Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – North and South Korea will face off in politically-charged World Cup qualifiers after being drawn in the same group Wednesday, while arch-rivals Iran and Iraq will also meet.
Heavyweights Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia — who all played in the 2018 World Cup in Russia — were drawn in different groups for the Asian qualifiers of the 2022 edition of the tournament in Qatar.
China, who are seeking to qualify for the World Cup for only the second time, look to have a promising fixture against lower-ranked opponents including war-torn Syria and tiny Guam.
The country and its 73rd-ranked team have grand ambitions to host and win a World Cup under football-fan President Xi Jinping.
South Korea is one of Asia’s best sides and should easily beat the North, but the matches between the neighbours on the divided Korean peninsula promise to be bitter.
Sides play each other twice during the qualifiers, which run from September to June.
After the draw at the Asian football body’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, South Korea coach Paulo Bento insisted that facing the North was “nothing special”.
“For us it is a sport — the goal is to qualify,” he told AFP.
“The message I will share with the players when we play against North Korea is to give them the same respect we will have for any other teams we will play against.”
Sporting ties played a role in a diplomatic thaw on and around the peninsula last year, when the two Koreas formed their first-ever unified Olympic team for the 2018 Winter Games.
But those endeavours stagnated with the wider deadlock in negotiations over the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Iran and Iraq will renew one of football’s great rivalries after being drawn in the same group.
The teams will compete in a round-robin format, with the winners of the eight groups and four runners-up progressing to a final round of qualifying.
Asian qualifying groups for the 2022 World Cup:
Group A: China, Syria, Philippines, Maldives, Guam
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Taiwan, Kuwait, Nepal
Group C: Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Cambodia
Group D: Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Palestine, Yemen, Singapore
Group E: Bangladesh, Oman, India, Afghanistan, Qatar
Group F: Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Myanmar, Mongolia
Group G: United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia
Group H: South Korea, Lebanon, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Sri Lanka
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