The FIFA World Cup kicks off long before the global festival of the finals. Its first steps are humble, as part-time players from long-shot nations lace up their boots with stars in their eyes. Thursday 15 January marks the first official step on that road to Russia 2018 when CONCACAF, the governing body for football in North, Central America and the Caribbean, conduct their preliminary qualifying draw in Miami, Florida.
The major powers in the region, like USA, Mexico and Costa Rica, will be little more than marginally aware. But for the so-called minnows – those with only the glimmer of a hope of reaching the finals – the dream begins.
Although CONCACAF has 41 member associations, only 35 participate in World Cup qualifying. They vie for 3.5 qualifying spots. Three come via direct qualification while one more spot is available for the fourth place finisher, should they emerge victorious in an inter-continental play-off.
The draw on Thursday will place the 14 lowest-ranked teams in CONCACAF into two pots, with opponents selected at random. Those 14 teams will then play in seven home-and-away series in late March of 2015, making them some of the first games en route to the World Cup finals scheduled for the summer of 2018 in faraway Russia.
"CONCACAF's stellar performance in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has certainly set the stage for the first qualifying round towards Russia,” CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb told FIFA.com, pointing to Costa Rica’s incredible run to the quarter-finals in Brazil, where Mexico and USA also reached the knockout rounds. The proud Cayman Islander added: “As we reflect on our achievements from Brazil, I am certain that other federations will find inspiration to reach into their own untapped potential, as they begin their journey to Russia 2018."
The seven winners from the first round will move on to Round Two in June of 2015. There they will compete in home-and-away series with the 13 nations ranked 9 to 21 in the region. The final batch of home-and-away series takes place in August 2015 when the ten winners from Round Two join the seventh and eighth ranked teams from CONCACAF in six two-game series in late August.**
Aiming for the groups
Two round-robin group stages follow. The first, Round Four, takes place from November 2015 to September 2016 and pits the top six teams in the region as of August 2014 – Costa Rica, Mexico, United States, Honduras, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago – enter the fray. Round Five, the final round known as the Hexagonal, will take place from November 2016 to October 2017 and will see six teams engage in round-robin play for the three direct spots to Russia, and one potential fourth
Ten teams from the CONCACAF region have qualified for the World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1930. The region counts among its ranks some of the smallest competing members of the FIFA family. The likes of Anguilla, Nicaragua and the two Virgin Islands clusters have a long road before them, and only a glimmer of hope. But as of right now, they are alive and so are their dreams.