How do Points work in World Cup qualifiers?

Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup is a long and arduous process that takes place over the course of two years. Teams from around the world compete for a limited number of spots in the final tournament. Understanding how teams earn points during World Cup qualifying is key to following this exciting journey.

In short, teams earn points based on the results of their qualifying matches. A win earns 3 points, a draw 1 point, and a loss 0 points. The total points earned determines the standings in the qualifying group or region. The group winners automatically qualify and some of the second place teams advance to intercontinental play-offs for a chance to also reach the World Cup.

World Cup Qualifying Format

World Cup qualifying is organized by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), international soccer’s governing body. The FIFA World Cup takes place every four years and features 32 teams from around the globe. Qualifying matches are played over the three years preceding the World Cup tournament.

The 32 World Cup spots are allocated by region as follows:

UEFA (Europe) 13 spots
AFC (Asia) 4 or 5 spots
CAF (Africa) 5 spots
CONCACAF (North/Central America & Caribbean) 3 or 4 spots
CONMEBOL (South America) 4 or 5 spots
OFC (Oceania) 0 or 1 spot

The allocation of World Cup spots per region is largely based on the relative strength and size of each region in world soccer. Europe gets the most spots since UEFA contains over 50 national teams. Oceania only gets 0 or 1 spot since it is one of the weaker regions in the world game.

UEFA World Cup Qualifying

UEFA conducts World Cup qualifying in three stages. First is a preliminary round among the lowest ranked teams to cut the field down to 55 teams. Next, the remaining teams are divided into 10 groups of 5 or 6 teams each. This stage consists of a double round-robin format where each team plays home and away against every other team in its group. The 10 group winners qualify directly for the World Cup.

The 10 group runners-up advance to the UEFA World Cup play-offs along with the best 2 Nations League group winners that did not directly qualify or reach the play-offs already. The 12 teams are drawn into 3 play-off paths of 4 teams each. The teams play single-leg semi-finals and a single-leg final with the 3 path winners claiming Europe’s last 3 World Cup spots.

During the UEFA group stage, teams are awarded 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 points for a loss, just like in the World Cup finals tournament itself. The total points earned determines each team’s standing in the table. The group winners and runners-up advance accordingly. If teams are tied on total points, tiebreakers such as goal difference and head-to-head records are used to determine the final standings.

CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying

In the South American region governed by CONMEBOL, qualifying takes place in a single group stage with all 10 national teams playing each other home and away. Historically, the format consisted of a 16 match round-robin with the top 4 teams automatically qualifying for the World Cup.

However, for 2022 World Cup qualifying, CONMEBOL adopted a new format with an 18 match round-robin instead. The 10 teams still play each other home and away, but now the top 4 teams qualify directly and the 5th place team advances to an intercontinental play-off.

Just like in UEFA, teams receive 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 points for a loss during CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. The standings and points totals then determine which teams book their tickets to the World Cup and which team claims the intercontinental play-off spot.

Intercontinental World Cup Play-offs

In addition to the 31 spots allocated by direct qualifying from the six FIFA regions, there is one more World Cup spot up for grabs through intercontinental play-offs. The two-legged home-and-away play-offs feature teams from different confederations competing for the 32nd World Cup place.

For the 2022 World Cup, the intercontinental play-off bracket is as follows:

CONMEBOL 5th place vs. AFC 5th place
CONCACAF 4th place vs. OFC winner

The winners of these two play-off ties advance to the 2022 FIFA World Cup to complete the 32 team field. Similar intercontinental play-offs take place for every World Cup qualifying cycle. It provides a last chance for marginal teams from weaker regions to reach the World Cup through two knockout games.

Point Totals and Tiebreakers

Now that we’ve covered the formats and structures for World Cup qualifying around the world, let’s look specifically at how points work and how ties in the standings are resolved.

As mentioned already, during both regional qualifying group stages and the World Cup finals tournament itself, the standard points system is:

3 points for a win
1 point for a draw
0 points for a loss

The number of matches played can vary widely depending on the region and format. UEFA qualifying consists of 8 or 10 matches in the group stage, while CONMEBOL teams play 18 matches. Despite the different totals, each team’s points earned and points per game can be compared to determine qualification and seeding.

