A total of 51 UEFA teams entered the competition. The European zone was allocated 14.5 places (out of 32) in the final tournament. France, the defending champions, qualified automatically leaving 13.5 spots open for competition between 50 teams.
The 50 teams were divided into nine groups, five groups of six teams and four groups of five teams. The teams played against each other on a home-and-away basis. The group winners would qualify. Among the runners-up, the runner-up of Group 2 was drawn randomly to advance to the UEFA–AFC Intercontinental play-off. The other runners-up would advance to the UEFA play-offs.
In the play-offs, the eight teams were paired up to play knockout matches on a home-and-away basis. The four aggregate winners qualified. The qualifying process started on 2 September 2000, After UEFA Euro 2000, and ended on 14 November 2001.
England qualified. Germany advanced to the UEFA Play-offs.
Germany lost a World Cup qualifying match for only the second time on 1 September 2001, when they were defeated 5–1 by England in Munich. They had played 62 World Cup qualifying matches before (47 wins, 14 draws, 1 loss). Apart from Germany, no team having played more than 20 World Cup qualifying matches has lost fewer than three of them.