From the 1982 tournament, FIFA had expanded the finals stage from 16 to 24 teams. This meant more places for each confederation.
UEFA was given an extra 4 places taking their total to 14. These were the days of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and a divided Germany. So, the total number of teams entering the qualifying stage was 32.
As holders, Italy took one of those. From the seven qualifying groups the winners qualified automatically. They were;
Poland, West Germany, England, France, Hungary, Denmark, Spain
Four of the second-placed teams also qualified automatically.
Portugal, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, USSR
Of the other three second-placed teams, two faced each other in a play-off. Belgium beat the Netherlands. This meant after two successive runners-up places, the Dutch had missed the next two tournaments.
The third second-place team, Scotland, went into a play-off against the qualifier from Oceania, Australia. Scotland won over two legs.
Conmebol had four qualifying places. These were the days before the league format they now have for all the nations. The 10 teams were split into three groups. The group winners qualified automatically.
Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay
The three second-placed teams, plus the third-placed team in the one four-team group then advanced to a knock-out stage. From there Paraguay beat Chile.
Africa’s qualifying stage was a knock-out to determine two qualifiers, Morocco & Algeria.
Asia’s 28 teams were split into two sections, east and west. Each section had four groups where the winners went into a Semi-Final and Final stage. The two winners of each section qualified;
Iraq & South Korea
North America were allocated two places, with hosts, Mexico, taking up one. There was an initial knock-out stage to determine nine teams, who were then split into three groups. The three winners then competed in a final group to produce the eventual qualifier;
From those qualifiers, Canada, Denmark and Iraq were making their first appearance at a finals stage.
During the qualifying stage, there were some memorable games. Here are five of the biggest.
West Germany 0-1 Portugal, Neckarstadion Stuttgart, 16 October 1985
In Group Two of the UEFA qualifying section, there were two rounds of matches left. West Germany’s goal difference meant they had all but qualified. They were at home to Portugal, sitting in second with just this match to go. Sweden were third, a point behind but with two games remaining. Czechoslovakia were still in the hunt for second. They were two points behind Sweden with two games to go, starting with a home match against them.
Portugal arrived in Stuttgart knowing they had to win. But West Germany had never lost a home qualifier before, so the odds were stacked against them. The Germans, runners-up in 1982, were packed with quality internationals. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Toni Schumacher, Pierre Littbarski, Hans-Peter Briegel, Karl-Heinz Forster, Thomas Berthold and Andreas Brehme.
After a goalless first half, the second period was just ten minutes old as the home side attacked down the right with Littbarski. But he overran the ball in midfield. Carlos Manuel picked it up and ran at pace at the defence. He turned inside and from about 25 yards out decided to have a go. The ball flew into the roof of the net, leaving Schumacher stranded.
The Portuguese had a lifeline. They defended like lions for the remaining 35 minutes, repelling everything the Germans could throw at them. Eventually, the full-time whistle went and Portugal had pulled off a famous win. Then news came in from Prague, the Czechs had beaten Sweden. Portugal had now qualified for their first World Cup since 1966.
The Germans were to remain unbeaten in qualifying until England beat them 5-1 in 2001.
Wales 1-1 Scotland, Ninian Park, Cardiff, 10 September 1985
This was one of the groups with four teams. The group winner was the only one guaranteed to go to Mexico. The team finishing second would go into a play-off against the Oceania qualifier. Wales began with a loss in Reykjavik, before being well beaten in Seville. Scotland won at home to Iceland. When they beat Spain 3-0 at Hampden Park, they were then in the driving seat. The following February, they lost in Spain but only by one goal so still held the advantage on goal difference.
But then it began to unravel for them. Wales arrived at Hampden Park knowing another defeat would put paid to any hopes of winning the group. Ian Rush scored the only goal of the game to register a famous win. Scotland, Wales and Spain were level on points, with the Spanish having a game in hand.
Rush was on target twice in April as Wales pulled off another great victory, beating Spain, 3-0 at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham. They were now top of the group.
With both Scotland and Spain winning in Iceland, the stage was set for the showdown in Cardiff. Wales and Scotland were still locked on the same points, with the Scots having the advantage on goal difference. Therefore, a draw would be enough for them. With Spain taking on Iceland to come, the Scots needed to win to stand a chance of winning the group. For Wales, if they were to qualify for their first World Cup since 1958, they too needed to win and hope goal difference would be kind to them.
Wales struck first when Mark Hughes first time shot turned in a low cross from Peter Nicholas. The game was only 13 minutes old. A tight affair for the rest of the game, saw the Scots struggle to get back on terms.
Then with just ten minutes to go a cross from the right was headed on by Graeme Sharp. David Speedie kicked the ball against David Phillips’s hand and the referee pointed to the spot. The rules for handball were different back then, and this looked a harsh decision as it was hardly deliberate. But argue as they might, the Welsh weren’t going to change the referee’s mind.
Rangers legend, Davie Cooper calmly stepped up. Under tremendous pressure, he scored, despite Neville Southall going the right way and getting his hands to it.
Scotland had qualified at Wales’s expense back in 1977 and now they did it again. The game ended 1-1 and the Welsh were out.
But Scottish celebrations were short-lived. As the television cameras showed the jubilant fans on the terraces, pictures then turned to inside the ground as manager Jock Stein was being carried away by medical staff. News came later the managerial legend had suffered a heart attack and died on the physio’s table in the away dressing room.
