Qualifying for the World Cup finals takes place in the six FIFA continental zones – Africa (CAF), Asia (AFC), Europe (UEFA), Oceania (OFC), North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF), and South America (CONMEBOL).
World football governing body FIFA decides beforehand how many spaces a confederation will be allocated at the World Cup, and this is based on things such as the number of countries in a confederation and the strength of the countries in that confederation.
Qatar automatically qualifies for this year’s tournament by virtue of being the host country, which leaves over 200 other countries to fight it out for the 31 remaining spaces. FIFA decided to once again keep the same allocation that had been used to decide qualifying in the previous four tournaments for this year.
UEFA is guaranteed 13 spots, the most out of any confederation, while CAF is guaranteed five spots. The other confederations do have a set number of spots, but they are able to send an extra country if that country can win one of the inter-confederation play-off matches, or if a country from that confederation is hosting the tournament.
For example, the Asian confederation is usually guaranteed four spots and can send a fifth if that country wins their play-off match (which Australia did), but because of Qatar hosting this year’s competition, AFC have six participants this year.
Oceania have no countries going to this year’s finals, with the confederation usually getting either one or no spots. Their best hope of a representative is New Zealand, but the All Whites lost to Costa Rica in their inter-confederation play-off match.
CONMEBOL always has been guaranteed places, with one additional place available for the confederation’s 5th-placed side if they can win their inter-confederation play-off - Peru lost out to AFC’s Australia in the play-off, meaning that South America will only be sending four countries this year.
CONCACAF is guaranteed three spots, but can send a fourth via the play-off match – Costa Rica won their play-off match this year, so CONCACAF will be sending 4 representatives this year.