Stakes high as Asian qualifying reaches last games
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Five nations around the vast Asian confederation are bracing for the joy or heartbreak that is coming their way on Tuesday in the last games of continental World Cup qualification.
Only Japan has booked a berth for Brazil 2014, and the national teams from South Korea, Iran, Uzbekistan, Australia and Oman all are hoping to secure one of the three remaining automatic spots. Two will miss out on direct entry, and then go into calculations for the Asian playoff for an intercontinental qualifier.
That would normally be enough pressure for most but the coaches of South Korea and Iran have been ratcheting up the tension with a war of words ahead of their clash at Ulsan World Cup Stadium in the southeast of the Korean peninsula.
South Korea leads Group A with 14 points, one clear of second-place Iran. Both will qualify if Uzbekistan, in third place, fails to defeat Qatar in Tashkent. The two teams are familiar foes — they have met at every Asian Cup since 1996 and four years ago, almost to the day, South Korea ended Iran’s hopes of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
Before the qualifying match in Tehran last October, the Koreans complained about the standard of training facilities provided and coach Choi Kang-hee said at the time that Iran should be forced to train on the football pitches dotted along the Han River in Seoul for the return leg.
Immediately after South Korea’s 1-0 win in Uzbekistan last Tuesday, Choi was reminded of his remarks.
“Iran did not show us good manners and they were not good hosts,” he said. “I want to beat Iran regardless of the World Cup. I hope that Uzbekistan qualifies for the World Cup ahead of Iran.”
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz demanded an apology from Choi and promised to hand him an Uzbekistan shirt before the game.
The “South Korea coach has said he remembers they are being badly treated in Iran but I remember we were hospitable,” the former Real Madrid and Portugal coach was quoted as telling a Tehran press conference. “The South Korea coach should be ashamed of what he said. He disrespected Iranian football. I want to give him an Uzbekistan jersey before the match against them in Ulsan.”
Choi, set to resign from his post on Wednesday morning, subsequently said Queiroz should get ready to watch the World Cup on television at home.
It has at least diverted some attention from the huge stakes riding on the game. The South Koreans know that a draw will be enough to qualify but will be missing a number of players including English Premier League star Ki Sung-yeung and 2012 Olympic captain Koo Ja-cheol.
In addition, senior team captain Kwak Tae-hwi picked up an injury in the Uzbekistan win and will be absent. The hosts will be looking to forward Son Heung-min, who recently signed for Bayer Leverkusen, to cause problems for Iran.
Uzbekistan needs to convincingly defeat Qatar, already eliminated and missing six regular starting players through injury or suspension, and hope that it can then finish above either Iran or Korea on goal difference and qualify for its first World Cup.
Japan has already taken top spot in Group B but Australia is in pole position for second place and is coming into form at the right time. An impressive 4-0 win over Jordan in Melbourne last Tuesday followed a 1-1 draw in Japan and means that the Socceroos can qualify for a third successive World Cup with a win over bottom team Iraq in Sydney. Even a defeat will be sufficient if Oman, in third, fails to win away at fourth-place Jordan.
With Iraq already eliminated and without just-retired stars of the 2007 Asian Cup triumph Younis Mahmoud and Nashat Akram, the odds heavily favor the injury and suspension-free Australians, who will be backed by a sell-out crowd of 80,000. But captain Lucas Neill is taking nothing for granted.
“The atmosphere’s been very low-key in a positive way,” said the former English Premier League star. “It’s very calm. The manager and the senior players have made sure no one’s talking about dancing the samba. Nobody’s in Brazil yet. We need one game, one win. Then we can start thinking about all the dreams coming true.”
The game at Sydney 2000 Olympic stadium takes place hours before Oman is in action against Jordan in Amman. An Australian failure to win would mean that fans Down Under would have to wait hours to see if Oman can take three points and second spot.
For those who miss out, there is another route to Brazil. The third-place teams from Group A and B will meet in an Asian playoff in September for the right to take on a South American team in a final decider with a place in Brazil at stake.
Jordan is realistically out of the running for an automatic spot but will be satisfied with third. To do so, it will have to defeat Oman, and then look forward to a playoff with Uzbekistan, South Korea or Iran, none of which will be happy to be there.