AFC World Cup Qualifiers - Changes Following North Korea Exit
Earlier in May, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirmed that North Korea would be pulling its national squad out of the joint FIFA 2022 World Cup and the AFC 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. No specific reason was given by the Korean's for their withdrawal, but it is widely thought that risks presented by the coronavirus pandemic were to blame. The sudden exit from the second round of the AFC qualifiers threatened inevitable impacts on the standings, not only for those teams in Group H alongside North Korea (Lebanon, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Turkmenistan) but also for the rest of the seven qualifying squads in the tournament. At the time of North Korea's departure, the AFC announced its intention to discuss the matter with FIFA and to qualify the effect of the changes to the standings in due course. Over the weekend, FIFA's official decision was announced.
Changes for Fair Play
North Korea's exit from the AFC World Cup qualifiers created a disparity between the remaining teams. In leaving the preliminaries halfway through, the rest of the groups in the competition (Groups A - G) were left unbalanced with five teams each compared to Group H's four squads - which unavoidably affected the overall competition results in terms of runners-up. Considering that only the winners of each group and the four best runners-up advance to the third round of the qualifying tournament, the skewed group numbers (7 teams of five and 1 of four) altered how those runners-up spots would be ranked and decided - especially as North Korean's Round Two results were declared null and void.
To overcome the imbalance, FIFA's World Cup Qualifiers Bureau decided that, after the conclusion of all the qualifying matches in Round Two, all games between 2nd placed and 5th placed teams in Groups A-G would be discounted. The Associations ruling means that the final comparison between all group runners-up will be equalised, creating a fair and balanced playing field.
The Winners and Losers
North Korea was sitting in fourth place in Group H with eight points after five matches. The national squad sat behind table leaders Turkmenistan on nine points and just behind South Korea (who had a game in hand) and Lebanon, on eight points each. However, since North Korea's departure, the results have changed significantly.
To ensure the remaining teams in the group can continue their competition fairly, FIFA decided to nullify all results from Round Two games with North Korea. The changes benefited some group members, but the modifications have been disastrous for others.
South Korea has benefited the most from the changes in the standings. Without even breaking a sweat or kicking a ball, the South Korean's leap-frogged their way to the top of the table. Having dropped points against North Korea in an earlier match, with the results now void, they are at the top of the standings on seven points, losing only 1 point due to the recent alterations. Similarly, Lebanon only dropped a single point in the recent changes - placing them in second place behind South Korea on goal difference.
Turkmenistan, however, saw its 3 -1 win and the points gained against North Korea wiped out after the Korean's exit from the games. The once table leaders have now dropped down to third place on just six points.
Finalising Round Two
The next round of qualifying games for Group H begins on June 5th. Lebanon faces Sri Lanka, and South Korea is scheduled to play against Turkmenistan. Then on June 9th, Turkmenistan goes head-to-head with Lebanon, and Sri Lanka plays against South Korea. And, to finalise the Group H Round Two matches, South Korea take on Lebanon on June 13th.
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