The Asia regional World Cup qualifying has entered the final round; 2 groups of 5 teams are competing for 4 automatic berths to South Africa 2010 (the top 2 teams in each group qualify). The 3rd place teams in each group will play a home-and-away playoff to determine the 5th place team overall, and that team will then play a home-and-away playoff against Oceania regional champs New Zealand for an at-large berth to the World Cup.
In Group 1, the Arab reps are Bahrain and Qatar, who are matched up with runaway co-favourites Australia and Japan, as well as minnowy Uzbekistan, in what is sure to be a heated battle for 3rd place.
Qatar and Bahrain are natural rivals, staring at each other from across the narrow Gulf of Bahrain, owners of a testy border/island dispute, trying to mend fences with bridges, and similarly inspired in flag-making.
Both national squads feature foreign-born stars. Qatar are led by Uruguayan-born midfielder Sebastian Quintana, while one of Bahrain's top young players is Nigerian-born Jaycee Okwunwanee.
Fittingly, the 2 teams opened this final group qualifying stage by playing each other to a 1-1 draw in Doha. The return leg won't be until April 1 in Manama, at which time the game will likely determine 3rd place in the standings and a playoff position.
Both squads have tough home matches this week against the Group 1 powerhouses, with Qatar hosting Japan and Bahrain Australia.
Over in Group 2, the battle for automatic qualification figures to be a three-horse race between South Korea, Iran and Saudia Arabia, which currently all sit tied for first after just 2 matches.
The Saudis have made 4 straight World Cups, managing a combined 2-2-9 record (with both of those wins coming during the 1994 World Cup when they reached the quarterfinals). A balanced team known for stingy defence, Saudi Arabia are still climbing back from their all-time worst FIFA ranking of 81, just after their goalless '06 WC. Despite their pedigree, the Saudis are no shoe-ins to make it to South Africa.
The United Arab Emirates, reigning Arabian Gulf Cup champions but considered long shots to qualify, sit fifth in the Group 2 table at 0-0-3 (including a tough loss to Saudi Arabia to open the final round). Wednesday's home clash with Iran is therefore a must-win game. But hope remains, especially with their talisman striker Ismael Matar (check out this sweet goal of his from the AGC tourney) in fine form with 5 goals so far.
The UAE have one World Cup finals on their resume, qualifying for the 1990 Italy WC where they finished 0-0-3.
Other Gulf and Middle Eastern states (not counting North Africa) to qualify for the World Cup in the past: Iraq in 1986 (finished 0-0-3); and Kuwait in 1982 (actually managed a draw against Czechoslovakia).
How did the other Middle Eastern countries - Syria, Jordan, Oman et al - fare in the earlier qualification rounds? Check it out here.
In other Middle East football news, we congratulate Palestine for recently playing its first-ever international soccer game on home soil, drawing 1-1 with Jordan.
The Tuque Souq will keep tabs on the World Cup qualifying in the months ahead, including a preview of the Africa region showdown involving hopefuls Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. And we'll check in with the European qualifying, where Israel have a favourable group draw that could see them in their first World Cup finals.