Football Shaped

Notes and News by Leo Hoenig

The European Game

World Cup 2026 – Day 3. Asia enters the Fray

While the CONMEBOL region will carry on with its third and fourth games in this international window, my attention is drawn to Asia, where the competition starts this month.

No Confederation has a more tortuous route to the finals than Asia. Whereas it is unlikely that any team will play right through from this week’s games to the final play-off for the World Cup, there is a potential for an Asian team to play 24 games and then be knocked out in the Intercontinental play off. The team that makes it to that play off will more likely have played 20 games to get there and still have one or two more to play to make it to the finals.

Despite this, the Asian Qualifiers can also be criticised for not giving teams enough matches. This weeks games are two legged eliminators, and hence produce the first ten sides to be eliminated from the World Cup. For nine of these, there will be a further two legged knock out game in a years time, and if they lose that, (which inevitably is the case for either four or five), then they will have no serious competitive games until the next world cup starts. Hardly a chance to test themselves and improve their standing.

The schedule also means that teams playing in the Asian Cup next January have to play two World Cup qualifying games before this takes place, when they may be better occupied preparing for the Asian tourney. This devalues the Asian tournament in my eyes.

The slightly odd numbers above are because one of the ten losers this week will be excused another knock out, and will progress straight to the Asian Cup qualification group stage. The AFC then wants five more teams to make up the group stage, with one extra team (Northern Mariana Islands) added to the mix. NMI are ineligible for the World Cup and hence miss this week’s matches.

I am aware, of course, that there are a number of regional cups within Asia, but as these tend to take place outside the international windows, the teams are never at full strength. I think only the ASEAN and Gulf Cups are really competitive.

Of course, it is easy to criticise, but not always so easy to bring about alternatives. Still here are two ideas off the top of my head to improve things.

  1. Without changing the World Cup qualifiers at all, why does the AFC need the play off round in the Asian Cup qualification? Why not add these five teams to the six groups bidding for places. This would make all but one group up to five teams, but there are plenty of dates available for these games.
  2. Instead of ten teams starting this week, all 22 that have not qualified for the Asian Cup next January could play in six groups of three or four teams, using the international dates this month, next month and in March.
    1. The six group winners, and the twenty four teams from the Asian Cup then play in six groups of five, (or groups of six if the AFC prefers with runners-up of the first stage included).
    2. The winners of these six groups go straight through to the World Cup. The six runners up play off for the final two places and the play off spot in a similar format to the one planned, (or possible home and away round robin groups).
    3. Only these 12 teams are automatically qualified for the 2027 Asian Cup, leaving 35 teams to play for the other 12 places. Ideally in six groups.

It must be pointed out that my knowledge is limited, I made several trips to East and South East Asia in the past, but none in the last five years, and I have made two visits to the Arabian peninsular and two to the Indian sub-continent. I learnt something of the situation in the places I visited at the time but may be out of date now.

Anyway enough of my dreaming, and leaving my plans for a Regional Asian Nations League for another day. There are ten ties, twenty games, 1800 minutes, plus potentially, extra time and penalties.

The draw was made based on the lowest 20 teams in International rankings from Asia’s 46. Despite the rankings, two of the teams in this draw, (Indonesia and Hong Kong) have made it to the Asian Cup finals next January.

In each match, the higher ranked team is at home in the first leg. In Asia, the results do have a habit of following the rankings but in some cases the differences are quite small. I am showing two numbers against each team, firstly the rank in Asia, so 27-46 and then the FIFA ranking (149-207).

