tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gulf countries vie for World Cup qualification

The Asia regional World Cup qualifying has entered the final round; 2 groups of 5 teams are competing for 4 automatic berths to South Africa 2010 (the top 2 teams in each group qualify). The 3rd place teams in each group will play a home-and-away playoff to determine the 5th place team overall, and that team will then play a home-and-away playoff against Oceania regional champs New Zealand for an at-large berth to the World Cup.

In Group 1, the Arab reps are Bahrain and Qatar, who are matched up with runaway co-favourites Australia and Japan, as well as minnowy Uzbekistan, in what is sure to be a heated battle for 3rd place.
Qatar and Bahrain are natural rivals, staring at each other from across the narrow Gulf of Bahrain, owners of a testy border/island dispute, trying to mend fences with bridges, and similarly inspired in flag-making.

Both national squads feature foreign-born stars. Qatar are led by Uruguayan-born midfielder Sebastian Quintana, while one of Bahrain's top young players is Nigerian-born Jaycee Okwunwanee.

Fittingly, the 2 teams opened this final group qualifying stage by playing each other to a 1-1 draw in Doha. The return leg won't be until April 1 in Manama, at which time the game will likely determine 3rd place in the standings and a playoff position.

Both squads have tough home matches this week against the Group 1 powerhouses, with Qatar hosting Japan and Bahrain Australia.

Over in Group 2, the battle for automatic qualification figures to be a three-horse race between South Korea, Iran and Saudia Arabia, which currently all sit tied for first after just 2 matches.
The Saudis have made 4 straight World Cups, managing a combined 2-2-9 record (with both of those wins coming during the 1994 World Cup when they reached the quarterfinals). A balanced team known for stingy defence, Saudi Arabia are still climbing back from their all-time worst FIFA ranking of 81, just after their goalless '06 WC. Despite their pedigree, the Saudis are no shoe-ins to make it to South Africa.

The United Arab Emirates, reigning Arabian Gulf Cup champions but considered long shots to qualify, sit fifth in the Group 2 table at 0-0-3 (including a tough loss to Saudi Arabia to open the final round). Wednesday's home clash with Iran is therefore a must-win game. But hope remains, especially with their talisman striker Ismael Matar (check out this sweet goal of his from the AGC tourney) in fine form with 5 goals so far.

The UAE have one World Cup finals on their resume, qualifying for the 1990 Italy WC where they finished 0-0-3.

Other Gulf and Middle Eastern states (not counting North Africa) to qualify for the World Cup in the past: Iraq in 1986 (finished 0-0-3); and Kuwait in 1982 (actually managed a draw against Czechoslovakia).

How did the other Middle Eastern countries - Syria, Jordan, Oman et al - fare in the earlier qualification rounds? Check it out here.

In other Middle East football news, we congratulate Palestine for recently playing its first-ever international soccer game on home soil, drawing 1-1 with Jordan.

The Tuque Souq will keep tabs on the World Cup qualifying in the months ahead, including a preview of the Africa region showdown involving hopefuls Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. And we'll check in with the European qualifying, where Israel have a favourable group draw that could see them in their first World Cup finals.

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