Around the world, it is an almost endless cycle. While Germany’s win at last year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil is still fresh in the memories of soccer fans, qualifying is set to begin for the 2018 edition, with Asia’s 12 lowest-ranked teams set to play their opening matches this week.
For teams such as tiny Bhutan, who are in last place in the FIFA world rankings at 209th, and India, considered a potential sleeping giant in the game, failure in the first-round qualifiers would spell the end of their World Cup aspirations for another four years. None of the teams in action in the first round has ever qualified for the finals.
The winners of the first round of two-legged ties progress to the second round of Asian World Cup qualifying, where they will face some of the best teams on the continent, and along with that comes progress to the next round of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup.
India are perhaps under the most pressure.
The inaugural Indian Super League, which ran from October to December last year, may have been a success in terms of media attention and attendances, but if the 171st-ranked national team fails to get past Nepal in qualifying it would be considered a major blow to the game’s development on the subcontinent.
India head coach Stephen Constantine has returned to lead the team for a second stint, kicking off against Nepal, another of his former teams.
Beating Nepal “will be a massive boost to everyone connected with Indian football and will give the national team its pride back,” said London-born Constantine, who first coached India from 2002 to 2005. “I think we have the quality to win the game, but it is about what you do on the field. I have great respect for Nepal and am sure they will be a tough nut to crack.”
Nepal have struggled lately, but the team’s American coach, Jack Stefanowski, sounded confident ahead of the first-round qualifier.
“India are tough opponents, but our boys have played a lot of domestic matches,” Stefanowski was quoted as saying in domestic media. “We had a good training before the tournament and everyone in the side is quite fit. I think we are up for the task. Our target is to get into the second round.”
Pakistan have a tough assignment in the opening round, taking on the improving Yemen in Doha, Qatar.
Yemen, who must play their home matches on neutral territory due to security concerns at home, had their best performance in the Gulf Cup in November last year, with two draws and a loss to finish third in the group stage above Bahrain.
Pakistan coach Mohamed Shalman guided his team to an encouraging 3-1 win over Afghanistan last month and is hoping the players now getting experience in foreign leagues will lift his team to the second round.
In addition to former English Premier League defender and team captain Zesh Rehman, who now plays in Malaysia, Pakistan also have players in leagues in Denmark, Kyrgyzstan and Bahrain.
Mohammad Ahmed plays for Isa Town, a second-tier club in Bahrain, and knows the Yemen national team well.
“They have three to four experienced players in their side, which is dominated by youngsters,” Ahmed said. “If we exploit their weak points and play with technical maturity against them, then I am hopeful we would give them a tough time.”
Yemen, who are coached by Czech tactician Miroslav Soukup, defeated Pakistan 8-1 on aggregate in the qualifying tournament ahead of the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
Cambodia, coached by South Korea’s Lee Tae-hoon, take on Macau, aiming to improve upon the nation’s sole victory in the qualification stage four years ago against Laos.
However, Cambodia are confident after beating a Singapore selection team last month.
“I am encouraged by the result and the performance,” Lee said. “We have a lot of work still to do. We have to remain focused on getting to the next stage.”
In other qualifying matches, Bhutan face Sri Lanka and Mongolia take on East Timor.
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