The draw for next summer’s intercontinental playoff matches to reach the World Cup finals in Qatar were announced, with CONCACAF’s fourth place team having a likely matchup with New Zealand for a spot.
The current system in place for intercontinental playoffs, which differs from previous editions, consists of single-game, neutral-site matchups between the final qualifiers from North America, South America, Oceania and Asia for the last two spots.
The pairings, drawn at random, saw both the CONCACAF and the OFC representatives dodge a bullet by avoiding what will likely be a strong fifth-place team from the CONMEBOL region.
For CONCACAF, the the current eight-team standings have bifurcated into a top and bottom tier after eight of 14 games have been played, each consisting of four teams. This means that either the United States, Canada, Mexico or Panama team will likely go into the playoff. The four teams are currently separated by two points, with the Canadians on top.
All things considered, the current fourth-place team Panama is the most likely to be forced into the playoff, as they have a tough final six games including trips to Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States, as well as a difficult home game against the current leaders in the finale.
While currently in a strong position, things could still go pear-shaped for the Gregg Berhalter’s squad as they still have to visit both Mexico and Canada, and even a single blown result against one of the lesser teams in the group could put the team at risk.
The OFC qualifiers have yet to begin, due to delays stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, but will consist of a qualifying tournament of 11 teams in Qatar in March. Barring a major upset, the representative will almost certainly be New Zealand.
In the other intercontinental playoff, the fifth-place team from the CONMEBOL region will face off against a representative of the AFC.
The race for fifth in South America is still up in the air, as only Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack enough to be considered favorites to go through. Several likely candidates for fifth are Colombia, Peru, Chile and Uruguay, with Bolivia and Paraguay still having long-shot hopes.
In Asia, a likely scenario would see either Japan or Australia end up in the playoff, although with four games left in the current phase, several other teams, such as the United Arab Emirates, are still in contention.
The single-game playoff matches between the regions are scheduled to take place on either June 13 or 14, in a neutral site yet to be determined.
The playoff draw also included the pairings for the UEFA playoffs, set to take place over two games in the March international window, where the twelve second-place finishers in the recently-completed group play will be whittled down to a final three representatives.
The most eye-popping result is that only one of Italy and Portugal, the two most recent winners of the UEFA European Championship, will be able to reach Qatar. While both are seeded in the first round, they were drawn into the same bracket for the second game, meaning that one squad will be watching the proceedings next November and December from their sofas.