Two weeks later Spain beat Iceland to win the group. Scotland were into the play-off against Australia. Jock Stein’s assistant at that time was Alex Ferguson, and he reluctantly took over the management of the side as they progressed through to their fourth successive World Cup.
China 1-2 Hong Kong, Workers Stadium, Beijing, 19 May 1985
These two were drawn into a group with Macau and Brunei. Brunei shipped 29 goals in their six matches, Macau, 15. It was clear China were the overwhelming favourites. The first meeting between the two was a goalless draw in Hong Kong. China had a superior goal difference when the two met in the final match of the group in Beijing.
China had been the runners-up at the Asian Cup the year before and were confident of reaching the finals stage for the first time. 80,000 packed into the national stadium to see the home side go at it from the off. But they couldn’t make the breakthrough.
19 minutes in and Hong Kong had a free-kick in a fairly central position. Wu Kwok Hung back-heeled it to defender Cheung Chi Tak and from about 25 yards out he thundered a shot past the keeper. The home fans were stunned.
But China came back and 12 minutes later they were level. A shot from outside the area on the right was spilled by the keeper and Li Hui was first to pounce on the rebound. 1-1.
The game remained level until the hour mark. After a scramble in the Chinese area, the ball ran clear and Ku Kam Fai reacted first to fire the ball in and restore Hong Kong’s lead.
This time they didn’t relinquish it. China put them under immense pressure but just couldn’t get the all-important equaliser and the plucky visitors had pulled off a famous, and historic 2-1 win.
Hong Kong went through to the next stage and China’s elimination sparked a riot in and out of the stadium. Firstly they blocked the Hong Kong team from leaving, then started rioting. Such was the disturbance the police were sent in to restore calm. 127 people were arrested and the team manager and chairman of the Chinese Football Association resigned.
It was China’s first known case of football hooliganism and has gone down in history as the “May 19 Incident”. It would take China till 2002 before they qualified for the World Cup.
Hong Kong went through to the next stage but lost both ties against Japan and that ended their hopes of qualifying.
Canada v Honduras, King George V Park, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 14 September 1985
After the expansion of the World Cup, CONCACAF were given an extra place at the finals. Mexico, as hosts, had already taken one. Four years before Honduras and El Salvador had represented the region. After a knock-out stage, both sides were drawn in one of the three-team groups. Honduras won the group to go through to the final qualifying stage. They were joined by Canada and Costa Rica.
Canada won in Honduras either side of two draws with Costa Rica. Honduras drew in Costa Rica before beating them at home. This led to a showdown for the final game of the group in Canada. The home side chose a little ground on the outskirts in Newfoundland, with 13,000 spectators packed in.
Four years before Honduras had beaten Canada on their way to winning the final group stage and qualifying for their first World Cup. Canada’s hopes of making that World Cup were ended when they were held to a 2-2 draw in Cuba. This time around Canada held the advantage with a draw being enough to get them through. Both sides knew the prize of qualification would fall to whichever side came out as winners on the day.
Former Blackpool and Burnley keeper, Tony Waiters, was the Canadian manager. His team struck first. West Brom’s Carl Valentine took a corner from the left, and after a scramble in the area George Pakos stuck the ball in the net. It was Pakos who scored the only goal of the game in the first meeting between the two sides.
They held the lead to the break but four minutes into the second period Honduras levelled. Good work down the right found Betancourt in the area, and after a second attempt, he found the net.
12 minutes later Valentine took another in-swinging corner and Igor Vrablic headed in at the near post to restore Canada’s lead. This time they weren’t to be denied and a historic victory meant they had qualified for the World Cup Finals for the very first time. Cue the celebrations
Argentina v Peru, Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires, 30 June 1985
World Champions in 1978, Argentina had not enjoyed the best of times in Spain four years later. Defeat to Brazil and the sending off of Diego Maradona seemed to sum up their chaotic defence. Carlos Bilardo had replaced Cesar Luis Menotti as manager. The ageing team which had lifted the World Cup were now gradually replaced. They entered the final game of their qualifying group needing only a draw to make it to Mexico.
Standing in their way was Peru. They’d made it to the last two World Cups, and three of the last four. Yet were also in a state of transition as older stars had moved on. They arrived in Buenos Aires knowing a win would see them qualify at the expense of their opponents.
A draw was enough for the home side and they began the brighter. Great work down the left from Maradona saw his cross turned in at the near post by Pasculli inside the opening 15 minutes. The visitors hit back 12 minutes later. A free-kick floated into the area was headed across goal by Cueto and Velasquez was there to level things.
Then with half-time on the horizon, Velasquez turned provider as he slipped Barbadillo in. The Udinese forward burst past Fillol and beat two defenders on the line to give the visitors the lead.
As the game moved into the final ten minutes Peru was still in front, dreaming of the following summer in Mexico and wasting as much time as possible. Argentina were increasingly desperate. Peru cleared a corner and it came out to the only Argentinian outfield player not in the box, Burruchaga. He launched it back into the box where Passarella took it down with his chest on the right. He fired a shot across goal which went under Acasuzo. It looked to be going in, but then hit the post and rolled along the line. As players swarmed in on the ball, Ricardo Gareca, who’d come on for Camino, got there first to put it in. Argentina had done it.
The place went nuts. It was a dramatic ending to the game. Peru just couldn’t find the winner, with the game ending level. Argentina had qualified for Mexico in a day of real drama.
Gareca, the man who put Peru out, is currently the manager of Peru.
Later we begin our day-by-day coverage of each match of the 1986 World Cup. So settle back and enjoy it all as it develops, almost as if you’re living it as it happened.