South Korea and Saudi Arabia qualified for next year’s World Cup today Tuesday, while war-torn Syria kept alive its dream of playing on soccer’s biggest stage for the first time.
Australia, the reigning Asian champion, will face Syria in a playoff to stay in contention for a World Cup place after both teams missed the chance to seal automatic qualification, as the group stages of Asian qualifying drew to a close.
In Group B, Australia beat Thailand 2-1 in a nervous performance. Needing to boost their goal difference to hold off Saudi Arabia in the standings, the Australians instead missed chance after chance against a much weaker opponent.
That left Saudi Arabia needing to win by just one goal against Japan. Fahad Al Muwallad obliged with a fierce strike into the top-right corner in the 63rd minute to hand the Saudis a 1-0 win and their first World Cup appearance since 2006.
The final whistle started celebrations at the packed stadium in Jeddah, with players lifting each other into the air and embracing Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk as traditional Arabian music played.
Australia was unbeaten in qualifying until it lost at Japan last week, a result that ensured Japan secured first place in Group B and a spot at the tournament in Russia next year.
Tomi Juric opened the scoring for Australia against Thailand in the 69th when he nodded in a cross from Aaron Mooy.
Pokklaw Anan got a surprise equalizer for Thailand against the run of play in the 82nd, but Mathew Leckie ensured Australia’s win in the 86th with a left-foot drive from close range after Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool failed to punch the ball clear of the goalmouth. Thailand finished last in the group with two points.
In Group A, South Korea drew 0-0 with Uzbekistan to claim an automatic spot ahead of Syria, continuing the South Koreans’ Asian record of appearing at nine consecutive World Cups dating back to 1986.
The South Koreans hit the woodwork twice in the first half, but endured some nervy moments in the second against Uzbekistan, which was in contention to make its first World Cup appearance.
When the final whistle blew, several South Korean players sank to the ground in relief before starting some low-key celebrations. South Korea endured a misfiring campaign which included surprise losses to Qatar and China.
Despite the war raging at home, Syria had come close to qualifying for its first World Cup, and would have done so had it held on to an early 1-0 lead away to Iran, which had already qualified as group winner.
Tamer Mohamed’s 13th-minute header put the Syrians ahead, but Iran fought back to show why it was unbeaten in competitive games for over three years.
Sardar Azmoun pulled Iran level in first-half stoppage time, using his chest to knock in a rebound, and he struck again from close range in the 64th when Syria failed to clear a long throw-in.
Syria made it 2-2 in stoppage time when Omar Al Soma put the ball between Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Salimi’s legs.
The winner of next month’s two-legged playoff between Syria and Australia will face a team from the CONCACAF confederation covering North and Central America, and the Caribbean for a World Cup spot.
Conflict at home put huge obstacles in Syria’s path. The team played its home games in Malaysia, 4,500 miles (7,240 kilometers) away to the south-east. But it still managed strong performances against some of Asia’s best teams, earning draws with South Korea and Iran in previous qualifiers.