They say that mighty oaks grow from little acorns. The same can be said for the FIFA World Cup. It is a sporting event like no other, an occurrence that take place every four years and brings about the crème de la crème of world football. When you think of the World Cup, what teams spring to mind? Brazil? Germany? France? England? These teams make it to the knockout rounds more often that not, but the beauty of the World Cup is that it pits these giants of world football against smaller nations. New Zealand, Canada, Togo and North Korea are just a few examples of the many smaller teams who have graced the finals over the glittering history of the World Cup. Sometimes they pull off shocks, though often they are tournament whipping boys. It is the mix of so many different cultures and styles that make the World Cup so enjoyable, and today that journey kicks off.
The road to the World Cup kicks off today, but who are the teams kicking off the journey, some three and a half years prior to the tournament’s opener in Qatar 2022? The answer is Mongolia. They host Brunei in their 5000 capacity MMF Football Centre stadium in their capital, Ulaanbaatar, in and kick off the Asian World Cup qualification process. These are just two of the 12 countries kicking off their World Cup adventure today. Mongolia and Brunei begin their journey at 10am GMT, with Cambodia v Pakistan, Laos v Bangladesh, Macau v Sri Lanka and Bhutan v Guam following tomorrow afternoon. Malaysia host Timor-Leste on Friday to complete the opening round.
None of these 12 sides have ever made the World Cup finals, but can 2022 be the year in which any of these nations make their debut in the tournament? Possibly? Yes. Probably? Well, in a word, no. None of these sides have a high footballing pedigree, with political, economic and environmental issues being far more pertinent issues for their governments to consider than supporting things such as grassroots football and developing sporting excellence.
The six sides who make it out of this initial qualification stage will be pitted in groups with teams like Iran, South Korea and Australia, all nations with a heavy focus on sporting success, who will stand between these smaller sides and the final qualifying stage. Even if they did defy the odds to get to the final stage of qualifying then they would still have a gruelling group stage to negotiate. A two-legged tie against the 4th placed CONCACAF side would still stand between them and the World Cup finals. These smaller sides simply do not have the infrastructure to compete with the established footballing nations and are likely to fall by the wayside by the end of round two. The best that these twelve teams can hope for is to make it to the second round and get some points on the board and avoid any beatings.
The World Cup is three and a half years away, which begs the question… why are they beginning the qualifiers now? Quite simply, it is because the process is so long winded. Three qualification groups and an inter-continental playoff. The process starts today with the final qualifier concluding in November 2021. The reason that this process is so ling is that it is essentially two qualification processes in one – the teams that will participate in the 2023 Asian Cup are selected in the second round of qualifying. The 40 teams that participate in round two are split in to eight groups of five. The group winners all filter into the Asian Cup, along with the four best second-placed teams.
The Asian qualification kicks off today, but what about the other confederations? The African qualifiers begin in October of this year. The North and South American qualifiers both kick off March 2020 while Oceania and Europe have both yet to confirm a start date. It is an oddity of the qualification process that several of the previously mentioned Asian countries will be eliminated before any of the other confederations even kick a ball. Take today’s opening fixture, Mongolia against Brunei. The loser of that fixture won’t play another World Cup qualifier for four years. Compare that to some of the worst teams in Europe: San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein etc. They are poor teams, but they are permitted to play the full qualification process. They may be out of contention after a number of days, yet they are not eliminated from participating.
While a 48 team World Cup would still be a tough task for teams such as Mongolia, Timor-Leste etc to qualify for, it would give more chance of qualification. More Asian teams in the finals may involve a restructuring of the qualification process and at least allow these teams a chance at playing more competitive fixtures. This will have to wait until at least 2026, if not later, since the idea of an expanded World Cup in 2022 has been scrapped. For now, it is likely that the big nations like South Korea and their stars, such as Son Heung-Min, will continue to fly the flag for Asia at the World Cup.
Not every team that participates in the FIFA World Cup finals are giant oak trees. The joy, I find, comes from watching the small acorns try and negotiate the group stages. Some go all-in and embrace the experience, others go ultra-defensive and try to sneak through to the knockouts. Will any of the 12 teams in action this week be playing competitively in Qatar in 2023? It is unlikely, but there is a chance. If they do make it to the finals it will surely be one of the most impressive qualification stories the World Cup has ever seen!