Thursday, January 3, 2019

AFC 2019--In search of Sunrise Syndicate

Servus Syndicate Members,

Time to take our footballing interests eastward. In a world heavily preponderated by digital one-upmanship, there shall invariably be both doubters and shamers. Some will contact your friendly bookie directly.

Others mostly exist only in his own bi-furcated conscience. Must we really, Vicey? Providing footballing coverage to the counties involved in this continental championship appears nothing more than a hollow and pedantic exercise.  

How can one spend time discussing the Yemeni Lineup when the real story involves a devastating humanitarian crisis in which untold tens of millions are starving to death before our very eyes? Why spend time parsing through Saudi Lineups when it would be more pertinent to address the current regime’s role in this catastrophe, not to mention flagrant acts against international standards of truth and justice like the Khashoggi murder?

As your friendly found myself working on the basic scaffolding of this chapter, the moral quandaries continued to mount. Shouldn’t a section on Bahrain be exclusively devoted to the plight of Hakeen Al-Araibi? Can one consider it even remotely appropriate to handicap the Philippine team’s chances when Duterte’s daily atrocities scream for ethical commentary? Of what use is a write up on Vietnam if Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh doesn’t get a mention? What about the Emirati Airstrikes, seven-plus years of slaughter in Syria, and all of the implications of proxy policy in Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, and Oman?

A well-intentioned bookie impractically twisted into knots possesses no profound answers to such principled dilemmas, other than to concede how completely unqualified he is to intelligibly dissertate on much of any of it. Few of us living mostly purposeless lives securely shrouded in Western Amenity Cocoons are. There do exist true heroes out there. Namely, the courageous journalists who risk life and limb to provide veracious coverage of those working on the front lines of truth and justice. Your humble and unworthy bookie can do little but pay sincere homage to the noble contribution they make to humanity. In the “Disinformation Age”, he sleeps easier at night knowing that professionals are on the job. 

Those who merely consume such information, and often fully take for granted those who produce it, accomplish nothing other than ruining other people’s day with shallowly sanctimonious regurgitations of what amounts to cursory knowledge. No need for your friendly bookie to go that route, as he actually doesn’t work for “VICE Media”. (…SWIPE!) True journalism is best left to the professionals, of which neither I nor some über-informed hipster can purport to be. 

Ahem. Having mercifully gotten through your friendly bookie’s usual metaphysical inner torment about the direction of his life, I may finally begin to settle in and talk football with my closest mates. Note that I’ve also stopped referring to myself in the third person. Welcome to the 26th Chapter of our shared journey. Welcome to our second cycle covering the AFC Cup. Welcome back to football, brothers. It’s not exactly the WM, but it’s still a worthwhile excuse for us to get together.

You’ll find precious little love for this tournament among football enthusiasts. It’s generally not a good sign when the scandalously uninteresting Club World Cup generates more excitement in most online circles. Syndicate Member 155-M references a certain commentator who once referred to it as “possibly the worst continental championship out there”, “a bloated tournament full of dead weight”, and “hardly worth paying attention to”. This chronicler even had some harsh proscriptions for its future: 

From AFC 2015--Quarterfinals


Thank heavens the knockout stages are finally here. Bahrain turned out to be the footballing equivalent of the planet of “NowWhat”. (See Douglas Adams’s “Mostly Harmless”) John Okwunwanne and a bunch of Boghogs. Just under five thousand spectators watched their lifeless and even outright cloying finale in Sydney. Forty-eight-hundred people. Minor League Ice Hockey teams in the U.S. struggle to put up such pathetic attendance. 

To make matters worse, 4,800 poor forlorn souls lost 90 valuable minutes of their lives that they’ll never be able to regain. The arrow of time only moves forward. 

That’s it. I insist that the Asian Cup must be scaled back to an eight-team tournament. We can’t allow this to go any further. 


No wonder the Bahrainis flocked to Pearl Square. They didn’t want to watch this football team!!

Ah yes. We were so young then. So very young ; )

To proclaim a complete change of heart would be disingenuous. I still stew over the trend to expand to 24-team tournaments. That of course constitutes more of an arithmetical grievance than anything else. How aggravating it is that three quarters of the group’s third-place finishers get a place in the knockouts! As we’ve witnessed in the Women’s World Cup, the men’s Euros, and even the twelve-team women’s Euro back in 2013, it creates frustratingly skewed outcomes when one can’t get a number divisible by eight out of the groups. Mostly this is irritating because it ends up diluting the Quarters and Semis with badly mismatched fixtures on both sides of the bracket. Sigh.

