image source: fifa
Six AFC nations find themselves in a unique situation at this time, due to the Asian Football Confederation redoing their major continental tournament qualifying process.
Nations the AFC deemed as “developing” were previously sent to a special tournament called the AFC Challenge Cup to attempt to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. The Asian Cup is Asia’s Continental Final, which is the premier tournament in Asian international football. There were two spots available for teams to qualify through the Challenge Cup process. This involved full qualification rounds and a tournament where only the champion was to qualify for the Asian Cup finals. There was previously an edition of the Challenge Cup in every other year, so the two champions would both qualify. Nations who did not participate in this process either received automatic admission or went through normal qualifying rounds.
Nations complained, and rightfully so. It was far more difficult to qualify for the finals if you were a smaller nation. Many wanted a more comprehensive and full qualifying process where teams were on equal footing. At the same time, AFC decided that they wanted to follow suit with UEFA and expand their premier tournament to include 24 teams. It is very possible that teams among those in Challenge Cup Qualifying were among the 16 best in AFC. It’s a certainty that they’re among the 24 best. Above all, having only 2 of those AFC nations reach the finals didn’t ensure the best teams contested the tournament.
Due to the Asian Cup being played only 6 months after the conclusion of the World Cup, AFC decided to combine the qualifying process for the World Cup and the Asian Cup. The first two rounds of qualification for both tournaments are concurrent, and as a result, this has caused a major problem for a number of teams.
The AFC Nations Involved
AFC likes to do things early. Really early. The first round of qualification has already been contested in March 2015. This is almost 3 and a half years before the 2018 World Cup and just about 4 years before Asian Cup 2019. Despite being so far out, 6 nations have already been eliminated from both competitions.
- Brunei Darussalam
- Sri Lanka
Unlike the CONCACAF Gold Cup or African Cup of Nations which runs every two years, or EURO qualification which runs in the years where there is no World Cup Qualifying, AFC has no other major tournaments available for nations. With the 2022 World Cup slated to be held in late 2022, it remains unclear when the next edition of the Asian Cup will be held. It seems unlikely that AFC would host a major continental tournament just a month or two after the conclusion of the World Cup. For these AFC nations, it is a certainty that they will not appear at a major tournament for a minimum 8 years.
Think about that for a minute. These six AFC nations will not have an opportunity to compete at a major tournament for a minimum of 8 years. That’s basically half of a generation of footballers.
It’s sad. It’s sad to penalize teams this harshly in one fell swoop. Yes, there are other minor tournaments such as the SAFF Championship to participate in, but in the FIFA Rankings, these are counted as friendlies. It’s not a continental final or qualifier, and not playing those matches doesn’t offer a ton of opportunity to climb in the rankings. But that’s how these nations ended up here in the first place.
The bottom 12 AFC nations in the January 2015 FIFA rankings were sent to the preliminary round where 6 did not make it out. Had the teams qualified directly to the group stage, teams would have ensured play until at least March 2016. Many AFC nations that are eliminated from World Cup Qualifying will still have an opportunity to qualify for the Asian Cup, but not the teams already eliminated. As a result, these nations should begin the process of formulating a long term plan for success.
One of the best success stories is Guam. They have developed a solid core, planned wisely, and now find themselves directly through to the group stage. Maldives has done the same, reaching Pot 3 in the process. These teams are ahead of the eliminated teams in quality, but they are not so far ahead that the eliminated AFC nations cannot achieve the same level of notoriety. Especially Pakistan and Nepal, who were out of the bottom 12 as recently as the middle of last year.
What these six AFC nations have is time. Time to put a correct foundation in place, discover and develop young talent, and plan and schedule wisely so that FIFA rankings, and ultimately the potential to qualify for a major tournament is maximized. It’s a clean slate. When rankings are released 4 years from now to determine qualifying pots, only matches played from now on will be factored into the rankings.
It’s a unique opportunity to start from scratch and do things the right way. There’s really nothing worse than being in a position to get a fresh start and repeating the same mistakes of the past. Our consulting page has information and articles about how to correctly schedule to maximize rankings. And we’d love to help build something from the ground up.
Cultivating U-17 and U-20 talent is absolutely vital. These players will be about to enter their prime at the next qualifying opportunity. Putting them together now and developing relationships over many years will pay huge dividends down the road. It can be done. And despite already being eliminated, tomorrow is a new day. Seize it.