Qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is nearing its conclusion.
Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea and Saudi Arabia have all added their names to the list of qualified teams in this international break, but with 24 places still be to decided there could yet be some surprising appearances from countries you might not have been expecting to see at the finals next summer.
Here’s a look at seven unexpected nations still in with a chance of getting there…
7. Serbia (UEFA)
FIFA Ranking: 42nd
Formerly strong as a part of Yugoslavia, Serbia have only been to one World Cup in their own right since splitting with Montenegro in 2006, and that was in 2010.
After also failing to reach any European Championship tournaments in that time, topping a qualifying group containing Wales and Republic of Ireland, both of whom impressively reached the knockout rounds at Euro 2016, and an Austrian team who were fancied as Euro dark horses until wilting under pressure, has come as something of a surprise.
Ranked lower by FIFA than their three group rivals, there are just two games left to play and only one more win now stands between the Serbs and automatic passage to Russia – they are already guaranteed at least a playoff berth.
6. Peru (CONMEBOL)
FIFA Ranking: 15th
Not since the days of cult legend Teofilo Cubillas wearing the iconic red sash have Peru been to a World Cup. It is 37 years and counting since the country reached three tournaments out of four between 1970 and 1982, but they have given themselves an excellent chance for 2018.
With just two games of the CONMEBOL section remaining, Argentina’s failings have opened the door for Peru, with the team rising into the fourth and final automatic qualifying berth after impressive back-to-back wins over Bolivia and Ecuador.
The floundering Argentineans, who currently occupy the Intercontinental playoff spot in fifth, failed to win either of their two games during this international break and are set to host Peru in a crunch penultimate game that could ‘decide’ both countries’ fate.
5. Uganda (CAF)
FIFA Ranking: 73rd
Uganda moved top of CAF Group E after a win over desert powerhouse Egypt on 31st August, only to relinquish that all-important first place back to their north African rivals following a narrow defeat in the city of Alexandria on 5th September.
Uganda have never been to a World Cup before, while 2017 was their first Africa Cup of Nations appearance since 1978. That ended early with a group stage exit after the team failed to win any of their three games, yet World Cup qualifying has so far been a different story.
Uganda’s chance will hinge on Egypt dropping points in either of the final two games and also winning their own fixtures. Uganda, only the 15th highest ranked team in Africa, face Ghana at home next, while Egypt finish with Ghana away. Both also have Congo to play.
4. Panama (CONCACAF)
FIFA Rankng: 61st
Panama didn’t even enter World Cup qualifying for the first time until the 1978 competition and have never successfully reached the final tournament in 40 years of trying, but that could soon come to an end if the central American nation can hold on in the final stages of the CONCACAF qualifying section.
With two games of the final group stage left to play, Panama, ranked 61st in the world, occupy the third of three automatic qualifying spots behind Mexico and Costa Rica.
The United States are a point back in the playoff berth after a disappointing campaign by their standards, and Panama’s chances will hinge on whether they can avoid defeat to the Americans in Orlando in the next game. After that they face a home clash against a Costa Rica side that will likely have already secured an automatic place by that time.
3. Burkina Faso (CAF)
FIFA Ranking: 47th
Second and third place finishes at Africa Cup of Nations tournaments in 2013 and 2017 respectively should perhaps suggest Burkina Faso qualifying from the CAF section is not the most surprising outcome, but putting it altogether in a World Cup campaign is never easy.
Burkina Faso have never been to the World Cup before and currently top a tough final round group that contains a strong but underperforming Senegal team.
With South Africa and Cape Verde also in the very tight group, any of the four countries could still finish top of the pile and land the golden ticket to Russia depending on how the final two rounds of fixtures play out.
2. Cape Verde (CAF)
FIFA Ranking: 114th
If Burkina Faso have a chance to take the qualifying spot from CAF Group D then so do island minnows Cape Verde, who would be the lowest ranked team in Russia were they to surprisingly make it to the final tournament next summer.
Despite back-to-back defeats to begin the final qualifying round, Cape Verde are suddenly back in contention after successive wins over South Africa in recent days and are only off the top by virtue of Burkina Faso’s superior goal difference at this point.
Those two will play each other in Ouagadougou on matchday six next month which could be a ‘winner takes all’ kind of contest if both countries are still in contention at the top by then.
FIFA Ranking: 80th
1. Syria (AFC)
For all of Syria’s well documented troubles in recent years, it is remarkable that the national team should be in with an actual chance of reaching their first ever World Cup.
The war saw Syria disqualified the team from the 2014 qualifying campaign, while they have had to play home games in Malaysia this time around, the result of a generous invitation, after facing being banned again because of the ongoing conflict.
Having successfully qualified from the second round as one of the four best runners-up, Syria managed to snag third spot in Group A of the final round after a dramatic late equaliser in the last game against Iran. That now puts them into an October playoff against Australia for the right to contest an Intercontinental tie against the fourth ranked team from CONCACAF.
As things stand, it could well be end up being against the United States if Syria get there.