Oh well. Seeing as how the trend cannot be stopped, let’s begin to focus on what positives it might accord us. For starters, we’ll all get introduced to some programs we’ve never had a chance to witness in action before. Nine of the nations in this field are Syndicate debutantes. Gross mismatches may actually prove somewhat fun in this context as they’ll yield either high-scoring affairs or intriguing storylines. 

Anything to make this tournament more interesting to a world with tepid interest in it can be considered worth it. 

There’s money to be made off of some of the wholly inaccurate online odds I’ve encountered in my research as well. Seeing as how our project increasingly evolves into something of a gambling column, allow your friendly bookie guide you through the some of the trends other oddsmakers appear to be missing. Evidently some handicaps have been assigned arbitrarily as there’s just too much ground for scouts to cover. A little extra info might garner you some bank.     

Should you prefer to keep your pocketbook out of this one, at least find some time to kick back and let these teams entertain you. I’ll emphasize again: It’s not the World Cup gentlemen. To put it as gently as possible, you might wonder if some of these nations could compete against your daughter’s “Chase team”.  Nevertheless, it’s worth a look. These eastern programs will grow more competitive as the sport itself achieves greater continental parity. All matches will be televised domestically in all corners of the global syndicate domain. Even Stateside bettors can watch on Fubo or the Eleven Sports Network and all related apps. There’s also some cleaner Peer-to-Peer sites available that I can share (but unfortunately can’t link to) to those interested.    

Football’s always worth it, even through a much shorter chapter. We have to cover it anyway, seeing as how the champ secures a place in the 2021 Confed Cup. Like it or not, “The Future is Asia”. Let’s have ourselves a glimpse at what awaits us…and bring back that graphic from 2015.


Eastward we march!

Group A (U.A.E., Bahrain, Thailand, India)


Justice should prevail eventually. Thai authorities can’t continue to detain Al-Araibi when they’re slated to play Bahrain. We’ve given it a mention above. Those seeking more nuanced info are encouraged to obtain it from competent sources.

As pertains to the football, the hosts face negligible completion here. Though your friendly bookie can’t figure out their tactics just yet, they will cruise through the tune-ups unscathed and brimming with confidence.

 U.A.E. (Winning Odds—Straight Up) 

The Cinderella of the 2015 tournament returns well poised to punch back through to the Semi-finals or beyond. A roster armed with nearly 400 collective caps and close to 100 cumulative international goals will surely benefit from the competent stewardship of Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni—a familiar syndicate figure oft lauded in these pages for his technocratic four-year-stint managing Japan. 

Overall I’d advise gamblers to take advantage of the long-odds some houses will set on the hosts. They have what it takes to go all the way on home soil as they nearly a generation ago. 

“Zayed’s Sons” lit it up fast and famously four years ago in large part thanks to a hitherto known striker by the name of Ali Mabkhout. In an unanticipated burst of brilliance, the Al-Jazira Club forward grabbed a brace in the opening 4-1 romp of Kuwait, scored a stunner thirteen seconds into the next group stage match against Bahrain, then netted two more decisive tallies in the knockouts to claim the competition’s Golden Boot uncontested. 

Another breakout player of that tournament finished close behind him in terms of tallies. Ahmed Khalli, at that time the Asian young footballer of the year, scored his own thrilling brace in the third-place match to finish with a total of four sublimely finished goals. Your friendly bookie marveled at the discovery of such unexpected talent and openly pondered if such names would remain unfamiliar. 

Four years later…..they remain about as unfamiliar as it gets. Both players still toil in the domestic league and I confess I’d completely forgotten about them until some ten minutes ago. It’s the AFC, gentlemen. Merely because it breeds its own diminutive heroes, doesn’t mean the babes can stand tall with the Big Boys. Na ja. 

Your friendly bookie places the two well-established players up front. Only two of the actors comprising the once-feted “Abdulrahman Axis” remain. I’ll slot them in slightly behind the double pronged attack with eyes towards the flanks. Newcomer Saif Rashid (one to keep an eye on no doubt) needs a place, so he’ll inherit the anchoring striker role, perhaps serving as the Pocket 9. Islmail El Hammadi stabilizes the midfield with Ismail Ahmed guarding the defensive keystone.

