Qualifying for the 2018 World Cup has not yet begun in Europe but is already underway in Asia – and is causing real surprises. The city-state of Singapore, world-ranked No 155, took over top spot in Group E in round two after drawing 0-0 against Japan, a regular at World Cup finals. Ranked only a few places higher, Turkmenistan (No. 149) came away with a 1-1 draw against highly-fancied Iran. However the biggest surprise is the unprecedented run of success being enjoyed by the part-timers from Guam. The tiny island-state in the Pacific with a population of 180,000 chalked up their first two wins in their World Cup history and are sensationally heading Group D five points ahead of Iran. First Guam managed to beat Turkmenistan 1-0 and then a couple of days later won 2-1 against India, the world’s second most populous country with 1.2 billion people.
September 3 will show whether the island’s footballers really do have a realistic chance of reaching the next round. They will be aiming to maintain the gap they have opened up away in Iran where they will also be trying to make up for past performances. Fourteen years ago, Guam’s only previous World Cup qualifying participation ended in a 19-0 defeat against the Iranians. Their second game against Tajikistan finished in an inglorious 16-0 loss.
Now little Guam is dreaming of the big time. Many players come originally from the United States as Guam is a strategically important base for the American military. Their star player Ryan Guy has already played in the American professional league –the MLS. Coach Gary White was in charge of the Virgin Islands national team at the “tender” age of 24. He later helped Bahamas rise 55 places up the FIFA rankings. The 40-year old has been at the helm in Guam since 2012. However his big ambition is to coach in the English Premier League.
The question when looking at the competitiveness of Guam, Singapore or Turkmenistan is: Are there no more “minnows” in Asia? A similar question is asked by European national teams about to make the trip to, for instance, the Faroe Islands? The answer is basically a question of the perspective. The results can also be taken as proof that football is also improving all the time in the smaller national associations and duly approaching the standards in Japan, South Korea or Iran. The results however can also stand for a slowing down of the developments being made. Namely that the continent’s top teams have simply failed to distance themselves significantly from the other teams even though many of their players are now earning a living in the top European leagues.
A recent indication of the fluctuating quality of the leading Asian teams was provided by the 2014 World Cup when all four participants – including Australia – were knocked out at the group stage. The weak performance sparked a lot of discussion. The head of the confederation, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa from Bahrain, warned that the rest of the world would soon being viewing Asian teams as outsiders. There was no time to lose in raising the standard of the continent’s football to the next level continued Sheikh Salman.
Only a few years separate the rise of top Asian football and the crisis it is currently enduring. A veritable hype ensued when hosts South Korea advanced to the semifinals of the 2012 World Cup where they only narrowly lost to Germany. Many experts believe the Asians are perfectly capable of repeating the success. However, for the earth’s most populous continent, the semifinal appearance has remained a one-off. Asia’s football is by no means feared in the way it once was. The 2018 World Cup in Russia is therefore vital for the Asian federation if they are not to lose sight of the Europeans and South Americans – and the Africans.
46 nations are competing in Asia for just four World Cup places. A fifth team will be given the chance to reach the finals via a play-off against a South American team. In the knock-out stage in March, six teams progressed to the last 40. Eight group winners and four group runners-up will go forward to the decisive round where two groups of six will do battle for two direct tickets respectively for Russia. The two third-placed teams will face each other at in a two-legged affair for the right to take on the South American play-off team. The shortest route to the World Cup finals entails – depending on the size of the groups – playing 16 to 18 matches. As the schedule and the travel involved on the enormous continent are so arduous, the World Cup qualification also simultaneously serves as the qualification for the 2019 Asia Championships in the United Arab Emirates.