Next summer’s World Cup in Russia will be the 21st edition of the tournament and, up to now, every four years has seen at least one new country make its bow on the world stage. In 2014, Bosnia-Herzegovina were the sole debutants, but since the turn of the century, 15 national teams have made their first appearance, including Ecuador, Senegal, Ghana, Ukraine and Slovakia.
With the World Cup qualification rounds entering their final stages this week, let’s take a look at five countries which still harbour hopes of qualifying for FIFA’s greatest event for the first time in their history:
Syria’s problems over the last half-decade have been well-documented by the international press and it’s a minor miracle that the Qasioun Eagles still have a chance to emulate neighbouring Iraq by qualifying for a major tournament. Of course, no-one is predicting that Ayman Al Hakeem’s side will win the World Cup (the war-torn Iraqis memorably took home the Asian Cup in 2007) but if they come through a set of two-legged play-offs against Australia and CONCACAF’s fourth-best team, the World Cup will have another great story on its hands.
Homeless due to the multi-faceted conflict still raging across the country, Syria have been playing their ‘home’ fixtures 4,500 miles away in Malaysia, but this hasn’t affected the team who mustered an impressive qualifying campaign just four years after being disqualified from qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil. Inevitably, politics has entered the equation, with some accusing the team of championing the government’s cause, but it’s remarkable that Syria are still in with a chance, especially when the riches of China and Qatar are already out of contention.
Star man: Firas Al Khatib – The veteran captain has a goal-every-other-game scoring record at international level and has played his club football at some of Asia’s premier teams, including Shanghai Shenhua.
Chances: Unlikely. Australia have been poor by their recent standards, but lost just once in the group stages. The Socceroos will be clear favourites and, in the unlikely event the Syrians do pull off a shock this week, the USA, Honduras or Panama will lie in wait in November.
Even after their heroic Euro 2016 exploits, it’s still tempting to look upon Iceland as one of Europe’s minnows. The reality is that, under Lars Lagerback and now Heimir Hallgrímsson – who was joint manager with the Swede up until last summer – the team from the continent’s far north have established themselves as regular contenders for qualification. Four years ago, Gylfi Sigurdsson and co. enjoyed their best ever World Cup qualification campaign, finishing second in Group E behind Switzerland and narrowly losing to Croatia in a play-off.
In France, they entrenched themselves in the hearts of football fans across Europe, beating Austria and shocking England before exiting in a blaze of glory against the hosts in the quarter-finals. So, can 2018 be the year Iceland make their debut on the grandest stage of all? Should Hallgrímsson’s men qualify, they’ll easily be the smallest nation ever to play in a World Cup – the current holder of that title, Trinidad and Tobago has a population four times larger than Iceland.
Star man: Gylfi Sigurdsson – the Everton star takes up four positions on the list of the top 10 most expensive Icelandic footballers of all time and is integral to everything the side does.
Chances: Good. Iceland currently sit second in a close Group I, behind old nemesis Croatia on goal difference. That means they need four points to secure at least a spot in the dreaded play-offs, but the next game – away to Turkey – could prove problematic. Gain a positive result and, with Croatia and 4th placed Ukraine facing off on 9th October and Iceland due to play at home against bottom-of-the-table Kosovo, the Viking Thunder Clap could well be getting an airing in Russia next summer.
Los Canaleros – the Canal Men – came within seconds of qualifying for the play-off for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Leading 2-1 after 90 minutes against the USA, Panama were set to finish above North American powerhouses Mexico on goals scored and set up a tie with New Zealand. But two goals in injury time, from Graham Zusi and Aron Johansson, meant the Americans saved their rivals from an ignominious exit and left the Panamanians ruing what might have been.
Four years on, however, and the picture is looking much rosier. Currently third in the ‘Hex’ – the final CONCACAF qualifying round – Panama have been solid if unspectacular, scoring seven and conceding five in their eight games so far. A point ahead of the US and Honduras, two wins from their final two games will secure an automatic berth in Russia, although four points may also be enough.
Star man: Román Torres – one of a number of MLS-based players in the Panama squad, Torres recently passed 100 caps and scored a key late equaliser in a home draw with Honduras.
Chances: Panama are in a strong position, although whether that’s down to the US’s poor form so far is up for debate. Los Canaleros have won just twice and may have to double that tally to qualify for their first World Cup. The trouble is, they have to make a trip to the States before hosting second-placed Costa Rica. They may have to settle for a play-off against either Australia or Syria.
Africa hasn’t had a World Cup debutant since 2006, when Ivory Coast, Ghana, Angola and Togo all made their bow, to varying degrees of success. When the competition expands to 48 teams in 2026, the CAF confederation will be one of the main beneficiaries, but, for now, Burkina Faso are leading the charge when it comes to breaking the boundaries.
The Burkinabes – who represent a nation of 17 million people – were narrowly edged out by Algeria in a play-off for Brazil 2014, but it’s in the Africa Cup of Nations where the team has really made its mark, finishing as runners-up to Nigeria in 2013 and taking the bronze medal in Gabon earlier this year.
Star man: Bertrand Traore – the former Chelsea and Ajax forward now plies his trade at Lyon and, despite a quiet start to his international career, should be the long-term successor to currently injured talisman Jonathan Pitroipa.
Chances: Very good, although dealt a blow by FIFA’s recent decision to have the South Africa v Senegal match replayed. South Africa won the original game, but the referee has been given a lifetime ban, meaning the Senegalese now have the chance to leapfrog Burkina Faso back to the top of the group. With only one spot in the finals to play for, Burkina Faso have understandably appealed the decision, but will be confident of winning their remaining games against Cape Verde and South Africa to give themselves a fighting chance of making it to Russia regardless.
Another African nation vying for qualification are Burkina Faso’s group opponents, Cape Verde. Although this tiny island nation has long had a penchant for producing very good footballers – ex-Manchester United winger Nani was born there, as were Gelsons Fernandes and Martins – most have opted to play for Portugal, the former colonial occupants. African Cup of Nations qualifications in 2013 and 2015 were evidence of a bright new crop, though, and, after four games, the Blue Sharks sit second in their group, with more than a decent shot at playing on the global stage for the very first time.
Star man: Garry Rodrigues. The 26 year-old Galatasaray winger netted twice in Durban as Cape Verde completed the double over 2010 hosts South Africa.
Chances: Again, this depends on the fallout from the decision to replay the South Africa v Senegal match. Should Senegal win that replay, Cape Verde’s chances would be severely hit. If Burkina Faso’s appeal is successful, however, the island nation’s fate will be in their hands: beat Senegal in Praia in October and win in Ouagadougou in November and it’ll be party time in the Atlantic archipelago.
Several other African nations, including 2012 African champions Zambia, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon and a dangerous Uganda are also in contention to make it, but face tough qualifiers this week against Nigeria, Morocco and Ghana, which could dash their hopes.
Stay tuned for some more World Cup-related posts as we get closer to the tournament.