There is nothing like playing at the FIFA World Cup but to earn the right to be among the best 32 nations on the planet, first you need to qualify.
And that process is set to get underway for the Caltex Socceroos in September when the next phase of qualifying for the AFC begins.
Tonight, Australia will learn who they will face in Round 2 of AFC qualifying following the draw in Kuala Lumpur, which begins at 7pm (AEST).
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Qualifying for the 2022 tournament is set to begin in all Confederations later this year as the countdown to Qatar begins.
We take a look at what's happened in AFC qualifying so far, how the Round 2 qualifiers work and what's in store for the Caltex Socceroos over the next 12 months.
FIFA World Cup 2022
The next installment of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar will again comprise of 32 nations before the tournament expands to 48 countries in 2026.
The Caltex Socceroos will attempt to qualify through the Asian Football Confederation, which have been allocated 4.5 spots at the tournament, not including hosts Qatar.
Each other confederation will have:
- UEFA (Europe) - 13 spots
- CAF (Africa) - 5 spots
- CONMEBOL (South America) 4.5 spots
- Concacaf (North America) 3.5 spots; and
- Oceania 0.5 spots
The qualification pathway through the AFC has already begun, with six nations winning their way through the opening round to join 40 remaining countries.
Those nations will need to progress through two more rounds of qualifying where four teams will automatically book their spot in Qatar.
Two other countries will then battle it out through an Asian playoff round and an intercontinental round to try and be among the 32 nations to play at the showpiece tournament.
This is a scenario the Caltex Socceroos know all about, having defeated Syria and Honduras in the playoff rounds to book their spot at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
What happened in Round 1 of AFC qualifying?
The most recent FIFA International Window in June saw Graham Arnold’s Caltex Socceroos play a friendly against Korea Republic in Busan.
And while that match was going on, the first round of AFC qualifying was being completed.
It comprised of 12 nations – ranked 35-46 in the AFC – playing off over two legs to advance to the next phase of qualifying.
Malaysia were the most impressive of the six nations to qualify, beating Timor-Leste 12-2 on aggregate.
Despite losing the second leg away from home 2-1, Mongolia advanced past Brunei Darussalam 3-2 on aggregate thanks to their 2-0 win at home in the first leg.
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A solitary goal over the two legs was enough for Bangladesh to progress, beating Laos 1-0 on aggregate, while Guam overturned a 1-0 first-leg loss against Bhutan to advance 5-1 on aggregate after winning the second clash at home 5-0.
Cambodia were too strong for Pakistan, advancing 4-1 on aggregate, while Sri Lanka also got past Macau but in controversial fashion.
Macau won the first leg 1-0 at home but their association decided not to send their players to Sri Lanka for the second leg.
As a result of not showing up for the return tie, FIFA sanctioned Macau and handed Sri Lanka a 3-0 win, therefore sending them through to the next round of qualifying.
How does Round 2 of AFC qualifying work?
The 40 nations involved in tonight’s draw will be split into eight groups, each featuring five countries.
Those five sides will compete in a round-robin format playing each other nation twice, with four games at home and four away, as well as two byes.
Those matches will be held between September 5, 2019 and June 9, 2020.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up (12 nations) will advance to the final round of AFC qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
Those same 12 countries will also book their spot in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup which will be held in China.
What’s ahead for the Caltex Socceroos?
There’s no doubt tonight’s draw marks the start of an exciting period for Graham Arnold and his Caltex Socceroos.
The start of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers means the squad have at least eight meaningful matches between September and early June next year.
And four of those matches will be on home soil, giving Australian fans the chance to show their support for the Caltex Socceroos as they start their journey towards Qatar.
Of course, this phase of qualifying isn’t only about taking an important step towards the next FIFA World Cup.
These matches double as qualifiers for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in China, making it imperative the Caltex Socceroos finish at the top of their group.
It will also provide the squad with the perfect platform heading into the 2020 Copa America.
Along with Qatar, the Caltex Socceroos have been invited to participate in South America’s showpiece tournament, which will be staged in Argentina and Colombia from June 12 to July 12 next year.
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So it’s a massive 12 months ahead for the national team.
The good news is the players are hungry and there is plenty of depth in Arnold’s squad, as we saw in last month’s friendly against Korea Republic.
Despite blooding a host of fresh faces – including four debutants – the Caltex Socceroos produced a brilliant performance that should fill the coach and players with plenty of confidence.