Thursday 31 March 2016, 09:38

New names making waves in Asia

For several nations, Asia’s second stage of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ will be remembered as a watershed campaign. Hitherto unscaled heights were conquered by a number of countries whose international achievement had previously been modest.

Thailand’s War Elephants reflected the nation’s recent success in the AFC Champions League by reaching the final stage in style after finishing top of their group. Syria, meanwhile, defied all expectations given the nation’s high-profile domestic troubles, to also advance with six wins from eight outings.

At the other end of the scale, takes a look at some of the nations whose campaign may be over but, thanks to some history-making achievements, is far from forgotten.

Afghanistan Afghanistan are on a clear upward trajectory, despite spending the best part of two decades in the international wilderness due to the political turmoil in their homeland. Since returning to the international sphere in 2002 their progress has been impressive, but never more so than in recent times. Their three previous FIFA World Cups campaigns have failed to yield a single win, yet the current crop achieved three victories this time around, capped by a notable triumph this week over four-time southeast Asia champions Singapore. This, despite being forced to play their home matches in Iran, although thousands of Afghani diaspora were on hand this week to witness the team’s best World Cup win to date. The 2013 South Asian champions - and 2015 runners-up - now have a realistic chance of qualification for a maiden AFC Asian Cup after winning through to the qualifying stage.

Guam It is hard to imagine a nation of just 170,000 citizens overcoming one of over one billion, but that is exactly what Guam achieved last year when they defeated India during Russia 2018 qualifying. Yet 15 years earlier, they suffered a then record 19-0 World Cup defeat. The contrast is somewhat of a metaphor for the team’s development, both technically and mentally, during the tenure of English coach Gary White. Under White, the team have embraced their indigenous Chamorro culture. Now known as the Matao, the remote north Pacific nation have reached unimaginable heights in relative terms. That victory over India last June, was preceded a few days earlier with a win over Turkmenistan in the nation’s long-awaited home World Cup qualifier. Incredibly Guam, discounting their two games against Iran, conceded just three goals in six matches, finishing fourth in the group.

Hong Kong The history of football in Hong Kong incorporates not just the foundation years of the Asian Football Confederation during the 1950s, but back almost to the turn of the last century. The territory off the coast of China PR was a force in Asian football many decades ago, and now the wheel is starting to turn once again. Hong Kong’s most famous World Cup result remains a barely imaginable 2-1 win over China in 1985, but two draws against the same opponent during the current campaign left the world’s biggest nation sweating for a result on the final matchday. Hong Kong ultimately finished third, just three points off qualification. Under wily Korea Republic coach Kim Pan-Gon, the national team are finding success reflective of the work done at grassroots levels over recent years by the Hong Kong Football Association.

Palestine Fresh from featuring in their maiden Asian Cup at the commencement of 2015, Palestine continued to demonstrate their capabilities throughout Russia 2018 qualifiers. Finishing third in their group, Palestine’s results were extraordinary in the circumstances. They held United Arab Emirates - boasting arguably the continent’s best attack - to a scoreless draw, and proved it was no fluke by reprising that scoreline against reinvigorated west Asian aristocrats Saudi Arabia, with the latter result achieved in neutral Jordan. Three wins from their eight matches is comfortably a new high. Technically gifted and physically powerful, Palestine now have in place the building blocks for further success.

Philippines Long regarded one of southeast Asia’s weaker football nations, Philippines have well and truly shrugged off that tag in recent years. Firstly under German mentor Michael Weiss, and more recently under former USA captain Thomas Dooley, the Azkals are now capable of providing stiff opposition to any team on the continent. That new found resolve was in evidence on Tuesday as the Philippines completed an eleventh-hour 3-2 comeback win over 2010 World Cup participants Korea DPR, a team normally renowned for their defensive steadfastness. The result was doubly significant given victory for Korea DPR would have been enough for the Chollima to stay in the race for Russia 2018, at the expense of neighbours China.

Historically, Philippines have rarely participated in World Cup qualifying, and remarkably they didn’t feature as recently as the campaign for South Africa 2010. But their new-look team, which includes numerous players with overseas experience, won three of their eight matches, dramatically improving on a previous record of one win from 13 previous outings.