The preliminary draw for the FIFA World Cup™ has produced some truly unforgettable fixtures over the years. The hand of fate has no favourites and cares little for hierarchies, meaning that teams are often faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles on the road to the finals. It is this unpredictability that has helped create so many classic matches.
In the first of a two-part series, FIFA.com looks back at some of the most memorable matches from past qualifying campaigns, with a recurring theme being those moments when certain teams realised that their journey to the finals might not be as straightforward as they had hoped.
Rivalries and era-defining duels
The preliminaries for Italy 1934 threw up the first real clash between two fierce rivals. After successfully navigating the North and Central American zone, USA and Mexico went head-to-head in a final play-off in Rome, just days before the start of the tournament proper. It was the Stars and Stripes who came out on top, surprising their close neighbours with a 4-2 win. Four years later, fate had it that Uruguay 1930 semi-finalists Yugoslavia would face apparent underdogs Poland. The Poles were certainly no pushovers, however, and recorded an emphatic 4-0 win in Warsaw that ultimately sealed their place at the 1938 finals
It was not luck but rather a concerted decision that put all four of the British home nations in the same qualifying group for Brazil 1950. England and Scotland dominated on the pitch, overcoming Wales and Northern Ireland to secure their places at the finals. In the same campaign, Yugoslavia avenged their previous failure by beating France in a tie-breaker.
Lady Luck did play another starring role in the preliminaries for Switzerland 1954, as Turkey took on Spain in a tie-breaker in Rome. The match ended in a draw, so it was down to a local boy named Luigi Gemma to draw lots to decide the winner. He picked out the Turks to hand them a surprise spot at the finals. Four years later, Italy’s place at Sweden 1958 appeared to be secure until the great Danny Blanchflower and Northern Ireland sprung a major upset. But the biggest surprise of the 1958 qualifying campaign was the defeat of Uruguay, who had lifted the trophy eight years earlier. La Celeste fell to a sensational 5-0 defeat in Asuncion against Paraguay, who secured their place at the finals with the victory.
Successful in one tournament, absent from the next
On the road to Chile 1962, Paraguay were forced into a play-off against the winner of the North and Central American section. Mexico turned out to be their opponents, and La Albirroja went into the match as clear favourites. However, El Tricolor upset the odds to secure an unlikely but fully-deserved place at the finals. Four years later, Yugoslavia – who finished fourth in Chile – found themselves level with France at the top of their qualifying group, with Norway close behind in third place. The group went all the way to the wire, but it was the French who eventually snatched top spot.
The most eagerly anticipated clash of the 1966 qualifying campaign, however, was that between Chile 1962 runners-up Czechoslovakia and Portugal, a side brimming with stars from double European Cup winners Benfica. Eusebio and Co proved too strong for Czechoslovakia and sealed their first appearance at world football’s showpiece event.
In the Mexico 1970 preliminaries, all eyes were on the ever-dangerous Argentina, and Peru, who boasted the talented trio of Teofilo Cubillas, Hector Chumpitaz and Ramon Mifflin. Peru surprised everyone with their displays, and achieved a draw in Buenos Aires to end the Albiceleste’s hopes of qualifying for the finals. In the European section, the tightest qualifying group was fought out between Spain, Yugoslavia and surprise package Belgium. Despite featuring several players from Real Madrid’s 1968/69 title-winning ye-ye generation, La Roja performed way below expectations and looked on as Belgium qualified for the main event in Mexico.
To read part two of this feature, which includes a host of other great matches and memorable upsets, click on the menu on the right.