211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (I) The Beginning

The below is the first part of a series I started writing in April of last year. It’s been a while since I have properly talked about football on this site, but after the end of the last World Cup, the germ of this idea came into my head, and was inspired more by books like 31-0 by James Montague and other footballing tomes by Simon Kuper, David Goldblatt and Jonathan Wilson. In essence, I wanted to try and experience to a fuller extent the nature of the entire World Cup from start to finish, from the earliest qualifiers all the way up to the Final itself. And I thought that the best way to do that would be by watching along, and being as engaged as possible in the journey by writing about the teams that were playing, the nations they represented, and the matches they took part in.

So with a general reference of writing about one or more teams on the eve of a round of games, and then another the day after, along with other major events like draws and the like, I started at it. For reasons I am not fully able to enunciate I did not publish the posts as I wrote them. I think part of me was not super happy with them, fearing they would be seen as low-grade keyboard journalism, and maybe they are. Another part of wanted to do something a bit different to my usual fare. That something different is a collation of posts with a common thread, with the below words comprising an account of the very earliest round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

I have plenty of others written, but they need some editing, some collating and just generally some work. I will have no set schedule for when more parts of this series will be released, but I thought the time ripe for releasing the first part of it. Feedback will be appreciated of course.

Contents

Prologue

Part One: The Beginning

1. Cheng Hoe-Ball: Malaysia

2. The Siege: Qatar

3. 10’000 km: Guam

4. Football In The Steppes: Mongolia

5. The Little Brazil: Timor-Leste

6. Degrees Of Caution: Sri Lanka

7. Gross National Happiness: Bhutan

8. In The Office: Macau

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Prologue

(15/04/19)

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The moment a champion is crowned, and the defeated established.

If asked to sum up the sport in ten words or less, I would say that football is triumph, despair, and a whole lot in-between. From the moment you first understand the nature of kicking a ball in a competitive manner, this is what it represents, whether you are a toddler in a kickabout with family or talking about the highest of levels in the representation of country. Every football fan has experienced that journey.

My first memory of international football are extremely vague stirrings about the 1994 edition of the FIFA World Cup. I would have been six years old that summer, so whatever I do remember of that tournament is a nicely unintelligible blend of fiction, delusions and imagination, but there are a few hints of reality: the national buzz following Ireland’s unlikely win over Italy; the disappointment following the knock-out defeat to the Dutch; and a very vague remembrance of Brazil’s win in the final over Italy. The image of Roberto Baggio, looking despondent after missing the crucial penalty kick in the shoot-out, sticks with me, but that may be a later insert into my remembrances. Still, I had a taste of what football, and specifically international football, was: triumph, despair, and a whole lot in-between.

My first proper memory of a World Cup was four years later, with France 1998. By then, ten, football-mad and intent on watching each and every game, the memories are much clearer. Ireland hadn’t made it – a lacklustre qualifying campaign saw Mick McCarthy’s first campaign in charge end with scrapping into a play-off spot ahead of Lithuania before defeat to Belgium, Luc Nilis’ winner coming from an incorrect throw-in call – but there was plenty to be excited about. It was a tournament of attacking flair from all over, be it Batistuta’s Argentina, Bergkamp’s Netherlands, Owen’s England or Suker’s Croatia. But of course it was really Brazil’s year, their squad of glittering superstars the things that dreams were made of. Their path to another coronation seemed predestined the moment you saw them samba soccering their way through a Nike ad, until France popped up to spoil the party and establish themselves as football’s newest attacking apogee. The World Cup Final that year remains a confusing memory for me: strangely disappointed that Brazil failed to really turn up, admiration for Zidane, and an undeniable sense that the football bug was never really going to go away for me.

2002: I was firmly in the anti-Keane camp of Ireland’s second civil war, and bawled my eyes out after Ireland’s second-round exit to Spain. 2006: I watched slackjawed with my sister as Zidane disgraced himself in his very last game. 2010: a horror-show tournament of poor football and ill-tempered matches ended with me in a pub wondering how Nigel de Jong wasn’t being arrested for assaulting Xabi Alonso. 2014: my girlfriend left for the toilet with Germany’s 2-0 up, came back to them 5-0 up and said “Something’s wrong with the score-line”. 2018: Goals, thrills, spills and chills in the best tournament of my life, watching France’s latest iteration make it look all too easy against a gallant Croatian side. The memories build and build, the drama finds new ways to re-invent and lodge in you. That four year wait, that struggling journey to the finals, that hype and prayer of one more win, one more goal, one more successful pass, one more kick of the ball.

The idealistic vision of the FIFA World Cup is that it is a competition where every full member of the governing body have the right to compete to win that prize, to become the one in two hundred and eleven. It is something to capture the imagination, and the attention of any football fan, as much now as it did in 1930. Yes, there’s a grueling qualification process, more grueling for some countries than others. Yes, the chances of most of those 211 are so slim that they may never reach a finals. Yes, many of them are semi-professional or outright amateur, little more than a figurative blip on the radar of a footballing jumbo jet obsessed with the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Mbappe. And yes, FIFA itself does a more than credible job at undermining their own sense of grandeur, through bribery, corruption and rank hypocrisy at every turn, not least with the choice of host for the 2022 World Cup.

But there is still something special about the World Cup all the same, the drama of it, the sense of history about it, the way it can grab a hold of you and suck you in. Watch a footballing powerhouse stroll to the finals and fully expect to be at the business end, watch a speck in the ocean trying desperately to just score a goal, watch those 211 be whittled down, bit by bit, to 32 and then to one, it’s a community that is one and the same at that basic intrinsic level. They all want the same thing, a trip to the promised land.

And the journey to get there, to the next one in 2022, began its first steps earlier this week when the draw for the First Round of the Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying process took place. The twelve lowest ranked nations of the AFC were paired off and, over two legs, the first six countries of the process will wave goodbye to their already low chances of stepping onto a Qatari pitch in around three and a half years, and by extension the 2023 Asian Cup. It is the breathtaking potential of national football as a spectacle: the hope of progression for those at the non-business end of the FIFA rankings, and the cruelty of missing out before things have ever really gotten started. But regardless, this World Cup is as much for the Bhutan’s and Sri Lanka’s of the world as it is for the France’s and Brazil’s.

