Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Here we go ... sort of

    Since the Asian Cup ended, I've spent some time pondering what an odd period this is in the World Cup cycle.

    The international football focus in the twelve months between the 2007 and 2008 European off-seasons is mainly on continental championships - CONCACAF and CONMEBOL have also held theirs; Africa's finals have just been played; and UEFA's finals will be in June.

    But qualification for South Africa 2010 is underway too. By the time qualifiers begin in Europe, a lot of nations around the rest of the world will have been eliminated.

    Indeed, in my main zones of interest, Asia and Oceania, more than half of the teams that entered the World Cup are out already.

    That isn't necessarily a problem. The real pity is that a lot of these teams either don't get to play a qualifier in front of their home fans - or their campaign is over after just two matches.

    I know, I know, the lack of money is the problem for a lot of smaller national federations. But although I don't have the answers, there must be a better way.

    The first 2010 World Cup qualifiers to be played anywhere were held in Oceania last August at the South Pacific Games in Samoa. Nine OFC countries played for the right to join New Zealand in the home-and-away final round of four teams.

    That tournament eliminated six teams and five of them didn't get the chance to play a home match. One of those teams was Solomon Islands - the darling of the 2006 Oceania qualifiers. Yes, just two years after hosting Australia in Honiara in a playoff to decide the winner of OFC's 2006 World Cup qualification series, the Solomons' 2010 campaign was over.

    The three teams that did advance to the next round were Fiji, Vanuatu and the rapidly improving New Caledonia. We've nearly reached the half-way mark of this round and the New Zealenders are looking good with a maximum 9 points from 3 matches. Realistically, only New Caledonia (4 points from 2 matches) can catch them.

    The winner of the group advances to a playoff with the team that finishes 5th in Asia. Sadly, the original plan to add the Oceanic winner to one of Asia's final groups was shelved. (As I'm sure most of you would be aware, decisions about Oceania's World Cup qualifying path are so rarely reversed...)

    The current round of Asian qualifiers marks the return to World Cup action of the five teams in the confederation that made it to Germany in 2006: Australia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Iran.

    To get to this point, Asia has, thus far, employed a knockout system to trim its other 38 entrants to 15 so that this first group phase includes 20 teams (in 5 groups of 4). The top two from each group advance to the final group phase (2 groups of 5) and they will produce four teams that qualify for South Africa and one other team that gets another chance in a playoff against the winner of Oceania.

    For 2006, Asia had 32 teams in its first group phase. Reducing it to 20 is not a step in the right direction.

    The casualties from the knockout rounds included Vietnam, quarter finalist at last year's Asian Cup. Unfortunately for the Vietnamese, the only criterion for seeding teams was performance in qualifiers for 2006. That meant Vietnam was seeded 25th and the draw for the first knockout round threw teams seeded between 25 and 43 against teams seeded between 6 and 24. The Vietnamese drew United Arab Emirates and that was the end of that. Had they been seeded 23rd, they might have played one of the weaker teams like Timor-Leste (as Hong Kong did) and might have at least extended their qualification effort to the next knockout round.

    Kyrgyzstan is gone too. Now you may ask "who?" or say "so what", but the Kyrgyz were only eliminated by Jordan after penalties (after two legs, the teams finished level). That's a result that suggests that we should have seen more of Kyrgyzstan. (Jordan gave Iran a real fright in the 2006 qualifiers and is one of the better teams in Asia.)

    Before I talk about the current round of Asian qualifying, let me have just one more whinge. As mentioned, the current group phase will produce 10 teams that advance to the next round (2 groups of 5).

    Now, I know that groups of 5 teams are sometimes unavoidable but surely groups of 4 are immeasurably better. The round could easily have been extended to 12 teams with 3 group winners qualifying for the finals and 3 runners-up going into playoffs (2 against each other with the other team playing the winner of Oceania).

    The 5-team groups mean an unwieldy 10 rounds and, after that, one Asian team will play 4 more matches. The two 3rd-place getters play each other for the right to play the Oceania winner for a final chance to qualify.

    The Asian team that ends up playing the Oceania winner will have played at least 18 matches in its effort to qualify; possibly 20 or 22 if it had to play in the early knockout rounds. And you thought qualifying through CONMEBOL was a marathon.

