FIFA World Cup™

Qualifying tales through the ages

The first FIFA World Cup™ qualifier was contested by Sweden and Estonia on 11 June 1933, and in the 78 years since, the qualifying matches for the biggest football show on Earth have produced plenty of incident and talking points. rounds up some of the unusual facts, anecdotes and stories that the qualifying competitions have thrown up over the years.

*In the beginning *
No preliminary matches were necessary for Uruguay 1930, though it was a different story for Italy 1934, with so many teams entering that a qualifying round had to be held, from which not even the host nation were exempt. Coached by the great Vittorio Pozzo, the Italians were drawn against Greece and averted the danger of missing out on their own competition with a handsome 4-0 win, the first step on the road to their maiden world title.

That year's competition also saw the only World Cup qualifying match between two nations, other than the hosts, to be held in the country staging the competition. The two teams in question were CONCACAF foes Mexico and USA, who faced off in Rome just a few days before the start of the competition, with the Stars and Stripes pulling off a wholly unexpected 4-2 victory, all of their goals scored by Aldo Donelli.

The big story on the road to France '38 was the qualification of Dutch East Indies, a former colony of the Netherlands that since became Indonesia. Joining them there were Cuba, making their one and only finals appearance to date. Curiously, neither side had to play a game to reach France, with both their qualification rivals withdrawing. Twelve years later India charted the same route to Brazil 1950, only to pull out of the competition themselves as the rules prohibited their players from playing barefoot in the finals.

Taking part in the qualifying competition for Switzerland 1954 was Saarland, a region of Germany situated on the border with France but which was a nominally independent protectorate at the time. Coached by future World Cup winner Helmut Schoen, they overcame Norway before losing to West Germany, to whose control the territory would return in 1957. It was during the same competition that Turkey earned a place in the finals for the first time, advancing at the expense of play-off rivals Spain after lots were drawn.

Disputes, protests and curses
The first play-off between teams from different zones took place in the preliminaries for Sweden 1958, with Wales overcoming Israel to make the world finals for the one and only time to date. After a relatively uneventful qualifying tournament for Chile 1962, the road to England 1966 witnessed the first mass boycott as the African nations pulled out in protest at not having a guaranteed berth in the finals. Profiting from that decision were Korea DPR, who booked their place after winning the Asian Zone.

The biggest flashpoint in the Mexico 1970 preliminaries was the so-called Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras, which had little to do with football but was triggered after a match between the two countries. Political problems resurfaced once more four years later when the Soviet Union refused to meet Chile in a play-off on ideological grounds, leaving the South Americans free to advance to Germany 1974.

A surprising trend began in qualifying for Argentina 1978, with at least one of the top four teams from the previous competition failing to reach the next one. With the exception of Mexico 1986, the curse ran until South Africa 2010, where the semi-finalists at Germany 2006 (Italy, France, Germany and Portugal) all put in an appearance, although the French and Portuguese only scraped through after play-offs.

The confederations of Asia and Oceania were merged for the first and only time in the Spain 1982 qualifiers, with New Zealand and Kuwait advancing to the big stage. Twenty years later Australia scored the biggest win in World Cup qualifying history when they thrashed American Samoa 31-0. The preliminaries for South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 also proved especially arduous for teams who have never reached the world finals, with Slovakia in 2010 and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014 the only first-timers to successfully make their way through the qualifying tournament.

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