First up, at 10.30 Thursday, (UK time) is Myanmar (34/160) v Macao (37/182). (Second leg, 12.30 on Tuesday 17). Since a disappointing outing last December in the AFF (ASEAN) championships, Myanmar have played a number of friendlies – last month they had two home games against Nepal with the only goal going their way. Last summer they faced both China and Macau in Dalian, China – a heavy defeat against the Chinese, followed by a 2-0 win over Macao. Myanmar are currently coached by the experienced German, Michael Feichtenbeiner, who took over before the summer matches. All the players in the squad play club football within the South East Asian region, the majority in Myanmar itself. Macao have hardly played since elimination in the last world cup four years ago. In 2019, they beat Sri Lanka in the home match, but then refused to travel for the return, citing security concerns. Their playing squad issued statements to say they did not agree with the decision. After that, they did not play until March of this year – part COVID, part can’t be assed. They have played and lost four friendly games this year, including the defeat by Myanmar in June and followed by a home defeat to Bhutan and an away one in Cambodia last month. The coach is Lazaro Oliveira, an Angola with extensive experience in Portugal, (mainly second and third division, though). All but two players in the squad selected play in the Macao Elite League, (a title which is surely meant to be ironic). Na Wang Sang plays in the Hong Kong league, while Nuno Pereira was last seen playing for Imortal DC in the Portuguese fourth division, (he was a regular last season, but has not appeared in their first six games this year). Pereira played for Harrogate Town in 2018 and was lauded as the first Harrogate player to get an international call up, but he did not make his international debut until this year. The winner goes into Group B in the second round, where they will have the somewhat dubious honour of travelling to Japan for their next game. I expect this to be Myanmar, although no one would expect them to go far in a group that also contains Syria and North Korea.

The Thuwanna Stadium will stage the first game in Asian Qualification

The honour of the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup 2026 will be either Singapore (33/158) or Guam (45/203). This is because they their second leg is the first to start (Tuesday 17th, 5.45 am UK time). The first leg is at 12.30 on Tuesday. Guam is not a nation, but joined FIFA nearly 30 years ago when this was not a problem. They have almost always sat at the wrong end of the World rankings, but this changed briefly when Gary White became their head coach in 2012. The timeline is interesting. White had time to scout out his players and find players with Guam heritage, mainly in the USA. Guam nationals are US citizens, so many move their for college and stay on afterwards. At the start of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, Guam beat India and Turkmenistan, and then draw with Oman. This pulled them up over 50 places in the rankings. However when White moved on, so the team dropped back down and they are now below the 200 mark again. There are still a number of US based players in the squad, but it is notable that most of these are playing at colleges and none for professional teams in the MLS or USL. The current coach is Kim Sanghoon, a former Ulsan player who has moved to coaching the men’s team after three spells as coach of Guam’s women’s team. In the last World Cup, Guam comfortably beat Bhutan in their home leg (after losing 1-0 away) but then lost all 8 of their group games, with a goal difference of -30. They also lost both matches against Cambodia which meant no further progress in the Asian Cup. They look unprepared for this, with only two games in the last two years, both home friendly wins over the minnows of North Mariana Islands. Singapore performed better than Myanmar in the ASEAN competition at the turn of the year, but two wins and a draw was not enough to reach the semi-finals. Worse still for the nation’s pride, it was a 4-1 defeat to Malaysia that did for them. They have kept the on the Japanese coach, Takayuki Nishigaya despite this. Nishigaya has only limited experience as a head coach, so it is and will quickly feel pressure if things go poorly. The squad only includes one of the Fandi brothers, the three sons of Singapore legend Fandi Ahmed. Ikhsan is one of only two players who has scored at better than one goal every two games over a significant period for Singapore. (The other is his father, Fandi Ahmed), so he will be missed while his elder brother, Irfan is out of favour at BG Pathum United and also it appears for the National team. That means only the youngest of the trio, Ilhan is in the squad. Ilhan Fandi is with Belgian Second Division side Deinze, having signed for them in January. However, he was injured during the ASEAN cup games, and has still to make his debut for the Belgian team. He has at least started his return Ilhan Fandi is the only member of the squad to play outside Asia, with the rest playing in Singapore, except a couple that play in Indonesia. The winner of the game will be playing against South Korea, China and Thailand. For me, it has to be Singapore.

