Twenty-eight days after the opening round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, the continent again came under the global spotlight as the much-anticipated second round draw took place on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All 40 teams, including the six qualified sides and the 34 teams given a bye, have now learned their opposition on the road to Russia 2018.
In Group F, top seeds Iraq face a considerable amount of travelling to their away qualifiers as they head to south east Asia to play Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei. Group C sees 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts Qatar meet another nation eager to become a major player on the continent, China, while there's a derby between the two top seeds of Group A, as United Arab Emirates face a short trip across the border to Saudi Arabia. Asian champions Australia meet Jordan - who clashed when competing for a place at Brazil 2014, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh in Group B.
These nations, divided into eight groups of five, will battle for places in the final qualifying round, and also for berths at the AFC Asian Cup 2019. With the seeding based on the latest edition of FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, China PR and Iraq were the top seeds and will avoid playing against one another.
At the other end of the spectrum are the sextet who progressed from the first round, namely India, Bhutan, Chinese Taipei, Cambodia, Yemen and Timor-Leste.
*A prestigious event * Malaysian actress and TV personality Chermaine Poo conducted proceedings, while a host of officials and dignitaries were also on hand to grace the occasion. Notable among those present was Head of FIFA World Cup & Olympic Qualifiers Gordon Savic, who oversaw the proceedings on behalf of FIFA, while AFC General Secretary Dato’ Alex Soosay announced his hopes of unprecedented success for the forthcoming qualifying campaign.
"The journey to Russia begins today," said Soosay. "Six member associations have made it from Round 1 into the 40 and we congratulate them. The new format now is more inclusive than what it was before, the lower and higher ranked teams will play each other and that augurs well for the future development of our national teams. Let's work together to raise the standards to face the challenges that Asian teams will face in Russia."
"It's a joint preliminary competition for Russia 2018 and the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, said Savic. "It's a new, exciting and unprecedented journey for two premier competitions at the same time. Please prepare and deliver all the matches under the umbrella of Fair Play and Sportsmanship both on and around the field of play."
A revamped format
While the draw has thrown up a series of enticing match-ups, it is the tournament's new format that has drawn particular interest. Unlike the past qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, the jousting for Russia 2018 also serves as qualification for the next Asian Cup. As a result, the eight group winners, as well as the four best runners-up, will receive double rewards.
With the next Asian Cup to be expanded to 24 teams, the remaining 12 spots will be contested by the remaining 28 sides in a 24-team competition. The next 16 highest-ranked teams will be joined by eight winners of play-offs. The second qualifying round runs through nine months from June until March 2016, with the teams playing home and away in a round-robin format.
Group A: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Timor Leste, Malaysia
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Group C: China PR, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Group D: Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
Group E: Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei
Group G: Korea Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos
Group H: Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, Korea DPR, Yemen