Some thoughts now that AFC WC Qualification has wrapped up
Last night, North Korea sealed an improbable qualification campaign that saw them qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in the modern era. I had the opportunity to catch their final match against Saudi Arabia a match that determined the fate of three teams in the group. Iran, who had drawn earlier in the day needed either a North Korea or Saudi victory in order to clinch a playoff spot. The Saudis desperately needed a victory if they were to avoid bogey team Bahrain in the AFC playoff. For 90 minutes the Saudis attacked and the Koreans repelled playing 10 men behind the ball and only occasionally probing the Saudi defence. Somehow, this technique succeeded and the North Koreans got the draw they were looking for, the game ended 0-0. Iran was out, North Korea in, and Saudi was somewhere in between.
So why am I writing about this? Well, it's simple really... Asian football lacks quality. The AFC is by far worse than any other confederation (Oceania excepted) and the fact that a team like North Korea can qualify is indicative of that. North Korea, like Palestine, is classified as an "emerging/developing" association by the AFC. As a result, North Korea is allowed in the AFC Challenge Cup, their sole Challenge Cup campaign saw them finish third in 2008. What does it say about the AFC that one of it's lesser developed sides can qualify for the World Cup ahead of perennial powers Saudi Arabia and Iran? Well, either North Korea has a very developed FA that it has kept hidden from the rest of the world OR what's more likely is that the AFC has in reality 2-3 quality (by quality I mean sides that can make World Cup arrangements before actually qualifying, and while in the actual tournament are not just there to make up the numbers, at the last World Cup Australia, South Korea, and Japan (to a lesser extent) demonstrated this kind of quality) teams and isn't deserving of the 4.5 slots given to them. It is my belief that South Korea, Australia, and Japan are the three sides that would be able to get the better of North Korea if put in the same position Saudi Arabia was in last night. The other "big teams" I neglected to mention are not far off the pace from the three teams I did mention. But I think you can safely say they lack a cutting edge, good teams can break down smaller teams that come to play 10 men behind the ball. You can bet your bottom dollar that come June 2010, North Korea is going to be exposed, they will struggle to score goals and will be extremely fortunate to leave the tournament with a point.
What I am trying to say here is that if North Korea can do it, then Palestine can do it too. Not only that, I beleive that Palestine could actually do it with more goals, grace, and style than North Korea. Palestine need not go into big games and play ultra-defensive football, they have better and more dynamic players than North Korea. They will need to be discplined, but the heirarchy of Asian football is transient, North Korea's qualification and Iraq's Asian Cup victory prove this. For all the skeptics who believe that North Korea is miles ahead of Palestine I invite you to look at both teams' attempts at qualification in the past 10 years, you will see a very similar record (results listed below). Of course others might also point out our recent results, which have been somewhat unspectacular. Well, I will tell you this, if we get the right manager in place I believe we are better equipped in previous years at making a either winning the 2012 edition of the Challenge Cup, qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, or qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup. It is, however, contingent on a couple of factors:
1. The appointment of a professional National Team manager seasoned enough to deal with the situation (Alferd Riedl, Azmi Nassar, and Nicola Shahwan were good managers. Izzat Hamzeh, Nelson Dekmak, were not). A system must implemented that compliments our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses. 2. The continued funding of the team must be guaranteed. 3. The return of several foreign based players who have not played for Palestine in nearly a year (or more): Ramzi Saleh, Omar Jarun, Imad Zatara, Edgardo Abdala, Roberto Kettlun, Mohammed Samara, et al... 4. Friendlies must arranged against fellow national teams in order to boost our ranking and place us at around 20th in the AFC instead of the 35th we are now. Moreover, this will help us avoid tough qualification groups and will also ensure that we have the opportunity to partake in Asian Cup Qualifiers instead of being relegated to having to win the Challenge Cup in order to qualify. 5. No more exhibition matches! They are a waste of time and resources and sometimes result in embarassing situations. Said Al-Sobakhi refused a call up agaisnt Terek Grozny because he was getting married and Ramzi Saleh didn't show either because he and some Al-Ahly teamates made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. 6. Domestic Football in Gaza and the West Bank must continue to be played yearly. They keep players fresh and prepared for international duty, they also help players secure deals abroad.