By Brian Beard | 20th OCT 2020
As we approach the two-year marker to the commencement of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Finals in Qatar which is due to kick-off on 21st November 2022, the various qualification competitions are already underway, though progress is slow due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first goal of the qualifiers came back in June last year. It was an historic goal on several fronts. Not only did it help ensure a 3-2 victory over Brunei that sent Mongolia to the second round for the first time, it took the scorer, new Mongolia captain Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal, to within one goal of becoming his country`s all-time leading goal scorer.
But the pandemic has meant most of the qualification process is lagging behind. It has been necessary to readjust the qualification with massive shifts in scheduling as well as the qualification process itself.
The AFC`s opening two rounds of qualification also served as qualification for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. Qatar, hosts for the 2022 World Cup finals, will only participate in those first two rounds. The eight group winners and four best runners-up advance to the third round of the FIFA World Cup qualification and also qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup. If Qatar finishes as group winners, or one of the four best runners-up, the fifth best runner up will go into the third round in their stead.
In Group A, at the time of writing, Syria are in pole position with 15 points from five games, seven of them coming from qualification`s leading scorer, Omar Jehad al Somah. The PR of China are second with seven points, the same number as the Phillipines although China has played one game less, four.
In Group G the UAE, surprisingly, are struggling in fourth place out of five in the group. They are five points adrift of leaders Vietnam, with Malaysia second on nine points.
The CAF is using the same format that was in place for the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification competition, though the first matches are not scheduled until next year. CONCACAF has also scheduled its opening games for March 2021.
The CONMEBOL Federation decided at the start of 2019 to retain the same qualification structure that was used in the six previous tournaments. The Covid-19 pandemic caused a reshuffle, postponing games to replace the qualifying process with a league of home and away `round-robin` matches. The top four teams will qualify for Qatar and the fifth placed nation advances to the inter-confederation play-offs.
Hot favourites Brazil and Argentina, made a flying start, both winning their opening two games for maximum points. Significant for Brazil was Neymar whose hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Peru in Lima, took him to second place in the list of his country`s all time leading scorers, behind Pele. The football world will be holding its collective breath in anticipation of the first meeting of the big two, next March, in Brazil. There is also the anticipation of the qualifiers` leading scorers, Neymar and Luis Suarez when Brazil face Uruguay.
The OFC qualifying programme was due to commence in September 2020 but the FIFA International window was postponed due to Covid-19.
There`s little doubt FIFA will be concerned as each round of scheduled matches comes near and exhaling sighs of relief as they are fulfilled but it wouldn`t take too many postponements to adversely affect the rest of the qualification process, possibly requiring drastic action.
Off the field FIFA continued its charm offensive towards the first winter World Cup. President Gianni Infantino made a flying visit to Qatar recently where he visited one of the centre-piece venues, the Al Bayt stadium, designed in the shape of a traditional Arab tent. Infantino said the stadium, one of three from the scheduled eight to already be fully operational, left him “breathless”.
The FIFA president also made a point that, “Cornovirus has not stopped Qatar`s World Cup progress.”
Mr Infantino`s visit also coincided with the news concerning the major world concern that has been uppermost since Qatar was awarded the finals, human rights and the welfare of the workers building the world cup infrastructure. The Qatar authorities announced that labour laws were changed, in August, raising the minimum wage by 25%, to the equivalent of £213 per month. Also announced was the scrapping of any requirement for workers to seek permission from their employers to change jobs.
On the global stage the economic blockade of Qatar by its regional neighbours, now in its fourth year, may be coming to an end. The blockade, which curtailed air and sea connections between Qatar and the outside world, which proved largely ineffective, could be waning if reports out of the USA are to be believed.
The United States` top diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, said, just last month.
“…there is some movement and I would like to say that its going to be a matter of weeks.”
Mr Schenker added, with cautious optimism,
“ There`s not been a fundamental shift …we`re going to push the door open right now. But in our talks we`re detecting a little more flexibility so we`re hoping we can bring the sides closer together and end this …. distraction.”
Whoopee, maybe we can get on with the football sooner rather than later.
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association.