In the sprawling mélange of Asian football it’s hard to know just where the story of qualification lies and more pressingly just how the quartet of now confirmed nations – and potentially the one still to come – will actually fare when the main event kicks off in Russia ten months from now.
After Japan joined Iran in reaching the finals last week, we now have confirmation that both Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic will round out Asia’s direct entrants with Australia and Syria set to clash in the playoffs before the winner of that exercise then moves on to to duel with the fourth-placed CONCACAF nation.
While it is, very much, a case of status quo, on the continuing evidence presented on a thrilling final evening of group stage play there is much still to be done to ensure that Asia can put its best foot forward next year.
Despite an underwhelming 2-2 draw with Syria in Tehran, Iran showed once again that they are not only the best coached nation on the continent but that they also possess the best core of individual talent. The gap that they are putting to the rest of the field as Asia’s leading lights is growing by the month.
Lost in the myriad of other stories is the fact that the man who grabbed those goals for Team Melli, Sardar Azmoun, has now become the fifth most prolific scorer in the long and proud history of his nation. At the age of just 22 and it’s already time to stop the whispering of it and loudly proclaim that here is a player who could one day be amongst the best that Asia has ever had.
Azmoun continues to impress for Iran.
That story though was buried in one the international community will rejoice in – the plucky, war-torn, underdogs keeping their World Cup dream alive but there is much complexity to the tale of Syria.
Earlier in the qualification campaign, I spoke with the then national coach Fajr Ibrahim who told me explicitly that ‘everyone’ in the team is ‘fighting for and supporting’ the Bashar al-Assad regime that has drawn widespread international condemnation.
“We don’t look to political things but we support our country and we support our president, sure because our government and our president is right about this situation.
“If the government needs me to fight, I will fight (with guns). Now we’re fighting with football, the players, everyone in the delegation is fighting; I give my love and my soul to my country and sure if I have to fight I fight.
“If the government is not right, I’m against it, sure but now all people know that Syria is right, the President is right, the Syrian Army is right so we have to fight.”
This is a national team that is more tied up with politics than most on the planet and for a long time that stance almost cost them a shot at qualification with key players either being excluded or refusing to join the squad in light of their political views.
So it was little surprise to see one of those who rejoined the group after years in the wilderness be the star of show with the prolific Omar Al-Somah scoring the 93rd minute goal that secured the 2-2 draw with Iran and booked the nation’s playoff spot.
That dramatic late flourish saw Uzbekistan tumble out of the World Cup altogether after they were held scoreless by Korea in Tashkent, where the visitors had the better of the match and did just enough to secure their passage to a record ninth straight finals.
They did so whilst tasting victory in less than half of their ten matches and almost losing as many matches as they won and are one of the least convincing qualifiers from Asia in recent times.
The same can be said for a Saudi Arabian outfit that booked their return to the global celebration for the first time since 2006 after they wobbled their way to a 1-0 win over already qualified Japan in Jeddah.
It was with a slice of irony that the position that has most defined the nation’s recent failure – that of the goalkeeper – was the area from which their well-taken winner began as Abdullah Al-Mayouf made a strong save and launched a quick attack that involved an impressive 27 passes before the lively Fahad Al-Muwallad blasted past Eiji Kawashima just after the hour.
This was though another less-than-convincing showing from the Green Falcons in a campaign that has had more than it’s share of good fortune: they were outplayed for large spells by Thailand in the opening game, needed two late penalties to see off Iraq in the following encounter before only ever really convincing in a 3-0 win over the UAE back in October.
For all their lively attacking threat the team remains a complete mess defensively and if they draw one of the world’s leading powers in the group stage a repeat of the 8-0 debacle against Germany back in 2002 is not at all out of the question.
Japan rotated their squad for that clash in Jeddah and with little on the line still managed to show a few decent flourishes, but the Samurai Blue too have much work to do to ensure they are a chance of reaching the knockout stages and are still less than certain to have their current coach actually be the man in charge when the tournament gets underway next year.
With the JFA though sure to provide a slate of top-class opposition in the buildup they will have a better preparation than any of the other AFC qualifiers and position themselves to improve on their performance in Brazil three years ago.
All of that leaves the reigning Asian champions, Australia, who rained down a record number of shots against Thailand but who in the end were somewhat fortunate to have even escaped with a 2-1 win against a Thailand side that were denied a legitimate second half penalty and who caused plenty of problems on the counter for the Socceroos in their match in Melbourne.
Australia will be expected to ease past Syria but as this campaign has shown, the gap between nations is narrowing and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ange Postecoglou’s side having to battle to finish off underdogs who will no doubt now be everyone’s second favourite side – forgetting the complex politics that follow the Syrian outfit.
In the end though, at the conclusion of this long and winding road to Russia, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there is arguably less quality across the board at the top than there has been in a long while.
Iran stands alone as the most impressive of the AFC nations – and in conceding only twice in the ten final round matches they qualified resolutely if not always in style – but even there it’s easy to envision a scenario where they will struggle to progress from the group stage at Russia.
None of Korea, Japan or Saudi Arabia has consistently impressed and as strange as it sounds it may even be Australia – yet to qualify – who could emerge as Asia’s best chance of success next year after they ended the campaign with just the single loss across the final group stage, a mark bettered only by the Iranians.