Huge deficiency on the back flanks as I can’t find natural fullbacks to fill the position. For some reason Mohammed Khamees and Abdelaziz Sanqour didn’t make the final roster. Zacherroni appears to be doing his best Deschamps impression with by selecting three defenders who haven’t even been capped for the national eleven yet. Might be the caser that he intends to move wingers like Majed Hassan or Khamis Esmaeel into those positions, but I’ll plug in the rookies for now.

 Projecting the Emirati Lineup (5-3-2) 

                Ali Mabkhout Ahmed Khalil
M. Abdulrahman    S. Rashid      A. Abdulrahman
                           I. El-Hammadi
A. H. Saleh                                                 I. Ahmed                 
           Mohamed Ahmed     Walid Abbas
                              Khalid Eisa

 Bahrain (Winning Odds 9 to 1) 

The expanded field should mean that the Red Islanders accede out of the group for the first time since the 2004 Continental Championship. One must, however, ask the legitimate question as to how far a shadow this deplorable situation with Hakeem al-Araibi will cast. With support for the detainee’s cause pouring in from across the globe, we don’t even know if this squad can focus. We’ll say so, if only because they feature a talented enough core group.

They may not allow women to install light bulbs after dark, but they can put together a halfway decent football team. They’ve nearly qualified for the World Cup twice, barely dropping the intercontinental playoff leg in 2006 and 2010. The current squad owes a great deal to English Manager Peter Taylor (Incidentally NOT the canonized Peter Taylor that served as Brian Clough’s better half). It was he who groomed lead striker Abdulla Yusuf Helal, who now stars for Bohemians Prague in the perfectly respectable Czech League. Sami Al-Husaini, another one of his call-ups, serves as the joker off the bench. 

Helal isn’t exactly the force Nigerian-born globetrotter John Jaycee Okwunwanne was to this team, but he spearheads a sufficient enough attack backed up by Al-Nasr’s Said Dhiya Saeed and flanked in malleable positions by veterans Jamal Rashid Abdulwahad Al-Safi. Both are former Taylor protégées.

Complicated to sort out the midfield, but it seems as if Miroslav Soukup attempts to replicate the 4-2-3-1 system he used during his two-year tenure in further south in Yemen. Bookie mixes it up a bit to pair veterans with youngsters on each axis. Little concerned about the youth at the back, but sometimes-outfielder Saayed Schubbar—a keeper fond of Rene Higuita antics—seems solid enough to seal the defense. 

 Projecting the Bahraini Lineup (4-2-3-1) 

                      Abdulla Yusuf Helal
                         Said Dhiya Saeed
                Jamal Rashid      Ali Madan 
              K.H. Al Aswad      Ab. Al Safi   
Ahmed Juma A. Abdulla W. Al-Hayam Sayed Baqer                 
                     Sayeed Schubbar Alawi

 Thailand (Winning Odds—12 to 1) 

Though the War Elephants fall into the classification of Syndicate Debutantes, the domestic footballing association boasts some historical successes. A ragtag mix of amateurs and pros secured third place in 1972 when hosting the tournament. Before entering a period of prolonged decline, the program qualified for five consecutive continental championships between 1992 and 2007. Unfortunately, over the course of that span they only proved victorious in one of fifteen matches and never advanced beyond the group.

Besides having a cool name (The War Elephants), a marvelous association acronym (Football Association Thailand = FAT), and some snazzy uniforms many of you might like to receive in your Schwag Packs, this crew realistically stands a chance of bucking such grim historical trends. Serbian trainer Milovan Rajevac—who led Ghana to the 2010 WM Quarters—took over approximately 18 months ago. His revamped squad to recently reached AFF Suzuki Cup Semis. Having scouted some of the late-tournament matches, your friendly bookie is pleased to report that they deploy a no-holds-barred triplicate striker attack. Prominent features in this effective assault include mighty-mouse-clone Chanathip Songkrasin and veteran of Thaksin Shiniwatra’s brief foray into ManCity Ownership Teerasil Dangda. 

