Asian qualifiers top Europe for thrill factor

John Duerden John Duerden

Asian football looks to Europe all the time. Fans watch the big leagues every weekend with broadcasters often paying big money to do so.

The media in the east talks about the mega transfers — both of real and rumoured variety — almost as much as those in the west do and many of the best Asian players are desperate to get to Europe as quickly as possible.

Yet there is one field where Europe should be looking at Asia with envy. And that is World Cup qualification.

Every time an international break comes around, fans in Europe complain about how their domestic leagues are interrupted.

This is partly because for much of the UEFA zone international breaks are often boring. European qualification for the World Cup is relatively dull.

There are practical reasons why the format is the way it is with nine groups in one single stage. The continent has 13 spots at the World Cup (14 if host Russia is included) to divide between 54 nations. Whether this is fair or right is a different debate yet it makes for a relatively dull qualification campaign.

Some groups are processions with the giant hoovering up the points and the only point of debate is which team will take second and go to the play-off round. Some groups have a two-way fight but too many games include teams that have long had nothing to play for.

In Asia, it is different. Only having four spots means that preliminary rounds are organised. This may pit the minnow against the mighty in the early stages and it does mean some one-sided scorelines and big-time thrashings. This is OK as the groups are relatively small and there is a sense that the smaller nations are getting something out of it while the bigger ones are preparing for the tougher tests to come.

And then the final round arrives. Two groups of six with the top two going to Russia automatically. Third-place means the play-offs and, potentially, four more games.

This means that every team is in with a chance of at least taking third spot almost until the end. China were bottom of Group A with two games to go yet had, albeit very slim, hopes of sneaking into the play-offs almost until the end.

Coaches often pay the price.

Every game brings tension and excitement. Every win is greeted with joy and relief and defeat can mean disaster. Some coaches are replaced –as happened with South Korea, China, Qatar, Thailand and Iraq. Some come under serious pressure. Stars are born and reputations enhanced.

And then there are the stories and the backgrounds. Syria, a team that had to play home games thousands of miles away in Malaysia, due to the ongoing war in the country, became the talk of the football world.

They came, almost from nowhere, to be within a goal of an automatic spot at the World Cup. Just one more goal in Tehran would have turned 2-2 into 3-2 and a third place into second, and dreamland.

Now the Eagles take on Australia in October’s play-off with the winners going on to meet CONCAFAF’s fourth-placed nation. The Socceroos have slipped from their continental perch after winning the Asian Cup in 2015 and in terms of resources and facilities are in a different universe to Syria. All will be equal on the pitch.

There is China and Qatar. Two nations, one huge and one tiny, desperately trying to build for the future yet struggling in the here and now to get the results fans and authorities crave.

There is Uzbekistan. For so long, the White Wolves have flown the flag for Central Asia but for so long have been unable to plant it on the global stage. Once again, questions about their mental toughness will be asked.

A win at home to a vulnerable and out-of-form South Korea in front of sell-out 34,000 crowd in Tashkent would have been enough. Yet the team just did not get going and were second best.

There is Thailand, a team representing Southeast Asia and one that is full of talent and technical ability but looking for the continental hard knocks that will turn them into an Asian force.

And then there are the big boys. In truth, none of Australia, South Korea and Japan were at their best. The latter two have already made it to Russia but know that there is work to do. Iran were the best; unbeaten and with a defence that was was not breached until the final game with Syria.

All in all, it has been a roller-coaster ride of the best kind. One that leaves some elated, some nauseous but all with memories that will never be forgotten.

Asian international breaks are anything but boring and in this at least, Asia shows Europe the way.

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