Analysis: Asian World Cup Qualifiers (Part 1 of 2)

Soccer is well and truly back, and World Cup qualifiers will soon be back as well. I’ve already written about the African World Cup qualifiers, which you can find here and here. The Asian World Cup qualifiers are the next to return, so I am going to review these groups over two parts.

It’s currently the second of four rounds in Asian World Cup Qualifying. The first round has already occurred, with Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Guam and Cambodia advancing.

Group A: Syria, China, Philippines, Maldives, and Guam

Guam have had a historically poor team, and unfortunately that doesn’t appear set to change. Guam did advance from round one, losing the first leg 1-0 against Bhutan but they won the second leg 5-0 in Guam. However, they were drawn in a difficult group and have lost all five games they have played so far including a 7-0 loss to China, and Guam have already been eliminated from the World Cup qualifiers. The opposite of Guam are Syria, who have won all five of the group stage games they have played. Syria might be on track to qualify for their first ever World Cup, which you can read more about here, which would be incredible for the war-torn country.

China have been surprisingly poor considering the money the country has sunk into the sport, with just one World Cup appearance to their names. China are currently second in the group, with the qualifier’s third highest goalscorer in Yang Xu. This could be China’s chance at a second-ever World Cup appearance, but to do so they’ll need to finish in the top two in the group, and fend off the Philippines.

The Philippines are currently tied with China, but China have a significantly better goal differential. The most notable player on the Philippines national team may be Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, but the team has some good players for the future including Justin Baas, a Dutch center back with Philippine citizenship who is a youth player for AZ Alkmaar.

The Maldives might be known as a tourist destination, but they have shown to be a scrappy side as both Syria and the Philippines only beat them by one goal. Maldives are just one point behind second-placed China, but might be at a disadvantage as China, Syria and the Philippines have not played twice against Guam, while the Maldives have.

Group B: Australia, Kuwait, Nepal, Jordan, and Chinese Taipei

This group is close at the top, with Australia at 12 points and Kuwait and Jordan at 10. However the gap between third-placed Jordan and fourth-placed Nepal is huge, as Nepal have just three points.

Australia have been a fixture at World Cups recently, qualifying for every World Cup since 2006. They’ve also made it to at least the quarter-finals of every Asian Cup since joining the AFC (Asian Football Federation) in 2006. This includes a win of the tournament in 2015 as well as being runner-ups in 2011. Australia are probably going to pull away soon, as they have played a game fewer than all other teams and have allowed just one goal.

Kuwait have done surprisingly well, and have been known to score many goals. Kuwait beat Chinese Taipei 9-0 earlier in qualifiers, which surprisingly isn’t even the team’s biggest win ever. In 2000, Kuwait played Bhutan and won by a score of 20-0, the second biggest win in international soccer history. Kuwait is tied for points with Jordan, who have never qualified for the World Cup but have had some close encounters, most notably in 2014 when Jordan made it to the intercontinental playoff to see who would qualify for the World Cup, which Jordan lost on aggregate to Uruguay. The Jordanians have a very bright future, thanks mainly to Musa Al-Tamari.

Al-Tamari plays for Cypriot club APOEL Nicosia, and is often referred to as the “Jordanian Messi”. Al-Tamari has impressed in the Europa League this season and, despite being just 23, Al-Tamari has been linked to the likes of Manchester City as well as Premier League champions Liverpool.

Nepal can’t win the group, but they could statistically advance as group runner-ups. Nepal have not had the greatest luck in the past, with no Asian Cups or World Cups to their name, and it’s unlikely Nepal advance to the third round of qualifiers, let alone the World Cup. But Nepal are better off than Chinese Taipei, who are dead last in the group and eliminated from qualifiers. Rather surprisingly, Chinese Taipei are still ranked significantly higher than both Nepal and Kuwait.

Group C: Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, Hong Kong, and Cambodia

Iraq are surprising leaders in this group. Iraq have qualified for one World Cup, whereas neighbors Iran have qualified for the past five World Cups, including some impressive results including a tie against Portugal. However Iraq have reached a new golden age, thanks to young prodigies Mohanad Ali and Mohammed Dawood. Iraq should reach the third round of qualifiers.

Bahrain’s team might be most well-known for the wrong reasons. Former Bahraini player Hakeem Al-Araibi fled Bahrain for Australia after being wrongfully accused of a crime, and was extradited during his honeymoon in Thailand. Australia international Craig Foster helped Al-Araibi get released from Bahrain, but the team has still been associated strongly with that event.

Iran have surprisingly struggled, with losses to Iraq and Bahrain, but unlike Bahrain, Iran’s team are currently known for the right reasons. Iran beat Cambodia 14-0 during qualifiers, but it marked a historic event – the match was the first time Iran allowed women in the stadium for the first time in over four decades, and hopefully they will continue to allow women to watch. They have a game in hand as well, so it’s not unlikely that Iran find their way back and advance to round three, and then a third consecutive World Cup appearance.

Hong Kong have proved to be more than competent opponents, with close losses to Iraq and Iran, and ties against Cambodia and Bahrain. Hong Kong beat Cambodia in the second match, and could realistically advance to the third round. This would be remarkable, as Hong Kong have never qualified for the World Cup, and haven’t qualified for the Asian Cup since 1968, when they finished in fifth place.

Cambodia can still statistically advance from the group as runner-ups, but it won’t happen. That isn’t much of a hot take, as Cambodia are dead last with one point and a goal difference of -21, 14 of which came from Iran in Cambodia’s worst ever loss.

Group D: Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Yemen, and Palestine

Despite having no really noteworthy players, Uzbekistan are top of their group. The nation’s most exciting player is probably Eldor Shomurodov, a 25-year old striker for Russian club Rostov who has scored six goals during qualifiers, including braces against Singapore and Palestine.

Saudi Arabia have an extremely high domestic bias, as every single player in the Saudi team plays in the Saudi Pro League. The Saudi team surprisingly qualified for the 2018 World Cup, but played poorly, losing 1-0 to Uruguay and 5-0 to Russia, leading to Mohammad Bin Salman and Vladimir Putin’s famous shrugs after Russia scored. Five times.

Saudi Arabia did end up beating a poor Egypt side, playing with an injured Mohamed Salah, but they were eliminated and followed that up with a poor 2019 Asian Cup tournament. They’ll be desperate to at least advance to round three of the tournament.

Singapore actually have a half decent soccer team, ranked higher than several European nations. To be fair, those nations are Gibraltar, Malta, and San Marino, but my point stands. It’s somewhat surprising that this wealthy country hasn’t invested much in their soccer team, given that they have a population larger than Denmark, Costa Rica, Panama, Croatia, Uruguay, and Iceland, all of whom qualified for the 2018 World Cup, with Croatia reaching the final. This could be Singapore’s chance to prove themselves, as they are just two points off first place in the group.

There is currently a huge crisis in Yemen, leading to issues all across the country. Given that, it’s not surprising that just five players on the national team play for a team in Yemen, with the national team forced to play 21-year old Ahmed Al Sarori as striker. Al Sarori plays in the third tier of Czech soccer. Still, the team is playing with inspiration, drawing against Singapore and Saudi Arabia and beating Palestine.

Palestine are yet another troubled country playing with inspiration. Palestine tied Saudi Arabia and beat first-placed Uzbekistan, and they have won the last four friendlies they have played. They are well known for Mahmoud Wadi, who currently plays for Egyptian team Al Masry, but players like Daoud Iraqi, who plays in Germany, mean Palestine have a bright future.

Look for a part two, coming soon! Which team are you rooting for?

Image Courtesy of Student News Agency / CC BY.

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