Using the formations deployed in the previous competition, I’ve managed to build a front-four capable of penetrating any of the other units in this group. Matters get a little shakier as we move to the back. Rajevac unexpectedly dropped regular Left Back Peerapat Notchaiya from the final roster and talismanic Belgian Second League Keeper Kawin Thamsatchanan will miss out due to injury. Not exactly sure what the plan is to shore up a defense set to meet heavy bombardment, but I’ll switch Adisorn Promrak to an unnatural position for now and hope for the best. 
 Projecting the Thai Lineup (4-2-1-3) 

       S. Chaided  T. Dangda  S. Chattong 
                      Adisak Kraisorn
   Thitipan Puangchan Tanaboon Keserat    
 A. Promrak                                   Tristan Do 
              T. Bunmathan  P. Hemviboon
                    Chatchai Budprom

 India (Winning Odds—18 to 1) 

The proud lads from the sub-continent do indeed engage in activities other than cricket. Furthermore, if the FIFA rankings are to be believed, they can actually rise as high as second place in this group and sustain a wave all the way to this tournament’s shore. Look a bit closer, however, and you’ll foresee hardly a ripple.

It’s certainly a promising young group led by highly-focused Cypriot Mourninho-clone Stephen Constantine. Nearly four years into his second stint as the nation’s head coach, he’s taken a side barely worth a million in Transfermarkt’s estimation on a tear that included a two-year thirteen-match unbeaten streak. It’s doubtful that the overachieving can continue as the final squad selection looks to be an exercise in capitulation.

Initially working with a 34-man provisional team, I was able to piece-together something more exciting Narendra Modi’s wearisome Yoga Meditation videos. The final cuts leave us with a somnolent side barely qualified to muster a sluggish stir. 

Manvir Singh’s exclusion places thirty-four-old Sunil Chhetri spearheading the Sturm. Plenty of dynamic young players like Halicharan Narzary, Jackichand Singh, and Udanta Singh behind him, but later bloomers like Pronay Halder, Narayan Das, and Pritam Kotal—though definitely higher on my depth chart—may lack the imagination necessary to supplement what amounts to a traditional offense centering around hitting a Big-Target forward. 

Somehow I thought eager up-and-comers like Lallianzuala Chhangte and Nikhil Poojari warranted. That pair already generated goals in the few international caps they’ve been accorded. Why not give them the chance to represent the Ashoka Chakra?

Naturally I must acknowledge that I likely don’t know what in the hell I’m talking about. As you all well know, your friendly bookie gets proven dead wrong frequently and occasionally goes to unnecessarily elaborate lengths to deliberately force himself into being thoroughly confuted. Perhaps I’m just angling to get the props knocked out from underneath me. 

 Projecting the Blue Tiger Lineup (4-4-2) 

       Jeje Lalpekhlua  Sunil Chhetri
   Udanta Singh             Halicharan Narzary 
      Jackichand Singh  Pronay Halder
  Narayan Das                    Pritam Kotal
        Subhasish Bose Sandesh Jhingan
                  Gurpreet Sandhu           

Vicey’s Fearless Group Projection (2 to 1 Odds for Bookie)

 1) U.A.E. 
 2) Bahrain
 3) Thailand 
 4) India

Round of 16 Odds

 U.A.E. (NO BETS) 
 Bahrain (Straight Up)
 Thailand (2 to 1)
 India (3 to 1)

Quarterfinal Odds

 U.A.E. (NO BETS) 
 Bahrain (2 to 1)
 Thailand (4 to 1)
 India (6 to 1)

Semifinals Odds

 U.A.E. (Straight Up) 
 Bahrain (3 to 1)
 Thailand (8 to 1) 
 India (12 to 1)

Group B (Australia, Syria, Jordan, Palestine)


Not much competition for the Socceroos here, even despite the last minute injury to Aaron Mooy....and that obnoxious new crest. In an intriguing fight for second place, I’ll tip a Syrian side that seems strong enough to make a run. Hard to trust what Vital Borkelmans is doing with the Jordanians. I’d advise staying away.

As for Palestine….well…they’ll do slightly better than the last go-round for whatever that’s worth.

 Australia (Winning Odds—Straight Up) 

Whenever we check in on the Aussies during the global tournament, your friendly bookie bemoans the fact that they don’t actually intend to treat the Grand Stage as anything more than a dry-run. No such griping shall be in order here as this is the contest they truly gear up for. Since the switch to the Asian Confederation twelve years ago, the program’s primary goal has been to establish dominance in this geographical association. 

