We've just about wrapped up the World Cup qualification process for the world's greatest sporting event in 2018.
To say we've been provided with some theater would be categorically insufficient. The 2018 World Cup won't begin for months, and yet we've still seen an inordinate amount of chaos.
Let us start with some of the sides that did qualify for the tournament. Of course, we're talking about powers Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, and Portugal. None of the aforementioned quintet struggled whatsoever in punching their ticket to Russia.
As such, we'll get to see the machine-like favorite featuring a bundle of world-class players, a Neymar-led team in search of redemption, a French side with uber-talented youngster Kylian Mbappé, the exquisitely technical Spaniards, and the likely appearance of Cristiano Ronaldo's abs.
Other sides (Belgium, Mexico, Nigeria, Japan, Costa Rica, Uruguay) had rather comfortable qualifying journeys as well. Iran had arguably the most impressive qualifying record -- as it disposed of its Asian competition with relative ease. Birthing what many are calling a golden generation, names such as Sardar Azmoun, Mehdi Taremi, and Karim Ansarifard could become hot commodities within the transfer market.
Argentina had a tumultuous road to Russia -- though the brilliance of Lionel Messi pushed the side through. Stalwarts Colombia, Poland, Switzerland, Croatia, Nigeria, Serbia, England, and Uruguay also found themselves in the field.
As is the case with virtually every major sporting event, fair-weather fans often look to latch onto the team they perceive as the major underdog. There are no shortage of such candidates in this field -- as many of the African representatives (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal) fit the bill in this capacity quite well.
It's been 27 years since Egypt has featured in the tournament. Considering the recent upheaval in the country, this achievement makes the appearance that much sweeter. In what will be one of the coolest stories of the tournament, Egypt's starting goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary will be making his World Cup debut at 44 years of age. It will have been 20 years (1998) and 12 years (2006) since Morocco and Tunisia, respectively, have played in a World Cup.
Another feel-good story unequivocally is Iceland. The tiny Nordic nation has a population of roughly 330,000 people. To put it into perspective, the entire country's population is smaller than that of cities such as Berlin (3.47 million), Los Angeles (3.96 million), Buenos Aires (2.891 million), Lagos (21 million), and Helsinki (616,690).
The patriotic national team captured the hearts of millions with a heroic showing in Euro 2016. Not only did Iceland inexplicably make it through the group stages, but it also slayed the giant that is England in the round of 16. Their supporters also have the most awesome way of both celebrating and energizing their side with this viking war chant.
Now that we're got the warm and fuzzies out of the way, it's time to take a look at the notable sides which did not gain inclusion into the World Cup.
Italy was shockingly knocked out of contention by Sweden. It's the first time since 1958 in which the Italians will not feature on the world's grandest stage. Sadly, this also marks the ending of international careers for Gigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli, and likely Giorgio Chiellini.
Netherlands featured in the 2010 World Cup Final. In 2014, Oranje finished in third-place. In 2018, the side won't get an opportunity to do anything -- as it failed to qualify. It's been a dreadful last year for the Royal Netherlands Football Association. Netherlands not only are missing out on this World Cup, but the team failed to qualify for the Euro 2016. In order words, we bid adieu to Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.
African powers Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and 2017 Africa Cup of Nations winner Cameroon all bowed out with dreadful qualifying results. The same can be said for back-to-back Copa American champions Chile. Fans of La Roja will be facing the prospect of a huge overhaul -- which may include moving on from longtime fixtures Jean Beausejour, Gonzalo Jara, Arturo Vidal, and Claudio Bravo.
Lastly, the United States were shockingly parried out of World Cup contention by minuscule island nation Trinidad & Tobago. For a country who's seen the sport grow by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years, missing out on a World Cup appearance is simply disastrous -- especially considering the quality of opponent it competes against relative to other regions.
Germany looks like the odds-on favorite to repeat as World Cup champions -- though the French possess perhaps unrivaled quality throughout its squad. With the integration of 'new blood' into the field, we should be in for a very fascinating 2018 World Cup tournament.
Image Sources: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports, NurPhoto/Contributor/Getty Images,