    Last week, the first group phase kicked off with the following five groups:

Group 1 - Australia, China, Iraq, Qatar
Group 2 - Japan, Bahrain, Oman, Thailand
Group 3 - South Korea, North Korea, Jordan, Turkmenistan
Group 4 - Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Singapore
Group 5 - Iran, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Syria

    The order of the teams is highest seed to lowest. So, for instance, in Group 5, Iran is the highest seed, Kuwait is the second-highest, etc.

    I initially felt that the top two seeds would advance in each group, except for Group 1 where I'd have picked Australia and Iraq to deny China. But it's amazing how just one round of matches can make you quickly reassess.

    Group 1 was immediately labelled the Group of Death with Australia (which qualified for 2006) joined by China (which qualified for 2002) and Iraq (Asian champions). Then you have Qatar, a team that is unlikely to qualify for the next phase but extremely likely to take points off other teams.

    The Qataris didn't open well losing 0-3 in Australia but they were missing some of their best players. They will be far more difficult to beat in Doha.

    China, a team that has so far failed to build on its success in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup finals, grabbed a small edge over Iraq by holding the Asian Champions to a 1-1 draw in Dubai (which is where the Iraqis are playing their home matches). Next month's round of matches sees China host Australia and Qatar at home against Iraq. It could be fascinating.

    Group 2 should be no pushover for Japan and Bahrain. Oman recorded draws against both Australia and Iraq at last year's Asian Cup while Thailand narrowly missed a place in the quarter finals. Round one, however, was good for the favourites. After an early scare, Japan defeated Thailand 4-1 in Saitama; and Bahrain scored a 1-0 win in Oman.

    Oman is a well-organised team but struggles in front of goal. That deficiency is likely to derail its challenge for a place in the final 10. If the Thais have any chance of succeeding, they simply must defeat Bahrain when the two teams meet in Bangkok next month.

    Group 3 brings the excitement of the two Koreas being drawn together. Matches between South Korea and North Korea aren't exactly rare but the two teams haven't faced each other in a World Cup qualifier since 1993. And their only meetings in World Cup qualifiers have been at neutral venues.

    Both Koreas should advance. Turkmenistan has declined since its competitive performance in the 2004 Asian Championship while Jordan lacks consistency. The first round went to plan: South Korea defeated Turkmenistan 4-0 at home; North Korea scored a 1-0 win away to Jordan. The two Koreas meet in Pyongyang next month in a match that will attract much interest around Asia.

    Group 4 looks straightforward for Saudi Arabia, traditionally a strong performer in World Cup qualifying, and Uzbekistan, a team that poses a real threat to Asia's usual suspects (and is surely due for some luck).

    Lebanon isn't a bad team but it's not in the same class. Not helping the Lebanese players is that they've had few competitive games of late with war forcing them to withdraw from Asian Championship qualifiers in 2006.

    Singapore is an improving team and the lowest seed in Asia (29th) to reach this stage. The Singaporeans might be good enough to test the group's big guns but reaching the final 10 will be beyond them. Last week Saudi Arabia defeated Singapore 2-0 at home while Uzbekistan won 1-0 in Lebanon.

    Group 5 may not be called the Group of Death but it might turn out that way. Iran always seems to be a better team on paper than it is on the field. The Iranians' performances at the last World Cup and in last year's Asian Cup were not as good as had been expected. Then there's little to separate Kuwait, UAE and Syria.

    Of the three, UAE was the only one to qualify for the Asian Championship but Kuwait had the misfortune of drawing Bahrain and Australia in its qualification group while Syria got stuck with Iran and South Korea.

    Last week, Syria drew 0-0 in Iran while UAE recorded a 2-0 home win over Kuwait. Next month sees Syria v UAE and Kuwait v Iran. If you can predict how things will finish up in this group, you're a better pundit than me.

    The next round of matches is on March 26 but then that will be it for a little while. The last four match days of this group phase will all be in June and after that we'll know which ten teams will kick off the next phase of Asian qualifiers later this year.

    By then, it might actually feel like we're well and truly into the run up to the World Cup finals.



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