A second consecutive continental title looks to be attainable provided they don’t peak too early. For the first time in eons your friendly bookie genuinely finds himself enthused about composing a section on the ‘Roos. That’s largely due to the fact that Cahill has FINALLY officially retired. Juchu! I no longer need to find a way to work him in anymore!

Far too early to make any sweeping assessment of the Second Graham Arnold Era, but it’s fair to say he’s nailed a few crucial decisions. First there’s the issue of the captaincy. Mike Jedinak’s retirement left the post vacant. Veteran defensive anchor Mark Milligan now inherits the armband after a decade’s worth of reliable work and a solid WM campaign. The stalwart contributor to the Championship run four years ago presently enjoys a late-career revival with Scottish side Hibernian Edinburgh. He’s found a comfortable groove with fellow national team members Jaime Maclaren and Martin Boyle. Great potential for this trio already familiar with each other. 

Arnold deserves major props for the recruitment of Boyle himself. The Scottish international only joined the team this past autumn after obtaining an Aussie passport through his paternal lineage. Keep a close watch on him as he’s already tallied twice in his initial two starts. He’s all set for a monster tournament. 

In addition to getting the leadership issue sorted out and bringing an exciting new talent into the fold, Arnold jettisoned van Marwijk’s garbage 4-2-3-1, enhancing the attack by bringing Kruse and Luongo up front. Switching Leckie over to the left has reaped immediate dividends. Rogic finds himself stuck in an awful club rut, but did score when deployed up front for the national eleven earlier this year. 

As always, my thoughts on the Aussie structural alignment are infected with a “Kraut Bias”. Your friendly bookie tends to overestimate how important a role Bundesliga stars like Leckie and Kruse will play. Beyond my prediction regarding the back four, it’s entirely possible we’ll see a completely different arrangement. That doesn’t in the slightest diminish my view on their prospects as they unquestionably have the deepest team in the tournament and should be considered the favorites. 

The late news concerning midfield general Aaron Mooy’s injury shouldn’t make much of a difference either. Though his scrappy penchant for ball-winning will be missed, one can easily slot Irvine, Maclaren, or even Amini into his role readily. Three soft matches afford the trainer enough time to toy around with the best option.

 Projecting the Socceroo Lineup (4-3-3) 

  Tom Rogic       Robbie Kruse     Massimo Luongo
         Mathew Leckie         Martin Boyle
                           Jackson Irvine           
  Aziz Behich                                     Josh Risdon
             Mark Milligan   Trent Sainsbury
                           Mathew Ryan

 Syria (Winning Odds—6 to 1)  

Clearing one’s mind of all the carnage surrounding this quasi-failed state proved a semi-impossible task. Nearly every player has his story. As one can imagine, many of them were downright harrowing. For obvious reasons we’re not talking about the fittest of squads. There are, however, plenty of noteworthy players who should secure advancement. This counts as significant as “Les Aigles de Qasyoun” have never gotten out of the group in this completion despite winning at least one match in all five of their attempts. Barring some freak occurrence, they’ll accomplish that feat here.

Your friendly bookie stands impressed with a striking kader of veterans Omar Al Soma and Mardik Mardikan. Initially I constructed a lineup acting on the assumption that young gun Omar Khrbin wouldn’t return from a lingering injury. That deployment, which relied upon Zaher Midani and Mahmoud Al Mawas to keep the midfield competitive, led to a tentative prediction of a third-place finish. What a difference one player can make! Now it appears as if all the pieces fit into place.

Khrbin has tallied in a little less than half his caps for the national side. The 2017 Asian footballer of the Year has struggled to comeback from a potential career-derailing injury earlier this year but is now reportedly looking fully fit. Elsewhere, Erdevisie prodigy Mohammed Osman buttresses the fine attack, Tamer Haj Mohammed ballasts one of the tournaments best defensive midfields, and mobile defenders like Ajan, Al Salih, and Jenyat give the defense ranks some intriguing upward momentum.

