Internet Desk: The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will miss two of the greatest footballing nations – Italy and The Netherlands in the biggest competition in world football.
Italian hearts broke after Sweden held the Azzurri to a 0-0 draw in the second leg of their World Cup qualifying tie on Tuesday morning.
A 1-0 defeat in the first match in Sweden meant Italy headed to the San Siro needing goals but they were impossible to come by. Despite boasting 75 per cent of the possession and taking 23 shots to four, the home side was left to rue what might have been.
European qualifying is undoubtedly the toughest route to take if you want to be one of the 32 countries to participate in a World Cup.
The continent is allocated 14 spots every four years — 13 this time around because as the host, Russia qualified automatically — and it’s always a dogfight to claim a position.
Quality teams miss out in every cycle and it’s no different approaching 2018. Along with Italy, the Netherlands will also be absent in Russia after Sweden finished with a superior goal difference in Group A to pip the Dutch for second spot.
It’s incredible to think neither the Netherlands (World No. 20) — who lost the World Cup final to Spain in 2010 — nor Italy (No. 15) who won the tournament in 2006 will be playing for the trophy in 2018. But such is the ruthless nature of European qualifying rounds.
The five European countries he mentions are all ranked in the top 25 in the world, but reputation counts for nothing.
There were nine groups of six teams in Europe. The team that finished top of each group automatically advanced to the World Cup, while the team that finished second in eight of the nine groups went through to a playoff. Slovakia was second behind England in Group F but because it had the least points of any second-placed team, its campaign ended.
Italy finished five points adrift of Spain in Group G while Sweden was four points behind France in Group A, pitting the two against each other.
Meanwhile, at least one team ranked below Italy will progress to Russia. Switzerland (No. 11) overcame Northern Ireland (No. 23), Denmark (No. 19) has its second leg to play against the Republic of Ireland (No. 26) and Croatia (No. 18) was too strong for Greece (No. 47) over two legs.
On the other hand you have a team like Australia (No. 43) — who couldn’t qualify automatically via the weaker Asian confederation — playing Honduras (No. 69) in a playoff for a World Cup spot, while New Zealand (No. 122) is taking on Peru (No. 10) for the same right.
It may seem unfair that lower ranked teams playing in easier confederations have multiple bites at the cherry, but that’s the unpredictable beauty of a World Cup.
The USA (No. 27) was another participant to miss out on qualifying for Russia after choking spectacularly to lose 2-1 against Trinidad and Tobago last month, as a series of other results conspired against the Americans to cruel their chances.