Road to 2015: Asian Qualifying set to kick off

Japan are the class of the Asian field but this spring will be about the minnows dreaming of World Cup places. - Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

The Asian Football Confederation is set to kick off the opening stage of its World Cup qualifying process as they work to narrow down a field of 20 teams and figure out which five countries will represent them at the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada.

If you happen to be from a nation in Asia that is not a typical powerhouse of women's soccer you might just be in luck when it comes to qualification for the 2015 World Cup. Not only has the expanded tournament field granted two extra qualification places to the Asian Football Confederation, but North Korea is also out of the running for 2015.

North Korea has been banned from qualifying for the 2015 World Cup because a number of their players tested positive for performance-enhancing substances during the 2011 World Cup in Germany. They are the first women's team to ever be banned from a World Cup, and having qualified for every event since 1995 would have been a prime candidate to reach the event once again prior to being handed their ban.

The North Koreans' loss will surely be the gain of another country in the region as now the 20 remaining nations will compete for the five available places in the World Cup. Their qualifying process is built around the Women's Asian Cup which will take place in May 2014 when the final 8 teams will contest a tournament to determine the five World Cup berths.

Australian, Japan, China, and South Korea already have their places booked in that final 8 due to being part of the top 5 (along with North Korea) in the 2010 edition of the competition. That leaves the remaining four places up for grabs over the coming months with 16 countries in the running. The qualification field ranges from tiny countries like Myanmar and the Philippines all the way up to the likes of India and Vietnam. Of the field of 16 teams taking part in this round of qualification only one has ever taken part in a previous World Cup as Chinese Taipei qualified for the event back in 1991.

On May 22nd the AFC qualification will get underway with the two of the four groups kicking off on that date. The third group will get underway on the 22nd while the final group will be contested started on June 5th. Each of the four groups will be played out as a mini-tournament with each team only getting 3 matches to try and claim top spot in the group and a place in next year's Asian Championship.

Group A will take place in Jordan from June 5th to June 9th with Jordan, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait making up the field. If FIFA ranking are your thing then Uzbekistan should be the favorites to come out of this group as they are currently ranked 41st while Jordan are second highest ranked in the group at 57th. The two countries meet in the final match of the group on June 9th in what could very well be a battle for top spot and the continued dream of reaching the World Cup.

Group B is scheduled to take place in Bangladesh from May 21st until the 25th with the hosts being joined by Thailand, Iran, and the Philippines. The favourites for the group should be Thailand who are the highest ranked country taking part at this stage of qualification. They are ranked 29th in the World while Iran are the second best in the group at 53rd. Those two will meet on the final day of matches on June 25th which could be a showdown for top spot. The host country, Bangladesh, are unlikely to make much noise in this group despite playing on home soil but countries would be foolish to look past them or the Philippines. The Philippines are an interesting country as they have been working to find players in other countries, including searching the United States, that would be eligible to play for their national team. One such player they have added to their roster is Jesse Shugg who has played for Burlington Soccer Club and the University of Miami. If they succeeded in bringing in some additional talent they could spring a surprise or two in this group.

Group C takes place from May 22nd until May 26th with Bahrain playing host to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Kyrgyzstan. Vietnam are the top seeded team in the group as the 30th ranked country and they have been a regular in the Asian Cup reaching every event since 1999. Hong Kong has the next best ranking at 66th but they have not reached the final stage of the Asian Championships since the 2003 event. The group is rounded out by the 70th ranked Bahrain and the un-ranked Kyrgyzstan neither of which has ever made the Asian Championships. Like the other groups the top two seeds will meet on the final match-day with Vietnam and Hong Kong meeting on the 26th.

The final group, Group D, will take place in Palestine from May 21st to 25th. The group will include the host country, Myanmar, Chinese Taipei (or Taiwan if your prefer), and India. Chinese Taipei are the top ranked team in the group at 43rd which is just slightly better than the 47th ranking currently held by Myanmar. With the two teams having such similar rankings it should set up an interesting group with Chinese Taipei trying to return to being one of the top nations in Asia. They were a World Cup quarter-finalist all the way back in 1991 and have won the Asian Championships on three previous occasions with the most recent being in 1981. They have finished 2nd twice and 3rd twice in the years since then but thy have not made it beyond the group stage since 1999 and even missed the cut in 2010. They may be a nation on a bit of a decline in recent years which opens the door for a rising country like Myanmar who have made three of the last four Asian Championships thanks to their nation injecting a fair bit of money into the program. India is another country on the rise in this group that could end up surprising a few people if they have continued to progress since a half decent showing in Olympic Qualifying after the program took a hiatus of nearly a year leading into 2012. The host country Palestine will likely be the weakest team of the group but it should still be an interesting competition.

By June 9th this entire round of the Asian qualification field will be wrapped up and the field will have been narrowed down from 20 teams to just 8. When you consider that the region now has five World Cup berths available it means that at least one of the countries taking place in this round of qualification will end up making it to Canada 2015. With only one of these countries having been to a World Cup before it leaves the door wide open for any one of the 15 other counties to make their World Cup debut come 2015 in Canada which is certainly something worth being excited about.

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