The first World Cup had thirteen entrants. Due to the universal law of corporate bloat, this has expanded over the years. 16 teams competed in 1934, then, after a few wobbles, 16 again in 1954. 24 in 1982, and then 32 in 1994. At the current rate of expansion, therefore, the World Cup will contain more entrants than FIFA has countries in around 2274, and will need to pad itself out with representative XIs from the various Moonbases. Get a fiver on the Bay of Tranquillity each way, they're a well-drilled lot. England won't be hosting.
Until then, however, not everybody gets to go to FIFA's big jamboree. Here we look at a few of the teams who will be spending their summer relaxing on the beaches and ignoring the television. What went wrong, guys?
The pluckiest of all UEFA's plucky upstarts, they finished runners-up behind Switzerland after employing two of the classic gambits of international football. First, they assembled a squad of exciting young talent and threw them in the deep end -- Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Alfred Finnbogason, and others -- with just a couple of veterans for company, most notably Eidur Gudjohnsen. And second, they employed a canny old manager in Lars Lagerback, who not only has an engagingly cynical face, but more relevantly oversaw five consecutive successful qualification campaigns while managing (or co-managing) their Scandinavian neighbours Sweden.
The football was nice too, and a play-off draw against an intermittent Croatia team under new management offered some hope. However, despite holding on for a ten-man 0-0 draw in the first leg, they were downed by two first-half goals in the second. Though the defeat was taken in stride -- "We have to be proud of what we have done," said Gudjohnsen -- their failure to squeak past the men in the tablecloths mean we'll miss out on one of the great traditions of tournament football; watching the sympathy of the viewing public curdle and turn in the heat of summer, from "Aww, look at these adorable minnows" to "Well, if they're just going to defend, what even is the point of their being here?" As if defending wasn't allowed. Some people.
African qualifying is a harsh business. 52 teams lined up for five places. To fit the latter into the former, there are three stages. First the 24 lowest-ranked sides play each other over two legs. Then, the 12 winners and the other 28 teams are drawn into 10 groups of four, who do the round-robin thing. Then, the top teams play each other, home and away, and the five winners go through. The wrinkle, though, is that this final round of playoffs are seeded not according to the performance in the previous stage -- Egypt won all six games, the only team to do so -- but on FIFA's wonderful rankings.
The Arab Spring affected more countries than Egypt, and was certainly about more than just football. But in Egypt, the link between the two and so the impact on the latter was was particularly strong. Egyptian ultra groups in Cairo contributed to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and Mubarak's supporters were purged from the Egyptian Football Association. Hassan Shehata, Egypt's most successful coach, was fired following his failure to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations but he wasn't missed, due to his connection to the previous regime. Then, in February 2012, over 70 fans died and more than 1,000 were injured following a match between al Ahly and al Masry. The league was suspended, and the largely-domestic squad of new coach Bob Bradley was unable to qualify for the 2013 Cup of Nations.
To maximize ranking points, sides need to play as many competitive games as possible, and even given their perfect record in the second phase of qualifying, Egypt went into the draw as the sixth-highest ranked team in Africa. Which is why Egypt ended up playing not, say, Ethiopia, but Ghana, who the rankings rate as the second strongest side in the continent. But even so, Egypt were a good team. A strong team. And they had the advantage of playing the second leg at home. Go to Kumasi, keep things tight, and then finish the job at home. Tricky, but possible. Right?
Wrong. Egypt's 6-1 defeat was a remarkable result born from mundane parts: Ghana played with strength, skill and verve, and Egypt defended like they'd heard the World Cup was going to be held in Alan Brazil. Like, in his colon, or maybe his large intestine. So it came to pass that Egypt would miss a sixth World Cup, that a whole generation of players who bestrode their continent would never get to take on the world, and that Bradley would lose his job. Still, the 2-1 win in the return leg did bump them back into the top five African ranked teams. So that's some consolation, hey?
One of only two former hosts not to be going to Brazil, South Africa don't have Sweden's excuse in that they didn't run into one of the best players in the world proving a point. Nor can they point to contextual handicaps, like Egypt. Instead, they're not going to the World Cup because, fundamentally, they were a bit crap.
Having got to the quarter-finals of the 2013 African Cup of Nations -- where despite losing 1-0 to Mali signs were generally encouraging -- South Africa were drawn alongside Botswana, the Central African Republic, and last-favourites Ethiopia. But they never recovered from a tepid start. South Africa needed a late equaliser to draw 1-1 with Ethiopia in the opening game, and then could only get the same result in Botswana. Though they then found some form and beat the CAR home and away, the Ethiopians were setting the pace, and ultimately never relinquished the lead.
Intriguingly, South Africa were actually eliminated twice. In the fifth round of fixtures they lost 2-1 away in Ethiopia and were, as it stood, an insurmountable five points behind with one game left. Hope arrived in the shape of FIFA, who reversed Ethiopia's win against the CAR in the fourth round after it emerged that Minyahil Teshome Beyene had played despite being suspended. The gap was down to two points going into the last game, but although South Africa hammered Botswana, Ethiopia overcame an early concession and became the only team from the first phase to make it through to the third. Igesund kept his job, amid allegations that the country's strong domestic league had fostered a climate of complacency among the players. Which makes a change, at least.
Ethiopia, meanwhile, were beaten home and away by Nigeria, who have no time for your happy ending, and care not for your dreams.
The only continental champions not to have qualified for Brazil, Tahiti's absence isn't a huge surprise. Getting out of Oceania is a difficult business: Australia had to switch continent, while New Zealand, the strongest team left in the region, were unfortunate to run into Mexico's only two decent qualifying performances. We only mention them here to lament that we won't get to see their frankly adorable habit of handing out necklaces made of shells to their opponents before each game. Something the Premier League would do well to consider adopting. Because, if handshakes are bad, imagine the scandals we could get angry about if there was garlanding involved.
Europe. Nine groups. Nine runners-up. Eight play-off places. Oh, Denmark.
In the imaginary league table of all the second-place teams, Denmark finished one point and one place below Croatia (who were so upset with how things had gone that they sacked their coach) and nine below Greece (who were pleased, and didn't). This nearly-adequate inadequacy can be put down to the fact that the middle of Group B turned into an almighty slugfest. Italy finished top with 22 points; Malta finished bottom with 3. In between were Denmark, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Armenia, with 16, 15, 13, and 13 respectively.
It was a mess. Denmark beat Malta twice, drew at home with Italy, won 3-0 away in the Czech Republic, but got hammered 4-0 at home by Armenia. The Armenians also beat the Czech's in Prague, but lost the reverse fixture with Denmark 1-0 and somehow contrived to lose at home to Michael Mifsud's Malta. The Czechs, meanwhile, were having trouble scoring goals, and a decent 0-0 at home against Italy was balanced out by a disappointing 0-0 when Bulgaria visited. Ultimately, one more goal at home against either Bulgaria or the Czech's would have seen draws become wins, and Denmark through to the playoffs at Croatia's expense. We at SB Nation are therefore happy to conclude that the entire business is Nicklas Bendtner's fault. Even though he didn't play in either game. Oh, Nicklas. How could you.