The World Cup table is ready, and the places are all set. The greatest spectacle in football is here, albeit a few months late. The sweltering heat of Qatar made it impossible for a regular June slot, so here we are, preparing for a winter, rather than a summer, of football. We were all hoping for World Cup action in the summer, but instead we'll have to be satisfied with the UEFA Nations League.
Qualifying is almost done now. And here's how the scenario looks. We are only eight months away before stadiums officially begin accepting passionate fans.
UEFA (Europe) - 13 World Cup slots
UEFA has the biggest share of the pie, with as many as 13 World Cup slots. European sides have won 12 of 21 World Cup titles, including the last four in a row. Between 1962 and 2002, Europe and South America shared the trophy in alternate years. But since then, it's been rather one-sided. Argentina did make the final in 2014, but Mario Gotze put paid to Messi's World Cup dreams. The 2006 final was Italy and France; in 2010 it was Spain and Netherlands; in 2018, France beat Croatia for the title. European teams have been bolstered over the years by heavy funding, and their national sides' performances reflect that.
Qualified: Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Croatia, England, Germany, Poland Portugal
Can qualify: Wales, Scotland, Ukraine
Major missing: Italy, Sweden, Turkey, Iceland, Russia
The process of qualification in UEFA is that all the teams are divided into 10 groups. The group winners all qualify directly for the World Cup finals. The 10 runners-up, along with two top performers from the Nations League, get into the second round of qualifying, where three spots remain up for grabs.
These 12 teams are divided into three sections of four teams each. Each section plays semi-finals and a final to decide which team makes it into the competition.
Italy and Portugal were among the big names who missed out on direct qualification. As luck would have it, they also poised for a head-on battle with Portugal for a place at the World Cup. In the play-off semi-finals, however, Alexander Trajkovski's late strike put North Macedonia in the final at Italy's expense. It meant Italy would miss a second consecutive World Cup final, conspiracy theories notwithstanding. Portugal beat North Macedonia to secure a place at the World Cup. In the other bracket, Russia were disqualified in the fallout from their invasion of Ukraine. Poland were given a bye and they beat Sweden in the play-off final for a place in Qatar. The third bracket will not give us a result yet, as Ukraine's games are postponed due to the war situation. Scotland await them in the semi-final, and should they win, Wales will be their opponents.
CAF (Africa) - 5 World Cup slots
The next largest contingent at the World Cup is from Africa, with five slots. Historically, no team from Africa has even reached the semi-finals of the competition. They are regulars in the Round of 16 and even quarter-finals now.
The likes of Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana have done well in recent years, and they are rising stars who can go further this time around. Senegal are probably best-placed, with a strong squad that includes quality players such as Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy and Idrissa Gueye.
Qualified: Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia
Major missing: Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, Gabon, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso
The qualification process this time involved 54 teams. The top 26 teams were given a bye to the second round of qualifying. The remaining 28 teams, were drawn into a direct play-off. The 14 winners, along with the 26 members who got a bye, were all divided into 10 groups of four nations each. The group winners then qualified for the third and final round. This was another play-off round, with teams directly drawn against each other and the winners going to the World Cup.
Senegal and Egypt were drawn against each other, and the former prevailed on penalties. Cameroon, meanwhile, beat Algeria on away goals rule. The first leg was an Algeria win, and the second leg needed extra-time for a result. It was a similar story with Ghana, who beat Nigeria on away goals after two draws. Morocco were held to a 1-1 draw by DR Congo in the first leg, but roared back with a 4-1 win in the second leg. For Tunisia, a first leg goal was enough to see off Mali's challenge. In the second round, Camerron saw off Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt fended off Gabon's challenge, and Ghana just about kept South Africa out.
COMNEBOL (South America) - 4/5 World Cup slots
South America has only about 10 teams, but they have produced three nations that have won the World Cup more than once. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have, of course, qualified for this year's World Cup, and the previous winners would very much like to make another attempt at one. Brazil are currently the numero uno in FIFA rankings. The five-time World Cup winners faced humiliation at home. A 7-1 loss at the Maracana to Germany in the 2014 semi-final. Germany then went on to defeat Argentina in the final. Neither made the semi-final in 2018, but both are stronger, and along with regular knockout appearance maker Uruguay, would aim to make waves. This might be the last last World Cup for Argentina's Lionel Messi and Brazil's Thiago Silva.
Qualified: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador
Can qualify: Peru
Major missing: Chile, Colombia
The qualifying process in COMNEBOL is a simple round-robin format. All 10 teams are in a group, and they play other nine team twice. At the end of the process, the top four teams in the league qualify directly for the World Cup. The fifth-placed side goes into a play-off against an AFC side to determine who makes it to Qatar. Peru finished fifth, seeing off competition from Colombia and Chile. Colombia reached the quarter-finals and the Round of 16 in 2014 and 2018 respectively. Meanwhile, Chile, who also did not qualify in 2018, reached the knockouts in previous two appearances.
Brazil and Argentina remained unbeaten in qualifying, but Brazil finished six points ahead of their fierce opponents. Ecuador did not qualify in 2018, and failed to get out of the group stage in 2014. They will look to improve on their record. Peru are likely to face one of United Arab Emirates or Australia in June, with both of those teams facing off in the AFC Fourth Round final.
