The final round of Asian World Cup qualifying gets underway again tomorrow, with five matches on the docket. In previous years, the qualification picture has cleared up pretty quickly with the usual suspects separating themselves from the pack. The landscape started to change in 2010 when Korea DPR capitalized on poor showings by Iran and Saudi Arabia to qualify directly. That said, the other finalists made easy work of qualification- mathematically clinching on June 6th, 2009 with two match days to spare.
The numbers were startling, only one match lost between the three (Japan lost to Australia on the final match day) and a combined goal differential of +24.
The final round in 2006 was even less competitive with the best third place teams, Bahrain and Uzbekistan, amassing a meager 4 and 5 points respectively from six games.
FIFA targets China, India
Asia has preformed well enough at the World Cup to have their allotment of teams be increased from two teams in 1994, to 3.5 teams in 1998, to 4.5 in 2006. That number has held steady despite some less than flattering results (Germany 8:0 Saudi Arabia, Ukraine 4:0 Saudi Arabia, Portugal 7:0 Korea DPR). It's obvious that FIFA wants to promote the game globally and Asia home of the world's largest population is its target. Unfortunately for FIFA, the giants of the continent, China and India, lack enthusiasm for the domestic game and the training infrastructure to harness talent.
The only way FIFA can hope to promote the game in its target regions is to either award them hosting rights for the 2026, 2030, or 2034 World Cup or expand the number of teams that qualify from Asia in the hopes one of them can sneak in. Expanding the number of Asian qualification slots would be problematic without evidence to prove that the gap between Asia and the established powers is closing.
Increased Competition = Weaker Asian Contingent?
Qualification a reality for all through four match days.
With Palestine out of the running, many fans have taken to supporting the five Arab teams left in the final round (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, and Qatar). But are fans rooting against their own interest? If these teams go on to qualify for Brazil 2014- what are the chances they win a game? Or progress past the group stage?
Let me answer that for you: Slim to none.
These teams may be able to grind out a result, at home, against a more established, continental rival but would be out of their depth against a battle-hardened South American or European team. The middle tier of Asian Football is growing and the top tier is improving as evidenced by the fact that Korea Republic and Japan were Olympic semifinalists. The fact remains, however, that only a select few sides can compete outside of Asia.
Lebanon and Oman made it to this stage thanks to a combination of grit, luck, and the ineptitude of their group stage rivals. Qatar is really good at frustrating Iran and not much else, as evidenced by Palestine comfortably holding them to a 0-0 draw in May.
Jordan and Iraq might be the most competent of the bunch but both have been victims of 6-0 drubbings in recent months (Jordan in a WCQ against Japan and Iraq in a friendly against Brazil).
What's troubling is that every single one of the aforementioned teams is in with a shout; I say troubling, because in order for Palestine to ever hope to make a World Cup Finals (the current target set by the FA is 2022) they'll need the pool of Asian teams to be expanded.
I understand that my logic might be met by some derision but Palestine isn't that far from being in the same situation as Jordan, Lebanon or Oman. There are some ifs but Palestine, under Jamal Mahmoud, would not concede a goal in the same exact manner, against Thailand, in back-to-back matches. Palestine had the War Elephants on the ropes at 1-1 with 50 minutes to play and let them off the hook and nearly clawed back when then made it 2-2 on aggregate late in the second half.
Had history been different, Palestine, not Thailand would have been drawn into a group alongside Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. A group, whose runners-up spot was captured by Oman, the cellar dwellers until the last match day.
What to Root For:
The teams that give Asia the best chance of putting on a good show in Brazil are Japan, Korea Republic, Australia, Iran, and Uzbekistan in that order. I'll be rooting for Asia regardless of who the finalists are in 20 months but only these five teams have the combination of experience and ability to preform competently in Brazil.