The World Cup intercontinental playoff for the remaining places in the World Cup finals has changed throughout the years since its first edition.
Every four years, the World Cup qualifiers would be completed in one or more games via a playoff round featuring teams from various continents. In the final round, they would compete for the remaining spots. The final two spots to Qatar 2022 will be available this year to the two winners of the intercontinental playoffs, which will be decided this month. Peru, a CONMEBOL representative, are battling against the winner of the AFC playoff round, either Australia or the United Arab Emirates for the first place. In the meantime, the team that finished fourth in the final standings of CONCACAF qualifiers, Costa Rica, and Oceania champions, New Zealand, are locking horns for the second one. Unlike the previous editions, both games will be held in Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Qatar in a one-legged match instead of the usual two-legged fixtures.
Each of those two berths has already been seeded in the world cup final draw in April 2022. Peru/Australia/UAE is set to be grouped with the reigning Champions, France, Denmark, and Tunisia, whereas Costa Rica/New Zealand is bound to join group E alongside Spain, Germany, and Japan.
World Cup Intercontinental Playoff: Evolution
This cross-continent playoff, as a matter of fact, began by accident. It was rather uncalled for in World Cup 1958 qualifiers with Israel in the spotlight.
Last 2⃣ FIFA #WorldCup 2⃣0⃣2⃣2⃣ berths to be decided at Qatar’s 🇶🇦 Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium 🏟️. Intercontinental playoffs on 13 and 14 June between 🇦🇺 or 🇦🇪 v. 🇵🇪 and 🇨🇷 v. 🇳🇿 will kick-off ⚽️ at 21.00 local time ➡️ https://t.co/iVTPYbOcU7 pic.twitter.com/1xnAuYzBUi
— FIFA Media (@fifamedia) May 4, 2022
At the time, the Middle East’s political situation was culminating due to the Arab-Israel War in 1948, followed by the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. Back then, Israel was a member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The AFC qualifier was previously combined with the CAF qualifier. As a result, many Muslim countries in the region, including Egypt, Sudan, and Turkey, refused to play Israel, allowing them to advance to the final stage of the qualifier without having played a single match.
Indonesia was the remaining team to beat in the last fixture. They did not refuse to play, but rather proposed playing the game on neutral ground rather than the traditional home and away format. Unfortunately for them, FIFA rejected their proposal, as it clearly favored Israel. However, because it was deemed unfair, the world football governing body would not allow a team to qualify for the World Cup final without playing a single game. As a result, FIFA chose a match against a UEFA team. It was chosen by drawing lots among the qualifying round runners-up from all groups. Wales turned out to be the lucky one. They were able to dismantle Israel 4-0 on aggregate and make their first and only world cup appearance so far. They were the first-ever team to reach the World Cup final through the international playoff.
International Playoffs with UEFA sides
FIFA then scheduled three playoff games involving teams from various confederations in the World Cup 1962 qualifying round. Two of them included European countries, Spain and Yugoslavia. They only needed to encounter Morocco and South Korea. In the other match, Mexico and Paraguay were squaring off for the last berth. Spain and Yugoslavia had no difficulty sealing the tickets to Chile while Mexico struggled to defeat the South American side, only securing a 1-0 win on aggregate.
The UEFA teams continued to compete in the playoffs, but for only two World Cups, Mexico 1986 and Japan-Korea 2002. Scotland won over Australia 2-0 on aggregate in the former while the Republic of Ireland clinched their ticket in the latter after edging Iran 2-1 on aggregate. In the other editions in between, UEFA did not have a berth in the international playoffs. In fact, such was not even held for qualification from World Cups 1966 to 1982. This was due to the fact that the Asia and Oceania qualifying round was combined.
Intercontinental Playoffs without UEFA Teams
Since Germany 2006, UEFA has no longer been involved in such playoffs. The berths have been given to CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, AFC, and OFC sides. There have always been two games featuring one team from each confederation. Australia and Uruguay have been the most frequent teams taking part in that playoff. The Socceroos participated in 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2014, while La Celeste did so in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014. Both even faced off back-to-back to fight over one ticket to the 2002 and 2006 final rounds. Diego Forlan and Co won the spot to Japan-Korea while Harry Kewell’s side retaliated in the following edition. This year, New Zealand has secured its fourth intercontinental playoffs after 2010, 2014, and 2018 consecutively. This could be their last one as OFC is set to be guaranteed one spot in the 2026 edition of the FIFA World Cup.