May 17, 2021

COVID-19 Kills North Korea’s Chances at World Cup 2022 Qualifiers

The second round of the Asian qualifiers, for both the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, will go ahead without North Korea. The North Korean's were set to travel to South Korea for the upcoming June tournament to complete the second round of qualifying matches for Group H. Instead, the June 3rd match against Sri Lanka, and June 15th's game against Turkmenistan, have been cancelled - the effect on the group standings will be announced in due course.

Murmurings about North Korea's continued involvement in the tournament began in April, during which time the country also withdrew from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, citing concerns over the pandemic. At which point, South Korean media began to speculate that their northern counterparts would pull their team from the qualifiers in a bid to protect itself from the virus. On Sunday, May 16th, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirmed the rumours to be true. The North Koreans have not yet offered an official reason for the withdrawal. However, the Korean nation was one of the first countries to batten down the hatches during the initial wave of the pandemic. And, according to current reports, their vaccination programme is running much slower than anticipated. So, it does seem as though the country's authorities are unwilling to take any additional risks as far a coronavirus is concerned. 

North Korea was in 4th position in the standings, on eight points after five matches - the last contested in November 2019 before the virus outbreak. The national team sat behind table leaders Turkmenistan on nine points and just behind South Korea (who have a game in hand) and Lebanon, who eight points each. Only the group winners are guaranteed a place in the third round of qualification alongside the second round's four best runners up - it is debatable whether North Korea would have moved up the standings enough during the June dates to make Round Three.

Meanwhile, the AFC announced their intention to discuss North Korea's withdrawal with FIFA and to qualify the impact of the changes to the group standings over the coming weeks.

The Asian Qualifiers to Date

The first round of the Asian Qualifiers got underway in June 2019, with the second round kicking off in September 2019. Round Two's fixtures were due to restart in March 2020 but were delayed due to the implications of the newly emerged pandemic. The postponed matches were rescheduled for October 2020, then again for March 2021 - only to be thwarted by COVID-19 on both occasions. Travel was restricted to and from nations with high infection rates and strict quarantine rules imposed for those who travelled, creating an almighty headache for those organising international football. The result, only a handful of matches have been played out since November 2019. 

The remaining Round Two games are now due to kickoff between May 31st and June 15th. To overcome the ongoing travel and quarantine restrictions obstructing the tournament and to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, the AFC decided to hold the outstanding matches in a single centralised location for each group (the forty contesting teams have been split into eight groups, A through to H). Member nations were asked to register their interest in becoming hosts for their respective group - a call to which numerous countries replied; the home advantage was a definite draw. Having considered each bid, the AFC named Bahrain, China, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as new hosts.

South Korea will now host Turkmenistan, Lebanon and Sri Lanka's final Round Two qualifying matches between June 3rd and June 15th in Goyang, just north of Seoul. 

Round Three will draw group winners and four runners-up into two groups of six teams that will also play home-and-away round-robin matches. By the end of that round, only the top two nations from each group will be guaranteed places at the World Cup. The two third-placed teams will advance to Round Four, the winner of which will play in the inter-confederation play-offs in June 2022 for one of the last two tournament qualification spots. The twelve winning squads at the end of Round Three also automatically qualify for the Asian Cup 2023.

Main image: Monthong/

Published: May 17, 2021
Last updated: May 17, 2021
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