Culture, Travel & Sport

Croatia, Serbia make FIFA World Cup as Poland, Czechia, Ukraine, and North Macedonia head for the play-offs

Just two sides from Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia have so far qualified for next year’s World Cup in Qatar: Croatia and Serbia.

Croatia and Serbia are so far the only countries from Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia to have qualified for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, football’s most important international tournament.

Both of the former Yugoslav republics topped their qualifying groups, Serbia clinching qualification in sensational style on November 14 with a last-minute winner from striker Aleksandar Mitrović away in Portugal.

Mitrović beat Rui Patrício in Portugal’s goal with a downward header at the far post to spark wild celebrations on Serbia’s bench after the visiting captain, Dušan Tadić, had cancelled out an early Renato Sanches opener.

Jubilant fans thronged central Belgrade, the Serbian capital, immediately after the game, bringing traffic to a halt.

At the post-match press conference, Serbian coach Dragan Stojković said: “We deserved to win tonight as the players showed so much character. This is a huge accomplishment for Serbian football. The team showed maturity and composure under the most intense pressure and I would have said the same thing if it had stayed 1-1 and we had been confined to the play-offs.”

Croatia’s path to the finals was only slightly less dramatic. A late own goal by Russia’s Fyodor Kudryashov handed the Croats – who made the final of the previous World Cup, in Russia – a 1-0 win in Zagreb, which saw them leapfrog above Russia to top their group on 23 points from 10 games.

A draw would have been enough for Russia to finish top of Group H and they looked to be on course to achieve that with neither side able to find a breakthrough until Kudryashov gave Croatia a helping hand.

The second-placed Russians will now, like Portugal and their talismanic superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, head into the play-offs, to be held over five days in March.

More joy for North Macedonia

There they will be joined by several other teams from the region, including Poland, Czechia, Ukraine and – perhaps surprisingly – North Macedonia, who pipped Romania to take second place in their group, behind runaway winners Germany.

The Macedonians, who earlier this year competed in the delayed Euro 2020 – the country’s first appearance at a major tournament – sealed a play-off spot with an impressive win in Skopje against Iceland.

Ezgjan Alioski put North Macedonia ahead after just seven minutes, only for Jon Thorsteinsson to level for Iceland early in the second half.

Napoli star Eljif Elmas then scored twice to seal victory. Elmas did, however, receive his second yellow card of the qualifying tournament during the game, meaning that he will be suspended for the play-off semi-final.

The draw for the play-offs will be held on November 26. Six seeded teams (Italy, Portugal, Scotland, Wales, Russia and Sweden) will be drawn against six unseeded teams (Poland, Czechia, Ukraine, North Macedonia, Turkey and Austria) in the semi-finals, with the seeded teams benefitting from home advantage. Russia and Ukraine – for political reasons – cannot be drawn against each other.

The winners of the six semi-finals will compete in three finals to decide the final three European countries who will make the trip to Qatar.

The World Cup itself begins a year this weekend, on November 21, 2022. The tournament is traditionally held in the summer months – usually June and July – but has been put back due the excessive summer heat in Qatar.

The final of World Cup 2022 will take place on December 18, 2022, in the Qatari capital Doha.

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