Nearly nine months on since the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ concluded, Asia put the wheels in motion for Brazil 2014 by conducting the draw for the opening two qualifying rounds on Wednesday. 16 of the continent's lowest ranked sides will battle against each other in the first phase, with the eight winners advancing to join a further 22 teams in the next stage. Australia, Korea Republic, Japan, Korea DPR and Bahrain – the confederation’s top five teams in South Africa 2010 qualifying – will automatically enter in Round 3.
Yesterday's event largely turned out to be kind for some traditional powerhouses, with four-time FIFA World Cup qualifiers Saudi Arabia drawn to meet Hong Kong. Fellow east Asian giants Iran cross paths with Maldives, a side against whom they netted 22 unanswered goals against over two legs in qualifying for France 1998. Team Melli legend Karim Bagheri scoring a then FIFA World Cup record seven goals in Tehran.
China PR, the fifth highest Asian team in the current FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, are pitted against the winners of Cambodia and Laos. While a comfortable aggregate victory should be within their grasp, head coach Gao Hongbo refused to take their prospective opponents lightly. "We have paid the price for our slip-ups on too many occasions in past World Cup bids, so the lessons we must learn is that we can't underestimate any opponent," said Gao. "We should focus our attention on preparation and do our best regardless of the rivals."
The opening round will also provide some of lesser known teams with a rare chance to enjoy the spotlight and cause an upset. Boosted by their recent qualifying success for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, Philippines are keen to shrug off their whipping-boys tag when they take on Sri Lanka. "It is not a bad draw for us," Philippines coach Michael Weiss told FIFA.com. "Sri Lanka represents a force in south Asia but we should have a good chance against them."
Awaiting the Filipinos, should they get the better of Sri Lanka, will be ten-time Gulf champions and 1982 FIFA World Cup participants Kuwait, who are 48 places above the Azkals in the global pecking order. The German tactician remains undaunted saying his side do not intend to merely make up the numbers, regardless of their opponent. "If we have all our top players available with the preparation going smoothly, we have a 30 per cent chance against them,” he said. “At least we will give them a hard time.”
The draw throws up a host of intriguing match-ups, with the encounter between 2011 AFC Asian Cup finalists United Arab Emirates and India arguably the most intriguing. Both sides bowed out after the group stage in January's continental competition, but it was the Middle East side that can draw inspiration from a 5-0 friendly triumph over the south Asians in the Asian Cup build-up.
"On paper we may be favourites to win the campaign," said UAE's Slovenian coach Srecko Katanec. "But things are very close nowadays and any team can cause a sensation if they are on their day. Besides, we should also keep wary of the difficulties caused by the hot and humid weather."
The second round also pits some familiar foes together, with Asian Cup semi-finalists Uzbekistan locking horns with Kyrgyzstan in an all-Central Asian affair. Neighbours Tajikistan face another meeting against Syria, with the pair having also met in the qualification campaign for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, when the latter prevailed 3-1 on aggregate.
Another former Soviet republic, Turkmenistan, will resume an unlikely rivalry against Indonesia, with the two side’s level on head-to-head record after each claimed a home 3-1 win in their previous meetings, also in Germany 2006 qualifying. For their part, 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts Qatar may feel they have a score to settle with Vietnam, after their last meeting ended in a surprise 1-1 draw and contributed to the Gulf nation’s early exit from the 2007 Asian Cup.
Thailand received, on paper at least, a favourable draw. Their coach Bryan Robson told FIFA.com: "We've got either Afghanistan or Palestine, which is quite ironic really as we've just met Palestine in an Olympic qualifier. But if we get the same result and get through to the group stages then I won't be complaining! Obviously the target is Brazil, which is some way off, but we've got to start somewhere."
Thailand-Afghanistan or Palestine
Lebanon-Bangladesh or Pakistan
China PR-Cambodia or Laos
Kuwait-Sri Lanka or Philippines
Oman-Mongolia or Myanmar
Saudi Arabia-Hong Kong
Qatar-Vietnam or Macau
Singapore-Malaysia or Chinese Taipei
United Arab Emirates-India
Jordan-Nepal or Timor-Leste