Newcomers to Asian Football might have wondered why the AFC would grant the winners of the biennial Challenge Cup direct entry to the Asian Cup. The initial claim was that this was to help develop the standard of football amongst the continent's weaker teams. But with 22 nations not allowed to take part in 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifying- that claim seems dubious.
With the opaque guidelines surrounding 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifying participation it was hoped that qualifying for the 2015 edition would be open to all who wished to take part. The AFC had set aside two dates in September for preliminary qualifying but has scrapped them. According to Edgar over at Football Rankings, that date was set aside for a Hong Kong-Lebanon playoff in the event DPR Korea chose to participate in qualifying.
How Asian Cup qualifying works
Remember how the holders of the World Cup, Euro, and African Nations Cup tournaments used to qualify automatically? That still happens in Asia! Well, to be fair they stopped the practice (a sensible choice) and then brought it back for the 2011 edition. To compound the hilarity, the runners-up and third-place finishers also earn direct qualification (Who says the third-place playoffs are useless?)
According to the AFC, Asian Cup qualifying is open to the top 23 nations based on how teams finished in the 2011 edition. Australia (hosts), Japan (holders), and Korea Republic (3rd place finishers in 2011) will not participate as automatic qualifiers. DPR Korea (ranked 11th) could participate despite qualifying by winning the 2012 Challenge Cup last month.
What about India?
The other nation eligible to participate in qualifying but electing not to is India (ranked 16th- by virtue of their 2008 Challenge Cup win and last place finish at Qatar 2011)- but it isn't really clear why this is the case. My guess is that participation in qualifying would preclude them from participating in the 2014 Challenge Cup.
Wait- Why is DPR Korea playing in the Challenge Cup?
They are the only developed association allowed to take part and qualified for the 2010 World Cup beating out the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the process. The AFC claims it is because they have difficulty hosting games. It's a pretty lame excuse- I remember how DPR Korea tried to qualify for the 2004 Asian Cup based on a series of technicalities. They walked off of the pitch during a game against Iran and in their final game barred the entire Jordanian national team from entering the country!
What does this mean for Palestine?
In short they will need to win the 2014 Challenge Cup (or finish runners-up to DPR Korea) in order to qualify for Australia 2015. The real kicker here is the scheduling- since Challenge Cup qualifiers and the tournament proper are not scheduled on FIFA match days. Palestine is slowly becoming a talent exporter to other leagues around the region and its national team draws heavily from the diaspora. Without the ability to gain the services of its best players- Palestine will be fighting to secure qualification with a shorthanded squad.
2014 Challenge Cup Qualifying (March 2-15, 2013)
Closest FIFA Match Days (March 22-26, 2013)
2014 Challenge Cup (March 8-23. 2014)
Closest FIFA Match Day (March 5, 2014)
If Challenge Cup matches are now counted as qualifiers in the official FIFA rankings why doesn't the AFC/FIFA afford these teams the same rights? The AFC should, at the very least, mandate that all clubs operating within its realm release players for this tournament or amend the dates to ensure some overlap with FIFA Match Days.