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Early start to WCup qualifying for weaker Asian soccer sides

June 7, 2019
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Tottenham midfielder Son Heung-min, right, duels for the ball with Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold during the Champions League final soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, Saturday, June 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Asian soccer lesser-lights such as Mongolia and Pakistan are just 90 minutes away from a rare taste of the big time that could even include a match against the continent’s most famous player, Son Heung-min.

Less than 12 months after the 2018 World Cup final, the 12 weakest teams in Asia this week took the first step along the road to the 2022 tournament to be held in Qatar. The six that emerge as winners after next Tuesday’s second legs will progress to the group stage and potential match-ups with powerhouses such as Son’s South Korea, Japan and Australia.

The prospect of Son, Asia’s biggest name who last week appeared in the UEFA Champions League final with Tottenham Hotspur (a 2-0 loss to Liverpool), taking the field against Pakistan appeals very much to captain Zesh Rehman.

The British-born defender has past experience of facing the best attackers in the league during a spell in the English Premier League with Fulham, but a 2-0 loss to Cambodia on Thursday in Phnom Penh means that there is much to do in the return game for Pakistan.

“It would be huge for the whole country and it would be a significant achievement considering the lack of international exposure in recent years,” Rehman told The Associated Press.

Just to get the sport in the headlines for the right reasons would be a step forward in a country with a soccer scene that has been burdened by politics, corruption and incompetence for years.

So bad has it become that Pakistan, a country with a population of around 200 million, is ranked 200th in the world by FIFA, below teams such as Bhutan, Mongolia and Brunei.

“The ranking is too low,” Rehman admitted. “I believe however with this coaching staff, regular games and a mixture of local and foreign-based players that the ranking will no doubt improve.”

To take on South Korea and Son would be exciting but more important is the prospect of eight guaranteed group games in the next stage.

Pakistan needs as much soccer as possible. With qualification for the 2022 World Cup being combined with qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup, early elimination can be a major blow for teams and lead to long periods without competitive action.

“We have not has so many games In the last few years due to some political factors that are beyond the players control, so we just focus on the games as and when they are scheduled for us to play,” said Rehman.

Mongolia is also looking to give soccer a boost in a country where it is far from being the No. 1 sport, lagging behind volleyball, basketball, archery, wrestling and others. Preserving its 2-0 advantage from the first leg in Brunei is vital.

“The biggest challenge is to make football really popular,” Hatem Souissi, the technical director of the Mongolian federation, told the Asian Football Confederation. “If we can qualify for the next round then we will try to bring top teams so that the crowd can come and see them.

“We need to make the sport popular and bring big names. And we will find that hard if we don’t qualify for the next round.”

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