensure Les Bleus failed to reach USA 1994.
England and Poland would appear the most obvious example of UEFA nations whose paths continuously cross. The Poles famously qualified at the Three Lions' expense for the 1974 FIFA World Cup, and the teams have since gone on to face each other in the preliminaries for Italy 1990, USA 1994, France 1998 and Germany 2006, not to mention locking horns in the finals themselves at Mexico 1986.