On paper this team could be a sleeping giant. Your friendly bookie certainly won’t hesitate to abandon these rosy auguries if they stumble out of the gate.      
 Projecting the Syrian Lineup (4-2-3-1) 

                  Mardik Mardikan
    Omar Al Soma      Omar Khrbin
                Mohammed Osman
         K. Al Mobayed   T.H. Mohammed
 M. Ajan O. Midani A. Al Salih A. Jenyat      
                     Ibrahim Alma

 Jordan (Winning Odds—9 to 1) 

Long-term Syndicate readers know of my dissatisfaction with this country. Most of it revolves around their complacency with respect to the Palestinian displacement. Such sweet irony that they’ve found themselves once again drawn in a group with the population they’ve had a historical duty to absorb. No shortage of rants on the subject in our 2015 coverage. Let’s keep our attention on the football here. 

“The Chivalrous” bowed out of the previous tournament in the group stage despite a dazzling four-goal match from Hamza Al-Dardour. Your friendly bookie marveled at one of the most brilliant Super Hat Tricks he had ever seen. Three of the goals came from close range, but one capped a sensational thrashing thirty-yard run during which he deked and juked like one of the world’s finest!

Sadly, we won’t be seeing him this time around as he didn’t even make the preliminary roster for reasons unclear to me. As was the case with Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalli, AFC breakout stars don’t seem capable of making the leap onto the European radar. Most unfortunate. 

The current incarnation of the squad confuses me a bit as I couldn’t make heads or tails out of what Vital Borkelmans was doing with the preliminary roster. At first it appears he was stacking the team with offensive minded midfield speedsters, then he cut most of them to bulk up on defense. Nothing cogent emerged from the pre-tournament friendlies, but I sense he’s aiming for a “choke-out approach” around the middle of the park. 

Jordan remains one of two teams in this competition who haven’t cut down to their final 23 just yet. Bookie thus operates with six unknown places.    

 Projecting the Jordanian Lineup (3-5-2) 

                     Baha Faisal       Odai Khadr
                             Musa Al-Taamari
B. Abdel-Rahman M. Al-Mardi A. Samir Y. Al-Bakhit             
Salem Al-Ajalin                                         Feras Shelbaieh
                                Tareq Khattab
                                  Amer Shafi 

 Palestine (Winning Odds—30 to 1) 

They will do better…or so a bookie can dream. I honestly don’t believe my dreamer’s heart can take a re-hash of the resounding lashing doled out on this team by the Japs, Iraqis, and Jordanians four years ago. Let’s handle it with re-posts instead. 

Presenting “The Precipitous Death of Hope”:

From AFC 2015—Geo-Syndicate Redux   

 Palestine (Winning Odds—32 to 1) 

This is happening!! Fuck yeah! This is happening!! Ahem….allow that to sink in for one more nanosecond. 


Observer Status at the U.N. and now a legitimate berth in a major international tournament. 


The Palestinians have been recognized by FIFA since the late 90s. It may come as little surprise to anyone that a non-state entity built on martyrdom had a little trouble getting off the ground. Now it’s finally come to pass. 


We’ll all be watching with great interest, if not deep cynicism. Your friendly bookie cannot bring himself to project any lineups or make any grand prognostications. Even a bleeding heart can’t bleed all over the damn place. 

Enjoy it while it lasts.  

From AFC 2015—Round Two

 16) Palestine 

Not a single armchair analyst was surprised to see the “Martyrs” flop with such a resounding thud. The political aspirations of a displaced people know working on their fourth generation of offspring makes for a compelling narrative, albeit one that doesn’t exactly transfer well to activities on the football pitch. Such is life in a vast, empty, and godless universe. 

No….I haven’t been drinking! Stop looking at me like that!

From AFC 2015—Round Three

 16) Palestine (Previously #16) 


Is it over yet? This is like watching the “International Kitten Stomping Competition”. ; ( : ( I’d tell the Martyrs to go home to their nice cozy little Nation-State….but that’s rubbing salt in the largest gashing wound of the 20thCentury. Oh God, tell me it’s over. I don’t want to watch this country fail anymore. Let it be over. 

From AFC 2015—Quarterfinals

 16th Place—Palestine 

Praise Allah. It’s FINALLY over. I couldn’t take it anymore. Of course they finished dead last. That’s what we all expected, even if we hoped against hope that the sun wouldn’t set. 

