The FIFA World Cup™ is the biggest show on earth; the holy grail for players from every corner of the globe. Before the international elite can convene at football's top table, however, titanic battles are fought by some of the game's top nations merely for the right to be there.
As the Russia 2018 qualifying campaign rumbles on, FIFA.comis looking back at the individual brilliance and never-to-be forgotten upsets that have defined preliminary campaigns of the past.
Few qualifiers down the years have been more dramatic than the classic encounter that Abidjan hosted in September 2005, when Cameroon's Indomitable Lions spoiled the party Côte d'Ivoire had organised to celebrate a first-ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals.
The Summary * 4 September 2005, Stade Houphouet-Boigny, Abidjan
*Côte d'Ivoire 2-3 Cameroon Scorers: Côte d'Ivoire (Drogba 38, 47); Cameroon (Webo 30, 44, 87) Côte d'Ivoire: Gnanhouan, Boka, K Toure, Zokora, Zoro (Meite 57), Domoraud, Guel (Fae 46), B Kalou, Tiene (Demel 85), Drogba, Dindane.
Cameroon: Hamidou, Song, Kalla, Wome (Atouba 77), Fotso Njitap, Saidou, Makoun (Meyong Ze 81), Olembe (Djemba Djemba 70), Webo, Douala, Eto'o.
*The Stakes * When the draw for the African preliminaries for the 2006 World Cup were first conducted in Zurich, it was expected that Group 3 would produce an absorbing tussle for top spot between Cameroon and Egypt. There were sympathetic words, meanwhile, for an up-and-coming Ivorian side, who for all their potential were not considered to have a realistic chance of challenging these continental giants, having failed to even qualify for the 2004 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia.
Yet it did not take long for the pecking order to be turned on its head. Such had been the Ivorians' impact on the group, in fact, that by the time they played host to second-placed Cameroon in their penultimate qualifier, Les Elephants knew that a win would take them to Germany 2006 with a game to spare. Desperate Cameroon, meanwhile, knew that anything other than a victory would effectively end their hopes of a fifth successive appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals.
*The Story * It was an afternoon of nervous expectation, the tension given an added edge by the stifling humidity and raggedy look of the Stade Houphouet-Boigny. The stadium was packed to the rafters and then some, with spectators spilling over into the stairwells, aisles and every other vantage point they could find.
The Ivorian fans beat their drums hypnotically, but there was also an air of anxiety. With Les Elephants' first-choice goalkeeper Jean Jacques Tizie injured, Gerard Gnanhouan was a controversial replacement and the selection of captain Tchiressoa Guel - without a club at the time - also raised more than a few eyebrows. On the half-hour mark, the worst fears of these fans were realised when the normally reliable Kolo Toure committed a defensive clanger, leaving Achille Webo to break the deadlock with a deft lob.
Drogba, who had passed up the first real chance in the sixth minute, did not take long to bring the hosts back level, set up by the wing play of Aruna Dindane in the 38th minute. However, on the stroke of half-time, the home fans were silenced once again as Eto'o, Salomon Olembe and Jean Makoun combined to set up a headed goal for Webo.
Again, the Ivorians came storming back and, predictably, Drogba led the charge, magically curling home a long-range free kick to set the crowd off into refrains of their national anthem. It seemed that the Lions' chance might have gone, and when Guy Demel was brought on to shore up the home defence for the final five minutes, it was clear that coach Henri Michel had decided to settle for a draw and look to the Ivorians' final match in Sudan to make sure of qualification.
Few would have envisaged the dramatic conclusion provided when Tunisia referee Mourad Daami awarded Cameroon a free-kick three minutes from the end. Geremi Fotso Njitap stepped up to blast in one of his trademark shots and when the ball rebounded against the crossbar, Webo headed home to complete his hat-trick in the melee that followed. Cameroon had stolen a dramatic winner at the death.
*The Star * Pierre Achille Webo Kouamo, to give him his full name, was the latest in a long-standing list of strike partners for Eto'o. While injuries and inconsistent form blighted the later years of his international career, that afternoon in Abidjan remains a career highlight and has given him almost mythical status in his homeland.
*They Said * "A fantastic game. You have no idea what the three points meant to us. We were quietly confident before the match ands we knew we had top be determined if we were to continue to have the dream of going to the World Cup.
*Cameroon's goal hero Achille Webo *
*What happened next... * Amazingly, having seemingly done the hard work, Cameron threw away the chance they had engineered to claim a place at Germany 2006. A win in their final qualifier at home to Egypt would have been enough to see them through to a fifth successive final, and they seemed well on the way when Rudolph Douala settled their nerves with an early. However, panic set in when Mohamed Shawky was allowed to grab an equaliser 11 minutes from the end, silencing the party that had been going on in the stands.
Cameroon desperately pushed forward in search of a winner and were handed a lifeline when they were awarded a stoppage-time penalty. It proved to be the last kick of the game but Pierre Wome's fateful strike hit the upright and bounced away to safety. The Ivorians had beaten Sudan just moments earlier and were waiting in the centre circle at Omdurman to hear the result from Yaounde, bursting into a frenzy of celebrations when the news came through.