The AFC today announced the long and tortuous route to South Africa, for their potential five qualifying teams. A team that comes through the eventual play-off may have played 22 games to get there, and there are 24 international dates named. Some of these dates are not on the international calendar, and so those teams with players outwith Asia may well have difficulty in getting key players released for crucial games.
With only four certain and one potential place between 43 contenders, the format for the World Cup qualification games in Asia is always difficult to work out, but the way the AFC have done it makes little sense. I believe the AFC have failed to talk with their clubs about the possibilities, and see what they actually want. It is true to say that there are some nations in the region that will be rather glad that they will fall by the wayside after just one or two knock out games but the AFC are removing 23 out of 43 in this way. The trouble is that those 23 teams will get little chance to test and develop their team in action. If teams missing out closely follow the AFCs current ranking list, then the likes of Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore will miss out.
It is part of the problem in Asia, that if the nations concerned were asked whether they wanted to be in group matches, or just knock out then many of those nations who know they have no hope, and do not want to play a long series of expensive fixtures may not tell the truth. Still, I think it is nearer 30 clubs, rather than the current 20 that would like to reach this stage. However, it is very difficult to work out ways of cutting down from this sort of number to the four places and one play-off place required. Of course, I have long thought this could be made simpler if instead of having a play-off against an Oceania contender, the combination could be made at an earlier stage. If 29 Asian and one Oceanian team went into the group stage, then the African system could be followed with five groups, and the champion of each going through. With no need for the two group stage process, this method would allow a more comfortable schedule of ten group games each.
However, bring the Oceanian contender into the group stage is not on the agenda for this tournament. Still 30 teams seems a better number for the group stage than the 20 proposed. If they were arranged in six groups of five, then each team would play eight matches over ten match dates. The six group winners would then be arranged in two groups of just three teams, playing just four matches (6 match dates) and with the winners and runners-up of each group going through only the last placed teams would have to go through the final play-off rounds which would be unchanged from the current (inevitable, but unsatisfactory) arrangement.
Creating a situation where teams can avoid some of the match dates is important. There are matches scheduled for February in both 2008 and 2009, and a lot of matches in June of both years. With February dates being highly unsuitable in the central Asian republics, and June being rather uncomfortable in the Arabian Gulf, the schedule needs some slack.
And dont forget, the next AFC Championship has been arranged for January 2011, just seven months after the World Cup. Thanks to the AFCs complicated devices, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea are already qualified, as are hosts Qatar. The winners of the next two AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 and 2010 are also qualified. But there are still going to have to be qualification matches to decide the remaining ten teams in contention. At a minimum, 20 teams should be in contention and each team should face at least a six game programme. Any sensible arrangement will involve an overlap between qualification for World Cup 2010, and AFC Championships 2011 has the AFC worked this out? Have they decided who are in the Challenge Cup competitions? Are teams still allowed to play in both?