At the end of every part of this project, I’m going to try and demonstrate the enormity of the qualifying process with the following list, suitably altered as the entire affair progresses. Every name on this list represents hopes and dreams, in some cases millions of the, fulfilled or dashed according to the kick of a ball. It is something to contemplate, as we begin the road to Qatar 2022.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Brunei Darussalem, Bulgaria, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Comoros, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guam, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea (Democratic People’s Republic), Korea (Republic), Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone*, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, United States Virgin Islands, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

*=Currently suspended

Part One: The Beginning

1. Cheng Hoe-Ball: Malaysia

(18/04/2019)

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Malaysian fans pack out the National Stadium in better days. Photo in public domain.

On the 17th April 2019, at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) HQ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the first draw for World Cup 2022 qualifying took place. Unlike later draws, this one doesn’t take place on a big stage with a full auditorium and a large TV viewership: instead it looks more like a small cinema theatre, and there are empty seats to boot. The unidentified AFC official overseeing things shuffles awkwardly as the draw unfolds, while the designated FIFA rep, Director of Competitions Chris Unger, says all of the right things while looking slightly bemused.

No one really wants to be here, at this point, even if the luminaries in charge of Qatar 2022 talk a big game about what a momentous occasion it is. Because if you are here, that means you are in the bottom twelve of the AFC’s 46 members. In order to get to a more workable round number for the group phases to come, and to weed out the chaff, six of those twelve need to be eliminated from the competition quick, and will become the first teams out of World Cup contention when the two-legged ties take place in June.

The hosts of the draw happen to be one of those 12, and for Malaysia being at this point is already a defeat. They are the highest ranked team of the participants, and were achingly close to escaping the vortex earlier in 2019 when they came up against Singapore in the first edition of the regional Airmarine Cup. Neighbours geographically and neighbours in the rankings, a win might have been enough to sneak Malaysia over the line.

At least then they would have been back where they were four years previously, when they got a bye into the Second Round. It ended up being a forgettable experience, where Malaysia earned just four points on the field of play in a six team group, a win and draw against Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor), before that team was punished for fielding ineligible players. Thus, Malaysia were awarded two 3-0 victories and six points, and that was their lot. Heavy defeats to Palestine and the United Arab Emirates were compounded by an abandoned game against eventual qualifiers Saudi Arabia. Then, the crowd, sick of the poor results and unwilling to heed the pleas of recently appointed caretaker manager Ong Kim Swee, threw flares and fireworks onto the field to demonstrate their displeasure. With only three minutes of normal time remaining the ref called it. The Saudi’s, winning at the time anyway, were awarded a 3-0 victory.

The fans can, perhaps, be forgiven for their feelings. Malaysia is a huge country, of 32 million inhabitants, twice as much as footballing powerhouses like the Netherlands and Belgium, three times that of defending European champions Portugal, and eight times that of 2018 World Cup runner ups Croatia. Football is the most popular sport in the country. And yet the senior team, and the nations best clubs, have consistently failed to make an impact internationally, with just one regional trophy to their name.

The authority of Malaysian football, FAM, are commonly seen as varying amounts of incompetent, inefficient and corrupt, with patronage systems, nepotism and political interference widespread. The native league is not an attractive prospect for underpaid footballers or the watching public, owing, among other things, to a lack of sponsorship, and continuing doubts over its legitimacy after match-fixing scandals. In Malaysia, European leagues have much higher support, with south-east Asia long considered a lucrative market for the Manchester United’s and Real Madrid’s of the world. Inevitably the senior international team suffers from all these things.

Things didn’t get much better after the 2018 qualification debacle. A group stage elimination at the regional 2016 AFF Championship and one point in their Asian Cup qualifying group indicated a serious slump, before new manager Tan Cheng Hoe arrived. With a background in Malaysia’s underage sides, he instituted a more possession heavy philosophy – dubbed “Cheng Hoe-ball” in reference to its similarity to Chelsea’s “Sarri-ball” – and did as much of his work off the pitch in trying to foster team unity and positivity. It’s been noted that there has been a clear out of some old-hands, with a turn to players from Malaysia’s well-regarded U-23 squad. With these he helped manufacture a change in fortune, taking Malaysia to the 2018 AFF final, a 3-2 aggregate loss to Vietnam, their best competitive performance in years. But it wasn’t enough to stop them from slipping into that bottom twelve.

The Airmarine Cup, another regional tournament in a part of the world where they are the bread and butter of international sides, was hosted by Malaysia in March. It was the last shot to escape the bottom 12. The cobbled together competition saw Malaysia come against the required opposition in Singapore, while late entrants Afghanistan and Oman rounded out the participants. Again, events were marred by fan protests, this time over the price of seating, which lead to a boycott. Perhaps that affected the hosts: in their semi-final of a straightforward four team elimination tournament, a single goal from Muhammad Farin Bin Ramli, a breakaway through a tired looking defence matched by a cool finish eight minutes from time, was enough to seal it for the visitors. Malaysia, playing in front of a paltry attendance in the otherwise cavernous Bukit Jalil stadium, made plenty of chances but wasted them all. A 2-1 win over Afghanistan in a 3rd place play-off was mere consolation. When the decisive April rankings came out, Malaysia were 168th, seven places behind the next highest AFC team, Nepal, and nine behind Singapore.

Now Tan Cheng Hoe, with a new contract after his AFF success, has the task of getting Malaysia back to the Second Round of World Cup qualifying, a doubly important objective as the competition is also the qualifying for the 2023 edition of the Asian Cup. Standing in his way is opposition they will be thankful for: Timor-Leste again, pretty much the only side Malaysia have proven capable of beating with regularity recently, even without FIFA intervention. Interviewed after the draw, Hoe was guarded, paying Timor-Leste some bland compliments and refusing to be drawn on how he planned to get by them, his mind presumably trying to formulate that exact path already.

Malaysia will have to overcome some religious scruples to be adequately prepared, as the tie coincides with the end of Ramadan, no small thing in a country that is over 60% Muslim; their coach has already asked for some indulgence. But they should account for Timor-Leste, a side that have become infamous for the fielding of “naturalised” players that aren’t actually eligible: they’ve already been barred from the 2023 Asian Cup over it, and further may play both legs of this tie in Malaysia, being incapable of hosting their own home games owing to a lack of sufficient facilities.

