The possibility of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi turned out to be a false alarm, yet next year’s tournament will still have a major absentee after the United States’ extraordinary failure to qualify on Tuesday.
Panama, meanwhile, showed it is perfectly possible for small nations to qualify without expanding the finals to 48 teams, which is planned for the 2026 edition, as they joined Iceland in reaching the tournament for the first time.
South American champions Chile, like African counterparts Cameroon, missed out on a ticket to Russia – and, bizarrely, their elimination was the result of a successful protest made to Fifa about opponents fielding an ineligible player.Twenty-three of the 32 finalists have now been decided while the remainder will be settled in November with four European playoffs, two intercontinental playoffs and the final round of African qualifiers, where three groups are still open.
Brazil, who will be making their 21st World Cup appearance, remain the only ever-present side at the finals and had qualified long before Tuesday’s drama.Ronaldo and Messi, who have won Fifa’s World Player of the Year award between them since 2008, went into the final group matches uncertain of whether they would take part next year.
Those fears were allayed as Messi’s hat-trick led Argentina to a 3-1 win at high altitude in Ecuador to ensure their place and Portugal made it with a 2-0 win over Switzerland.The US, one of Fifa’s most important members in commercial terms, were not so lucky as a shock 2-1 defeat in Trinidad and Tobago, combined with wins for Panama and Honduras, ended their run of seven successive finals appearances.
The Netherlands, semifinalists in 2014 and runners-up in 2010, will also miss out while four-time champions Italy, who last failed to qualify in 1958, face a two-leg playoff in November.
The impact of the U.S’s absence will be felt at broadcasters Fox, who take over coverage of the World Cup from ESPN starting with the 2018 tournament and a host of sponsors, such as Nike, who had been hoping for plenty of World Cup exposure.
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