It started way back in 2015 but the road to Russia is over. There have been plenty of stumbles, scrapes and slips along the way, but now 32 nations are in place and waiting for the World Cup.
This is the time for optimism. Now players, coaches and fans can sit back, rest tired limbs and dream of what might be. The December 1 draw is still a few days away meaning that there is not yet a group containing Brazil, Spain and Sweden to look forward to. Reality can wait. For now there are all kinds of possibilities.
Excitingly, Asia has five teams at the World Cup for the first time ever (Australia qualified through Oceania in 2006). Iran, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia have all got much to look forward to and have all worked very hard.
They also have quite a responsibility. This quintet carry the reputation of Asian football on their shoulders. Only once every four years do the best of this continent mix it with the best of the rest of the world.
Reputations can be a fragile thing and Asian football’s was seriously damaged in Brazil 2014. It is not exactly a secret that Asian football did not command a huge amount of respect around the world. Whether that perception was pretty accurate or prejudicial is not that important.
There had been talk – in those days before the World Cup expansion to 48 teams – of trying to push for more Asian representation. After events in 2014, the conversation stopped. Any argument for an extra spot for the world’s biggest continent would have been laughed out of the room. All anyone had to do was point to the results.
Four teams went to Brazil. Some had higher hopes than others but it is fair to say that all wanted at least to win a game. None did. There was a grand total of three points collected from a possible combined tally of 36. That’s right. Asia’s record went Played 12, W 0 D 3 L 9. It makes for the most depressing reading since the Twilight series.
Australia lost all three but at least had the excuse of being in a group containing the Netherlands, Chile and Spain. The phrase ‘Group of Death’ may be one of the most overused cliches in football but it was never more apt.
South Korea had perhaps the easiest time on paper but followed an opening draw against Russia with dismal defeats at the hands of Algeria and Belgium. Japan took the lead against Ivory Coast but that was as good as it got. The Samurai Blue lost that and then could only draw 0-0 with ten-man Greece in the game after.
Iran were the best, drawing with Nigeria before being undone by an injury time piece of Lionel Messi magic. Yet despite the efforts of Team Melli, the win column remained empty for Asia.
A sorry tale then but the same four have returned and need to make up for their dismal stats last time around. Except for the excellent Iran, the signs in qualification were not uniformly encouraging with Korea especially poor, yet somehow making it over the line.
The one good thing about qualification however is that when it is over, it is over.
All 32 teams are in the same position and there are examples of teams struggling in qualification but then impressing when the real event starts – 2002 World Cup finalists Brazil (who lost six games) and Germany (who went to the East Asia tournament through the play-offs) would attest to that.
The encouraging part for Asia is that – perhaps Spain, Germany, France and Brazil apart – there is not much to be scared of. There is plenty of talent getting ready for Russia but there are plenty of mid-level teams that are more than beatable.
Plenty of big boys have fallen by the wayside in qualification. Reputations count for nothing.
If the Asian five are at their best then they can progress past the group stage and that is the target for all five. Asia needs two of those five to make the last 16 to have a satisfactory World Cup. Three would be good and anything more excellent.
The overall priority however is to restore a reputation that was tarnished in 2014.