AFC (Asia) - 4/5 World Cup slots
In recent years, there have been some excellent performances from Asian sides in the World Cup, even if they haven't managed to go far in the tournament.
Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan and and Iran were there at 2018. Only Japan went to the next stage, where they enjoyed one of the greatest World Cup games ever.
Japan went 2-0 up, but a late charge from Belgium saw them run out 3-2 winners in injury time. Japan and South Korea both went to the knockouts in 2010. Meanwhile, South Korea's run to the 2002 semi-finals was incredible.
Qualified: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
Can qualify: Australia, UAE
Major missing: Iraq, Oman, China
A total of 46 teams participated in qualifying for Qatar 2022. The top 34 teams according to ranking got a bye to the second round. The remaining 12 teams were involved in play-offs. Similar to CAF, the play-off winners joined the 34. All were then divided into 8 groups of five. Eight group winners and four best runners-up qualify for the third round. Since this qualifying also serves the dual purpose of securing the nations' places in Asia Cup, hosts Qatar had to participate. They finished on top of their group, as a result of which the fifth best-placed runner-up qualified.
In the third round, two groups of six divided the 12 teams. The top two finishers in each group qualified for the World Cup directly. Iran and South Korea qualified from Group A, while Saudi Arabia and Japan progressed from Group B. The third placed teams advanced to Round four, which is a direct play-off. Australia and UAE will contest this match in June, and the winner will take on Peru in an inter-continental play-off for a place in the World Cup.
CONCACAF (North, Central America and Caribbean) - 3/4 World Cup slots
The greatest World Cup heritage among CONCACAF teams belongs to Mexico. They have qualified for every World Cup since 1994, reaching the Round of 16 every time, but never beyond that. The United States, meanwhile, failed to reach the World Cup last time, but have made it to Qatar this time round.
Qualified: Canada, Mexico, United States
Can still qualify: Costa Rica
Major missing: Panama
The qualification process for CONCACAF is a round-robin league of eight teams. This includes five top-ranked nations who reach this stage directly, and three others who go through play-offs. 30 teams, between CONCACAF ranks 6-35, were divided into six groups of five. The table toppers qualified for the second round. Two-legged ties decided their place in the group stage. El Salvador overcame St. Kitts and Nevis, Canada beat Haiti, and Panama overcame Curacao.
Despite coming through two rounds for a chance at the final stage of qualifying, Canada finished top of the league. They were in good form, finishing as table-toppers on goal difference. Mexico ended level on points with them. The United States also qualified on goal difference after a final day loss to Costa Rica. Costa Rica qualified for the last two tournaments. They reached the 2014 quarter-finals, where only some excellent penalty shootout work from Netherland 'keeper Tim Krul kept them out. They will now have to beat New Zealand for a place at the finals.
OFC (Oceania) - 0/1 World Cup slots
The Covid-19 pandemic affected OFC qualifying badly. Samoa and American Samoa withdrew before the process began, leading to only nine of 11 member nations actually participating. Tonga withdrew after volcanic eruptions, and later, Cook Islands and Vanuatu also withdrew citing Covid issues. New Zealand, obviously, are the pick of the sides in Oceania, the dominant force.
Can still qualify: New Zealand
Major missing: Solomon Islands
After Samoa and American Samoa withdrew, the format was changed. A single play-off between Tonga and Cook Islands would take place, with the winner joining the eight-team group stage. However, Tonga withdrew too, and Cook Island directly qualified. In Group A, afterwards, Vanuatu and Cook Islands withdrew due to Covid issues, and that led to Solomon Islands and Tahiti progressing directly. All teams in Group B remained, and New Zealand and Papua New Guinea qualified for the semi-finals. Solomon Islands overcame Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand beat Tahiti.
The final was a thrashing, as New Zealand won 5-0 and booked an intercontinental play-off spot with Cost Rica.
Hosts - Qatar
And finally, the hosts. The decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup raised eyebrows. Concerns include human rights concerns, worker condition concerns, and has shifted the regular timetable of world football.
The winter slot is a result of the Qatari heat. This meant a mid-season tournament, with club football stopping for a month or so in December. Qatar has been in the spotlight for human rights concerns.
Homosexuality is illegal, which has led to rising anxiety over the treatment and safety of LGBTQ+ individuals.
Women's rights isn't any better, as they are still heavily marginalised and their lives completely in the hands of their male relatives.
In addition to all of this, Qatari migrant workers building stadiums have been treated in terrible fashion. Unsafe working conditions, unjust remunerations, and so much more. Is having a World Cup in Qatar the right move?
Does allowing them to host football's biggest spectacle give legitimacy to their treatment of women, LGBTQ+ indivudals and migrant workers?
Many have spoken out, including players and managers. Teams have shown messages regarding the human rights violations. Norwegian FA Chief Lise Klaveness highlighted the issues at the recent FIFA Congress, and asked people to do more for the families of migrant workers who suffered in Qatar. Hassan Al-Thawadi's reply does not change anything; Qatar are far behind in every sense, and the lives of women and other groups are in the hands of controlling men. What message does this World Cup send?
As a football fan, all we want is to enjoy the game.
Unfortunately, the off-field issues threaten to overshadow the on-pitch magic.
I'll still be watching the game, cheering on my favourite team, the Netherlands. I'm sure you'll watch too. But be aware of the issues, and speak out when and where you can.