Two British managers have taken on jobs in the subcontinent which will be difficult to progress straight away. If either gets their team to the next stage it will be something of a surprise. Pakistan (44/201) will play Cambodia (36/176) while Sri Lanka (46/207) play Yemen (31/156). Cambodia and Yemen are home in the first legs. London born Stephen Constantine is well respected in the region, with two spells as head coach of India, as well as coaching Nepal, Malawi, Sudan and Rwanda plus some time with clubs in Cyprus and India, (and jobs at Millwall and Bournemouth as well). During his second stint with India, the team shot up over 70 places in the FIFA rankings. They have managed to hold onto this gain since his departure as well. However, he has only taken on the Pakistan job less than two weeks before their game. This means he is unlikely to have had much input into the selection of a fairly inexperienced squad. Most of the team play in Pakistan, but there are a few in the lower divisions of European leagues including Otis Khan of Grimsby Town. Pakistan were suspended from international football by FIFA in 2021-2. Since returning they have played a few friendlies, (including a minor tournament in Mauritius), followed by the South Asian Football Federation championships in India. That is a total of eight games, eight defeats. They scored against Djibouti, but lost that 3-1. Cambodia, with a more experienced side, but still almost entirely a home grown one, have the lowest ranking of the “seeded” teams. They won two and lost two in the ASEAN tournament at the end of last year and prepared with friendlies against Hong Kong (1-1) and Macao (4-0) both at home. They will be pleased not to have a higher ranked team and should progress. Yemen are coached by Miroslav Soukup, who is in his second spell with Yemen. He has had success over a decade ago with the Czech Republic’s youth teams coming third in the UEFA U-19 tournament in 2006 and runners-up in the World U-20 cup the following year. Between his two spells in Yemen, he led Bahrain beyond the group stage of the Asian Cup for the first time since 2004. However, Yemen lost all three of their games in the Gulf Cup in January, and have not played since – so the potential to drop out at the first game is clearly there. Sri Lanka are even less prepared, having been under suspension by FIFA which means they could not compete in the South Asian Tourney. Sri Lanka’s last matches were a trio of games in Asian Cup qualification, which thanks to COVID were all played in Uzbekistan. Sri Lanka lost all three, which were the first games with Andy Morrison as coach. The Scotsman is well known in the English football league with a playing career at Plymouth, Blackburn, Blackpool, Huddersfield and Manchester City. After he finished playing, he went into coaching, mainly as an assistant to Andy Preece at Worcester, Northwich and Airbus. Morrison went it alone at Connah’s Quay Nomads and led them to the Cymru Premier titles in 2020 and 2021, breaking (albeit temporarily), TNS’s grip on the title. While Sri Lanka have not been playing as a team, Morrison has been busy in changing the squad. The only players that survive from the Asian Cup qualifiers are goalkeepers Sujan Perera and Prabath Ruwan, and Torquay United’s Dillon da Silva. They have brought back two experienced players in Ahmed Razeek and Marvin Hamilton. Razeek spent most of his career in the lower divisions in Germany and is now playing for Eastern in Hong Kong, Hamilton played a few matches (in 2007-8) for Gillingham, but has mainly played semi-professional football in southern England, including four spells with Eastbourne Borough. This season, he is in the 11th tier of English football with FC Baresi (Essex Alliance). The other 18 members of the squad are all uncapped. The squad comes from a variety of mainly small clubs, mainly in Europe, but also Canada, Brazil and Australia. If Morrison can tie this squad together then they must have a chance, but there has to be a lot of uncertainty about this. Yemen’s home game in this series will be played in Saudi Arabia, due to the continuing security situation in their own country.

