FIFA World Cup™ qualifying has long been a setting for underdogs to catapult themselves on to the global stage. A look at the African Zone preliminaries for the last edition of the competition in Germany, where four of the five successful teams were first-time qualifiers, underlines this.
Over in Asia, however, qualifying for the FIFA World Cup has been dominated by the traditional powers for the past decade. Indeed, the 'big four' of Iran, Japan, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia monopolised their continental section in the battle for places at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 editions, leaving China PR, who appeared at the finals six years ago, as the only other side to join them on the world stage during this period.
China's maiden qualification was, nevertheless, aided by the fact that co-hosts Japan and Korea Republic had their presence at the finals guaranteed. And if the Asian outsiders' task was not fierce enough as it was, Australia's recent induction to the AFC Zone has only intensified the competition.
This does not mean to say, though, that the less reputable sides are incapable of causing an upset. Having closed the gulf in class between themselves and the regional heavyweights in recent times, a number of dark horses are quietly confident they can book a ticket to South Africa 2010.
One of these is undoubtedly Syria. In their first game of the Asia Zone preliminaries' third stage on 6 February, they traveled to the intimidating Azadi stadium in Tehran and held Iran - positioned 63 places above them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking - to a goalless draw.
Syria's progress is indebted to the country's youth set-up and its domestic championship, from which coach Ebrahim Fajer fielded eight players from either Al Ittihad or 2006 AFC Champions League runners-up Al Krama against the Iranians.
Furthermore, Fajer drew further inspiration from neighbouring Iraq's fairy tale victory at the AFC Asian Cup 2007. "Iraq proved that underdogs could upstage the favorites," he said. "Their success in the Asian Cup showed defence and counter-attacking is the proper approach for a weaker team."
Syria will next host fellow west Asians United Arab Emirates on 26 March, before back-to-back matches against Kuwait in early June. A strong return of points would propel them into a strong position ahead of their return game against Iran in their penultimate fixture, and Fajer believes his charges have what it takes to progress to the Asian Zone's last ten.
Quartet hold the key
Having reached the final stage of qualifying for Germany 2006, it came as no surprise that Korea DPR ran out 1-0 winners over Jordan in their clash of the minnows. The north-eastern Asians have shown they are by no means short on talent, and their fans are happy to see their team reinforced by an overseas-based quartet.
Leading the line for Korea DPR is Jong Tae-Se of Kawasaki Frontale, with another Japan-based player, Vegalta Sendai's Ryang Yong-Gi, occupying playmaking duties in midfield alongside Ahn Young-Hak of Suwon Bluewings in Korea Republic. Shoring up the backline, meanwhile, is Kim Yong-Jun from Chinese outfit Yanbian.
Coach Han Yhong-Yi's side next will cross swords with Korea Republic in Pyongyang on 26 March before taking on Turkmenistan. And while they may be a little short of international experience, the defeat of Jordan and their aforementioned quartet of stars has left spirits high in the Korea DPR camp.