Qatar received a difficult draw for the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday as it embarks on its final attempt to qualify for the tournament before hosting it in 2022.
The Gulf state was bracketed with rapidly emerging China, which impressed at this year’s Asian Cup, and will also face tricky trips to Hong Kong and Bhutan.
Qatar has never reached the World Cup and an appearance at Russia 2018 would help assuage critics who question its credentials as host of soccer’s biggest competition.
The reigning Gulf champion disappointingly failed to reach the Asian Cup knockout stages in January and it will be keen to show its worth in international competition.
Alain Perrin’s China is seeded top in Group C and Bhutan created headlines when, as the world’s lowest ranked team, it shocked Sri Lanka to reach the second qualifying round.
“Especially against Qatar it will be difficult … (but) it is important to compete everywhere in the world if we want to go to the World Cup,” Perrin said.
“For me, I know Qatar, I know this team. I know what they can do in the World Cup games and it will be difficult but it is OK. We will have to prepare for our games well.”
Australia will play Jordan, a 12,000-kilometer (7,500-mile) trip, plus Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and its nearest opponent Bangladesh, a 7,000-km journey, in the first group stage.
Japan was grouped with Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore and Cambodia. For security reasons, FIFA has ruled Syria and Afghanistan will play home matches in neutral countries.
“It’s about time an Asian country breaks the European, South American handle on the World Cups,” said Australia coach Ange Postecoglou.
“We can help raise the standards and push an Asian country to win the World Cup one day. It starts today.”
The top eight teams and four best group runners-up will progress to Asia’s final World Cup qualifying round, as well as the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
The remaining 28 teams will compete for the other 12 places at the Asian Cup, which has been expanded to 24 sides for 2019.
Asia’s allocation of places in the 2018 lineup should be confirmed at a meeting of FIFA’s executive committee on May 30.
Four guaranteed places at the 32-team 2014 World Cup were taken by Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea. No Asian team won a match in Brazil.
A fifth place was available in an intercontinental playoff but Jordan lost to Uruguay.
The home-and-away round robin starts on June 11 and finishes on March 29 next year.
Group A: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, East Timor, Malaysia
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Group C: China, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Group D: Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
Group E: Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan
Group G: South Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos
Group H: Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, DPR Korea, Yemen
(China Daily 04/16/2015 page19)