For Malaysia, a country whose motto is “Unity Through Strength”, there will be hopes that a likely positive result will point to a new, more cohesive, day for the football team amid the fan protests, TV licensing sagas, association controversy and pervading sense of under-achievement. They have just under two months to get ready.

2. The Siege: Qatar

(23/05/2019)

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As Doha continues preparations for the World Cup, all is not so well in the Gulf.

Before the qualification process begins next month, there is other news to consider when it comes to the premier international footballing tournament. Getting 32 teams selected is one thing, but there is also the practicalities of hosting to get sorted out. To that end, there are two reasons for yesterday’s announcement that the World Cup in 2022 will retain the allocation of 32 teams that has been in place since 1998, and not the 48 that FIFA President Gianni Infantino wanted to introduce a tournament early, a proposal that continues to be mired in some controversy.

The first reason, as FIFA acknowledged, is the feasibility of hosting that many teams in Qatar. The issues surrounding Qatar’s successful bid could already fill a phone book, before you even start to consider if they would be in a position to accommodate an extra 16 teams and potentially an extra 16 games (with 16 groups of 3 and 32 team knock-outs) in the same month long time-frame (insisted upon by various FA’s and club associations). Hosting a World Cup is already a huge task for those called upon to do so, and it is unheard of for the parameters of that hosting to be changed to such an extent after the initial awarding.

We must consider the geographical realities at play here. Qatar is a tiny country, a 160 kilometre peninsula, containing a population of only 2.7 million people (the vast majority of which are not actually Qatari citizens, it must be remembered). The World Cup in 2022 is slated to take place in only five locations in that peninsula, across only eight stadiums (the last time that happened was 1978, when Argentina hosted 16 teams in six stadiums). Anyone can see that such a host could not be feasibly asked to deal with the additional requirements that a 48 team tournament would come with, with only a few years worth of notice.

With that out of the way, we must then consider the other reason why the 48 team 2022 idea will not now go ahead. It was obvious that, in consideration of such a project, the possibility of the tournament becoming at least partly co-hosted would be raised. If Qatar could not handle the load, surely some of its neighbours, maybe even as far as eastern Africa, could have been asked if they wanted the opportunity to host teams and games? At least in the early rounds of the tournament, before Qatar could take over as the sole host for the business end. After all, Europe is hosting a continental EURO 2020 next year, and the World Cup of 2026 will likely be held in the three largest nations of North America.

There are so many different reasons why Qatar should never have been chosen as a host: the corruption allegations, the migrant rights issue, the move to winter, LGBTQ treatment and so many more. But leaving those aside for just a moment, if we are to consider the option of co-hosting with neighbours, we must also discuss the giant elephant in the room, that takes the form of the continuing diplomatic crisis engulfing the tiny state, which has almost certainly played a part in this decision. Starting in June 2017 a loose coalition of other Arab and African states severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, and instituted something resembling a blockade, that has lasted to the time of writing.

The roots of the dispute are deep, and go far beyond football. Qatar are accused of sponsoring terrorist groups, promoting revolution in other Arab countries, and backing rebels in Syria. Their maintenance of good relations with Iran, a regional pariah otherwise, is another sore point. Their opponents, chief among them Middle-Eastern powerhouse Saudi Arabia, seem to view Qatar as some kind of rogue upstart, that needs to be reined in lest they upset the balance of power in the region.

So, since the summer of 2017, this loose anti-Qatar alliance do not allow their airspace to be used by Qatari planes, do not allow Qatari ships to dock at their ports and do not trade with Qatari financial institutions. Every bit of conceivable diplomatic pressure that can be applied has been applied. Every level of Qatari society had been affected, even sport: they lost the rights to hold the regional Gold Cup in 2017, subsequently hosted in Kuwait, because of it. The national team took part in the 2019 AFC Cup in neighbouring UAE under a cloud of hostility and harassment aimed towards what few fans dared attend. Their unlikely victory in that tournament must certainly have made them feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that Qatar has rapidly become as disliked a political entity as any currently in existence in the Middle-East.

Qatar continues to function as a result of its large wealth and relations with Iran and Turkey, which has helped to replace the trade imports of Qatar’s physical neighbours. Otherwise, the country could legitimately be starving to death, or at least that portion of its population that are not citizens could be. But the blockade and diplomatic shunning remains in place, and does not look like ceasing any time soon (there may, down the line, be an even thornier issue should the likes of Saudi Arabia qualify). The idea that these neighbouring countries would assist Qatar in hosting an enlarged World Cup in the current circumstances is fairly laughable, and Iran and Turkey are not feasible for their own reasons.

You could argue that FIFA could have gone farther afield to find co-hosts, but it seems to me that many countries would not have wanted the diplomatic hassle that would have followed in the wake of accepting a few teams and a few games for the most controversial World Cup since the competition was formed. As it is, 2022 could already be a logistical nightmare given the expected surplus to Qatar’s population for the tournament in November/December 2022. With the host nation counting friends on one hand, they will be doing very well to pull off a successful tournament for just 32. Amid all of the other criticisms that have been sent their way, it is good to keep this one in mind, as we edge ever closer to 2022.

3. 10’000 km: Guam

(06/06/2019) 

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For island minnows Guam, American-born players like Justin Lee are at the forefront of efforts to make an impact far outside of their nominal size.

As the twelve worst-ranked teams in the Asia prepare to fight it out to see who can continue, and who is being left behind already, it is useful to have a look at the tiny island nation of Guam, to see some of the potential in Asian football, and some of the challenges for its multitude of minnow teams.

If you were talking squarely about country size and population then Guam, in June 2015, pulled off one of the greatest sporting upsets in history when they defeated India 2-1 as part of the qualifying for Russia 2018. Guam is not even a nation in the traditional sense, being an “unincorporated territory” of the United States. For a speck in the Pacific, with a population of 170’000, to defeat India, a sub-continent with a population of 1.3 billion, seems like the perfect David vs Goliath story.  Of course you have to discount that football is down the pecking order of sport in cricket obsessed India, who regularly feature in the lower spots of AFC rankings. But even with that it was a magnificent achievement for Guam, who had won only five games in their 19 year history with FIFA up to that point. Coming only a few days after a victory over Turkmenistan, it left “the Matao” top of their qualifying group after two match-days.

