The finals in Brazil are still almost three years away. But the soccer World Cup of 2014 has started. In Asia in preliminaries of preliminaries many countries have been eliminated already.
Nepal didn’t make it. They drew 1-1 at home against Jordan but something went wrong in Amman: 9-0. I sent a somewhat compassionate message to friends in Kathmandu.
Laos is out too. They first beat Cambodia, but then lost to China: 13-3 on aggregate. I sent a somewhat compassionate message to friends in Luang Phrabang. Had it been the other way around, I would have laughed at my Chinese friends.
Syria was disqualified. Not because a strange man holds power there who kills his own people, but because in both matches against Tajikistan they fielded a player who once played for Sweden. FIFA, as its rule book stipulates, turned both Syrian victories in 3-0 defeats. I suppose those of Tajikistan knew right away. But they didn’t say anything, they figured: if they find out, he will not play next match and we may lose 4-0. We better say nothing, and they will field him again next match.
Among the other victims Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar. For 23 of 43 Asian nations that entered the competition the World Cup is already over.
China is now trying in a group that precedes yet another group. They beat Singapore in my city of Kunming. International matches are played here sometimes. It will have something to do with the city’s location at 1.900 metres above sea level – an advantage if the opposition is not used to it. They then lost to Jordan. Things can still go both ways.
During China’s only successful campaign to reach the main tournament in 2002 I was a loyal supporter. Few believed they stood a chance, and I rooted for the underdog. These days China is an underdog in hardly any field anymore. If they fail – well, I kind of look forward to some malicious delight.
October 3rd 2012, flight MU5711, Kunming-Beijing
A group of young men in neat dark suits is standing apart near the gate. Curious, I move up to them. Buttons with the North Korean flag or the North Korean leader on their jackets, small labels of their German sponsor on their cabin baggage.
It is the national football team, on their way back from training at altitude in Yunnan ahead of their WC qualifier against Uzbekistan. ‘Very strong’, the official says when I try to strike up a conversation. Apparently he isn’t reassured by the fact that seven players in their current squad played in last year’s World Cup in South Africa.
I imagine the Dutch national team to be noisier than these calm and modest guys, and busy with iPhones and earphones. Not that there is any chance I‘ll ever be on a scheduled flight and in economy class with them.
Halfway through the flight I walk to the toilet in the back. Most have dozed off. Those awake seem bored.
Waiting at the luggage belt in Beijing the seemingly oldest official is bantering with the seemingly youngest player. A shy smile. The others are laughing.
Anonymously they disappear in the passenger crowd.