Mark Your Calendars: World Cup Qualifying starts October 8, 2010

Interesting news from Kuala Lumpur as the AFC has decided to start World Cup Qualifying ridiculously early. Hard to say what the Asian Football Confederation is thinking, 2006 qualifying began in January 2004 and 2010 qualifying kicked off in October 2007. The format of the qualifiers is yet to be confirmed which is something most fans want sorted out. 2010 qualifying was a sham and a disgrace. No other confederation had the gaul to go out and favor a select group of teams over 40 others. Even CONCACAF makes powerhouses participate in the early rounds of qualifying and the gap between Mexico and Belize or the United States and the Bahamas (both teams lost 9-0 on aggregate) is far greater than the gap between the Maldives and South Korea for example. Although, the AFC had originally announced that the 2014 qualifying format would be identical to the 2010 format, there has been a change of heart perhaps because an allocation of 4.5 spots won't be guaranteed if Asian teams slip up in South Africa.

Traditionally, AFC qualifying was split up into three rounds. Much like CONCACAF the weakest teams played preliminary home and away matches in order to whittle the field to 32 teams. Then teams were divided up into 8 groups of four teams. The winner progressed to the third and final round composed of two groups of 10 teams. The top two advanced directly while third placed teams played each other for the right to play in an inter-confederation play-off.

Putting AFC qualifying for the 2010 tournament is much more difficult. The AFC disregarded World Cup 2010 Regulations:

"Any seeding based on team performance for each continental preliminary competition will be based on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking" (article 17 paragraph 1)

They instead ranked the five Asian teams present at the 2006 World Cup and gave them byes to the third round... That's right the third round. A series of home-and-away playoffs between teams in pot A and teams in pot B were played. Pot A consisted of teams ranked 6th to 24th (Palestine was in this pot, ranked 18th), pot B had the remaining teams (25-43). The winners of these match-ups would progress to the second or third round. So 8 of the 19 winners were forced to play another two-legged playoff with the winners of those joining the rest of the merry bunch in the third round were a normal round robin-6 match days-5 groups of four-with two winners progressing format awaited them. The fourth round was identical to the traditional final round of AFC qualifying.

If you can't make any sense of what I just wrote because it's too damn complicated check out Wikipedia's article for some nice visuals. Here are my problems with this format:

I. Competition is Diluted: I think over the past 10 year it's safe to say that the middle tier of Asian Football has improved drastically. Look at the progress Syria and Korea DPR have made in qualifying for major tournaments (Qatar 2011 and South Africa 2010). By eliminating teams en masse with two-legged playoffs you are robbing teams from the opportunity to play competitive games and improve themselves. UEFA no longer has minnows amongst its ranks with the possible exception of San Marino and Andorra. All teams are now capable of making bigger teams work for the result. This is because these tiny teams were given the opportunity to play a 10 or 12 game World Cup campaign and learn from negative experiences.

II. FIFA Rankings are Arbitrary: If you want to determine the weakest teams in Asia... sure FIFA's Rankings can help you determine the obvious Timor Leste and Guam are rock bottom... duh. But in the middle you're comparing teams that don't play each other and don't play a lot of friendlies. Plus if say Syria had qualified for the tournament (a realistic assumption given that they were a 'faulty' power generator away) they would have played 18-22 games 4-8 games more than South Korea, Japan, and Australia.
So we await the AFC's decision on a format with anticipation, but I think we will be seeing Al-Fursan in a competitive match in exactly 10 months time. Our ranking is at an abysmal 39/46, but the football we displayed against the UAE (ranked 16th in Asia and 64 places ahead of us in FIFA) shows that we can knock off any team in the lower tier as long as external factors don't get in the way. Bezzaz seems to be a very capable and serious manager which is what this team needs, so I don't envision any surprises against the likes of Nepal, Bangladesh, or Pakistan. My gut feeling says that the bottom 12 teams will play a two-legged playoff which will cut the number of teams participating to 40. I doubt that the playing field could be more expansive since MD 2 is on the 12th of October. But until then... we'll be part of a select group of teams playing World Cup matches in 2010.