A World Cup without Messi, Ronaldo? It's possible in Russia

MANCHESTER, England (AP) It's getting anxious for teams and players fearing missing out on the World Cup.

By the time the draw for the finals is conducted in Moscow in December, even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could be facing up to spending next June on the beach rather than on the fields in Russia.

For now, only seven qualification slots have been filled by Belgium, Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Another 24 places are still vacant, after the latest rounds of qualifiers.

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MESSI AND RONALDO

Time is running out for the two best players in world soccer over the last decade. Not just to win the World Cup for the first time, either, because Ronaldo and Lionel might not even make the trip to Russia.

As things stand in Europe, Ronaldo's Portugal is second in its qualifying group and the reigning European champions are facing a November play-off to gain a spot in the following month's finals draw.

At least Portugal won both games in the last week. Argentina was held by both Uruguay and Venezuela in Jorge Sampaoli's first games in charge, despite having Messi back from suspension.

Argentina still has time to move up from fifth to the fourth and final automatic qualification place. But the final two qualifiers next month for the two-time world champions are against Peru - currently fourth - and Ecuador - chasing Argentina in fifth place for the right to face New Zealand in a playoff.

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CHAMPIONS COLLAPSE

The World Cup will be without African champion Cameroon. Copa America winner Chile could be absent too.

Cameroon's qualification bid ended this week, while Chile is sixth in the South American standings and struggling to force its way into a playoff after losing to Bolivia on Tuesday. It's barely two months since the Chileans were contesting the Confederations Cup final where they lost to Germany, and players are feeling the heat.

''You get tired of being criticized with reason and without reason,'' Chile forward Alexis Sanchez wrote on Instagram. ''You get tired of wanting to be defeated, you get tired of saying to yourself `Once more I'll get up' after crying after a defeat, and you get tired of telling the world and people who are with you, that everything is going well.''

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AMERICANS CLING ON

The United States is in danger of missing its first World Cup since 1986 after a home loss to Costa Rica and a draw in Panama. Bruce Arena's team is hanging onto fourth place by goal difference ahead of Honduras. The fourth-place team is still plunged into a playoff against Australia or Syria to qualify for Russia.

Next up in October for the Americans are a Panama side which is a point ahead of them in the third automatic qualification place and last-place Trinidad and Tobago. It's the first time since 1989 that the qualification fate of the U.S. has been on the line going into the finale.

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SYRIA'S BID

Several teams are still in contention to make their World Cup debuts in Russia: Burkina Faso, Panama, Uganda ... and Syria.

To qualify, Syria would have to beat Australia over two games in October and then overcome a CONCACAF opponent in a November playoff round.

When Syria drew in Iran on Tuesday in qualifying, there were celebrations home back in the capital Damascus. What makes Syria's progress on the field even more remarkable is the team is playing as a civil war rages. That is also what makes the prospect of a Syrian team packed with government supporters appearing at the World Cup potentially problematic for critics of the President Bashir Assad's regime.

FIFA rules say politics should be separated completely from the soccer.

A World Cup trip next June by Assad to Russia, Syria's chief international ally, could rapidly become a sensitive issue for FIFA.

Without citing any country, the Asian Football Confederation opened an investigation on Wednesday into rule breaches linked to the need for national teams to respect political neutrality.

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DUTCH DESPAIR

The Netherlands is facing missing a second straight major tournament, with even a place in the play-offs slipping out a sight. The 2010 World Cup finalists were dealt one of the hardest groups, but a 4-0 loss to leader France last week showed the size of the gulf between Dick Advocaat's side and the continental powers. The Dutch are third in its group with two games remaining, three points behind its final group opponent, Sweden. Although France leads the group from Sweden, Les Bleus have carelessly dropped points in a late defeat to Sweden in June and a 0-0 home draw with lowly Luxembourg.

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GERMAN FAN TROUBLE

Germany's problem isn't qualifying for Russia as the World Cup holders lead their group by five points with two games remaining. The issue is the behavior of fans.

There is abuse aimed often by their own player - Timo Werner - all over a dive by the striker in a German league game last season. Far more disturbing are the Nazi slogans that were chanted during a game in the Czech Republic last week and led to FIFA opening an investigation.

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NO QATAR

Qatar's qualification bid ended in failure last week, just like in every previous campaign. The significance this time is that the Gulf nation will now make its debut on soccer's biggest stage when it hosts the World Cup in 2022.

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More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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