World Cup qualification is getting into gear everywhere, with new Canadian heroes, potentially dramatic play-offs in Europe and Africa and a tight battle for the remaining South American slots. In Asia, however, qualification has been dull – again. Even at the halfway point of this final group stage, it was clear that the four automatic places were going to be shared among the same old names of Iran, South Korea, Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Since Australia joined Asia in 2006, only North Korea in 2010 have broken into that magic circle.
That it has been too easy for these regional powerhouses is not just an entertainment issue. It is unlikely that the road to Qatar has been tough enough to iron out rough spots. The second round of Asian qualification started long ago, featuring 40 nations. Japan, who ran into double figures against Mongolia and Myanmar, and Australia won all eight of their games with a combined goal difference of +70. The thrashings produce debates as to what they do for the minnows but little is said about what they don’t do for the giants. That wouldn’t be a huge issue if this final stage of qualification, which sees two six-team groups battling for the four automatic places, was a nail-biting scrap.
It hasn’t been. In Group A, Iran and South Korea have qualified together (as they did four years ago) with three and two games respectively to spare, with 11 points separating second from third. The other four teams in the group have been poor. That Iraq, yet to win any of their eight games, are still officially in the running to finish third and enter the play-offs highlights the quality problem. Lebanon continue to punch above their weight in impressive fashion but are limited. The United Arab Emirates have disappointed.
In Group B, it’s a three-way fight between the Saudis, Japan and Australia (as it was four years ago), with Oman the standouts of the others but still cut adrift. There were hopes that south-east Asia, the continent’s most passionate football region with more than 650 million inhabitants, would find a team to bridge the gap to the rest of the continent. They were soon dashed, with Vietnam losing all seven games before beating China 3-1 on Tuesday.
As welcome as that was in Hanoi, it was tempered by the fact that China have been dreadful. They seem to be going backwards despite a naturalisation policy that has seen a number of players born in Brazil and England drafted in.
There are few others knocking on the door in Asia. Some of the smaller football nations such as Tajikistan and the Philippines are improving but those closer to the top have not taken the final step. Uzbekistan were long seen as the best hope and nearly made 2006, 2014 and 2018. The central Asian teams may be shedding their tag of the continent’s chokers but only because they aren’t getting close these days.
It means that the usual suspects, who tend to care more about getting to the World Cup than being successful there, are not stretched. Japan are full of technically excellent players but, led by a conservative coach in Hajime Moriyasu, have been mediocre. South Korea have ambled into a 10th successive appearance and although performances have been better of late, it has been underwhelming. Australia are willing but limited and although Saudi Arabia are much improved under Hervé Renard, they have yet to be really tested. Iran, the first qualifiers and first-ranked team, are the best hope but are always going to struggle at the World Cup if they stroll through Asia and are suddenly confronted by opponents such as Spain and Portugal.
There’s also a question of style. It is not just that the competitive games the Big Five play between World Cups aren’t that competitive but also that they face teams who sit back and defend in numbers. There are few chances for sides such as Japan to deal with opponents who come at them as they tend to do at the World Cup. Flying over tired European and South American teams to east Asia for friendlies is not the same.
All this helps to explain the widespread appeal of a biennial World Cup in Asia. The big boys want more competitive games against non-Asian teams, the second tier welcome more chances to qualify and the rest are so far removed from the reality of the World Cup that they don’t really care what happens but would gratefully accept more money.
The expanded World Cup in 2026 will admit eight from Asia, giving genuine hope to a good 15 teams or so, and genuine hope that this will focus minds and investments. There may be concerns as to whether the new faces will be good enough but at least they will be new.