Monday, April 13, 2015

Drawing out the suspense

Tuesday is something of a big day. For starters, I am going to cross another country off my "places I really want to go" list. Second, it's the day of the Podcast Awards, where several of my favorite people on the Internets are up for awards they richly deserve.

And if that wasn't enough, it's also the day of the draw for the second round of Asia's World Cup qualifying tournament. As the Asian Football Confederation is merging World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying this time around, these matches take on double the importance. In a remarkable bit of timing, my plane should be taking off just as balls start leaving their pots in Kuala Lumpur.

Qualifying started with the 12 lowest-ranked teams in Asia facing off in a playoff round. The biggest story coming out of that round was Bhutan, which had only three wins in its history going into qualifying and was ranked 209th out of 209 in the world, beat Sri Lanka twice to advance. This, as you can imagine, created quite a stir, and not just because Bhutan has fewer people in it than Omaha.

Now, though, things really get interesting.

The teams have been divided into five pots, based on their world ranking, and will be sorted into eight groups of five teams. The eight group winners and four best runners-up advance to the third round of World Cup qualifying and automatically gain entry into the 2019 Asian Cup, which the UAE will host. Teams who fall short of that bar miss out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia but still have one (or maybe two) more chances to qualify for the Asian Cup. Sound long and complicated? It is, but that's what happens when you merge two qualifying tournaments into one while expanding the Asian Cup from 16 to 24 teams.

With how the seeding is set, there are some highly entertaining potential matchups out there. Let's start close to home with the UAE. As ever with these sort of things, there are potentially great draws and potentially terrible ones. As this is a blind draw, presumably all these are equally possible.

Best-case scenario: UAE, Kuwait, Tajikistan, Bhutan, Taiwan
The Mighty Whites know how to handle Kuwait, having faced them several times and generally done well. Bhutan might have shot their bolt just getting this far, and a team at the UAE's level should have no fear of Tajikistan and Taiwan.

Worst-case scenario: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, North Korea, Malaysia
Say what you will about Saudi and their declining relevance on the international stage, but they know how to stop the UAE -- kick Omar Abdulrahman, early and often. It's not pretty, and probably not even legal, but it works. Palestine and North Korea are well-organized, can defend well in numbers and hit on the counter, exactly the kind of teams that can frustrate and surprise a technical team like the UAE. Pot 5 doesn't throw up much in the way of banana skins, but if there is one, Malaysia is it.

Racking up the air miles scenario: UAE, Vietnam, Philippines, East Timor, Guam
A pretty manageable group, all told, assuming deep-vein thrombosis doesn't become a problem. Those tropical climates might prove tricky, but then again, all those teams have to make the trip the other way, too.

Packing the stands scenario: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Philippines/India, Indonesia, Bangladesh
People in the UAE love football -- they just don't necessarily love UAE football. Attendance for national team and Arabian Gulf League games is fairly poor (two standout clubs aside), and UAE coach Mahdi Ali has not been shy about expressing his displeasure over that fact. These games could help change that, even if the crowd wouldn't be 100 percent behind the UAE. Saudi fans have shown a willingness to make the trip here, if Al Hilal's match against Al Ain in the Asian Champions League is any indicator, and the Philippines, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh all have significant expat populations here. Careful what you wish for.

The UAE is just part of the fun, of course. There are so many potentially delicious draws. Here are a few more:

All-ASEAN: Australia (yes, they're a member), Vietnam, Philippines, Burma/Indonesia/Singapore, Malaysia/Laos/Cambodia
Beancounters in their respective FAs will love this draw. Fairly close together, and someone has to finish second behind the Asian champions.

China and Friends: China, Vietnam, India/Philippines, North Korea, Hong Kong/Taiwan
The propaganda machine will be working overtime here. If you're wondering why China and Vietnam, two ostensibly communist countries, might not be the best of friends, do some reading.

Neutral sites-a-go-go: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan/Palestine, North Korea, Yemen
Beat writers will be lining up around the block to not cover this group.

One for the sociologists: Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Shias, Sunnis, Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists all playing together in harmony. One can hope, anyway.

Buddhists all the way down: Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Bhutan, Cambodia
They're all, like, so chill, man.

That's the best I can manage at this hour. If you have other ideas, let me know in the comments, and check back here after the draw to see if any of these pan out.

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