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World Cup qualification getting harder by the year

22 November, 2007

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HAMBURG: The World Cup hasn’t always been such a globally popular event as now with two years of qualifying rounds necessary to reduce the 205 competing countries for the 2010 event down to the 32 that will eventually compete in South Africa.

A qualifying system wasn’t necessary for the inaugural World Cup in 1930 with just 13 teams - nine from the Americas and four from Europe - competing against each other in an invitational tournament in Uruguay.

Although many European countries refused to travel for a variety of reasons, the event generated huge interest. A 93,000 crowd was in the brand-new Centenario Stadium in Montevideo for the final on July 17, Uruguay’s Independence Day, to see the hosts defeat Argentina 4-2 in a rematch of the 1928 Olympic final.

Four years later, a total of 32 teams entered the competition, requiring FIFA to implement qualification rounds to reduce that number to 16 teams for the finals in Italy.

For the only time in World Cup history, the hosts also had to qualify while defending champions Uruguay refused to travel to protest the lukewarm reception for the tournament by European teams four years previously.

In 1938, a total of 37 teams fought it out for the 16 berths available with title holders Italy and host country France qualifying automatically.

Spain had to withdraw due to the Spanish Civil War while qualified Austria’s annexation by Germany meant only 15 teams ended up competing in the finals.

World War II meant the next World Cup didn’t take place until 1950 with 34 teams entering qualification rounds looking to secure one of the 16 spots in the finals. Hosts Brazil and defending champions Italy qualified automatically, leaving 14 places available.

England participated for the first time but Scotland, Turkey and India all withdrew after qualifying, leaving only 13 teams to compete in the final tournament.

The number of participating teams increased again four years later with 45 teams battling it out in the qualification rounds. Turkey became the only team to gain a place in the World Cup through the drawing of lots over Spain.

The 1958 event in Sweden saw a total of 55 countries looking for qualification with FIFA dividing the teams into continental zones for the first time. A rule was also introduced meaning a team had to play a match in order to qualify as previously countries qualified for World Cups due to withdrawals of their opponents.

As a result, Israel, who won the African and Asian zone in this way, were forced into a losing play-off against Wales.

The same zonal qualifying system was used for the 1962 World Cup in Chile with 56 teams entering qualification rounds, while four years a total of 74 teams fought to make it to the 1966 finals in England.

In 1970, there were 75 competing teams, including Israel, who qualified for their only World Cup as an Asian/Oceania team, beating Australia and New Zealand. Today Israel competes in the European zone.

The number of teams looking to make the finals rose to 99 for the 1974 event in Germany, increasing further to 107 four years later in Argentina.

FIFA decided to increase the number of spots from 16 to 24 for the 1982 World Cup in Spain with qualifying tournaments held in the six FIFA continental zones (Africa, Asia, North and Central America and Caribbean, South America, Oceania, Europe).

A total of 121 teams contested the qualification rounds for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico while 116 competed to make it to the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Chile was one of those countries looking to make it to Italia 90 but needed to beat Brazil in a qualifying match.

Midway through the second half, Brazil led 1-0 when suddenly Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas collapsed with an apparent head injury caused by a firework thrown from the stands. Rojas was stretchered off the pitch and the Chilean players and coaches refused to return.

But video footage showed that the firework never touched Rojas so FIFA awarded Brazil a 2-0 win and banned Chile from the qualifiers of the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

With 147 countries entering qualification for the 1994 event, African teams were guaranteed three places for the first time thanks to the performance of African teams in Italy.

FIFA increased the number of teams in the finals to 32 for the 1998 World Cup in France, for which 174 teams entered the qualification rounds. For the first time, the South American qualifiers were held in a single group.

The 2002 World Cup was co-hosted for the first time with Japan and South Korea automatically qualifying alongside holders France, leaving 29 spots open for the 199 teams that entered the qualification rounds.

In 2006, for the first time ever the defending champions did not qualify automatically meaning Brazil were one of the 197 countries battling to join hosts Germany at the finals.

Similarly, the qualification process for the 2010 World Cup sees only hosts South Africa qualify automatically with the six FIFA confederations allocated a share of the remaining 31 spots according to the strength of their teams.

Currently, Europe (UEFA) has 13 places, Africa (CAF) six (including South Africa), South America (CONMEBOL) 4.5, Asia (AFC) 4.5, North, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) 3.5 and places Oceania (OFC) 0.5 places.

The qualification process for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa commenced in August meaning that by the time the qualifying draw is made in Durban on November 25, 2007, 34 teams will already have been eliminated.

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