For the second time in 2020 the Asian Football Confederation has taken the decision to alter the schedule for the remaining World Cup qualifying matches.
Initially the final matches in Round 2 of World Cup qualifying were set to be played in late March and early June but the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic forced the postponement of these matches to October and November of this year. Indeed, the decision mirrored that of UEFA who shifted their qualifying schedule to fit the Euro 2020 playoffs in during that time period. The key difference being that cooperation within the continent of Europe is far higher thanks to a litany of travel agreements and the European Union.
Asia on the other hand, has a distinct lack of such agreements and where such agreement do exists they are usually confined to a single region, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Luckily for the AFC, its decision to start qualifying less than a year after the final ball was kicked in Russia in 2018 gives them enough time to organize the remainder of qualifying. Six Asian nations have already been eliminated from World Cup qualifying in the first round (Brunei, Bhutan, Laos, Macau, Pakistan, and Timor-Leste). While another nations have been mathematically eliminated with four rounds left to play (Chinese Taipei, Guam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka).
Palestine with the faintest of hopes
With ten nations officially eliminated from World Cup qualifying, 36 are left to battle it out for 12 spots in the final round (13 if Qatar finishes in the top 12. The host country are in this qualifying round as it also serves as Asian Cup 2023 qualification).
To have any chance of qualifying, Palestine need to win all three of their games against Singapore and Yemen at home and Saudi Arabia away.
The Al-Fida’i will need help. Lots of help. Winning their remaining slate of games will only give them a miserly 13 points. They will need Yemen and Singapore to step up and take points off of Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.
Should Uzbekistan only collect four points in their final three games (let’s say a draw and win against either Singapore/Yemen and a loss vs. Saudi Arabia) that would also leave them on 13 points.
Palestine would then need to hope their goal difference and point total would be enough to deliver them best runner-up status. Alternatively they could hope that Saudi Arabia slips up and draws against Yemen and Singapore but finishes qualifying by beating Uzbekistan. A scenario which would leave Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan on 13 points. Palestine could only win the group on goal difference but would need to produce big wins as their current goal difference stands at -2.
A chance to regroup
Realistically, nothing about how Palestine approached their last three qualifiers (zero goals scored, one point secured) should give fans any hope of turning the ship around. That said, we live in strange times and perhaps the pandemic will serve to harm stronger teams- allowing for the implausible scenario described above to play out.
At the time of writing Palestine’s national team is in complete disarray. Jibril Rajoub, the PFA President, is busy furthering his political career and no concrete decision have been taken about restarting league play in a safe manner.
The national team had been expected to relieve the (still interim!) manager Nourreddine Ould Ali from his post after the 2019 Asian Cup but persevered despite an embarrassing public outburst during a press conference and crippling losses to Singapore and Yemen.
To make matters worse, the team’s captain, Abdelatif Bahdari, retired. While stalwarts like Abdallah Jaber and Rami Hamadi might not be selected due to their signing for clubs in the Israeli Premier League.
As it stands, there is no clearly stipulated date for the return of World Cup qualifying. From Palestine’s perspective the longer things are delayed the better as there are bevy of issues to work through. If qualifying ended today Palestine would need to play in a playoff just to enter Asian Cup qualifying. The effort produced by the players has masked structural problems and coaching ineptitude but at some point that energy might run out and it could cost Palestine a shot at the World Cup finals but at the 2023 Asian Cup finals as well.