What connects Rio de Janeiro and Dili? The first qualifying game on the road to 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ took place in Timor-Leste’s capital in March, less than eight months after the full-time whistle was blown on Brazil 2014 at the Maracana. Mario Gotze’s winning goal was the last major act in the long and winding theatrical production that was the last World Cup, and Timor-Leste’s Chiquito Do Carmo would write his name in the history books as the first major character in the latest tournament's tale.
His goal, just four minutes into his country’s match against Mongolia, kicked off the first of 76 qualifying games across Asia and North America that have already taken place ahead of the Preliminary Draw at the Konstantin Palace. *FIFA.com *is here to guide you through the story so far.
AFC (12 games in Round 1, 30 so far in Round 2)
*The aforementioned historic goal by Do Carmo was added to moments later by a second for the forward, and his brace helped Timor-*Leste to a 5-1 aggregate Round 1 victory over the Blue Wolves, who only had Batmonkhiin Erkhembayar’s first leg goal to savour. Joining them in the long wait for Qatar 2022 qualifying will be Macau, Nepal, Brunei Darussalam, Pakistan after they were eliminated by Cambodia, India, Chinese Taipei and Yemen respectively, but it was Sri Lanka’s exit that created the biggest stir among world football. Bhutan progressed at their expense, and they made global headlines for their 3-1 aggregate victory due to their standing in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking at the time of their win: 209th out of 209 sides. Tshering Dorji’s late winner in the first leg in Colombo brought an unprecedented moment of joy for Bhutanese fans that was bettered a week later when Chencho Gyeltshen’s brace saw off the Sri Lankans in front of a fervent crowd in Thimphu. The lowest-ranked side in the world had won their first ever World Cup qualifying game, swiftly followed by their second.
Round 2 also began with an unprecedented and historic victory, as the tiny Pacific island of Guam entered the fray. Their only prior experience of World Cup qualifying came in 2000, a 19-0 defeat to Iran was followed by a 16-0 hammering by Tajikistan. Their third qualifier went rather better. A battling and determined 1-0 win against Turkmenistan, in the first World Cup qualifier played in Guam, was labelled “a historic event” for the country by their English coach Gary White, and they followed up that victory with an even more impressive scalp: a 2-1 win against India which sees the islanders lead the way in Group D.
The second round also saw the continent’s heavyweights, and representatives in Brazil, kick off their campaigns. Korea Republic and Australia began with slender victories against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan while Iran and Japan were surprisingly held by Turkmenistan and Singapore respectively. Elsewhere, Palestine pushed Saudi Arabia all the way in their opening match, eventually succumbing to a 3-2 defeat, before hammering Malaysia 6-0 in Kuala Lumpur, which makes them the early leaders of Group A. Bhutan slipped to 7-0 and 6-0 defeats to Hong Kong and China PR, with the former in charge of Group C after the first round of games thanks to their 2-0 win against the Maldives. The other teams with 100 per cent records are Thailand, Korea DPR and, most surprisingly, the Philippines, who secured just their second and third qualifying wins, upsetting Bahrain before dispatching Yemen.
The second round in Asia concludes in March 2016. The draw date, location and procedure for AFC Round Three will be confirmed by the end of Round Two by the Organising Committee for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
*CONCACAF (14 games in Round 1, 20 games in Round 2)
*The journey to Russia for sides in North and Central America also began in March, with the 14 lowest-ranked sides battling it out in the opening round. There were some big scores, not big shocks, in Round 1, with just one match (Belize’s away goal victory against the Cayman Islands) ending level after two legs. US Virgin Islands looked set to spring a surprise after their young side defeated Barbados 1-0 in the opening leg, but succumbed 4-0 in the return. Elsewhere, Nicaragua, St. Kitts and Nevis and Bermuda all coasted past Anguilla, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas, while there were more slender aggregate victories for Dominica and Patrick Kluivert’s Curacao, against British Virgin Islands and Montserrat respectively.
Netherlands legend Kluivert’s first foray into management inevitably drew most of the attention after he guided the country of his parent’s birth to a tough second round match against Cuba. A goalless first leg in Willmestad was followed by a 1-1 stalemate in Havana, meaning the former Dutch forward has already guided the country to its best World Cup qualification result since CONCACAF revamped the format for the 1994 finals.
Round 2 saw reasonably routine progression for El Salvador, Canada, Belize and Nicaragua against St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Dominican Republic and Suriname respectively, but there was drama across the continent, none more so than in Antigua. St. Lucia, 3-1 up from the first leg of their clash against Antigua and Barbuda, equalised in the 81st minute of the second, putting them 4-2 up on aggregate and seemingly though to the next round. Their opponents had other ideas, though. Tavaughn Harriette gave the Barbudans hope before Josh Parker’s goal levelled the score. With extra time looming, Aaron Tumwa hit a fourth for his side in the fifth minute of stoppage time, sending the Benna Boys bouncing into Round 3.
Guyana and St. Vincent and the Grenadines scored six each across two legs, with Vincy Heat progressing on away goals. Grenada and Puerto Rico secured their place in the third round with slim aggregate victories over Puerto Rico and Bermuda, while Aruba progressed courtesy of Barbados fielding an ineligible player in the second leg of their clash.
The third round for CONCACAF will be drawn at the Konstantin Palace, with Jamaica and Haiti joining the ten victors from Round 2.