Asia's ups and downs
© AFP

While qualifying campaigns for the FIFA World Cup are always full of surprises all over the globe, the competition in Asia has proven a particular hotbed of thrilling drama and hardship. Iran's 3-1 loss to Bahrain, which cost them an automatic place at 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, remains a bitter memory for the team and their faithful fans, while three-time Asian champions Japan will always remember narrowly missing out on a first-ever berth at the global showpiece thanks to an all-or-nothing meeting with Iraq ahead of USA 1994.

Toughest groups
The Group A campaign in the second qualifying round for France 1998 will be remembered for producing many magic moments. Three Asian champions - Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait - battled it out in a group also featuring the formidable likes of China and Qatar.

After the three-month marathon competition the Saudis finally topped the group to book only their second appearance at a FIFA World Cup finals, while second-place Iran were left to contest a play-off against Japan, which they went on to lose. However, it was the Iranians that shocked the watching world as they eventually went through to France 1998 after a two-legged play-off victory over Australia.

Classic matches
Archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia were drawn together again four years later alongside Iraq, Bahrain and Thailand. The Iranians looked likely to do better this time around as they entered the last game two points ahead of the second-place Saudis. But it was the Sons of Desert who kept their cool to round out their campaign with a 4-1 thrashing of Thailand while Iran inexplicably lost to Bahrain 3-1, a result that sent the Saudis through and condemned them to a play-off against the Republic of Ireland, which they went on to lose.

Biggest upsets
Underdogs have had their day on more than a few occasions in Asia. China have found themselves on the wrong end of a good number of surprise results. Their first heart-breaking moment came on 19 May 1985, when they were knocked out of the preliminary stage by Hong Kong after a 2-1 loss. Eight years later, their qualifying hopes for USA 1994 were brought to a sudden halt after an expected 1-0 loss to Yemen, a result which enabled group rivals Iraq to eventually top the group by a solitary point. The old story was told again in the same qualifying stage for Germany 2006, when the East Asians were narrowly upstaged by Kuwait, who won the group by the margin of one goal.

Familiar foes
Korea Republic and Japan are Asia's most frequent jousting partners, crossing swords in qualifying for an unbelievable 13 times. In their latest meetings in the qualifying second round for France 1998, the Taeguk Warriors came from one goal down to stage a classic 2-1 comeback win in the first-leg away game, a result that enabled Korea Republic to take the upper hand in the group. After a series of victories in the next games, the Koreans clinched the group's automatic place earlier with two matches remaining, leaving Japan's 2-0 victory in Seoul in the penultimate match nothing bigger than just a consolation.