FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers: The Qatar World Cup is still three years away. But for many countries, the journey has already begun.
On Tuesday evening, India play neighbours Bangladesh in a 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifying match at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium. It will be India’s third match of the campaign — India lost to West Asian heavyweights Oman in a close tie and held 2022 hosts Qatar to a goalless draw in Doha.
The match between India and Bangladesh is one of the 16 Asian zone World Cup qualifying matches to be played on Tuesday. And from an overall perspective, it is also one of the low profile games of the day.
Given the volatile geo-political relations between several nations, Asia invariably offers exciting match-ups. On Tuesday, South Korea will travel across the border to North Korea only for the second time in history — the first time the two teams played each other in Pyongyang was in 1990. There will be no live broadcast of this rare ‘derby’.
According to BBC, no fans from the South will be allowed to travel to support their country and no foreign media will be allowed to cover the match.
In another intriguing contest, Saudi Arabia travel to the West Bank town of Al-Ram to play Palestine, marking a shift in the Gulf nation’s policy. As per an AFP report, “Arab football clubs and national teams have refused to play in the West Bank, where the Palestinian national team plays, as it obliged them to apply for Israeli entry permits, implying normalisation of relations.”
Four years ago, Palestine hosted Saudi Arabia in a similar fixture in Jordan after the latter refused to travel to West Bank. Had South Korea and Saudi Arabia refused to travel to these countries, their opponents would’ve been handed three points automatically. And in a region as competitive as Asia, it would’ve been suicidal.
So, how does the FIFA World Cup qualification system work?
211 teams, three-year period
The qualifying for the 2022 World Cup began on June 6 this year, when Asia’s lowest ranked teams played each other in a preliminary round. By the time the qualification process gets over in March 2022, 211 countries from FIFA’s six confederations would’ve taken part in it — the number of nations in World Cup qualifiers is more than the members in the United Nations (193).
Europe is considered to be the toughest region to qualify from. Starting March 2021, 55 European nations will begin their campaign for 13 spots allocated to them. These teams will be split into 10 pools. Group winners will directly qualify for the World Cup finals. Three other teams will be decided via playoff.
It’ll be a similar process for other regions as well. Africa has a quota of five teams; South America has four direct spots and one via inter-continental playoff; Central America and Caribbean nations have been given three direct spots along with one playoff spot; Oceania has just one playoff berth and no direct qualifying spot.
Asia, like South America, has four direct quotas and one inter-continental playoff spot.
FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers: Does India have a chance?
It’s safe to assume India has no chance of qualifying for the World Cup. Ranked 104, India are placed in Group E of the qualifiers alongside hosts Qatar, Oman, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
In a bid to give more countries a chance to play competitive matches, the AFC, in 2015, combined the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. So, the eight group winners from Asian qualifiers and the four best runners-up will qualify for the second round of World Cup qualifiers while securing their spots for the 2023 continental championship, which will be held in China. The rest of the teams will be out of contention for Qatar 2022, and will contest for an Asian Cup berth.
India have given a decent account of themselves in the first two matches of the qualifiers. In the opening match at home, they conceded two late goals to lose to higher-ranked Oman 2-1. A week later, they travelled to Doha where they held Asian champions Qatar to a goalless draw following a brave defensive performance.
That result is widely considered India’s best in this century, with many ranking it better than the 1-0 win over UAE in Bengaluru in a 2002 World Cup qualifier. Despite the encouraging performances, it is unlikely that India will top or even finish second in the group ahead of Qatar and Oman.
Also read | Spoiler alert: Qatar 2022 a bridge too far
The realistic hope for India is to ensure a hassle-free entry into the Asian Cup. If they manage that, it will be for the first time in decades that they will compete in back-to-back continental championship. For that, they will have to get maximum points against the two teams ranked lower than them in the group, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
In that context, tonight’s fixture assumes high significance for India even if it will be overshadowed by other matches of high political, and sporting, significance.