UAE should not leave it late
Yogi Berra was an American baseball player with a knack for nonsensical declarations that somehow made perfect sense. Such as: "Ninety per cent of the game is half mental." And: "Sometimes it gets late early."
In Asia football qualifying for Brazil 2014, Berra could tell you that this is one of those instances when it does, in fact, get late quite early.
If it seems like just the other day that the 2010 World Cup concluded, you are not far wrong. Barely 13-and-a-half months have passed since Spain fended off Holland's challenge, and won the trophy in South Africa.
Yet even after such a short interval, as few as a dozen Asian nations will, eight days hence, still harbour realistic aspirations of playing in Brazil 2014. The UAE hope to be one of them, but one bad week, nearly three years ahead of Brazil, could leave the national team with a nearly insurmountable task.
Forty-three Asian sides have been reduced this summer to 20. India and its 1.2 billion people already are reduced to dreaming of Russia 2018, as are Indonesia and its 237 million, and the Philippines and its 94 million.
We could mention Pakistan (177m) and Bangladesh (151m), but football is played so little there that their population may not know nor care that Brazil 2014 is out of reach for them.
As group play in the third round of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) World Cup qualifying begins on Friday, the 20 survivors, seeking at most five slots in Brazil, are not quite on equal footing either.
Class lines are beginning to calcify in the continent, with Japan, South Korea and Australia having reached a level of competence above the rest. Their top players are increasingly prominent, scattered among the planet's top clubs, and their inclusion in any World Cup finals seems inevitable.
A second group is close behind the Big Three, nations who have played in a World Cup since 2002, and have a well-founded hope of doing so again.
That group includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and China. All seven of these countries are in the AFC's final 20.
That leaves 13 Asian nations still eligible for Brazil, but who have never played in a World Cup finals - aside from the UAE (1990) and Kuwait (1982) who, by coincidence, play each other in Al Ain on Friday as the second-last round of AFC qualifying commences.
Football Association mandarins like to believe that the current national team have a very good chance at spending June of 2014 in Brazil, but the margin for error is frighteningly thin.
The UAE are in Group B with South Korea, Kuwait and Lebanon. Only two of the four sides graduate to the final round of group play, after a home-and-away round robin. If we assume that South Korea will advance and Lebanon will not, that leaves the UAE and Kuwait fighting over one berth, and the UAE's need to take three points from their Friday match is readily apparent.
It is perhaps easy to dismiss Kuwait as significant challengers, particularly if the national team's 3-0 rout of Kuwait at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi last autumn is recalled, or the 2-0 triumph by the UAE over the neighbours in the capital to open this same round of qualifying in February of 2008.
But to relegate Kuwait to the trash heap of 2014 football history would be to ignore their triumph at the Gulf Cup last December, as well as current Fifa rankings which find Kuwait at 95 in the world to the UAE's 108. Indeed, if Kuwait were so poorly regarded, they would have been in the third of four "pots" in the draw for this round, rather than the UAE.
Optimism for the national side pushing through is based in large part on the addition of a promising group of young players, a half-dozen deep, several of whom hold prominent positions in the team, players such as Ahmed Khalil, Hamdan Al Kamali and Amer Abdulrahman. The fairly effortless dismissal of India, 5-2 on aggregate, in the last round may also influence thinking.
But a stumble against Kuwait on Friday, followed by something less than a victory against Lebanon in Beirut the following Tuesday, could inflict fatal damage on the country's current push.
It could leave the UAE to make up ground over its final four Group B matches, which include two with South Korea and one at Kuwait City. The national side can keep their campaign from getting late early by winning four points (and, better, six) between now and September 6.
Now, we settle back to see if they can do it. As Berra also noted, "You can observe a lot by watching."
Published: August 29, 2011 04:00 AM