Around the world, it’s an almost endless cycle. While Germany’s win at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is still fresh in the memories of soccer fans, qualifying is set to begin for the 2018 edition, with Asia’s 12 lowest-ranked teams set to play their opening matches this week.
For teams such as tiny Bhutan, which is in last place in FIFA’s rankings at No. 209, and India, considered a potential sleeping giant in the game, failure in the first-round qualifiers would spell the end of their World Cup aspirations for another four years. None of the teams in action in the first round has ever qualified for the final stage.
The winners of this week’s matches will progress to the second round in Asian World Cup qualifying, where they will face some of the best teams on the continent. And along with that comes progress to the next round of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup.
India is perhaps under the most pressure. The inaugural Indian Super League, which ran from October to December, may have been a success in terms of media attention and attendance, but if the No. 171-ranked national team fails to get past Nepal in World Cup qualifying this week, it would be considered a major blow to the game’s development in the subcontinent.
India head coach Stephen Constantine has returned to lead the team for a second stint, kicking off against Nepal, another of his former teams.
Beating Nepal “will be a massive boost to everyone connected with Indian football and will give the national team its pride back,” the London-born Constantine, who first coached India from 2002-2005, told The Associated Press. “I think we have the quality to win the game, but it is about what you do on the field. I have great respect for Nepal and am sure they will be a tough nut to crack.”
Nepal has struggled lately, but the team’s American coach, Jack Stefanowski, sounded confident ahead of this week’s matches.
“India are tough opponents but our boys have played a lot of domestic matches,” Stefanowski was quoted as saying in the domestic media. “We had a good training before the tournament and everyone in the side is quite fit. I think we are up for the task. Our target is to get into the second round.”
Pakistan has a tough assignment in the opening round, taking on the improving Yemen in Doha, Qatar. Yemen, which must play its home match on neutral territory due to security concerns at home, had its best performance at the regional Gulf Cup in November, with two draws and a loss to finish third in the group stage above Bahrain.
Pakistan coach Mohamed Shalman guided his team to an encouraging 3-1 win over Afghanistan last month and is hoping the players now getting experience in foreign leagues will lift his team to the second round. In addition to former English Premier League defender and team captain Zesh Rehman, who now plays in Malaysia, Pakistan also has players in leagues in Denmark, Kyrgyzstan and Bahrain.
Mohammad Ahmed plays for ISA Town, a second-tier club in Bahrain, and knows the Yemen national team well.
“They have three to four experienced players in their side, which is dominated by youngsters,” he said. “If we exploit their weak points and play with technical maturity against them, then I am hopeful we would give them a tough time.”
Yemen, which is coached by Czech tactician Miroslav Soukup, defeated Pakistan 8-1 on aggregate in the qualifying tournament ahead of the 1994 World Cup.
Cambodia, coached by South Korea’s Lee Tae-hoon, will take on Macau, aiming to improve upon the country’s sole win in the qualification stage four years ago against Laos. The Cambodians are confident after beating a Singapore selection team last month.
“I am encouraged by the result and the performance,” Lee said. “We have a lot of work still to do. We have to remain focused on getting to the next stage.”
Brunei returns to World Cup qualification after being suspended by FIFA for government interference in the running of the sport’s national federation and plays Taiwan. In other matches, Bhutan meets Sri Lanka and Mongolia takes on East Timor.
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