Johannesburg - It started with just one – Russia, the host – and after long and challenging qualifying rounds 31 more countries have booked their tickets to the expansive nation ahead of next year’s Fifa World Cup.
Bafana Bafana might not be going to Russia but the Premier Soccer League could have a representative or two at the world football spectacle.
Despite his below-par performance against Argentina on Tuesday when he conceded two goals, Chippa United goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi is in line to be part of the Nigeria Super Eagles in Russia.
The 31-year-old goalkeeper has been part of the Super Eagles campaign and, barring loss of form or serious injury, he is a shoo-in in the final squad.
Another one who might go to Russia is Bidvest Wits striker Amr Gamal, who was part of the Egyptian national team that played against Ghana last weekend.
At the end of the qualifying rounds much of the focus was on which countries had failed to book their places in the finals.
Four-time world champions Italy were the biggest casualties after missing out for the first time since 1958. A World Cup without the Azzurri just does not seem right. After the success of 2006, the Italian national team switched off. In 2010 and 2014 the Azzurri did not make it past the World Cup group stages.
Three-time finalists Holland are also not going to Russia after finishing third in their group.
Last year’s Copa America champions Chile will also be staying at home after finishing outside South America’s top five.
Five-time champions Brazil were the first country to book their spot in Russia with four rounds of fixtures remaining, and maintain their proud record as the tournament’s only ever-present side.
Their current form suggests they will be among the favourites to win the tournament.
Usual suspects Germany, England, Argentina and Portugal are also there.
Defending champions Germany, who top the world ranking, will go to Russia as one of the favourites to clinch the title. But so will the Cristiano Ronaldo-led European champions Portugal, who will be looking for their maiden World Cup title.
It could also be time for Lionel Messi to rise to the occasion and go a step further than three years ago when Argentina lost to Germany in the final.
But all eyes will be on star-studded Belgium who were the first European country to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, the Belgians might just surprise everyone.
Iceland and Panama make their debuts in Russia.
Iceland have continued with their rise in world football after their exploits at last year’s Uefa Championship in France where they reached the quarterfinals and knocked out England.
They have now qualified for their maiden World Cup finals. With a population of just 330 000 and a manager who doubles as a part-time dentist, Iceland became the smallest country to reach the 32-team finals.
Panama has also been making steady progress. It’s not surprising that they beat the US to the final spot in the North American qualifications.
President Juan Carlos Varela even declared a public holiday after their qualification.
Three North African and two west African countries will represent Africa.
Nigeria’s Super Eagles are the only side that was at the 2014 World Cup. The 41st-ranked country will be making their third consecutive appearance since 2010 and their sixth appearance at the global finals. Their best finish was the round of 16 in the USA in 1994, France 1998 and recently at the 2014 spectacle in Brazil.
At 28, Tunisia are the highest-ranked African side and had the best record in the qualifiers. They were unbeaten in six matches, collected 14 points and will be taking part in their fifth finals after missing the 2010 and 2014 editions.
Tunisia’s sole win at the global showpiece came in 1976 in Argentina.
Frenchman Hervé Renard has also led Morocco to their first finals in 20 years, without conceding a goal in six matches.
Renard made his name on the continent by leading two African nations, Zambia and Ivory Coast, to Afcon titles.
The Atlas Lions’ last appearance was in 1998 in France.
This will be their fifth finals appearance.
After captaining Senegal in their first ever World Cup in 2002 in South Korea and Japan, where they made it all the way to the quarterfinals, Aliou Cissé has now taken the Lions of Teranga to their second finals – as a coach.
They also went through the qualifications without losing a single game – winning four out of six.
Egypt will be making their third appearance in the finals – their first in 28 years since 1990.
With veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary still going strong at 44, Héctor Cúper’s side saw off Ghana and Uganda to book their spot in the finals.