Six of the best qualifiers on the road to Russia
Stunning comebacks and stoppage-time goals among qualifying highlights
Heroes included Messi, Torres, Kane and Badri
History made by the likes of Panama, Sweden and Syria
With the Final Draw taking place on Friday, FIFA.com looks back on six of the most memorable matches from the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ qualifiers.
PANAMA 2-1 COSTA RICA 10 October 2017, Estadio Rommel Fernandez Few saw this coming. Just days after being beaten 4-0 and leapfrogged by USA in the CONCACAF Zone standings, Panama reached their first-ever FIFA World Cup and left the Stars & Stripes facing up to a first qualifying failure in 32 years. Los Canaleros achieved their dream in dramatic circumstances too, battling back from a goal down against Costa Rica to snatch victory two minutes from time. Roman Torres was their unlikely hero, with the big centre-half galloping through like a seasoned centre-forward to volley in a goal that sparked delirium.
What they said “Panama’s experiencing a pure happiness right now that we’ve never had before. Roman Torres scoring the goal that sent Panama to the World Cup - it’s something that will never be erased from anybody’s memory.” Roman Torres, Panama defender
Did you know? Panama's president declared a national holiday in the wake of this victory, giving all private and public sector employees, and the nation’s schoolchildren, the day off to celebrate.
SWEDEN 2-1 FRANCE 9 June 2017, Friends Arena This titanic tussle between two European heavyweights match would be remembered for its spectacular goals. Olivier Giroud set the standard with a brilliant volleyed opener only for Sweden to respond in kind with a left-foot rocket from Jimmy Durmaz shortly before half-time. But the headlines would be made by Ola Toivonen, who grabbed an unforgettable winner three minutes into stoppage time, shooting home from inside his own half after snatching on a poor clearance from the out-of-position Hugo Lloris.
What they said “When I saw it was Ola who got the ball, my first thought was that he was going to score. This was one of those nights I think we will remember for the rest of our lives.” Janne Andersson, Sweden coach
Did you know? Sweden are the first European team to reach the World Cup having faced three former finalists during qualifying (France, the Netherlands and Italy).
ECUADOR 1-3 ARGENTINA 10 October 2017, Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa The stakes, and the pressure, could not have been any higher. Argentina had kicked off in Quito knowing that only a win would salvage their World Cup hopes, and within 38 seconds they were a goal down and in dire need of a hero. The stage was set for Lionel Messi, and he rose to the occasion, scoring a magnificent hat-trick to avert an unthinkable failure for the 2014 finalists and two-time champions.
What they said “Today, luckily, the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentine. Messi does not owe a World Cup to Argentina - football owes a World Cup to Messi. He is the best player in history.” Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina coach
Did you know? Messi’s hat-trick saw him become the all-time leading scorer in CONMEBOL Zone World Cup qualifiers with 21 goals. Later the same evening, that record was equalled by his Barcelona team-mate, Luis Suarez.
IRAN 2-2 SYRIA 5 September 2017, Azadi Stadium Despite the country remaining in the grip of a devastating six-year war, and the team needing to play its ‘home’ matches in Malaysia because of that ongoing conflict, Syria provided one of the Russia 2018 qualifiers' true fairy tales. Away to Iran, 2-1 down and with elimination beckoning, they somehow summoned the reserves to snatch a wildly celebrated 93rd-minute leveller through Omar Al Somah – himself returning to the team after a five-year exile. Although a play-off defeat to Australia denied the Syrians the happy ending many craved, theirs was one of the most memorable stories of this preliminary campaign.
What they said “I say to our fans: what we have achieved is not only an achievement, but a miracle.” Ayman Al Hakim, Syria coach
Did you know? Syria’s squad had to undertake a 14,000-mile round trip for their home matches in Malaysia.
CONGO DR 2-2 TUNISIA 5 September 2017, Stade de Martyrs Tunisia’s first World Cup in 12 years was ultimately secured by two goals in as many minutes. That was what rescued an unlikely draw from the jaws of seemingly inevitable defeat, and prevented hosts Congo DR from leapfrogging them at the top of Group A. The Eagles of Carthage were 2-0 down with just 13 minutes remaining when substitute Anice Badri emerged as their hero, firing in a shot that deflected in off Wilfred Moke before side-footing home a cool volleyed equaliser just seconds later. The draw proved crucial in helping Tunisia top the section, one point clear of Congo DR.
What they said “It's not easy to go two goals behind in Congo and then draw level the way we did. It wasn't luck either – it was the result of all the work put in at every level." Youssef Msakni, Tunisia forward
Did you know? Only Scotland (8) have participated in more World Cups without ever making it to the knockout stages than Tunisia (4).
SCOTLAND 2-2 ENGLAND 10 June 2017, Hampden Park International football was born when these sides met in 1872, and few matches that have passed since have produced a more breathless finale. Anyone who left early would have missed Leigh Griffiths, without a goal in his first 12 Scotland matches, open his account with a brilliant free-kick – then repeat the feat with an equally spectacular set piece in the 90th minute. That looked to have secured Scotland a famous victory until Harry Kane popped up three minutes into injury time to volley home an equliser, keeping England on course for Russia and dealing a telling blow to their auld enemy’s play-off hopes.
What they said “I have just seen Scotland’s best-ever free kick and Scotland’s second best-ever free kick.” Gordon Strachan, Scotland coach
Did you know? Kane’s 93rd-minute equaliser was not the latest goal he scored on the road to Russia. The England striker grabbed an equally important 94th-minute winner in the 1-0 victory over Slovenia four month later to secure the Three Lions’ World Cup place.