Though it wasn’t to last – a draw with Oman was Guam’s only other point in the five team group, with two 6-0 hidings from Iran mixed in – it was enough to place them above India and get them into the third round of qualifying for the AFC Cup. Such success is an indicator of the potential for nations like Guam if they get the right support and utilise some of the advantages that come with their geo-political position. Being a territory of the US might mean Trump is your President, you have no voting rights in Congress and a significant portion of your landmass is given over to military bases. But it also means you have access to things other small island nations may not, namely US footballing institutions, English-speaking coaches and a diaspora who have grown up with better training and facilities than you would have been able to provide yourself.

The grandparent rule does the rest. A fair proportion of Guam’s matchday squad will be either American born or ply their trade at American clubs and university’s, with a corresponding level of ability. Examples include captain Jason Cunliffe who excelled in Texan and Californian youth and university sides before going on to become Guam’s top scorer, or defender Shawn Nicklaw who plays in the American second tier after stints in Denmark and Canada, or the Lee Brothers, Alex, Nate and Justin. Such resumes may not seem all that impressive, but make a huge difference at this level of international play, where teams frequently compete on a semi-professional or outright amateur basis. In such circumstances, having a few full-timers in your side can be pivotal, as it proved with those early results in 2015 and the advancement to further AFC qualification.

But then, cold, hard reality set-in: having spent upwards of $1.5 million on travel and organisation for the previous round, the Guam FA had no choice but to balk when the possibility of a similar fee for the next round became clear. Support from sponsors, the Guam government and FIFA had been enough thus far, but for a nation equivalent to less than that of Cork City, jet-setting across the enormous Asian landmass – they crossed six time-zones to play in Tehran, and it was worse for their many American-based players – was simply unsustainable. Giving it a go and pulling out halfway through the group would have led to sanctions, and so Guam made the difficult but inevitable decision to withdraw.

The situation calls attention to perceived unfairness in the way the AFC operates. Treating the world’s largest continent the same as you would its smallest certainly appears to be a commendable ode to equality, but perhaps it is time for some realism to be allowed to seep in. The distance between Australia (taking their usual stadium in Sydney as the measurement), the AFC’s eastern-most member, and the western equivalent, Palestine, is over 10’000 km: a flight to Tel Aviv (since it’s a bit hard to fly into Palestine) takes 24 hours and costs over $3’000 per person, something simply beyond FA’s the size of Guam’s to undertake with any kind of regularity. This is not to say that such extremes do not occur elsewhere (Ireland to Kazakhstan, Egypt to South Africa) but they are far more common in Asia (though they were spared the trip owing to internal unrest, Australia were drawn against Syria at the end of the last bout of qualifying), a confederation that has a surplus of sides with a leaner operating budget.

The argument then is for some manner of regionalised qualifying, at least in the early rounds. The AFC is already split into regional sub-associations, who organise previously mentioned contests on a smaller geographical framework: West (essentially the Middle-East), Central (the “stans”, excepting Pakistan), South (the Indian subcontinent), East (China, Japan, the Koreas and neighbours) and south-east, known better as “ASEAN” (everyone else, including Australia). If such regions were to be used for qualifying some re-alignment would probably be required – Central has just six nations, while West and ASEAN have twice that – but could be used as a blueprint for earlier rounds to get to the currently required sides, 12, who make up the crucial Third Round of AFC qualifying. Guam would surely appreciate, and benefit, from a qualifying schedule that took them, at most, to Beijing, and not to Tehran, just as Kuwait would not have to go all the way to Seoul.

Detractors of such a proposal will surely point to the fact that the final group stages of qualifying have had a healthy enough geographical mix under the circumstances, with 5 Western, 2 Central, 3 Eastern and 2 ASEAN sides making up the 2018 edition. The big loser is South, who have never had a side make it to the final round of AFC qualifying since the sub-association was founded in 1997. This calls back into the eternal argument of whether it is better to let “lesser” sides play with the big boys, or to create a system whereby they will largely play with teams of a similar level and go no further. Which is better for the development of lower-ranked nations and the quality of football?

There may never be a satisfactory answer, but I think we can all agree that nations like Guam should not see their dreams deferred on the basis of cost when their players have done what is necessary on the pitch. You will find few advocates for guaranteed World Cup places for the South association, but if we can limit the financial burden in earlier rounds to at least give them the chance, I do not feel that this is an unworthy objective.

For Guam, the 2022 campaign begins with somewhat fortunate opposition in Bhutan, who have only been a FIFA member since 2000 (within Asia, only Timor-Leste have a shorter membership). Despite making it past the First Round with a 3-1 aggregate victory over Sri Lanka in 2015, Bhutan have won only one game since the conclusion of 2018 qualifying, and lost two by 10 goals or more. Guam’s corresponding record is hardly exemplary, but the results show a side that is prepared to be a bit more competitive, with the island nations biggest reverse coming in 2-0 defeats.

Guam should thus likely fancy their chances to get to the next round, if they can utilise the advantages they have over the largely semi-pro Bhutanese, and get over the two-day trip to the unique architecture of the Changlimithang Stadium. It remains to be seen if off-field concerns will scupper their chances after that.

4. Football In The Steppes: Mongolia 

(07/06/2019)

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In Mongolia, football must battle both the elements and a culture unused to field sports.

The first goal on the road to Qatar 2022 was scored by Mongolian defender Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal. The 30-year-old is one of the veterans of the squad with 26 appearances, and this goal, his fifth for his country, was a beautifully placed free-kick, nine minutes in, that left the Brunei keeper motionless, and the attending fans delirious. It is a moment that will likely be seared in the minds of many Mongolian football fans, the first step in a better era.

Tsedenbal has thus written himself into the trivia books, in a small way at least. Like all but one of his squadmates, Tsedenbal plies his trade in his native league, something that becomes an increasing rarity the further along you go in World Cup qualifying. He’s one of the more stand-out examples of the kind of players that the country produces: a cursory look at how football operates in Mongolia will give you an idea of how, shall we say, compact the sport is in the land of the steppes, and why this goal, with all of the possibilities that it comes with, is as important as it is.