If two or more teams are tied on total points in a World Cup qualifying group, the tiebreakers applied are:

  1. Goal difference in all group matches
  2. Goals scored in all group matches
  3. Points earned in head-to-head matches between tied teams
  4. Goal difference in head-to-head matches between tied teams
  5. Goals scored in head-to-head matches between tied teams
  6. Away goals scored in head-to-head matches between tied teams
  7. Drawing of lots by FIFA

These tiebreaking procedures are clearly laid out before each World Cup qualifying competition so all competing teams understand how standings will be determined.

Goal difference is the first tiebreaker, calculated by subtracting goals allowed/conceded from goals scored in all group play. The second tiebreak is overall goals scored. If two teams are still tied after these steps, the results between the tied teams take priority.

Head-to-head points, goal difference, goals scored, and away goals scored are considered before any random drawing of lots. This rewards teams that performed better against each other during qualifying.

Examples and Scenarios

To better understand how points work in World Cup qualifying, let’s walk through some hypothetical examples and scenarios.

CONCACAF Hexagonal Scenario

For the 2018 World Cup cycle, CONCACAF used a “Hexagonal” final round with 6 teams playing home and away round-robin. The top 3 teams qualified directly and 4th place advanced to the intercontinental play-off. Let’s look at a hypothetical final standings table:

Team MP W D L GF GA GD Pts
Mexico 10 7 2 1 15 5 +10 23
USA 10 6 3 1 21 8 +13 21
Costa Rica 10 6 2 2 14 7 +7 20
Panama 10 5 1 4 9 12 -3 16
Honduras 10 0 4 6 7 23 -16 4
Trinidad & Tobago 10 1 0 9 7 25 -18 3

Mexico, USA, and Costa Rica finished 1-2-3 and qualified directly for the 2018 World Cup. Panama took 4th place and advanced to the intercontinental play-off where they beat Honduras to make their first ever World Cup.

The standings and points totals show how each team earned their place in the table based on their results. Mexico led the way with 23 points by winning 7 of their 10 matches. The USA also only lost once but had 3 extra draws compared to Mexico, putting them 2 points back. Costa Rica edged Panama on total points for the last automatic qualification spot.

UEFA Tiebreaker Example

Let’s look at a hypothetical UEFA qualifying group stage scenario that requires tiebreakers to determine which team advances:

Team MP W D L GF GA GD Pts
Spain 10 7 2 1 29 5 +24 23
Italy 10 6 3 1 22 8 +14 21
Switzerland 10 6 3 1 15 9 +6 21
England 10 4 2 4 21 16 +5 14
Poland 10 4 2 4 12 12 0 14

Spain wins the group with 23 points. Italy finishes second with 21 points. Switzerland, England, and Poland are tied for third on 14 points. Let’s walk through the tiebreakers:

  1. Goal difference: Switzerland +6, England +5, Poland 0. Switzerland takes 3rd.
  2. Goals scored: No longer needed since 3rd place is determined.
  3. Head-to-head points: England 4 pts, Poland 1 pt. England takes 4th.
  4. England qualifies for World Cup play-offs, Poland is eliminated.

Since all three teams were tied on total points, goal difference in all group matches became the first tiebreaker. Switzerland had the best goal difference and took 3rd place. With Poland finishing last among the tied teams on goal difference, only England and Poland remained level. Head-to-head points was then used with England’s two wins over Poland giving them the edge for the final play-off spot.


In summary, points in World Cup qualifying are awarded in the same 3-1-0 format used in the World Cup tournament itself. The total points earned determines the standings within qualifying groups and regions. If teams are tied on total points, the standard tiebreaking procedures of goal difference, goals scored, and head-to-head records are utilized.

While the formats and structures vary between confederations, understanding how points work remains fundamental to tracking World Cup qualifying campaigns. The long road to World Cup qualification sees many twists and turns along the way. Points earned or dropped in key matches can make all the difference in determining which national teams achieve their World Cup dreams every four years.

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