Asian nations eyeing 2018 World Cup
The four teams that returned to Asia from Brazil earlier than all hoped are already thinking about doing better in 2018, but Australia, Japan, Iran and South Korea have to get to Russia first. There are plenty of rivals that have the next World Cup in their sights. It certainly would not be bad for Asian football if the top teams are pushed a little more, but that's not the main motivation for Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and others -- they just want to get on that global stage.
While it was the much-improved Jordan that made the final playoff for the 2014 tournament, only to meet a ruthless Uruguay side, really, it was Uzbekistan that came the closest. After South Korea ended a limp campaign in South America, fans back in Seoul were apologising online to the Central Asians for taking and wasting the final automatic spot that almost went to Tashkent. A goal difference deficit of one was the finest of lines. Uzbekistan had come close in the past, but this was a tough break. If they had five more minutes against Qatar in the final game, it could have been very different.
But then it always could for the White Wolves, who can look back on a number of missed opportunities. Sometimes though, they have only had themselves to blame. In the quest for Brazil, the team negotiated the third round of qualification with two games to spare, leading five players who already had yellow cards to their names to engineer a second booking in the first dead rubber to ensure that suspension would be served in the second and slates would be clean for the start of the final round.
The AFC wasn't impressed and banned the offending quintet for the first game of the all-important stage, a home tie with an Iran team that snatched a 1-0 win. Had that game ended all square, it could, once again, have been very different (and let's not even talk of the penultimate playoff for the 2006 World Cup when the Uzbeks were leading 1-0 then scored a penalty only for the referee to bizarrely give Bahrain a free kick due to encroachment. The Central Asians demanded a 3-0 forfeit. FIFA ordered a replay. Bahrain won.).
The prospect of playing in a Russian World Cup would appeal immensely to senior players who grew up as citizens of the Soviet Union. Server Djeparov, captain and playmaker for the past few years, could still be around, but the same probably can't be said of the likes of Timur Kapadze, Maksim Shatskikh and Victor Karpenko. It is time for the younger players to step it up. Some of the members of the team that won the AFC's under-16 title in 2012 should be pushing for a spot in the senior side three or four years from now. Fewer coaching changes would also help; 13 pairs of hands have been at the Tashkent helm already this century.
Unlike the Uzbeks, United Arab Emirates have a World Cup appearance under their belts, but the class of 2018 has an excellent chance of being better than the 1990 vintage. Mahdi Ali has risen through the ranks, leading various youth teams before taking over the senior side in 2012, and many of the players have come with him. From various youth tournaments through to the London Olympics, they have grown together. Not coming close to 2014 was a disappointment, but perhaps it was a little soon. They should be approaching their peak when qualification really gets going.
While it is early to be talking of 2018, it is crucial to the country's future that this generation achieves something concrete -- Russia would be perfect -- to inspire those to come. Producing a bunch of talented players can happen anywhere, but doing it again and again takes a good deal more than luck. Success breeds success.
The signs are good. A recent 20-game unbeaten run was ended by Armenia, but the fact that games were being played against European opposition in Europe was encouraging. If coveted playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, linked with clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, and striker Ahmed Khalil can head to the big leagues and get the minutes, then UAE can add increasing international experience to go with the skill.
Iraq are the most unpredictable of Asia's teams and could go all the way to Russia, or they could get nowhere near. On paper at least, the current crop of players have the potential to be the best yet, surpassing the 1986 World Cup participants and the 2007 Asian Cup winners. Younis Mahmoud was the main man seven years ago, but the wily Desert Fox is passing the buck to cubs such as Humam Tariq, Ali Adnan and Saif Salman. The world got a glimpse as the under-20 team went to the semifinal of the 2013 World Cup, a dream ended only by a penalty shootout against Uruguay.
The situation at home obviously makes it more difficult for Iraq to achieve the consistency it needs to be a genuine continental powerhouse, and not just because FIFA decrees home games must be played away. While most European-based stars were heading on holiday after the end of the season, Adnan, a fearsome left-back, was reportedly home from his Turkish club to fight ISIS.
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Saudi Arabia won't have veterans such as Mohamed Noor or Yasser Al-Qahtani in 2018, but the new guard, including Al Ittihad's flying winger Fahad Al-Muwallad, provides hope. Ahmed Eid al-Harbi is the new head of the federation and is actually a former player. He has vowed to provide stability in the short and long term to a football scene unfamiliar with the latter.
And there is Qatar. There is probably no country in the world more desperate to get to 2018. Nobody wants a first World Cup appearance to come by virtue of being the host, and there is also the fact that experience in Russia could lay the groundwork for a more successful campaign four years later. There's plenty being done and, obviously, the funds are there. The country has a new star in naturalised Algerian striker Boualem Khoukhi, who ruled the recent West Asian Championships. China should do better in qualification, but in private federation, officials admit that 2018 is probably too soon. Bahrain have come close in the past and have a highly rated young coach in Anthony Hudson, but they will find it tough.
But then all will, or should. Asia's experience in Brazil was pretty terrible, but Russia should be different, and if some of the teams are, too, so much the better.