There has been so much attention on the road to Qatar that it has almost gone unnoticed that plenty of Arab teams have just started qualification rounds for two major continental tournaments in 2023 — the Asian Cup and the African Cup of Nations. At least we know that Ivory Coast will be the venue for the latter but with China’s recent withdrawal as host in Asia, it remains to be seen where this particular road will end.
One thing for sure is that there is going to be plenty of action coming in Asia as all six groups will start Wednesday and finish next Tuesday. The 12 teams that reached the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup have already secured their continental places along with defending champions Qatar. That leaves 11 spaces remaining, which means that the six group winners will be joined by the five best runners-up. One team is going to be very disappointed indeed.
That emotion should not apply to Jordan or Kuwait, the host of Group A. Even without the advantage of playing in their own backyard, the two West Asian nations should be too strong for Indonesia, now coached by Shin Tae-yong who was in charge of South Korea at the 2018 World Cup, and also Nepal, even though the South Asians are still led by Kuwaiti tactician Abdullah Al-Mutairi. Jordan especially have ambitions not just to qualify for Asian cups but to progress to the knockout stages.
There will be more interest and unpredictability in Group B. Yemen and Palestine both qualified for the 2019 tournament and both have plenty of obstacles in trying to compete with mid-ranking continental rivals. The security situation in Yemen in recent years has meant that there has been little domestic football and players have either had to move overseas or seek alternative sources of income. Facilities have been damaged or destroyed. The national team have been training in Saudi Arabia and it would be another amazing achievement if they can make it to a second successive Asian Cup.
Palestine struggle to have training camps and to prepare for games, with players and coaching staff finding it difficult just to enter and leave the country smoothly. Despite that, Palestine have become a respected opponent around Asia where they are ranked 18. They should be able to make it three appearances in a row.
Usually, the group would be seen as a three-way battle, along with the Philippines, for the top two spots, with Mongolia tipped for bottom. With all the games taking place in Ulaanbaatar, and that can be a tough place to go, the hosts will feel that they have a chance to be competitive. It at least adds a little uncertainty.
Bahrain, semifinalists back in 2004 and ranked 89 in the world — the second highest behind Uzbekistan of those still not yet qualified — will be heading to Kuala Lumpur with the ambition of topping Group E and making a seventh appearance at an Asian Cup. It is likely that hosts Malaysia will be fighting it out with an improving Turkmenistan for second as Bangladesh will be happy to finish above fourth.
Over in Africa, qualification will end next March rather than next week. Some teams have already started with 24 of the 48 vying to reach the Ivory Coast. There has been plenty of attention on the fitness and the contract situation of the continent’s biggest star, Mohamed Salah. This has distracted from the fact that the Pharaohs needed a late Mostafa Mohamed goal to beat Guinea 1-0 in the first game under new coach Ehab Galal on Sunday. Next up for Egypt, on Thursday, are Ethiopia who lost the other Group D game to Malawi. Salah won’t be there but Egypt should make it two wins out of two as they stroll to another tournament.
Algeria have ambitions to win the continental trophy but will be relieved to start Group F with a win after finishing bottom of their 2021 AFCON group in January and then failing to qualify for the World Cup shortly after. Aissa Mandi got the ball rolling against Uganda with Youcef Belaili sealing three points late on. Niger and Tanzania should not present too many problems for the Desert Foxes. Tunisia did make it to the World Cup which is perhaps why they have already played two games in Group J, beating Equatorial Guinea 4-0 and then drawing with Botswana. Libya have also won one and lost one in the same group.
Down in Group K, Morocco have yet to kick off their campaign as they were busy last week losing 3-0 to the US in a friendly in Cincinnati. The loss only increased the pressure on coach Vahid Halilhodzic. Another defeat in Thursday’s opener against South Africa could spell the end of the Bosnian boss.
There are two Arab teams in Group I and they have met already, with Mauritania defeating Sudan 3-0. Comoros had a good debut in the continental tournament in January and got to the knockout stage. A 2-0 win over Lesotho is the start they wanted as they seek to return.
Africa will have to wait until next March to finish but at least they already know where the tournament will take place. Asia complete qualification on Tuesday but the search for a host will continue.