Asia combines the early World Cup qualifying rounds with qualifying for the Asian Cup, and as a result, drags the World Cup qualifying process out over a three year period.
For the twelve teams in the 1st round of qualifying, which combined represent around 450 million people, the home and away knockout matches on June 6th and 11th are their one shot of having a chance of reaching the World Cup. Fail, and they must wait four more years for another chance of glory.
In reality, just reaching the third round of Asian qualifying would be a huge success. None of the teams in the first round of Asian qualifying for Russia 2018 made the third round. In fact, only Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei as FIFA calls them) didn’t finish bottom of their group in round two, and that was only because Indonesia, who were in Taiwan’s group, were kicked out of the competition.
The country with the best shot of reaching the third round is Malaysia. They failed to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, but did reach the final of Southeast Asia’s incredibly popular Suzuki Cup last year, knocking out Thailand in the semi-finals. And their under-23 team reached the knockout stages of the Asian Games, beating a strong South Korean side featuring Son Heung-min in the group stage.
Malaysia are favorites to beat Timor-Leste in their first round clash. But two of the world’s most populous countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, didn’t even manage to get seeded for the first round draw, and will face Cambodia (managed by former AC Milan star Keisuke Honda) and Laos respectively.
Pakistan might not even get that far, depending on the results of a FIFA fact-finding mission into suspected political interference. Footballpakistan editor Ali Ahsan told me that if Pakistan tap into their diaspora players effectively, they could reach the next round, but said that hurdles like a lack of a professional league and proper youth development program, as well as political infighting, are holding one of the world’s largest countries back.
Pakistan’s failures in recent years mean that they are now below Bhutan in the rankings. The tiny Himalyan country was subject of the documentary ‘The Other Final’ back in 2002 when they played Montserrat in a game that would decide who was the worst team in international soccer. Bhutan have climbed the rankings a bit since then.
Standing between them and a place in the second round are Guam, whose fortunes have reversed since they beat India during qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. In the other two first round matches, Mongolia take on Brunei and Macao play Sri Lanka.
There’s only the slimmest of chances that any of these countries will reach the World Cup finals. But even though the first draw for 2022 qualifying has now been made, nobody knows how many World Cup places they are playing for.
It’s looking more likely that there will only be 32 spots up for grabs for Qatar 2022, as Oman, one of the countries that might have hosted games at a 48-team World Cup, has said it can’t get its stadiums ready in time. With a decision needing to be made by June, FIFA head Gianni Infantino’s dreams of an enlarged World Cup now rest on Kuwait being able to host matches.
Kuwait has one of the two stadiums necessary to host the extra games, but their 26,000 capacity second stadium needs serious upgrades if it is to host World Cup matches. Infantino said earlier this month that there’s only a 50-50 chance of a 48-team World Cup actually happening in 2022, so the slim chance that these first round teams have of reaching the World Cup may have gotten even slimmer.