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 second of a two-part series, FIFA.com looks back at some of the most memorable matches from past qualifying campaigns, including times when fancied teams realised that their journey to the finals might not be as straightforward as they had hoped.
One step from changing history
Few could forget the great Dutch side of Germany 1974, but did you know that they very nearly failed to qualify for the tournament at all? The Netherlands finished level with Belgium at the top of their qualifying group, with only goal difference putting them through to the finals. In the same campaign, England’s hopes of qualifying were shattered by a Poland side that featured the talents of Grzegorz Lato and Wadyslaw Zmuda. Elsewhere, Mexico lost 4-0 to Trinidad and Tobago in one of the biggest upsets in FIFA World Cup qualifying history. In the end, though, it was Haiti who qualified for the 1974 finals, beating the Soca Warriors 2-1 in Port-au-Prince along the way.
The preliminary draw for Argentina 1978 produced another heavyweight clash, this time with Italy and England sharing the same qualifying group. The campaign was once again to end in tears for the Three Lions, whose failure to qualify was made all the more painful by the fact that only goal difference denied them a place at the finals. There was no such disappointment for Spain, however, as they finally overcame their bogey team, Yugoslavia, to secure a trip to Argentina.
With the number of teams increased to 24 for the Spain 1982 finals, the preliminaries were more competitive than ever before. Two-time runners-up the Netherlands were handed a group that included near rivals Belgium and a talented French side, and the sands of time caught up with the Dutch, as they failed to qualify for the main event. In the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone, Mexico were once again left to reflect on what might have been. The competition was held in Honduras, where a Mexican side featuring Hugo Sanchez finished behind the hosts and El Salvador to miss out on a finals berth.
The Mexico 1986 qualifying competition featured a match between Scotland and Wales that remains one of the most memorable encounters in World Cup qualifying history. The match ended in a draw, which was enough to secure Scotland a play-off against Australia, but ended in tragedy with the death of legendary manager Jock Stein.
The road to Italy 1990 proved to be a rocky one for France. The Mexico 1986 semi-finalists never recovered from a poor start and finished the qualifying campaign behind Yugoslavia and Scotland. Four years later, in another unforgettable encounter, France conceded a last-minute goal to lose 2-1 at home to Bulgaria when a draw would have been enough to see them through to USA 1994.
Revenge and joy
It was also during the USA 1994 preliminaries that Japan suffered one of the biggest blows in their football history, conceding a last-minute goal against Iran to send Korea Republic to the finals. The Samurai Blue exacted revenge four years later, however, with a now-legendary 2-0 win against their arch rivals in Seoul. In South America, Bolivia achieved an historic qualification for USA 1994 by beating Brazil 2-0, with both goals coming in the last two minutes.
The biggest story in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002 was the Netherlands’ failure to reach the finals, losing out as they did to Luis Figo’s Portugal and Roy Keane’s Republic of Ireland. Elsewhere, England inflicted a 5-1 defeat on Germany in Munich that ultimately forced their old rivals into the play-offs. In Africa, Senegal sprung a major surprise by qualifying from a group that featured some of the continent’s most feared opponents.
Germany 2006’s preliminary competition produced an enthralling four-way tussle between France, Switzerland, Israel and Republic of Ireland. The group was decided almost right at the very end, with France eventually clinching top spot and with it a place at the finals. However, the real drama was to be found in the African section. With the exception of Tunisia, all of the teams that qualified for Korea/Japan 2002 failed to reach the showpiece event in Germany.
Interestingly, the qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010 created the fewest surprises, although it is worth noting England’s concern at being drawn alongside Croatia – the side that denied them a place at UEFA EURO 2008. As it turned out, their fears were groundless and Fabio Capello’s men qualified with relative ease.
A clash of the titans
When Portugal and Sweden were drawn together in the European zone play-offs for a place in Brazil 2014, FIFA Ballon d'Or nominees Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were pitted against each other. The first leg saw Ronaldo help his side take a slender lead to Solna.
The tie burst to life in the final quarter, with Ronaldo finishing a swift breakaway. However, Ibrahimovic scored two quickfire goals to put Sweden level on aggregate. Ronaldo, though, was not finished. He broke free of the Swedish defence once more to grab his second before rounding Andreas Isaksson to complete a stunning hat-trick.
A breathless half-hour of football saw two of the games' finest players grab five goals. Zlatan's response to defeat? "One thing is for sure: a World Cup without me is not worth watching."
Part one of this feature includes a host of other great matches and memorable upsets.