Think Mongolia and, like the vast majority of the world, your first thoughts will probably be some variation of Genghis, Kublai and Ogedai, fearsome historical figures backed by roving armies of horse riding warriors. You will probably not think of a still gigantic nation with a relatively small population – 3 million people over 1.5 million square kilometers – over half of whom live in the capital of Ulannbaatar.  And yet, a huge proportion of the modern-day Mongolian people, maybe as much as a third, still live the nomadic lifestyle that remains the popular image of the country. Horses continue to play a significant role in Mongolian culture, with horse racing among the leading sports: football trails a bit behind in comparison. It’s hard to build any kind of stable system, when so many people maintain a mobile lifestyle: a huge portion of the Mongolian people have little need for pitches and goalposts.

This is reflected in the centrality of the the Mongolian Premier League, which has only ten sides. Nine of them are based in Ulaanbaatar (one, Deren, is technically from another district, but plays their home matches in the capital). Of those nine teams, six play in the official stadium of the countries association, the 3’500 capacity MFF Centre, which features looming apartment blocks just to the east, a busy main road almost directly behind the goals to the south (watch out for loose shots), construction sites to the west and the actual National Stadium – home to Erchim, coincidentally Mongolia’s most successful club – to the north.

Mongolian football is thus a tightly existing thing, a sport of select urban dwellers, when they aren’t playing basketball, lifting weights or engaging in various forms of martial arts. Getting football going can be difficult: the climate is frequently harsh, the pitches are astroturf by necessity and the attendances are low. To make a somewhat crude comparison, in coefficient terms the Mongolian league is the equivalent of Moldova’s. The opening scorer of this morning’s game himself plays for Ulaanbaatar City (heaven forbid you confuse them with FC Ulaanbaatar). Tsedenbal won a league with his current club in 2017, but is likely to be better known in the long-run for his heroics this morning, that has put his name in headlines all around the world.

Unsurprisingly, football in Mongolia is largely semi-pro. The building of the MFF Centre and other small stadia have helped things along, as has the work of German coach Michael Weiss, a former goalkeeper and once manager of Rwanda and the Philippines, who has focused much of his attention on the nation’s youth teams as well as foreign training camps for the senior side. But even with these innovations the progress is slow. The league is not fertile ground for any national team looking to make headway, and that’s before you realise that it’s hard to even organise friendlies when other nations don’t want to play in the cold of the steppes. Even worse, the travel costs for your own away games are exorbitant, enough that travelling abroad for competitive matches or friendlies can strain the coffers to the limit.

It’s easy to understand why Mongolia have struggled then, going out in the First Round of World Cup qualifying every four years like clockwork since their first attempt in 2006. Last time it was Timor-Leste who put paid to their hopes, who were then subsequently thrown out for fielding ineligible players. Unfortunately this was after the Second Round had been played, so Mongolia had no recourse. The desire to achieve something more than just two games every four years prompted the choice of Weiss, and now the MFF are seeing something in the way of results.

The Timor-Leste debacle is in the past. This time, things are looking better. Tsedenbal’s free was the first goal; the team’s main goalscorer, Nyam-Osor Naranbold, got the second an hour later, capitalising on a Brunei defensive error – partly down to the astroturf – to hit home from close range. It was, perhaps, a bit harsh on the away team, who were dealing with key squad absences, had responded well enough to going behind, and had managed to create a few chances. But none of them were converted, and Brunei will face into the second leg with no away goals, and knowing that to concede again will be to surrender the tie, and their place in World Cup qualifying.

Heartbreak for one side, but joy for another: whatever about Brunei, it will be a unfeeling person who will seriously begrudge such advancement for the winners of the first leg after seeing the small but loud band of Mongolian supporters in the MFF who cheered their team on to what may yet be an iconic victory. All they need to do is hold their nerve in five days, and then that new era will well and truly have begun.

5. The Little Brazil: Timor-Leste

(8/6/2019)

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People will always find a way to play football, but in Timor-Leste the quest for success has pushed that goal into morally dubious areas.

If you were, much like me up to a short time ago, largely ignorant of Timor-Leste (more commonly known as East Timor), you might be forgiven for being confused after having a look at their starting line-up for their first (and likely penultimate) game of World Cup qualifying. Some of the names are not what you would commonly associate with the region. Alves, Pedro, Fernandes, it seemed more like a line-up for a Portuguese or Brazilian team, than that of an East Asian minnow.

Of course, it makes more sense when you realise that Timor was a Portuguese colony for centuries, and the after-effects of colonialism linger on as they tend to do. Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest country’s, having been independent only since 2002 when Indonesian occupiers, under pressure from the UN and fighting a seemingly endless war with native separatists, finally left. Independence brought the other, cultural, signs of sovereignty, if not success: a FIFA member since 2005, Timor-Leste have predictably struggled to make an impact, playing 64 internationals in 14 years and winning just seven of them. In a tiny, very poor, country where half the population is dependent on subsistence farming, it seems obvious that quality footballers are hard to come by.

But if you take a closer look at the history of the Timor-Leste men’s national side, and some of the players who have won caps, a different picture starts to emerge. In 2015, for their World Cup qualifying campaign, Timor-Leste began fielding players who were not from the country originally. They were Brazilian, non-natives who had been naturalised for the express purpose of improving the team. And they did improve it: Timor-Leste beat Mongolia easily in the First Round of qualifying, and were unexpectedly competitive in the tougher Second Round. This being the non-business end of the qualification process, it took a while for the world to notice what was happening. But when seven members of the Timor-Leste starting line-up for a 1-1 draw with Palestine were Brazilian-born, the wheels came off the bus.

The FIFA rules surrounding eligibility have always been controversial. Writing as a native son of a country where international treaties are routinely cited as part of arguments over the eligibility or non-eligibility of players, I can say with confidence that I know this better than most. I am supporter of the FIFA statutes that allow for family connections to lead to national representation in football. But only those with the most liberal interpretation of gained nationality would have been satisfied with what Timor-Leste was doing. The players in question had no familial connection to Timor-Leste, and had not undergone the required residency of five years that FIFA mandates in other cases.

