The Road to Russia 2018 kicked off last week as the first 12 teams out of FIFA’s 209 country members began their qualification processes by taking the field in the first of two legs; second legs will be completed tomorrow on March 17. The teams are from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and are the 12 lowest ranked teams in the confederation. In alphabetical order, those teams were Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei, India, Macau, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and Yemen. Below are last week’s first leg results:
India 2 – Nepal 0
Yemen 3 – Pakistan 1
Timor-Leste 4 – Mongolia 1
Cambodia 3 – Macau 0
Chinese Taipei 0 – Brunei Darussalam 1
Sri Lanka 0 – Bhutan 1
All eyes in the opening round of qualifiers were on India, with a population of 1.2 billion people, good for second highest in the world, and last year’s launch of a second soccer league, the pressure is on India to begin to get results. They won handedly 2-0 at home to Nepal and are prepared for the away return leg, where current head coach, Stephen Constantine used to manage. Constantine has added that, “If you ask me, 2-0 is a very deceiving score line. If Nepal score, the game changes. I have said this from the very beginning that this will be a very difficult task for us. The game is still available for both teams.” Failure to qualify for at least the second round by India would be a huge step back for the national team and their fans.
The shocker of the week was the tiny nation of Bhutan getting their first World Cup Qualifying win 1-0 over Sri Lanka in their first ever qualifier. They are currently the last ranked team in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and pulled off the stunner in the 84th minute by young 19 year old, Tshering Dorji. The return leg will be played in Bhutan where a win or tie would guarantee passage to the second round in what would be a historic celebration.
Brunei Darussalam got an unlikely win on the road last week as they compete in only their third ever World Cup Qualifiers while Timor-Leste and Cambodia earned big home victories before the second leg matches.
Unfortunately, due to the bombings of two churches in Lahore on Monday morning, FIFA has suspended the return leg between Pakistan and Yemen. No details as of this writing were available as to when the return leg would be played, but Pakistan will need a 2-0 win in order to advance after losing 3-1 in Yemen last week.
The winners of this round will advance to the next round where they will join the 34 remaining AFC teams in eight groups of five teams. Round 2 in AFC qualifying begins this June.
Next week CONCACAF region kicks off their 2018 qualifying campaign as the 14 lowest ranked teams in the region start their campaigns.