How Asia’s World Cup qualifying format disadvantages its weakest teams [CGTN]

How Asia’s World Cup qualifying format disadvantages its weakest teams [CGTN]

by Bhargab Sarmah

Pakistan’s recent double-header against heavyweights Jordan, recent Asian Cup runners-up, as part of the FIFA World Cup-AFC Asian Cup joint second round qualification, saw the team concede 10 goals over the two games. A 3-0 loss at home was followed by a 7-0 humbling in Amman. The defeats may have left Pakistani football fans disheartened, but participating in the second round of the qualifiers represents progress for a team that had never previously made it past the first round of the Asian qualifying stage.

In October last year, under new coach Stephen Constantine, Pakistan pipped Cambodia 1-0 in a tense two-legged first-round tie. It was the first time that Pakistan won a World Cup qualification match. The reward: six more matches in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers against three strong opponents: Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tajikistan.

Although Pakistan have lost four of their games in the second round so far, they are assured of a spot in the next round of the 2027 Asian Cup qualifiers, where they will be able to play six more games. For a team that has not been able to play games at this level for such a long time, Pakistan’s participation in the qualifiers also highlights the importance of winning the two-legged first-round tie against Cambodia.

The Cambodian side, on the other hand, will have to wait for a play-off round later this year to try and make their way into the next round of the Asian Cup qualifiers. Like Cambodia, nine other teams – Bhutan, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, China’s Macao, Sri Lanka, Guam, East Timor and Brunei – were already out of the World Cup cycle last year.

Barring Bhutan, who finished as lucky losers and made it to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, the other teams will be joined by Northern Mariana Islands in September’s two-legged playoff round, meaning five of these teams won’t get more than two more games in the Asian Cup qualifying cycle either.

While Pakistan’s recent progress will help see the national team experience more competitive action, it, in a way, highlights the systemic flaws of the current Asian qualification format for the World Cup, which leaves some of its lowest-ranked teams in the lurch, with their fortunes for a four-year cycle being essentially linked to how they fare in two games at the beginning of that cycle.

In fact, in the qualifiers for the 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Pakistan played more games due to a first round that involved all affiliated teams compared to all subsequent campaigns. The two-legged first round was first introduced by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the 2006 World Cup.

Despite the merger of the opening rounds of the qualifiers for the World Cup and the Asian Cup after 2014 and the upcoming World Cup expansion starting in 2026, which will offer more qualification spots for teams from the continent, the opening round involving the lowest-ranked teams has stayed.

Ali Ahsan, editor at FootballPakistan.com, said this works to the disadvantage of the continent’s weakest team. As Pakistan have found out over the last few years, a first-round exit significantly limits competitive opportunities for a team, further hindering its growth.

“It absolutely disincentivizes lower-ranked federations; with no games to play and then having to chase their own fixtures, it can be an administrative headache,” Ahsan noted.

“You lose two games and are out of any competitive fixtures for a good four years, meaning no matches against Asia’s best teams, so no frame of reference as to how you are as a national team and how the rest of Asia is,” he said.

“It would allow a team to gain the necessary eyeballs from the public and media and at least initiate a discourse on how the national team can be improved in terms of recruitment and how a domestic football system can be organized to better handle the demands of international football. Not playing guaranteed qualification fixtures over a four-year cycle means that discussion almost never happens,” Ahsan added.

In the 2018-19 World Cup-Asian Cup joint qualifiers, Nepal lost a two-legged tie against India in the opening round that featured the AFC’s lowest-ranked teams. It knocked the team out of both tournaments’ qualification cycles – in the last two cycles, first-round losers didn’t even get a berth in the Asian Cup qualifying play-off round. It was only after Guam’s withdrawal for the 2019 Asian Cup third-round qualifiers that Nepal were offered a spot as a replacement.

While they avoided the opening round in 2022, this time, Nepal edged past Laos 2-1 in the first round to make it to the second phase.

Gaurav Phuyal, head of Nepali football portal Bhakundo.np, said the current format can be “unforgiving” for the lower-ranked teams, where local authorities already face tremendous pressure to develop the sport. 

“Consideration should be given to providing more opportunities for these teams to participate in the qualification process, allowing them to gain valuable experience and contribute to the growth of football in their respective countries,” Phuyal said.

“The whole continent is too big with 47 footballing nations; we should have alternatives for how these qualifier rounds can be commercially beneficial to the teams of low rank,” he added.

Ahsan said that the current format is more “elite-focused” and that lower-ranked teams should push for an all-inclusive group stage from the very start. That used to be the case in Asia before the 2006 World Cup cycle. In Europe, it is still the case.

“The priority for Asian teams should always be Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers. so AFC should either separate them again, or if they are to continue as combined, then ensure all teams are directly in group stage qualifiers,” Ahsan added.

This year, the FIFA Series, a biennial competition of friendlies between teams of different confederations, has offered a couple of much-needed games to some of the teams that bowed out of the qualifiers. However, for some, like Laos, two-time South Asian champions Maldives, and East Timor, there hasn’t been any competitive action since the opening round games last year.

Published in CGTN, 29 March 2024

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