Also not able to play at home is Afghanisan (32/157). Despite problems in their country, they have been able to maintain their rank to be the seeded team against Mongolia (38/183). The Afghani squad is well distributed, with my count showing 16 different countries the players are now based in. This includes two in England, Maziar Kouhyar – formally of Walsall and now at York City and Noor Husin who played league football for Accrington Stanley, Notts County and Stevenage – and is now at Southend. Wikipedia states that Husin became the first Afghani to play in the Football League when he played for Notts County at Exeter in January 2018, even though it also says that he played in the league for Accrington Stanley in the previous season and scored against Notts County on his debut. Kouhyar made his debut for Walsall on 16 August 2016 – so he may have been the first. The coach Abdullah Al Mutairi came to the Afghanistan side after taking Nepal to the final of the South Asian FF tournament for the first time. His first games in charge were in the inaugural Central Asian Cup last summer. In the first game Afghanistan lost to the host Kyrgyzstan which scored a 97th minute goal. Al Mutairi took his team off in protest, causing the game to be abandoned and hence awarded 3-0 against the Afghanis. Afghanistan were then beaten 6-1 by Iran. In September, they played two friendly matches in Dhaka against Bangladesh and Al Mutairi was sent off during the second of these. A defeat against the Philippines in Manilla completes their preparation. Mongolia have been under Japanese coach Ichiro Otsuka for about two years. Their last outings were a friendly tournament in India, in which they did not score against India, Lebanon or Vanuatu. They managed a credible draw against Lebanon, but then lost to Vanuatu. The squad is entirely local based.

There is an all South Asia pairing between Maldives (30/155) and Bangladesh (41/189). The teams, met in the South Asian tourney in Bangalore in June. Both beat Bhutan and lost to invited entrant Lebanon, but a 3-1 win for Bangladesh over Maldives meant they were the one that qualified for the semi-final, losing to the other invited participant, Kuwait. While Maldives have been idle since, Bangladesh drew the two games against Afghanistan that have already been mentioned. Coach for Bangladesh is the Spaniard Javier Cabrera, who was previously academy coach for Deportivo Alaves. All the players except one play in Bangladesh, the exception being captain Jamal Bhuyan who is with Argentinian third level Club Sol de Mayo. The 33 year old was signed for the Argentinians from Bangladeshi football, and indeed has played most of his career there – but he was born in Denmark and has played a little for Danish clubs too. The Maldives team are all local players with their coach being Francisco Moriero. Moriero had a steady career in Serie A in Italy, but as a coach his two year stint to date for the Maldives is the longest he has held a job for. Most of his 16 other appointments have been in Serie B or C, although just before heading to the Maldives, he had a stint (3 months) at Dinamo Tirana.

Bangabandhu National Stadium, Dhaka

Indonesia (28/150) should easily beat Brunei (42/190), and Hong Kong (27/149) should also have no problems against Bhutan (39/185). Indonesia have one player in English football, Elkan Baggott of Ipswich. He also played a game on loan for Cheltenham last season, they have a few other players in European football. Indonesia are coached by the South Korean Shin Tae Yong. At Seongnam, Shin became the first person to win the Asian Champions League as both player and manager, he went onto to the National side and was coach of the team for the 2018 World Cup. Although South Korea did not go past the group stage, they won a famous victory over Germany. Over half the Brunei squad is with DPMM, the country’s sole professional club (which plays in the Singapore League). The rest are amateurs in the local league. Brunei’s last warm up game saw them go down 10-0 in Hong Kong. Bhutan faired better, and not far away, winning their last friendly 1-0, away in Macao, but before that they lost all three games in the South Asian tournament in June

The Changlimithang Stadium in Bhutan

Chinese Taipei (29/153) play Timor-Leste (43/192). In May, Englishman Gary White (see Guam above) returned for his second spell as coach of Chinese Taipei, (or Taiwan). His first stint saw them rise to 121 in FIFA rankings, their highest level. Recent games have been friendlies only, with CT preforming reasonably well, but losing the most recent game in Singapore. The Chinese Taipei team consists mainly of players from the local league, but includes Miguel Sandberg of Swedish Second tier side Vasteras and Emilio Estevez (born in Canada) who plays in Hong Kong. Two players are in the Chinese League. Timor-Leste have not recovered from the scandal when it was found their victories in early qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup were in fact based on forged documentation to allow Brazilians to gain Timorese passports. Their stadium in Dili is now considered unsuitable for international football, and so both matches of this tie are being played in Taipei.

Finally we get Nepal (35/175) v Laos (40/187). The two sides met back in March in Kathmandu with Nepal coming out on top by 2-1. This one could be close, but it could have been closer if it were not for the match fixing scandal which led to life bans for several national team players, some of which would have been in the squad even now.