France, Portugal and Russia all moved closer to next year's World Cup finals with first leg playoff wins on Saturday, although none of them did enough to take victory for granted in the second legs next week.
France, runners-up in Germany in 2006, beat Ireland 1-0 in Dublin with a late deflected goal from Nicolas Anelka, and start as favourites to finish the job in Paris on Wednesday.
France dominated for much of the match in front of 80,000 fans at Croke Park and went in front 18 minutes from time when Anelka's shot took a deflection off Sean St Ledger and left goalkeeper Shay Given helpless.
Portugal beat Bosnia 1-0 in Lisbon with defender Bruno Alves heading the only goal in the first half, while two goals from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov put Russia 2-0 up against Slovenia who scored a vital away goal three minutes from time when substitute Nejc Pecnik headed home to make the final score 2-1.
Greece and Ukraine drew 0-0 in the first leg of their playoff in Athens, with Ukraine now favourites to take control of the tie at home in Donetsk on Wednesday.
While Saturday saw the start of the European playoffs, it also signalled the end of New Zealand's long wait to return to the finals for the first time since 1982.
They sealed their place in next year's extravaganza in South Africa with a 1-0 win in the second leg of their Asia/Oceania playoff against Bahrain to win the tie 1-0 on aggregate.
In Wellington, a header from Rory Fallon at the end of the first half and a missed second half Bahrain penalty saw New Zealand qualify.
Uruguay seized the advantage in the South American/CONCACAF playoff with a 22nd minute goal by Diego Lugano to give them a 1-0 victory in Costa Rica and head back to the Centenario stadium in Montevideo on Wednesday.