The global qualification process for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ is both elaborate and protracted. For the next two and a half years, 208 nations from every corner of the globe will feature in more than 800 qualification matches.
The honour of playing the very first match on the road to Russia 2018 falls to one of FIFA’s newest members: Timor-Leste. The Portuguese-speaking south-east Asian nation which shares a land border with Indonesia, and is located across the Timor Sea from Australia, will tackle Mongolia on Thursday in the capital Dili as one of six matches across Asia. The Timorese will be aiming to follow in the footsteps of Belize and New Caledonia who won the opening worldwide qualifying match during the past two FIFA World Cups. The contrast between the three nations says much about the diversity and global nature of the World Cup.
First in the world
In many ways Timor-Leste are a perfect example of World Cup football away from the bright lights of the world's most famous stages. One of FIFA’s newest Member Associations – they officially became part of the global football community only in 2005 – Timor-Leste are featuring in just their third World Cup campaign. Though a nation of modest resources – one which gained independence just 13 years ago – Timor-Leste have a passion for football that few can surpass.
Timor-Leste have never won a World Cup contest, losing all four of their matches to date. But results in 2014 have provided cause for optimism, meaning interest is high among Dili’s 200,000 residents. A full capacity in excess of 10,000 is expected in the humble Municipal stadium, while a large screen has been erected outside for those unable to fit in the venue.
“This is a very historical moment for sporting life in Timor,” Timor-Leste Federation (FFTL) President Francisco Lay told FIFA.com. “The whole community is very excited, especially the football family. We are happy to start the World Cup qualification, and make history. If we qualify for the second round, it will be a great honour for our country, players and the Federation.”
Humble and skilful
Timor-Leste have been boosted in recent years by several internationally-based players of Timorese extraction. Last year’s regional championship (Suzuki Cup) qualifiers provided cause for optimism as Timor-Leste defeated Brunei and drew with Myanmar.
However, with no national league and few top-level pitches, former national team captain Alfredo Esteves says local players face a challenging environment. “They are a humble people, and are skilful naturally talented players,” Esteves told FIFA.com. “Being part-timers they face many challenges, including taking time off work, which is not easy in a poor country, sometimes with big families to support. Players have to work or they won’t survive. In my experience there are players who were good enough but they just couldn’t afford to be away from home.
“Timorese players are very passionate for football. They all follow the leagues overseas, and it would be their dream to one day play professionally overseas. It is really important for them to qualify for the next round. They work very hard in football and in life."
Timor-Leste is a young nation in more ways than one, with around 60 per cent of the population aged under 25. And Esteves says their passion for football is undeniable. “If you go around the streets of Dili, you will see a lot of kids kicking a ball, even without shoes,” he said. “It is the kind of thing you might have seen in other countries decades ago. Of course to play football you just need a bit of space and a round ball.”
The two-legged tie against Mongolia will conclude next Tuesday in Ulan Bator. The cold conditions in the Mongolian capital could hardly be any different to those in Dili where temperatures are expected to hit 32-35 degrees Celsius for the match. The cultural mix and vastly contrasting backdrops for the two matches, once again provides another metaphor for football’s unsurpassed diversity.
FFTL President Lay, though, is bursting with pride at the simple fact that his nation are enjoying a rare opportunity in the spotlight. “It doesn’t matter if Timor win, or Mongolia win, the most important thing is that football wins."
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