Who's your favourite Middle Eastern squad? The stretch run of World Cup qualification commences this Saturday, March 28, with a full slate of European and Asian group-stage games. And the final Africa group stage kicks off on Saturday as well.
Here's the latest breakdown of the Middle East / North Africa region's national teams in their quest to qualify for South Africa 2010 (listed in order, according to the Tuque Souq's predictions, of most likely to qualify to least likely):
Egypt: Reigning African champions have a favourable draw, grouped with Algeria, Rwanda and Zambia in Africa Group C. The Egyptians are one of the hottest teams in the world, rising to #15 in the FIFA world rankings. Expect to see them in South Africa.
Iran: Currently in third place in Asia Group 2 after a draw in North Korea. But Iran is still a good bet to finish in the top 2 and grab an automatic bid; even third place would give them a good chance. The third-place finishers in each of Asia's 2 final groups will face each other in a playoff. This could be, for instance, Iran versus Bahrain (see below; Iran would be the favourites here). The winner of that two-legged playoff would face a further playoff against Oceania champs New Zealand (who are not very good) for the very last spot in the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia: Currently in fourth place in the same group with Iran and the two Koreas. We're suggesting the North Koreans aren't a favourite to seal the deal, and Saudi have a decent shot at a third-place finish, which would yield hope.
Tunisia: Assuming they can handle Kenya and Mozambique, the steady North Africans will still have to overcome powerhouse Nigeria to qualify out of Africa Group B. The Nigerians do have a history of underachieving, though they are undefeated in Africa qualifying so far. [See the Tuque Souq's special Tunisia football post.]
Israel: Handed perhaps their best chance in decades to qualify when they were drawn into Europe's Group 2 with only Greece and Switzerland as real competition. They're in if they win the group, or if they finish second they face a playoff draw for an at-large bid to South Africa. Huge pair of games versus Greece looming this week. The 2 squads meet Saturday in Ramat Gan, Israel, and then follow with a game in Athens next Wednesday. This very well could be Israel's year. Then we could hope for a World Cup grouping with Iran to really excite the tourney! [That's Israel's superstar Yossi Benayoun pictured.]
Morocco: A good team, but a long-shot bet in Africa's Group A to outduel stellar Cameroon. Togo and Gabon are also in the way.
Bahrain: Not good enough to stop Japan and/or Australia in Asia's Group 1, where Bahrain are currently 3rd. But third place would get them a playoff, probably against Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Qatar: Could do exactly what Bahrain are trying to do (above). Qatar are currently 4th in Asia's Group 1. Huge match-up against their rivals coming on April 1.
Algeria: They'd need to upset Egypt in Africa's Group C. Very unlikely.
United Arab Emirates: Still alive but in the cellar of Asia's Group 2. With 4 games to play, they'd have to beat Saudi Arabia and North Korea this coming week and get some help from above to even make the playoffs.
Sudan: Not expected to be a serious threat in Africa's Group D with favourites Ghana and surprisingly good Mali and Benin.
ELIMINATED FROM CONTENTION:
Libya: Barely missed out on qualifying for Africa's final round, losing on tie-breaker rules to Ghana and Gabon.
Syria: Beat Afghanistan 5-1 aggregate and then Indonesia 11-1 aggregate in the Asia prelims. Then in the first Asia group stage they fell barely short on tie-breaker rules to the UAE.
Kuwait: Good enough to get a bye out of the prelims, but finished a disappointing last in the first group stage, behind Iran, UAE and Syria.
Iraq: Former Olympic champs trounced Pakistan 7-0 aggregate in the prelims, then finished third to Australia and Qatar in the first group stage.
Jordan: Edged Kyrgyzstan 6-5 on penalties in the prelims, then finished a distant third to the 2 Koreas in the first group stage.
Oman: Beat Nepal 4-0 aggregate in the prelims. Finished third to Japan and Bahrain in the first group stage.
Lebanon: Beat India 6-3 aggregate in the prelims, then lost all 6 of its games in the first group stage.
Yemen: Beat lowly Maldives 3-2 aggregate in the first prelim round, then fell 2-1 to Thailand in the prelim playoffs.
Palestine: Lost 7-0 aggregate in two prelim games against Singapore.
Mauritania: Lost all 6 of their preliminary round games in Africa.
Djibouti: Also lost all 6 of their preliminary round games in Africa, by a worse margin.
Somalia: Didn't compete.
KEY UPCOMING GAMES:
Greece at Israel
Tunisia at Kenya
Gabon at Morocco
UAE at North Korea
Qatar at Uzbekistan
Saudi Arabia at Iran
Bahrain at Japan
Zambia at Egypt
Qatar at Bahrain
UAE at Saudi Arabia
Israel at Greece