North Korea and South Korea have been drawn together in an Asian qualifying group as the road to soccer’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar became clearer Wednesday.
In 2008, North Korea twice played home World Cup qualifiers against South Korea in China because it refused to raise its opponents’ flag or play their anthem in Pyongyang, as FIFA rules required.
Wednesday’s draw involving 40 national teams was sure to test some political sensitivities, and Saudi Arabia and Yemen were also put in the same group.
A Saudi-led coalition allied with Yemen’s government has been at war with rebel Houthis that has killed tens of thousands of people since 2015.
It seems unlikely Yemen can host the Saudis and three other opponents on home soil. For the 2018 World Cup qualifying program, Yemen played home games in Doha, Qatar, for security reasons.
The eight five-team groups play from September through June. Group winners and the four best runners-up advance to another group stage, played from September 2020 to October 2021. Those 12 teams also qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup.
Four Asian teams will qualify directly for the 32-team World Cup. A fifth nation can advance to Qatar in an intercontinental playoff round in March 2022.
There was growing laughter in the draw room at Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as balls drawn by Australia great Tim Cahill continued to join the regional neighbors together.
World Cup host Qatar also plays as this group stage doubles up as qualifiers for the 2023 Asian Cup, when it will defend the continental title in China. Qatar will play Oman, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh in Group E.
The Korean derbies will be the first in World Cup qualifying for more than a decade. Then, the teams were grouped together in back-to-back rounds as both advanced to the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
Both North Korea’s home games were played in Shanghai when then-leader Kim Jong Il’s government declined to play by FIFA protocol rules.
The global 2022 qualifying program — more than 800 games to decide 31 qualifiers joining Qatar — began in Asia with preliminary games in June.
Asia is also the first continental body to begin setting its groups. Africa’s confederation will draw its first games next week and kick off in September.
European soccer body UEFA is scheduled to pick its format for deciding 13 qualifying places in September. The 55 European teams should begin World Cup qualifying groups in March 2021.
Source: Fox Sports