Opposition teams complained, after a silence that might be explained by other nations also taking advantage of eligibility rules and not wanting to rock the boat. Other Timor-Leste players complained, losing the opportunity to represent the national team and seeing the issue as part of a larger battle with the football association, the FFTL, an altogether unpopular authority. And the Timor-Leste people complained, many stating a preference for losing with actual Timorese than winning with fakes. Public protests were held and the nation’s Prime Minister even got involved. The FFTL relented, and fielded only natural-born Timorese in the later part of the campaign. The results were all-too predictable: Timor-Leste went from being competitive and scoring famous victories, to getting thumped by scorelines of 8-0 and 10-0.

Worse was to follow. Amid accusations that the FFTL were taking advantage of impoverished youths and misleading the Brazilian contingent, it emerged that the registration of the new players had been undertaken with false passports, adding a criminal element to proceedings. That was enough for FIFA to finally take action, and five of Timor-Leste’s matches where the Brazilians had played were forfeited. The Timorese were then banned from competing for a place at the 2023 AFC Cup. Though never likely to get there, being stripped of the attempt will leave Timor-Leste at the bottom of the AFC pecking order, doomed to more First Round ties when the next cycle kicks off.

While the illegality of what occurred cannot be disputed, it is perhaps understandable as to why Timor-Leste’s leading officials and management did what they did. Taking advantage of, and occasionally bending, eligibility rules has often been the leg-up that smaller, traditionally weaker, nations have needed. But it appears that Timor-Leste simply got greedy, or hoped that no one would notice the extent of what they were trying to accomplish. Building a successful football team from the relatively low position of Timor-Leste’s system is a hard, and potentially quite thankless, task, but the short-cuts have led to a situation where the team are as much reviled as they are considered an embarrassment. It is a lesson for those on the lower end of the scale not to try too much, too fast.

Timor-Leste have reverted to their previous form since the controversy, winning just one competitive match between 2015 and now, the kind of form more suited to sides in the bottom rungs of the OFC than the AFC. The first leg of their 2022 qualifying First Round tie against Malaysia was typical: the home side carved through the Timorese defence at will, scoring four without reply before half-time. The final score-line of 7-1 makes the second leg – also being held in Malaysia, as Timor-Leste’s home ground is not up to requirements – a dead rubber. It was the sixth that was the peach, a powerful volley from Faiz Nasir off a right-wing cross, while the Timorese floundered around him.

The lone ray of light for the defeated was 18-year-old Joao Pedro, whose 51st minute breakaway goal very briefly ignited hopes of an unlikely comeback. Timorese born and playing his club football in the lower divisions of Thailand, it is young men like Pedro that Timor-Leste should be looking to now. There is more pride to be found with that than a humiliating effort to be “Little Brazil”.

6. Degrees Of Caution: Sri Lanka

(11/06/2019)

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Some countries, like Indonesia , may have rallied to the support of Sri Lanka, but others have not been so understanding.

The Sri Lankan football team ended the first leg of their First Round match-up with Macau a goal down and presumably not feeling all that great, up against it to achieve progression in a competition they have routinely struggled to get anywhere in. That goal came after a cavalcade of defensive errors, a simple tap in from a yard out for Macau defender Felipe Duarte, as 901 fans took in the contest in a cavernous Chinese stadium (Macau’s home ground is undergoing renovations, so they went a few miles over the border). It’s been a difficult and emotionally impactful few months for any Sri Lankan, since the Easter terrorist attacks that killed so many. And then the opposition decided to make it worse.

On the Saturday before the second leg, officials of the Macau Football Association, suddenly announced that they would not travel to play the second leg in Sri Lanka, citing safety fears following the attacks, and further suggesting that the best outcome would be for the game to be played on neutral ground. Yesterday, the AFC called the match off. It is unknown at this time what private notice the MFA gave FIFA, the AFC or the opposition of their intentions. Such a sudden declaration has thrown the organisation of the First Round into a bit of turmoil, and calls attention to how internal instability can so often affect the playing of sports in certain regions.

The responses to the announcement have been resoundingly negative. The Sri Lankans are, somewhat understandably, unhappy. Their association, the FFSL, insist that the Asian confederation and FIFA are both satisfied with the proposed security arrangements. FIFA also provide insurance cover for teams as a matter of course.

More crucially, some of those from Macau are also unhappy. Several members of the first team have broken from the association’s line and insisted the game should go ahead as planned, or else they will refuse to play for their country again. These opinions were expressed in a fairly extraordinary press conference, where it was claimed the MFA had not discussed their decision with the squad before it was announced.

It is a bitter pill for these players to swallow, with amateur-level Macau registering only their second ever World Cup qualification win last Friday and thus making themselves well-placed to progress to the Second Round for the first time. Being a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) of China, with a similar status to Hong Kong, Macau presumably has few opportunities to exhibit their own identity outside of sport. Now, one of the most prominent is being taken away, by an association that, as late as five years ago, was suspended by FIFA for political interference.

Teams having to play matches in unstable or outright dangerous places is not a new thing. Within the AFC alone, and as their players stated in their press conference, Macau played Iraq in 2001 in Baghdad. Iraq themselves have played a smattering of home games inside Iraq since the American invasion. The Maldives was in a state of emergency when it hosted Hong Kong four years ago, and Palestine plays their home matches just north of disputed Jerusalem, well within the range of rocket attacks and counter-attacks. No one is suggesting that teams be obligated to fly their players into an active war zone, but there is clearly a degree of precedent in regards issues like this.

Which is not to say that the MFA is stating something completely outrageous when suggesting a visit to Sri Lanka right now is a bit iffy. Our own Department of Foreign Affairs currently rates Sri Lanka as deserving “a high degree of caution”. Aside from Islamist terror groups, there is the residual issue of the post-civil war relationship with the Tamil’s. Unexploded landmines from that conflict still make parts of the country inadvisable to visit. Flooding occurs frequently during the rainy seasons. Malaria is a threat. Homosexuality is illegal.

