Son Heung-min will join South Korea for its opening game in World Cup qualifying, with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann aiming to start the second stage of Asian competition with a statement win.
The Koreans and Asia’s five other 2022 World Cup participants start their qualification campaigns to appear at the 2026 tournament today.
None of the continental heavyweights are taking this stage lightly, with European-based stars such as Son, Kaoru Mitoma and Mehdi Taremi picked for their national teams to take on some of the continent’s lower-ranked rivals.
South Korea kicks off against Singapore in Seoul with Tottenham star Son and Wolves forward Hwang Hee-chan leading the attack. Both have been in excellent form in the Premier League.
Klinsmann is ready to play his strongest team, despite the fact Singapore is ranked No. 155, as he begins a bid for South Korea to qualify for an 11th successive World Cup.
“You have to take them very seriously,” Klinsmann, who was appointed in February, told a news conference in Seoul. “Your mind has to be in the right place. We have to be very sharp from the first moment.”
That’s an approach that the likes of Japan, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also taking.
The top two from each of the nine four-team groups will progress to the next stage of Asian qualifying, where they’ll compete for one of the eight automatic spots at the World Cup – double the continental quota available in 2022.
Klinsmann dismissed the idea that this makes the road to the 2026 World Cup in the U.S., Mexico and Canada any easier.
“All the teams that fight for a spot in the World Cup will fight even harder now,” the former U.S. coach said. “It will still be very difficult.”
Japan has appeared at every World Cup since 1998 and, now ranked No. 18, is Asia’s form team with six wins from its last six games, a run that includes a 4-1 win in Germany and a 4-2 win over Turkey.
Head coach Hajime Moriyasu wants to use that momentum to get off to a perfect start in Osaka against Myanmar, ranked 140 places below at 158th, and then against Syria five days later on neutral turf in Jeddah.
“We want to take six points from these two games,” Moriyasu, voted Asia’s men’s coach of the year, said. “We want to win and we want to give a performance that will allow us to build for the future.”
Australia also reached the knockout stage at the 2022 World Cup, pushing eventual champion Argentina all the way in the second round. In the last two months, the Socceroos drew 2-2 with Mexico, lost 1-0 to England in London and beat New Zealand 2-0.
“We’ve had the opportunity to test ourselves against some of world football’s best in the last six months, and our performances have shown just how effective we can be, learning a lot along the way,” coach Graham Arnold said.
Arnold will lead the Socceroos for a record 59th time as coach against Bangladesh in Melbourne. “It’ll be a fantastic honor,” he said, “but three points is all I care about.”
Qatar is still recovering from losing all three games as World Cup host in 2022, and takes on Afghanistan in its first game. Carlos Queiroz, who led Portugal, Iran and South Africa successfully through World Cup qualification, was appointed in February. JOHN DUERDEN, Seoul, MDT/AP