Edin Dzeko's Bosnia-Herzegovina side could well qualify automatically for the 2014 World Cup.
Three years ago, Slovakia participated in a World Cup finals for the first time in its history. Four years before that, Trinidad and Tobago, Ivory Coast, Angola, Ghana, Togo and Ukraine made their World Cup debuts, and 2002 saw the introductions of China, Ecuador, Senegal and Slovenia.
New blood is one of the things that makes the World Cup so fascinating, and a handful of nations are looking to get into the most prestigious tournament in sports for the first time as 2014 qualification enters its latter stages.
Seven of them could realistically arrive in Brazil less than 14 months from now, and barring some major upsets at least three of them almost certainly will.
Let’s take a look at all seven, in alphabetical order.
Ousted at the playoff stage by Portugal in the run-up to both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Bosnia-Herzegovina look like they’ll avoid another pesky two-legged affair by qualifying automatically for the 2014 World Cup.
Presently three points clear atop UEFA qualification Group G, the Dragons have yet to taste defeat this campaign and have already played both their matches against second-place Greece.
Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic have combined for 13 goals in five matches, and Zvjezdan Misimovic has contributed four.
Congo, the 1972 African champions, haven’t played a major tournament since the 2000 Cup of Nations, but with three rounds to play in CAF Group E they sit comfortably atop the standings, six points clear of Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon.
Former Auxerre assistant Kamel Djabour is in charge of these Red Devils and has at his disposal the likes of QPR defender Christopher Samba and Newcastle youngster Yven Moyo.
But even if they finish top of their bracket, Congo will still have to contest a two-legged playoff in order to punch their ticket to Brazil. Such is the format of African qualifying this time around.
A surprise participant at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Ethiopia have never qualified for a World Cup finals but are well on their way to fixing that record.
After three matches, the Walia Antelopes are top of CAF Group A with seven points and have so far conceded only a single goal.
Saladin Said, who plays his club football in Belgium for Lierse, leads the side with three goals and is one of only three players in manager Sewnet Bishaw’s side to represent a club outside Ethiopia.
Montenegro have only had their own national team since 2007 (they participated in the 2006 World Cup as Serbia and Montenegro) but have wasted no time in becoming one of the better sides in Europe.
Their 1-1 draw at home to England last month kept them first in UEFA Group H through six rounds, and with only four to play it’s not at all unreasonable to suggest they could get into the 2014 World Cup as group winners.
Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic is the talisman for the Brave Falcons, but there is quality up and down the lineup in the likes of Stevan Jovetic, Elsad Zverotic and Marko Basa.
Panama have never won a major, international tournament but progressed all the way to the semifinals at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup and were quarterfinalists at the tournament in the two installments before that.
At present, they pace the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying—a six-team mini-tournament known as The Hex—with five points from three matches. Given the early struggles from just about everyone else in the bracket, they look to be in good shape to progress to their first World Cup.
Only one player in manager Julio Dely Valdes’ side plays his club football in Europe (Lech Poznan defender, Luis Henriquez), but captain Felipe Baloy represents Mexican giants Santos Laguna and there are several other players earning their paycheques in Colombia and Major League Soccer.
Believe it. In fact, they’ve almost qualified already.
Since about 2000, Uzbekistan have been making considerable strides in international football. Quarterfinalists at the Asian Cup in both 2004 and 2007, they finished fourth in Qatar in 2011 and will be hoping to advance at least that far in Australia two years from now.
But they may have a World Cup finals to go to, first.
With 11 points from six matches in AFC Group A, the White Wolves are only a point up on South Korea but have four-point advantages on both Iran and Qatar. Given that the top two sides in the bracket will qualify automatically for 2014, they couldn’t have hoped to be in better shape at this point.
Server Djeparov, Alexander Geynrikh and Sanzhar Tursunov each have three goals so far in qualifying.
If qualification ended today, Venezuela would have to play a two-legged playoff against either Iran or Australia. They’d win it, and in so doing they’d book a spot in their first World Cup finals.
But they may just qualify automatically.
With 15 points from 11 rounds, the Vinotinto are level with fourth-place Chile—whom they will face on September 6. A lot will be riding on that match, but other than the trip to Santiago, Venezuela’s remaining schedule isn’t all that difficult.
It’s not at all hard to imagine the likes of Salomon Rondon, Tomas Rincon and Juan Arango representing their country in Brazil next year, and given their impressive performance at the 2011 Copa America they’d likely be a tough out, as well.