Four European teams will clinch their places, two from South America and one from CONCACAF, the North and Central American and Caribbean zone.
Only one reigning champion has failed to defend their title since the World Cup began in 1930 — Uruguay, who did not enter in 1934. Spain are unlikely to join them and share that distinction.
But Spain are in a tight two-way battle with 1998 world champions France for the automatic qualifying berth from Group I and will only qualify if they avoid defeat to minnows Georgia, in Albacete.
Spain have 17 points and France 14, but if Spain slip to defeat, France would finish top if they beat Finland by enough goals. While qualification is close for Spain and three other European sides - Russia, Bosnia and England - four rival nations, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine and France, are ready to pounce if they slip up.
Fabio Capello’s Russia would have qualified on Friday if Portugal had lost at home to Israel, but a 4-0 win for the Russians over Luxembourg and Portugal’s 1-1 draw with Israel means Group F will not be decided until Tuesday.
In Group H, England lead with 19 points, one more than Ukraine, and Roy Hodgson’s men will qualify with a win over Poland at Wembley.
The Poles may be out of contention in fourth place, but their arrival in London for the group finale is pregnant with memories that have haunted English soccer for 40 years.
Although they have beaten England only once in 18 matches over 47 years, it is the night Poland drew 1-1 at Wembley in October, 1973, that revives nightmares.
That defiant draw carried Poland through, for the first time since 1938, to finish third in the 1974 finals, but eliminated Alf Ramsey’s England.