Teams were drawn into eight groups of six teams and one group of five teams. The nine group winners qualified directly, while the best eight second-placed teams contested home and away play-off matches for the remaining four places. In determining the best eight second-placed teams, the results against teams finishing last in the six-team groups were not counted for consistency between the five- and six-team groups.
After initially proposing to use a similar system to recent World Cup and European Championship qualification (based on results across the previous two European qualification cycles), the UEFA Executive Committee decided on 27 September 2007 at its meeting in Istanbul that seeding for the qualifiers would be based on FIFA World Rankings, in accordance with the FIFA World Cup regulations (which note that where teams are ranked on "performance" criteria, the FIFA World Rankings must be used).
The FIFA World Ranking used for seeding was the most recent at the time of the preliminary draw, namely the November 2007 edition. Initially scheduled for 21 November, the release date of the ranking was moved to 23 November to include the final match days of Euro 2008 qualification.
The countries which eventually qualified for the final tournament are emboldened in the table below.
The draw for the group stage took place in Durban, South Africa on 25 November 2007. During the draw, teams were drawn from the 6 pots A-F (see above) into the nine groups below, starting with pot F, which filled position 6 in the groups, then continued with pot E filling position 5, pot D in position 4 and so on.
Because one group has one team fewer than the others, matches against the sixth-placed team in each group are not included in this ranking. As a result, eight matches played by each team will count for the purposes of the second-placed table.
The UEFA second round (often referred to as the play-off stage) was contested by the best eight runners-up from the nine first round groups. The winners of each of four home and away ties joined the group winners in the World Cup finals in South Africa. Norway, with 10 points, was ranked 9th so failed to qualify for the second round.
The eight teams were seeded according to the FIFA World Rankings released on 16 October (shown in parentheses in the table below). The draw for the ties was held in Zürich on 19 October, with the top four teams seeded into one pot and the bottom four teams seeded into a second. A separate draw decided the host of the first leg.
There were 725 goals scored over 268 games by 399 different players, for an average of 2.71 goals per game. England were the highest scorers in the European section with 34 goals. Malta did not score any goals, but did score two own goals. The top scorer was Theofanis Gekas of Greece, who scored 10 goals.
^"Key Decisions Reached in Rio". FIFA.com. Rio de Janeiro: Fédération Internationale de Football Association. 29 September 2009. Archived from the original on 3 October 2009. Retrieved 29 September 2009.