From 8 October, the Asian Zone preliminary round first-leg qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ will kick off in the world's biggest continent. With the top five seeded teams - Australia, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Iran - receiving byes through to the third round, newly crowned Asian champions Iraq must compete alongside 33 first-round rivals as they bid for a coveted place in the finals.
Following the withdrawals of Bhutan and Guam from the competition, the two teams' first-round opponents, Kuwait and Indonesia, progress to the next round by default.
Eight of the preliminary round first-leg matches will take place on 8 October. The remaining nine fixtures will be played no later than 22 October, upon agreement between the sides and following approval from FIFA. The return legs will be held on 28 October.
Under new management
As one of the lowest placed teams in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Pakistan will have to raise their game when they welcome AFC champions Iraq to the Punjab Stadium in Lahore.
Not only did Iraq storm to victory in the AFC Asian Cup 2007, they also lead Pakistan by 114 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Under the guidance of newly appointed Norwegian coach Egil Roger Olsen, the recently crowned continental kings will be aiming to reach the finals of the FIFA World Cup for the second time in their history, following their debut appearance at Mexico 1986.
Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud was voted Player of the Tournament during his side's ground-breaking Asian Cup campaign, when he also finished as joint top scorer. Partnered up front by the creative Nashat Akram, the two strikers will be hoping to fire the continental champions back into the international spotlight.
China PR, who reached their first ever finals at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan ™, welcome dark horses Myanmar to the Century Lotus Stadium in Foshan, Guangdong. In the wake of their disappointing first-round exit at July's AFC Asian Cup, the hosts will be looking to their new Bosnian coach, Vladimir Petrovic, to help restore some pride and get them back to winning ways.
Former China and Uzbekistan coach Bob Houghton will attempt to mastermind a win for current charges India when they face Lebanon at the Beirut Municipal Stadium. Lebanon were outstanding in the three-stage qualifying tournament for the 2006 FIFA World Cup ™, narrowly missing out on a berth in the final phase and losing only one of their second-round matches, a 2-0 away defeat to east Asian giants Korea Republic. For their part, India were disappointing in the previous campaign, gaining only four points from their six matches and finishing third behind Japan and UAE.
Nevertheless, India's much-travelled supremo has already begun to turn around his side's fortunes. As hosts of the Nehru Cup back in August, the south Asian side lifted the trophy following a 1-0 final success over Syria. The win delighted the English coach, who hopes it will stand them in good stead for their latest challenge: "Syria are much like Lebanon and I hope my boys will have gained precious experience against them."
Palestine's home tie against Singapore promises to be a close-fought encounter between two evenly matched sides. During their last meeting, a first-round qualifier for the AFC Asian Cup 2007, Palestine claimed a narrow 1-0 win on home turf.
The showpiece fixture of the opening round is undoubtedly Vietnam's meeting with UAE at the My Dihn National Stadium in Hanoi. Although the United Arab Emirates, who participated in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy, lead Vietnam in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking by 28 places, they nevertheless faltered to a 2-0 defeat against the southeast Asians in July's AFC Asia Cup. That win, coupled with a 1-1 draw in their following match against Qatar, propelled Vietnam to the last eight of the tournament for the first time in their history.
The United Arab Emirates, a mainstay of Asian football, began their build-up preparations on 24 September under the stewardship of coach Bruno Metsu. No doubt the experienced Frenchman, who led unfancied Senegal to the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, would relish the chance to stage another upset at the 2010 edition.
Vietnamese Player of the Year Le Cong Vinh is one of the hottest new talents to emerge from southeast Asia in recent years. The 21-year-old marksman netted the second goal in his side's 2-0 triumph over UAE and is spearheading Vietnam's charge to South Africa 2010.
Nevertheless, UAE can also count on individual flair in the form of midfielder playmaker Ismail Matar, winner of the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship 2003. The 24-year old Al Wahda player has been in fine form for both club and country since the start of this year, when he helped UAE clinch the Gulf Cup of Nations trophy for the first time in their history. In the recent AFC Champions League quarter-finals, his away goal in the 1-1 second leg tie against Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal propelled Al Wahda into the last four of the tournament.