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.
The Korean neighbors will play each other north of the border on Oct. 15 and in the south on June 4 in the five-nation Group H that includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.
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.
Relations between the two soccer federations are better now, and FIFA has encouraged a combined Korean bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
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 on Sept. 10 on home soil, or for games against any of its three other opponents. For the 2018 World Cup qualifying program, Yemen played home games in Doha, Qatar, for security reasons.
The Saudis, which played at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, are top-seeded in Group D that also has Uzbekistan, Palestine and Singapore.
For the first time in 30 years, Iraq can begin a World Cup qualifying program expecting to host all its home games instead of seeking neutral venues due to a FIFA ban for sanctions or security reasons.
Iraq, which will host top-ranked Iran on Nov. 14, played “home” qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Iran, Jordan and Malaysia. The neighbors meet in Group C which also has Bahrain, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
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.
United Arab Emirates is top-seeded in a Group G loaded with Southeast Asian derbies, involving Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
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.
Australia, which plays in the Asian region, will play Jordan, Taiwan, Kuwait and Nepal in Group B.
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.
China has a great chance to advance as it begins a potentially huge era for its growing soccer ambitions.
Coached once again by Italy’s 2006 title-winning veteran Marcello Lippi, China is top-seeded in Group A with war-torn Syria — which has played qualifiers in neutral Malaysia — Philippines, Maldives and Guam.
China seeks to qualify for the 2022 World Cup while preparing to host the 2023 Asian Cup and likely bidding as the expected favorite to host the 2030 World Cup.
Japan starts its path to a seventh straight World Cup tournament in Group F with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Myanmar and Mongolia.
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 begin World Cup qualifying groups in March 2021.
In the North American region CONCACAF, the United States and Mexico are set to be in a group of six top-ranked teams playing for three guaranteed places from September 2020.
The 2022 World Cup will be played Nov. 21-Dec. 18 to avoid the searing desert heat in Qatar’s summer. FIFA confirmed only last month it would have 32 teams, after its push for a 48-team tournament was resisted.
Qatar is spending tens of billions of dollars preparing stadiums and infrastructure despite an ongoing political and economic boycott by neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
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