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Asia should follow Europe's World Cup format, not vice versa


Watching Japan thrash Mongolia 14-0 on Tuesday was not a fun experience for anyone not Japanese, though even fans there would have surely taken limited pleasure in watching a team ranked 27 in the world go to town on an opponent way down in 190.

All the focus has been on the scoreline and little, if any thought, has gone to how Mongolia took the game to the hosts - but, such is football. 

And football is about, from time to time, minnows meeting mammoths. Nepal were tremendously excited to play Australia in 2019.

Knowing people in Mongolian football who were looking forward to the game - that should have been played on home soil before COVID-19 intervened - there will be a lot of soul searching.

Not all smaller nations benefit from such exposure but those that have functioning football programmes, competent administrators and ambitious leaders can use numerous competitive games to move to the next level. 

In Europe, England’s 5-0 defeat of San Marino reignited a regular debate as to whether the busy stars of the Premier League should be forced to share the same pitch with amateurs from the mountainous microstate and others of similar ilk.

Asia’s World Cup qualification format was mentioned by some in Europe as a better option than the communal group stage that UEFA currently have.

The AFC’s pre-qualification round, where the 12 lowest-ranked teams face each other in a home-and-away eliminator was held up as an example to follow and weed out the weediest, though it should be remembered that Mongolia made it through the first round. 

Yet Asia is different and while it’s format can appeal to the outsider, it doesn’t work for everyone and acts as a drag on development.

The format currently employed is partly a result of the continent’s 47 members having just four automatic spots at the World Cup.

If the AFC had 13 spots like UEFA then it is quite possible you would see a similar style qualification system. 

This may happen to an extent in 2026. With the number of teams heading to North America growing from 32 to 48, Asia is expected to have eight representatives.

That is likely to change the qualification format and there have already been preliminary discussions to this end. Eight groups of five or six with the winner qualifying would be simple. 

A simplified World Cup qualification format would be shorter.

At present, at least in normal times, it starts about nine months after the World Cup finishes and ends about nine months before the next one starts. It dominates the four-year cycle, leaving little time for much else.

You are either playing World Cup qualifiers or preparing for them (or you have none at all but we’ll come to that later).  

Fewer games mean there can be a separate Asian Cup qualification campaign instead of one messily combined with, and largely subsumed by, the World Cup.

This would move the continental tournament out of the shadow of the global one, get the big boys to qualify once more - not just by virtue of their World Cup results - and actually result in more competitive games for the nations who need it most.

A major problem with the current system is that, as Asian and World Cup campaigns are combined, those six nations knocked out in the first round have to wait four years to play genuine competitive football again. So that’s just 180 minutes of action.

Playing a group stage in World Cup qualification and then doing the same in Asian Cup qualification will provide valuable regular competitive games against all levels of opposition. 

It also provides more revenue, motivation and exposure for the smaller nations. Some will use it well, others may not, but the opportunity will be there - not necessarily to qualify for the World Cup, but just to improve. 

And that helps everyone. Australia may thrash Nepal once more in June but playing twice against Australia can only be a good thing for Nepal and, ultimately, a good thing for Asia. 

Europe should not follow Asia’s qualification model. Instead, greater World Cup participation will help Asia follow Europe's lead.