SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Less than a year after Spain lifted the World Cup trophy in Soweto, teams from football's largest and most diverse confederation are embarking on qualifying for the 2014 edition in Brazil.
The sixteen lowest-ranked Asian nations are aiming to make it past the first round, with first-leg matches played Wednesday and the return matches on Sunday. Winners will progress to the second stage in late July.
The likes of South Korea, Japan and Australia, which all qualified for the 2010 World Cup, will not enter qualifying for Brazil until the third round begins in September.
This week features Afghanistan against a Palestinian team, Philippines against Sri Lanka and a southeast Asian derby between Cambodia and Laos.
In other matches, AFF Cup winner Malaysia should be too powerful for Taiwan, Vietnam is expected to beat Macau, Pakistan takes on Bangladesh, East Timor travels to Nepal and Myanmar meets Mongolia.
It is unlikely that any of the teams from the first round will reach the final stages of qualification. For the likes of East Timor, Macau and Taiwan, dreams of Brazil are likely to end three years before the tournament even kicks off. There are other teams, however, which are desperate to keep their chances alive throughout this summer and beyond.
Palestine, the only one of FIFA's 208 members which is not a U.N. recognized state, will meet Afghanistan on neutral ground on Wednesday and then host the return leg four days later at Al Ram on the West Bank.
"When teams come to play on our land, it's a way of recognizing the Palestinian state. That benefits the Palestinian cause, not just Palestinian sports," player Murad Ismael told The Associated Press.
In the past, the Palestinians have struggled to play international games. Palestinian athletes need Israeli permits for most travel, either to cross Israel from Gaza or to enter or leave the West Bank — a hurdle that has often kept players from key matches.
This caused a World Cup qualifier against Singapore in 2007 to be forfeited as the Palestinians couldn't field a full team. The situation has improved and a strong squad is expected to play Afghanistan, with confidence growing after a narrow loss to Bahrain in an Olympic qualifying series earlier this month.
Neither team is expected to get far, though. The Palestinians are ranked No. 171 in the world by FIFA, just six spots behind Afghanistan. The winner will meet Thailand in the second round.
And with Afghanistan unable to play at home due to the ongoing turmoil since the U.S.-led invasion, the first leg will take place in the western Tajikistan city of Tursunzade.
In a south Asian derby, Pakistan captain Zesh Rehman expects his squad to have too much experience for Bangladesh.
Rehman, who played for English Premier League club Fulham before moving to Thailand champion Muang Thong United, is perhaps the best-known player to be in action this week.
"Every game is important but this one has an added incentive as were neighboring countries and it's the first round of the World Cup qualifiers," Rehman told AP. "It's important we take something away from the first leg but as captain I'm confident we can get a win and progress.
"At the moment we have pretty much a full squad to choose from. The good thing is we now have players playing in different countries across the world such as England, America and Denmark which can only be of benefit to the national team."
The winner will face Lebanon in the next round. Former Asian champion Kuwait awaits the winner of the clash between Philippines and Sri Lanka.
Philippines is not a traditional football country but after reaching the semifinals at the AFF Cup, southeast Asia's regional competition, there is an expectation that Sri Lanka will not cause them too many problems.
A number of overseas-based players, who are eligible to play for the team due to having one Filipino parent, have been added to the squad in recent season. Former Chelsea players James and Phil Younghusband have made an impact, Paul Mulders of Dutch club ADO Den Hag is set to make his debut and former German youth international Stefan Schrock is another new addition to the team. The improving results are having a positive flow-on effect in recruitment.
"I am confident that Philippines will beat Sri Lanka, though Kuwait is a different question," said Simon McMenemy, who recently left as Philippines coach. "The team is improving. Players who were qualified to play for the Philippines and playing in better leagues suddenly wanted to play for the country. In the past, they were not so interested in traveling long distances to lose 5-0 or 6-0."
A big game against China is the prize for the winner of the Laos-Cambodia series.
Cambodia's South Korean coach Lee Tae-hoon is two months into a one-year contract and is expecting a tight contest.
"Soccer in Cambodia needs to develop more and this is a good opportunity for us," Lee told AP. "We need to keep working hard with a common purpose.
"Laos are in a similar situation to us and this is a game that both teams will think they can win ... this is an important game, but more important than the result is how we play. If we can show that we are moving forward and moving in the right direction, then that is progress."
Malaysia won the AFF Cup, for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in December and should defeat Taiwan comfortably to secure a match against regional rivals Singapore in the next round.
"It will be easy for us in the first round as we play Taiwan and we can beat them easily," former coach B. Satiananthan said. "In the second round against Singapore, I see no problems. Singapore is in transition and depended too much on foreigners who are getting older. We will qualify for the final rounds but honestly we have to be at our best to get a positive result against the giants in Asia."