And yet, the terrorist attacks occurred two months ago. No one is seriously suggesting that New Zealand is unsafe to visit right now after the mass shooting earlier this year, and I doubt the MFA would raise the same objections if their opponent was the United States, where such shootings are now treated like something akin to a tolerable nuisance. The civil war is over, and has been for a decade. The landmines aren’t on the football pitch, the floods aren’t an issue right now, precautions can be taken for malaria and, while regrettable, Sri Lanka’s stance on LGBT rights does not preclude them from taking part in footballing competitions, any more than it stopped Qatar from being selected as a World Cup host nation.

Strict security arrangements, teams flying in and out of the country in question on the same day, even more extreme measures like a closed doors match, these are all options that could, and maybe still will, be discussed. The critical point is time however, with Macau’s announcement so late that it may have prevented the possibility that any kind of settlement could be reached.

As things stand, Sri Lanka will probably be awarded a 3-0 victory in the absence of opposition, and will then progress into the Second Round. Macau may well face further sanctions, and will also lose out on any possibility of qualification for the 2023 AFC Cup. Macau were never likely to go far anyway, but they may yet regret their suddenly public opposition to having to play in Sri Lanka.

For Sri Lanka, the entire affair is an unfortunate reminder that it is seen as a dangerous place to be in or to visit right now. Sporting events of this kind should be a healing opportunity, where a nation can come together united in a desire to see their team win a match and provide a positive example of what they can achieve. Sri Lanka may well progress because of this debacle, but if so, they will have been robbed of a chance to do it the right way.

7. Gross National Happiness: Bhutan

(12/06/2019)

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One of the world’s most unique stadiums is just one of the reasons that Bhutanese football is worthy of consideration.

The First Round of AFC qualifying is a cruel arena, where six teams wave goodbye to their slim chances of making it to Qatar. One of them has to be the first. On Tuesday morning (Irish time), owing to a fairly extraordinary turnaround, Bhutan suffered the ignominy of being that first, the most immediate of the FIFA member-states to be eliminated from contention in World Cup qualifying.

Things had gone to plan for the largely mountainous country in the first leg. Two advantages, one natural and one constructed, undoubtedly helped the Bhutanese when the team representing the small Pacific island of Guam came to visit, with a better recent record but still behind the opposition in the rankings. The first was Bhutan’s isolated location. Sandwiched between China (or rather Tibet, if you don’t want to follow Beijing’s line) and India, with Nepal only a hop, skip and jump away, Bhutan is located partly within the Himalayan mountain range. The capital is nearly 6’000 km from Guam, as the crow flies. There are no regular travel options from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and as a result it took Guam’s team the better part of two days to get to Thimphu.

The second advantage was the Changlimithang, one of football’s most unique stadiums owing to its stunning contemporary architecture. But it wasn’t just the surrounds that negatively effected Guam, it was the altitude. At 2’300 meters above sea level, Changlimithang Stadium is one of the highest sporting grounds in the world. At that height, only those native to such places can properly function athletically in terms of air intake and oxygen absorption. Guam’s squad would have felt exhausted much quicker than their opponents, having to gulp down air at a much faster rate in order to keep going for the full 90 minutes.

The end result of that first leg was a hard fought, but well-deserved, one-nil victory. Bhutan made most of the running and created the most chances, though they converted just one. That goal came from midfielder Tshering Dorji, only 23, but already one of his country’s footballing heroes, converting coolly from inside the penalty area after a right-wing counter attack. Guam, dead on their feet well before the final whistle, had no answer. Thimphu had something to cheer once again.

It was also Dorji who got the crucial goal the last time that Bhutan was at this point, for the Russia 2018 qualifying campaign. Then the First Round opponents were perennial lower-ranked Sri Lanka and it was in Sri Lanka that Dorji’s 86th minute strike got Bhutan their first competitive win in nearly a decade. That result made quite an impression, with the second leg taking place amidst a fervor in Bhutan: what’s rare is wonderful it would seem. The government went as far as declaring a half-holiday for people to go and watch the game.

It was well worth it. In the second leg Bhutan added their second win in a decade, a nervy 2-1 victory that sent the “Dragon Boys” into the Second Round. The romance stopped there of course: in that Second Round group stage Bhutan scored five goals and conceded 52, most notably in a 15-0 reverse to 2022 hosts Qatar, on their way to, of course, a zero points finish. But history had already been made.

It’s hard not to like the Bhutanese. Aside from their general status as a perennial underdog minnow, they have too much going for them not to attract a sympathetic eye: that gorgeous stadium of course; the distinctive jersey, orange emblazoned with the image of the Bhutanese thunder dragon; their role in “the Other Final” in 2002, when they played Montserrat in a battle between the two lowest ranked teams in FIFA (winning 4-0); and the simple romance of football penetrating and being loved in one of the most isolated places on Earth. Bhutan itself is a beautiful country, where the government bases decision at least partly on how they will effect “gross national happiness”.

Unfortunately for the Thunder Dragons and their fans, all of that did not help them in Guam when it came time for the second leg to be played. Competing on the Pacific islanders home turf, it was Bhutan’s turn to be disadvantaged by an altitude different to what they usually played in (much lower), and weather they were unused to (much hotter). Guam, as noted previously, have made some significant improvements as of late, and that was obvious. From the moment the ref signaled for kick-off, they took the game to the Bhutanese, eager to make up for their lacklustre showing in the mountains.

The leveling goal for the tie came on 23 minutes, the away defence torn open by clever play from the centre to set midfielder Isiah Lagutang free on the left to slot home with aplomb. Only a few minutes later captain Jason Cunliffe side-footed his team into a 2-1 aggregate lead from close-range after a defensive muddle. Guam never looked back from taking control of the tie and the scoreboard: Shane Malcolm, one of Guam’s grandparent rule acquisitions, made things sure after 50 minutes when the Butanese opened up again, before Cunliffe added two late goals, one a point-blank header and the other a simple half-volley with the opposition goalie stranded, to claim a hat-trick.

The 5-1 aggregate score means Guam progress to the Second Round for the second consecutive time. Bhutan lose out, failing to match their achievement of four years ago. The regrettable notoriety of being the first team eliminated in this process must be hard to bare, but things are better than they have been for Bhutan in the past. They still have a passionate fan-base and a supportive authority, they still have some excellent talents able to light up the pitch, and they still have that oh so attractive status as the popular underdog, even if the world’s admiration may be for the excellent jersies as much as anything else. With any luck, we may hear the thunder dragon roar again in the not too distant future.

