DUBAI: The dust has just about settled on Asian qualification, where the road to Qatar was the longest. Five Arab nations made the final 12 that contested the third round. It was not unexpected that the only one to secure an automatic berth was Saudi Arabia. The other five have plenty to take on board and think about in the coming months.
United Arab Emirates finished third in Group A, 11 points behind South Korea in second, and now head to the playoffs. Iraq in fourth, Syria in fifth and Lebanon in sixth are all out. Oman are also eliminated after they took fourth in Group B with 14 points.
1. UAE’s initial focus is short term
There are plenty of examples of teams struggling in qualification and then shining at World Cups (such as Brazil ahead of the 2002 tournament which they won), and vice versa (Germany won all 10 games on the road to Russia only to exit at the first round). The World Cup is more about the destination than the journey itself and for the United Arab Emirates, the indifferent performances along the way and the various coaching changes will be forgiven and forgotten if the Whites can find a way past Australia and then Peru in June’s playoffs.
That is what it is all about now for new coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena. The Argentine, with success in the UAE league, is the kind of appointment that the federation should be making and giving time to whatever happens in the playoffs. The focus should not yet be about building a team for the future but about doing whatever it takes to beat Australia and then Peru. Winning ugly is not a problem for now. If the UAE can get to the World Cup, then it could be a game-changer for the country.
2. Syria’s youngsters show the way
Syria will look back at the campaign with disappointment, but also with a little optimism for the future. The Qasioun Eagles reached the playoff ahead of the World Cup four years ago, but were never in the running this time. Like Iraq, playing home games overseas does not help, but their tactics have been too conservative with too much reliance on stars such as Omar Al-Somah and Omar Khribin, who are either past their best or have struggled for form.
There are reasons not to be too downcast. Somehow Syria managed to lose 3-2 to Lebanon in October in a game that they really should have won. The lineups for the final two games had a much fresher look and this time there was a fine 3-0 win against Lebanon and then a creditable 1-1 draw with an Iraq team that was desperate to win.
With Alaa Al-Dali, midfielder Kamel Hmeisheh and others stepping up, the final games showed the direction in which Syria should go in the coming months and years.
3: Iraq need to settle on a coach and a style
While the UAE have pressing concerns, Iraq have time to sit back and take stock. Missing out on the playoffs may be painful, but this is an opportunity now for a reset with the national team. The Lions of Mesopotamia go through coaches and styles at a rapid rate. There has long been a lack of joined-up thinking in Baghdad, and now the 2026 World Cup, when Asia’s representation doubles and Iraq have a real chance of making it, is no longer that far in the future as qualification starts next year.
The federation needs to think about what kind of football Iraq should play at all levels — not just for the next few months, but for the coming years. The next coach does not have to be a big name and does not have to be local, but has to spend time in the country watching football at all levels. Then, at least, accusations of local members of the coaching staff spreading misinformation about certain players to the foreign coaches will be avoided, and there may be more of a collective sense of purpose. There should also be realistic ideas of what Iraq’s football identity should be. It is easier said than done, but Iraq have too much talent to continue bumbling from coach to coach, game to game.
4. Lebanon should be proud, but were held back by other events
Lebanon have not won many friends around Asia for the way they play the game against bigger nations, but the Cedars deserve much more respect, or at least understanding of their situation. With all kinds of economic, social and political issues in the country, the national team provides some rare hope, and the money it generates from reaching the final stages of qualification helps keep the local leagues afloat.
The spirit of the team is second to none and that is the way it needs to be. The way Lebanon play against bigger boys such as Iran and South Korea — running down the clock, breaking up the game and generally being difficult to play against — is not always fun to watch, but it is understandable.
It is, however, hard to see where the team goes from here, given the state of the local league and the country in general. This campaign should bring the team together and the search for talent in the country’s diaspora should continue. But this may be as good as it gets for Lebanon, for a while at least.
5. Oman need to keep Branko
The fact that Oman collected 14 points from the group to finish in fourth, just a point behind Australia, was more than impressive. It was a fantastic achievement and it has not received the attention it deserved. Oman have always played tidy football but coach Branko Ivankovic has taken them to the next level. The former Iran boss has not only ensured that the team is as organized and well drilled as possible, but also has been getting the best out of established players like Abdullah Fawaz, as well as improving young talents such as Zahir Al-Aghbari and Arshad Al-Alawi.
All the players know what is expected of them and vice versa, and are increasingly comfortable in the system. Not just that, there is a growing feeling of confidence that means Oman can really kick on. The 2023 Asian Cup is a real opportunity and it makes sense that Ivankovic stays to keep guiding the team forward. The coach has already received offers from elsewhere, meaning that the men from Muscat need to move quickly.
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