On March 12, qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup officially began with the first leg for the first round of the Asian qualifiers. The kickoff of the nearly three year qualifying process marks the first time that all 209 members of FIFA entered the World Cup qualifiers. The qualifiers will ultimately whittle that 209 down to the 32 finalists who will go to Russia in 2018, but for now every team still has a chance. Well, almost every team.
Zimbabwe has already become the first country to be eliminated from World Cup qualifying before they ever played a match. The disqualification comes as a result of disciplinary action against Zimbabwe’s football federation ZIFA. In 2012, a case was brought to FIFA’s disciplinary committee after ZIFA failed to pay former manager Jose Claudinei Georgini, who managed Zimbabwe from January to November 2008, a severance package upon his leaving the position. A 2013 ruling fined ZIFA and required that ZIFA settle half of its debt to Georgini in 60 days further action would be taken. ZIFA still continued to refuse to pay Georgini the debt they owed, and the case was again brought before the FIFA Disciplinary Committee. On March 12, 2015, the committee expelled Zimbabwe from the 2018 World Cup qualification as penalty for their continued failure to make any payment.
Meanwhile, the first round of the Asian qualification has already produced several surprising wins. At the bottom of the FIFA world rankings – the highest ranked team that played on March 12 was Pakistan at 170th – all the teams don’t have very high hopes for reaching the World Cup, but they still work hard to get as far in the qualifying campaign as they can. The small island nation of Timor-Leste hosted the first match of the road to the 2018 World Cup, where they faced Mongolia. The hosts surged ahead quickly as Chiquito do Carmo scored the first goal in the 2018 qualifiers 4 minutes into the match. Timor-Leste continued to control the match throughout and ended with a lopsided 4-1 victory over Mongolia. Along with Timor-Leste, Cambodia should feel comfortable going into the second leg after their 3-0 win over Macau.
However, the greatest upset of this first set of matches was in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was set to play Bhutan in what should have been an easy win for them. Bhutan currently sits squarely at the bottom of the FIFA rankings with 0 points. That means they have not won or drawn any of their matches in the last four years. In fact, the last time Bhutan won a match was June of 2008, and are entering their World Cup qualifying debut. So it must have come to a great shock to Sri Lanka and the Bhutanese team when in the 84th minute, 19 year old Tshering Dorji put the first goal in of the match and put Bhutan up 1-0. Bhutan held on to that scoreline for the final minutes and pulled off their first win in any competitive match.
While Bhutan pulled off a shocking win in Sri Lanka, they and the other teams who played today aren’t through to the next round of the Asian qualification yet. The first round has home and away legs, so Bhutan will have to hold off Sri Lanka in Thimphu if they want to advance. In the other kickoff matches from March 12, India beat Nepal, Brunei beat Chinese Taipei, and Yemen won their first leg against Pakistan. The second legs of Asia’s first round will be played on March 17th.