Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador have made impressive starts in South America
Syria are flying in Asia as several heavyweights struggle
Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire are in Africa's group of death
The qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ was hit by a number of organisational challenges in 2020. But with the action now under way in South America, and draws held by UEFA, CAF and CONCACAF, the path to the global finals has started to take shape in every confederation. FIFA.com takes a look at the state of play in each of the regions.
The year kicked off with the draw for the second round of qualifiers, which featured the 14 winners from round one and Africa's 26 highest-placed teams on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Those initial victors included Guinea-Bissau, who made history by finally passing the first obstacle in their home-and-away contest with Sao Tome and Principe. As for Djibouti, they sealed only their second-ever spot in round two by seeing off Eswatini – and avoiding an away defeat for the first time in a World Cup qualifier at the seventh attempt. Elsewhere, Emilio Nsue made headlines with the decisive goal for Equatorial Guinea, while Gerald Phiri struck a crucial late penalty for Malawi and 18-year-old Ashley Williams saved a spot-kick in added time for Liberia, helping them squeeze through with a 1-0 defeat in Sierra Leone following their 3-1 triumph at home.
The 40 remaining contenders have now been divided into ten groups. The ten group winners will progress to the third round, where they will be paired together in five home-and-away ties. The winners of those five ties will qualify for Qatar 2022.
Reigning African champions Algeria look to be the clear favourites in Group A, while a big name is guaranteed to miss out on the finals after Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire were both drawn in Group D. It is a similar story in Group G, where at least one of Ghana or South Africa are destined to watch the global showcase from afar. As for Senegal and their star forward Sadio Mane, the 2019 African Footballer of the Year will be looking to make his talent count against Congo, Namibia and former World Cup participants Togo.
The second round of qualifiers has already passed the halfway stage among the 40 teams divided into eight groups. So far, continental heavyweights Australia and Japan have shocked few by claiming a perfect record from their four games, but Syria have fared even better courtesy of five wins in five matches.
Familiar faces at World Cup finals, Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic have found the going more difficult, though both remain well placed. The Green Falcons now lie a point behind Uzbekistan but boast a game in hand, while the Taegeuk Warriors will need to roll up their sleeves to keep pace with surprise Group H leaders Turkmenistan. The situation appears trickier for IR Iran, who find themselves as low as third in Group C and have practically no room left for error.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up will advance to the third round, where they will be drawn into two groups of six teams. The top two in each section will secure tickets to Qatar 2022, while the two third-placed sides will meet in a play-off to determine who will represent Asia in an inter-continental playoff.
After four games, it is hard to draw any firm conclusions – and yet some obvious trends have already emerged. Top of the list is Brazil's dominant start thanks to four wins from four outings, their defence having conceded just twice while they have struck 12 goals at the other end. And this despite coach Tite needing to cope with injuries to Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho. A Seleçao are now unbeaten in their last 21 World Cup qualifiers and look set to extend their record of having appeared in all 21 editions of the final tournament.
Argentina are not far behind after posting three wins and a draw, and have also shipped just two goals, putting them level with Brazil as the continent's toughest side to breach. Their campaign so far has likewise underlined the talent of Lautaro Martinez up front, which could help coach Lionel Scaloni ease any dependence on Lionel Messi.
Third place in the table belongs to Ecuador, meanwhile, the surprise dark horses having recovered from a 1-0 loss away to Argentina in Gustavo Alfaro's first game in charge. Since then, he has transformed La Tri into a goalscoring machine, producing a 4-2 win against Uruguay, a 6-1 defeat of Colombia and a first victory in Bolivia since 2009. Ecuador will resist getting carried away, however, having won their first four matches on the road to Russia 2018 before ultimately falling short.
Fourth and still unbeaten after three draws and a win, Paraguay have profited from the goalscoring prowess of Angel Romero and his tally of four strikes.
Luis Suarez of Uruguay has also helped himself to a quartet of goals, notching each of them from the penalty spot. La Celeste now lie fifth after two wins and two defeats.
Having returned to the finals in 2018, Peru hope to repeat the experience in 2022. Ricardo Gareca's men have a tussle on their hands, however, picking up just one point from their first four matches.
Colombia are three points better off, but a 3-0 defeat by Uruguay and a 6-1 reverse against Ecuador led to Carlos Queiroz becoming the first coach to lose his job during the South American qualifiers.
Despite undergoing a period of transition, Reinaldo Rueda's Chile are still being driven forward by their veteran players, with their six goals shared out between Arturo Vidal (four) and Alexis Sanchez (two).
The dream for Venezuela is to finally shed the label of being the only CONMEBOL nation yet to qualify for a World Cup finals. Placing hope in several members of the squad that finished runners-up at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017, La Vinotinto clinched their first victory in their fourth game.
Bolivia went into the qualifiers with few illusions about their chances, but they were at least hoping to make home advantage count. Unfortunately, La Verde have lost both their games in La Paz and prop up the table.
Although the qualifiers are yet to begin in earnest, the draw for the first round took place in August. Based on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for July 2020, CONCACAF's 30 lowest-placed sides were split across six different groups.
The six group winners will face off in three predetermined home-and-away ties – and the victors in those jousts will then contest the third round along with the five highest-placed CONCACAF teams in the same FIFA Ranking (Costa Rica, USA, Honduras, Jamaica and Mexico). Those eight sides will play against each other home and away in a round-robin format and the top three nations will qualify for Qatar 2022, while the fourth-placed team will dispute an intercontinental play-off.
The qualifiers have likewise not started in Europe, where a draw on 7 December laid out the road ahead.
The ten group winners will qualify automatically for Qatar 2022 and the ten runners-up will enter the play-offs, which will also include the two best group winners from the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League who have not already qualified for the finals or play-offs. Those 12 teams will be divided into three qualifying paths, with knockout ties determining the three remaining European sides to reach the World Cup.
There have also been no qualifying matches between the OFC's 11 member associations: American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu. The region's top side after the qualifiers will contest an intercontinental play-off.