Kuala Lumpur: As fans around the Continent eagerly await the kick-off of Round 2 of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, the-AFC.com recalls some of the most memorable qualifying duels from the past.
While all footballers dream of making an impact on the big stage, sometimes the qualification journey can just be as memorable as the destination.
Stunning fightbacks, last minute winners and superhuman performances from some of Asia’s all-time footballing greats feature in this qualification quartet, which features clashes from both the AFC Asian Cup and FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
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UZBEKISTAN v TAJIKISTAN, 1996
Many of Uzbekistan’s players would probably prefer not to remember their first ever AFC Asian Cup qualifying match, but their second was a night they will surely not forget.
Having been crowned 1994 Asian Games gold medallists just three years into life as an independent nation, few would have predicted the White Wolves would be emphatically beaten by fellow AFC newcomers Tajikistan in the opening leg of a virtual UAE 1996 qualifying play-off, but that’s precisely what happened as the Tajiks (pictured below) stormed to a 4-0 win in Dushanbe.
Six weeks later, Uzbekistan welcomed back their overseas-based trio of Mirdjalal Kasimov, Igor Shkvirin and Azamat Abduraimov – all stars in their Asian Games triumph, but absent from the first leg – and treated 15,000 fans to a stunning five-goal comeback in Tashkent.
Kasimov scored twice and Shkrivin once as Uzbekistan won 4-0 in 90 minutes to force extra time, before Zafar Musabaev netted the extra-time to seal their place in the Continental Finals.
JAPAN v IR IRAN, 1997
A true Asian football classic, this FIFA World Cup France 98 play-off featured some of the greats of a golden era going toe-to-toe in a match of career-defining stakes.
Asian icons like Daei, Nakata, Azizi and Miura were the chief protagonists in nearly two hours of unparalleled drama in neutral Johor Bahru, Malaysia, as two of the Continent’s heavyweights looked for the win they needed to reach the promised land of the World Cup Finals.
After the lead changed hands twice in a gripping 2-2 draw at the end of 90 minutes, it was Masayuki Okano who sent Japan to their first ever global Finals with a 118th-minute golden goal – his second and final goal in international football.
Beaten on the night, Iran’s finest hour came 13 days later in a similarly dramatic Inter-Confederation play-off victory against Australia.
SAUDI ARABIA v BAHRAIN, 2009
The final Asian qualifying tie for FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 featured 180 minutes of football, but it’s what happened in the final 180 seconds that made it unforgettable.
After a 0-0 draw in Riffa, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain met in Riyadh to decide who would face Oceania champions New Zealand for the final place in South Africa, and the teams produced a footballing rollercoaster to rival the World Cup itself.
Saudi Arabia took the lead through Nasser Al Shamrani inside 13 minutes, but Jaycee John’s equaliser had Bahrain on the verge of going through on away goals until Hamad Al Montashari scored what looked like an injury-time winner for the Saudis.
But, with the King Fahd Stadium still rocking in celebration, Bahrain remarkably turned it around, with Ismaeel Abdulatif rising to score a 93rd-minute header with one of the last touches of the game, keeping Bahrain’s World Cup dream alive with a 2-2 draw.
AUSTRALIA v SYRIA, 2017
After more than two years on the Road to Russia 2018, Australia and Syria’s World Cup destiny came down to a battle between one of the hottest strikers in Asia and a Socceroos' icon looking to win the match of his own boot, or head, one last time.
Australia, Asian champions and World Cup regulars, met a Syrian team which had never appeared on the global stage and hadn’t played on home soil for nearly seven years, but it was only the width of a goalpost that ultimately separated the sides.
With a final, Inter-Confederation play-off against Honduras awaiting the winners, the sides played a 1-1 first leg in neutral Malaysia, with prolific striker Omar Al Soma netting his Syria’s late equaliser.
Al Soma scored again six minutes into the second leg in Sydney, before 37-year-old Tim Cahill scored his 49th international goal to level the tie, then brought up half-century with a header that put Australia 2-1 up 19 minutes into extra-time.
Australia’s talisman had seemingly bailed them out for the umpteenth time, but Syria would have advanced on away goals had Al Soma’s 119th minute free-kick had been just a few inches to the left, and not clattered into the upright.
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