Even when the World Cup draw takes place next week, three slots will unusually still be vacant. But the next week or so will see another 14 teams qualify for the tournament and enter the April 1 draw in Qatar. As it stands, only 15 of the 32 finalists have been determined for the Nov. 21-Dec. 18 tournament. They are: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Iran Netherlands, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, South Korea and Qatar as host.
Here is what is at stake in qualifying:
EUROPE Three qualifying berths are up for grabs in the playoffs starting Thursday, with most intrigue surrounding which of European champion Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal miss out. Or maybe even both. Only one country can advance from each of the three four-team brackets. Italy and Portugal have been drawn in the same bracket along with North Macedonia and Turkey. Italy hosts North Macedonia and Portugal is at home to Turkey in the semifinals, potentially setting up a straight shootout on Tuesday between two of the continent's heavyweights for a place in Qatar.
For the 37-year-old Ronaldo, it marks possibly his last shot at playing at a World Cup. For Italy, failing to reach the global showpiece — for what would be the second time in a row — would constitute a massive failure, and a remarkable comedown just eight months after winning Euro 2020. Russia's war with Ukraine is impacting the other two brackets. Russia was banned from competing in the playoffs, so Poland was awarded a bye into Tuesday's final, where the team will host either Sweden or the Czech Republic. Ukraine had been drawn to play Scotland but that match has been postponed until June. The other two teams in that bracket — Wales and Austria — will meet in Cardiff, with the winner having to wait up to three months before taking part in the playoff final.
SOUTH AMERICA Third-place Ecuador needs one win from its final two matches — at Paraguay and at home to Argentina — to be sure of qualifying. It could afford to lose both matches, depending on other results, and still reach Qatar. Ecuador is three points ahead of fourth place. Uruguay, Peru and Chile are tussling to finish fourth to take the last direct qualification spot, or fifth to go into an intercontinental playoff in June against the fifth-place team in Asian qualifying.
The Uruguayans could secure at least fourth place on Thursday by beating Peru at home if Chile fails to win at Brazil. Peru would leap ahead of Uruguay into fourth by winning in Montevideo. Chile's best hope of snatching qualification is by beating Brazil and Uruguay. Seventh-place Colombia can only qualify if it beats Bolivia and Venezuela and is helped by other results. There is still the unresolved matter of Brazil vs. Argentina. Both teams have already qualified but have their suspended encounter from Sept. 5 as requested by FIFA.
AFRICA The start of Africa's World Cup playoffs on Friday sees Mohamed Salah's Egypt face Sadio Mane's Senegal in the first leg in Cairo. It's a rematch of the African Cup of Nations final last month that saw Senegal win on penalties. It's one of five home-and-away contests determining which teams go to the World Cup. Mali has never qualified for a World Cup and has to face five-time tournament participant Tunisia to reach Qatar. Algeria and Cameroon are both trying to avoid missing out on a second straight World Cup. Congo, coached by the experienced Argentine Hector Cuper, takes on Morocco trying to reach the World Cup for the first time since its only appearance in 1974, when it played as Zaire. Ghana hosts Nigeria in the first leg of their West African derby. The second legs are on Tuesday.
CONCACAF Canada can clinch a spot at the World Cup for the first time since 1986 if it wins at Costa Rica on Thursday at the start of a triple-header. Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies remains sidelined with symptoms of myocarditis following a bout of COVID-19. The 21-year-old winger has not played in a match since Dec. 17. Canada leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 25 points and the U.S. is four points behind in second place, ahead of Mexico on goal difference.
Panama is four points further back in fourth, with a one-point edge on Costa Rica. El Salvador is seven points behind in sixth place. Jamaica and Honduras have been eliminated before the final three qualifiers. The U.S., trying to reach the World Cup after failing to qualify in 2018, plays Mexico on Thursday at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca, where the Americans have 12 losses and four draws in qualifying matches. The Americans then host Panama on Sunday at Orlando, Florida, and close March 30 at Costa Rica. The U.S. has lost its last nine qualifiers at Costa Rica, including a 4-0 rout in 2016 that led to the U.S. Soccer Federation firing coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
The U.S. would clinch a spot if it beats Panama and Costa Rica fails to win all three of its remaining games. Coach Gregg Berhalter is missing midfielders Weston McKennie (two broken bones in left foot) and Brenden Aaronson (knee injury), defenders Sergiño Dest (strained left thigh) and Chris Richards (right ankle), and goalkeeper Matt Turner (foot/ankle). Midfielder Andrés Guardado will miss Mexico's qualifiers, along with forward Rogelio Funes Mori and defender Julio César Domínguez. Guardado, Mexico's captain, injured a thigh playing for Betis against Atlético Madrid on March 6. Funes Mori has an injured right leg and has not played for Monterrey since March 5. Coach Tata Martino did not select Tigres defender Luis Rodríguez and Celta Vigo midfielder Orbelín Pineda, who have not been playing regularly for their clubs.
ASIA With Iran and South Korea qualified from Group A, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iraq are scrambling for third place and a shot at the playoff against a South American side. They will play the third-place team from Group B which no team has directly qualified from yet. Saudi Arabia has a one-point lead over Japan and would be sure of qualifying by beating China on Thursday before hosting Australia on Tuesday. Australia, which is three points from second place, is at home to Japan on Thursday. Japan then hosts already-eliminated last-place Vietnam on Tuesday. In Group A, the UAE could close in taking third by beating Iraq on Thursday before hosting South Korea. Lebanon, which is three points behind the UAE, hosts Syria and then plays away at Iran.
OCEANIA Coronavirus travel restrictions meant Oceania only started qualifying last week in Qatar and the mini-tournament has been hit by the withdrawal of Vanuatu, leaving Group A with only three teams. The top two from Groups A and B advance to semifinals on Sunday with the winner of the final next Wednesday advancing to play CONCACAF's fourth-place team in an intercontinental playoff in June. New Zealand qualified in 2010 as Oceania's last World Cup finalist.