8. In The Office: Macau

(28/06/2019) 

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Between the football pitch and the football offices, a lot can happen in one of the AFC’s smallest minnows.

Earlier today, FIFA reached what was seen as an inevitable decision when they awarded the second leg of the Sri Lanka/Macau tie to Sri Lanka on the standard walkover scoreline, owing to Macau’s lack of attendance for that second leg. Following Macau’s 1-0 victory in the first leg, the result lets Sri Lanka off the hook, and see’s them progress into the Second Round of the AFC’s World Cup qualifying.

For Macau, this is a low moment. In a previous entry I discussed the situation from a few different perspectives, and called attention to the various issues surrounding the Macau Football Association’s decision: its seeming indifference to the Sri Lankan security arrangements, that were approved by FIFA and the AFC; its apparent ignorance of similar situations in the not too distant past where the games were played; and the disapproval from Macau players of the action taken.

That last point has proven to be a very important issue. Macau’s refusal to play the second leg was just a blip on the footballing world’s radar, until a certain game of the Macau FA Cup. Earlier this month, a contest of that competition ended with the farcical scoreline of 21-18, when the participants, Kai I and Hang Sai, turned the tie into a 90 minute protest of the MFA, largely making do without goalies and not playing the sport in the spirit that it was intended. That action certainly made headlines, calling ever more attention to the bullheaded stubbornness of the MFA, that has now done an untold amount of harm to their men’s national side.

A “Special Administrative Area” of the People’s Republic of China, with a similar status to that of Hong Kong, Macau consists of a short peninsula and an island, with a packed-in population of just under 700’000. It was a Portuguese colony for centuries, but now enjoys a form of quasi independence under the aegis of Beijing, with China due to take complete control after 2049. It’s known primarily as a liberal gambling hotspot, with 80% of government revenue coming from casinos, and not as a centre for sporting excellence.

Lacking a substantial population, and space for fields, it is clear that Macau is never going to be a footballing powerhouse. That makes events like that which have taken place over the last month all the more frustrating for locals. The Second Round of AFC qualifying guarantees another eight competitive games: Macau had one foot in that Round after the first leg with Sri Lanka. Owing to ongoing refurbishments in their own ground, Macau played the tie inside China, with just over 900 fans spectating in the 38’000 seater Zhuhai Sports Centre a few kilometers to the north: despite the surrounds, they cheered their side onto a rare victory, where centre back Felipe Duarte scored the only goal, a close-range tap-in after a disastrous goalie spill. 

The Second Round may seem like small potatoes, but such a prize is not some minor thing for Macau, who have twice gone out at this first stage of World Cup qualifying to double scores, 13-2 against Thailand for South Africa 2010 and 13-1 against Vietnam for Brazil 2014 (unlucky for some, indeed). The 4-1 reversal against Cambodia for Russia 2018 was thus an improvement, but still just the latest in a series of defeats when it came to the major international competitions. Like so many other AFC minnows, Macau are left chasing victories in small regional competitions of little notice outside of their limited spheres.

To be within one positive result, or even a draw, of the AFC Second Round was a holy grail for Macau, and thus the level of anger when that chance was snatched away by their own association may be easy to understand. It’s far from the first time the MFA has drawn the ire of the people it represents, such as when it was suspended by FIFA in 2005 for political interference, or after a series of bizarre incidents in 2017 and ’18, when dominant local club team Benfica had issues with their registration for the AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League) owing to correct paperwork not being filed by the association, and miscommunication over eligibility requirements. The MFA have been further accused of focusing on the FIFA subsidies provided by the national side to the detriment of the club game, and of actively scuppering underage club teams by instead promoting school leagues.

The MFA decision to not play led to a squad mutiny, with numerous players threatening to boycott the national side in future. Team captain Nicholas Torrao went over the association’s head to plead with FIFA and the AFC directly to re-schedule the fixture, in a an emotional letter where he called attention to football as a vehicle for national pride, and not a sport to be decided “in the office”. The players were ready to play, and the MFA’s continual pleading that they were unsatisfied with security arrangements were largely dismissed.

In the end, there was little FIFA or the AFC could do to help those players. The MFA remains the governing body in Macau, and the team will not travel without their approval. Perhaps if they had proved pliant on the matter something could have been arranged, but they did not. Sri Lanka are the side to benefit, but, as stated before, this is hardly the manner in which they would wanted this to happen.

The latest debacle has lead to further calls for change in the MFA, greater transparency in their workings, and a new commitment to developing the sport in Macau from the ground up. Even if this was to happen, players and coaches inside the SAR rightly fear it will be too late, and they will be re-starting from scratch in a quasi-country where the sport was already struggling. That struggle will now continue with a four year wait before their next shot at World Cup (and AFC Cup) qualifying. If nothing changes between now and then, it seems likely that Macau will be back in the dark days of unlucky 13.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Comoros, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guam, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea (Democratic People’s Republic), Korea (Republic), Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, United States Virgin Islands, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Teams Eliminated

Bhutan, Brunei Darussalem, Laos, Macau, Pakistan, Timor-Leste

Photo Credits

Prologue: Italian legend Roberto Baggio after missing the decisive penalty in the 1994 World Cup Final shoot-out, while the Brazilian victors celebrate behind. Copyright AFP.

Cheng Hoe-Ball: Malaysian Ultras take in a World Cup Qualifier in the Bukit Jalil. Photo in public domain.

The Siege: View of Doha, Qatar, from the east. Photo by Alex Sergeev, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

10’000km: Justin Lee in action for Guam in a World Cup Qualifier against Iran. Photo by Jill Espíritu, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License

Football In The Steppes: The MFF Football Centre in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo by Lreis, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License.

The Little Brazil: A home-made football used in Timor-Leste. Photo by David Palazon, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Degrees Of Caution: The Gelora Bung Karno Bridge in Senayan, Indonesia, lit up in the colours of the Sri Lankan flag in the aftermath of the Easter Bombings. Photo in the public domain of Indonesia.

Gross National Happiness: The Changlimithang Stadium from field level. Photo by Antonio Morales Garcia, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

In The Office: A training field at the back of Macau’s Estádio Campo Desportivo. Photo by Mo707, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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