The road to the most popular sporting event on the planet is a long one. The World Cup is not just a 32-team soccer extravaganza, which takes place over the course of roughly four weeks every four years. It is the end product of nearly two years’ worth of qualifying tournaments, preliminary matches, and eliminations.
The process is divided by FIFA’s six confederations — Africa; Asia; Europe; North, Central America and Caribbean; Oceania; and South America — with each region having its own system to select which nations will represent it at the World Cup.
The African zone uses three rounds to eliminate 38 of its 58 member nations and end up with four groups of five teams in the fourth stage. Each group winner advances to the World Cup to give Africa a total of four representatives, plus the hosts South Africa, which is given an automatic bye.
After three preliminary rounds, the field is reduced from 43 to 10 teams, which are drawn into two groups for the fourth round. The two group winners and the two runners-up qualify automatically for the World Cup.
The third-placed teams from each group square off in a home-and-away series with the winner advancing to the playoff with the winner of the Oceania zone.
The European zone alone includes 53 teams competing for a 12 slots in South Africa. It is also separated into two rounds. The first consists of 8, round robin, home-and-away groups of 6 teams as well as 1 round robin, home-and-away group of 5 teams. Each of the eight group winners qualifies automatically for the World Cup. The best eight runners-up, as determined by points totals, advance to the second round.
In round two, the eight teams are paired into four home-and-away series decided by aggregate goals, with the winners advancing to the tournament.
North, Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF)
This is by far the most complicated region with four rounds of qualifying to whittle down 35 teams to three or four slots. With several sets of small group stages and home-and-away knockout matches, it heavily favors the region’s powerhouses like the United States and Mexico.
Qualifying culminates with a single six-team, home-and-away group from which the top three teams go to the World Cup. The fourth-placed team can still qualify, but it faces a home-and-away tie with the fifth-placed side from the South American region.
The Oceania region uses the tournament at the South Pacific Games to determine which countries will compete for its single slot in the World Cup. The top three finishers at the South Pacific Games, along with one pre-seeded side, form a four-team group in the second stage of qualifying.
The winner of that group will earn a two-game playoff against the fifth finisher in the Asian Zone for a place in the World Cup.
South America (CONMEBOL)
The South American contingent at the World Cup is determined by a single 10-team league, in which each side plays every one else twice. The top four qualify automatically and the fifth-placed nation faces a playoff against the fourth finisher from the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone.