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World Cup tournament structure – The route to the 2018 World Cup final

As soon as your nation secures World Cup 2018 qualification, excitement for the players, fans and the whole country builds as the focus switches to the tournament itself. After all, this is the most prestigious, thrilling prize in football that creates memories and moments that are remembered for a lifetime.

For England, who topped their World Cup qualification table to secure a relatively straightforward progression to Russia, all the focus was then on the draw – as it would be for all the World Cup 2018 qualifying teams.

The draw, which took place in December 2017, was another stepping stone on the way to Russia and made it feel more real for the teams involved.

Here at OpenOdds we will detail what the draw means and importantly look at how it can forge a pathway for a side to go from the group stage all the way to the final which will be held in Moscow on Sunday 15 July.

As well as that, we detail what format is followed in the high-pressure knockout rounds to ensure you go into the World Cup understanding every eventuality.

Getting to Russia

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The path to the 2018 World Cup

Firstly, we will briefly cover how the sides got to Russia, which depended entirely on your World Cup 2018 qualification results that are split up by your continent.

With 32 teams set to play at the World Cup and Russia granted automatic qualification as hosts, it meant that 31 places were up for grabs, with 13 going to European teams.

The top teams from the nine UEFA groups automatically qualified, whilst the eight best runners-up went into a play-off. The four winners of those two-legged play-offs then went through with the nine group winners to make 13 European representatives plus hosts Russia.

In Africa (CAF), teams were once again split into five groups with only the group winners advancing to Russia.

Asia was also split into two groups, with the top two teams certain of advancing. The two third-placed sides (Iran and Australia), met in a play-off to then proceed to a final play-off round.

The CONCACAF qualifying rounds saw teams from North & Central America and the Caribbean sides in a group, with three advancing. The fourth placed side, Honduras, played Australia in the final intercontinental play-off, with Australia advancing. That meant Asia has five representatives at Russia.

South America, probably the toughest qualification section, sees four teams automatically qualify, with fifth place playing the winners of the Oceania section.

In this instance, it saw Peru play New Zealand, with the South Americans victorious in the play-offs.

All in all, there are 14 European sides (including Russia), five South American, five African, five Asian and three from North & Central America making up the 32 teams at Russia.

The Group Stage

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The preliminary draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup

As mentioned, the draw for the groups at Russia have already been made, with four pots created containing eight teams.

All teams were seeded based on the FIFA World Rankings from October 2017, with the best sides based on that ranking going into Pot 1, along with hosts Russia.

This is how the Pots were made up;

Pot 1 – Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France
Pot 2 – Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia
Pot 3 – Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran
Pot 4 – Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

Then, the draw was made, with eight groups containing one team from each pot.

Group A – Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
Group B – Portugal, Spain, Iran, Morocco
Group C – France, Peru, Denmark, Australia
Group D – Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Group E – Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Group F – Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Group G – Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama
Group H – Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan

Qualifying from your World Cup group

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Thankfully, the next part is pretty straightforward when it comes to the World Cup. Of the eight groups, the top two teams will advance from the group into the last 16.

In the case of two sides having the same number of points at the end of the group games, the first tiebreaker would be the goal difference between the sides.

If that was equal, it would go on to the number of goals scored by each side, with their head-to-head results the third way they would separate the sides if necessary.

In theory, winning the group should give the side an easier last 16 tie as all group winners will play a side that finished runner-up, as we will explain.

The last 16

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This is where things can get slightly more complicated, although it’s easy to grasp once you understand how it works.

As mentioned, the group winners will only play a runner-up in the last 16, however the draw is not random as it’s effectively already been made, even though we don’t know the team who will be there.

For example, the winners of Group A will play the runners up of Group B. Meanwhile, the runners up in Group A will play the winners in Group B.

That pattern continues throughout the last 16 round with the teams playing someone from the next group, whilst it also shows a path to the quarter-finals and so on.

The eight fixtures for the last 16 will be played by the following teams and it’s important to note that it has been effectively split into two halves which explains how the fixtures in the latter stages will work.

Winner Group A vs Runners-up Group B
Winners Group C vs Runners-up Group D
Winners Group E vs Runners-up Group F
Winners Group G vs Runners-up Group H


Winners Group B vs Runners-up Group A
Winners Group D vs Runners-up Group C
Winners Group F vs Runner-up Group E
Winners Group H vs Runners-up Group G

It’s important to note that as soon as we enter the knockout phase of the tournament (last 16 onwards) any game that is level at full-time will go immediately to extra-time.

Extra-time consists of two 15 minute periods and if the scores are still level the game will be decided by a penalty shootout.

The Quarter-finals

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Determining which sides are in the last eight will once again be linked to the last 16, which is why we have split them into two sections of four fixtures.

For example, the first two last 16 fixtures we listed above are;

Winner Group A vs Runners-up Group B
Winners Group C vs Runners-up Group D

The winner of those games will make up the first quarter-final fixture.

The second set pairing of last 16 fixtures listed above is;

Winners Group E vs Runners-up Group F
Winners Group G vs Runners-up Group H

They too will meet in the quarter-final, and the same applies to the bottom four fixtures in the last 16.

Unlike other cup competitions that you may watch, such as the FA Cup or the Champions League, the format is already clearly set out with no draws occurring during the tournament.

That means, if you aren’t in the half of the draw with another side in the last 16, you will not be able to meet that side until the final.

Additionally, as soon as the last 16 teams are confirmed, teams will be able to clearly see the potential nations they could face in their quest to reach the final.

The Semi-finals

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We hope you’re following on and as you should now realise, the first semi-final fixture will be made up of the two sides that progressed through the top half of fixtures from the round of 16.

The same applies to the bottom half, with the two victorious quarter-finalists progressing to the semi-finals where they will then meet for a place in the final which will be held at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

In the World Cup though there is always a third and fourth placed play-off – even if it is the fixture most players would hate to play in!

The two losing semi-finalists will meet the day before the final (July 14)

The Final

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The two winning semi-finalists will then meet for the showpiece event, with one arriving at the final from the top-half of the last 16 draw and the other from the bottom-half.

As always in the knockout rounds, extra time and penalties will be used if required and the last three World Cup finals have gone beyond 90 minutes so you may have to gear up for a long evening!

We hope this has been useful to the fans out there and you can see how the World Cup works and how the latter stages of the tournament are planned.

The importance of winning the group and giving yourself the best possible chance of reaching the final becomes clearer as the group stages are played with fans always looking to map out a route to the final for their country.