It’s common for one to carry messianic hopes when rooting for Semitic peoples from the fertile Promised Land. The sun must always set on such quixotic hopes and dreams. The sun must always set…unless one lives above the Arctic Circle. Hmmm…perhaps it’s time to move there. Seriously. Ridiculous messianic hopes in First Century Palestine led to one of my least favorite religions. Two thousand years later I can’t pick up the newspaper and read about the Palestinian subjugation without feeling ashamed to be human. 

Damn. The sheer act of re-visiting that morbid slide sapped an entire morning’s worth of energy. I can barely bring myself to discuss the current team….who will play better. Yes, they will play better. They MUST play better.

Below you’ll find my best guess. Returning Slovenian national Jaka Ihbeisheh scored the lone goal in the last campaign. Beyond that, Tambrruini (a Chilean) and Nazmi Albadawi (an American) are the only ones I’ve ever heard of.

They WILL play better!

 Projecting the Palestinian Lineup (4-2-3-1) 

                         Khaled Salem
N. Albadawi     Yashir Islame        O. Dabbagh
          J. Cantillana            P. Tamburrini
Jaka Ihbeisheh                          Tamer Salah   
       Mohammed Saleh  Abdelatif Al Bahdari
                          Tawfiq Ali

Vicey’s Fearless Group Projection (Straight Up Odds for Bookie)

 1) Australia  
  2) Syria 
 3) Jordan 
 4) Palestine

Round of 16 Odds

 Australia (NO BETS) 
  Syria (NO BETS)
 Jordan (Straight Up) 
 Palestine (5 to 1)

Quarterfinal Odds

 Australia (NO BETS) 
  Syria (2 to 1)
 Jordan (3 to 1) 
 Palestine (15 to 1)

Semifinals Odds

 Australia (Straight Up) 
  Syria (4 to 1)
 Jordan (6 to 1) 
 Palestine (20 to 1)

Group C (South Korea, China PR, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines)


Another weak group that won’t challenge the well-established Taeguks. In principle the Chinese should make it through, but don't rule out a surprise run from one of the other programs. Your friendly bookie managed to talk himself into thoughts of a Kyrgyz Dark Horse. He bought into the Philippines too…for a half an afternoon or so. 

In any event, by the end of this section everyone should finally know how to spell Kyrgyzstan without the aid of spell-check. No excuses. I taught myself. You can too. 

 South Korea (Winning Odds—Straight Up) 

All hail our Asian Tigers, back with possibly the best squad assembled since their run to the final four years ago. Since eliminating my beloved Fatherland in Russia last Summer they’ve gone on a sparkling unbeaten run under former Portugal national team manager Paulo Bento. Much like last Summer, the FIFA Rankings underrate the squad’s current form by—in this bookie’s estimation—a bare minimum of 15 places. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that we’re dealing with one of the world’s best twenty teams at the moment. 

Improvements to an already stacked include streaking striker Hwang Ui-Jo and rising young prodigies Hwang In-Beom, Kim Moon-Hwan, and Na Sang-Ho. One may not identify the veteran initially mentioned above immediately as he’s thus far done mostly tangential work for the national eleven. The Gamba Osaka center-forward broke caught fire this past Autumn, netting three goals in three matches on the trot. 

Electric form surges throughout the remainder of the roster. Son Heung-Min again scorches for Spurs in the Premiership. Ko Ja-Cheol is off and running at Augsburg. Ji Dong-Wong and Hwang Hee-Chan are all currently full on confidence for their second-tier Bundesliga clubs. Lee Chung-Yong may not be putting up great numbers yet, but he appears much more comfortable and creative over at VfL Bochum. 

Seeing as how I’ve prematurely fallen in love with this team’s prospects before, it seems apt to address some of the potential pitfalls that exist. Kim Shin-Wok’s exclusion leaves Bento with less reliable late attacking options off the bench. A late injury to Nam-Tee Hee isn’t entirely insignificant as his guidance in the middle of the park might have proven useful. Kim Jin-Su and Kim Min-Jae both return from injury to resume their roles at the back, but the former may have permanently lost his position on the rearward flanks. Instability at both the fullback and keeper position could spell trouble once the competition gets fiercer. Bento opts for youth here, leaving Go Yo-Han, Park Joo-Ho, and Kim Min-Woo behind. Jan Hyun-Soo’s suspension leaves them short yet another veteran.

Nothing but bad history for the Taeguks in this tournament. Since winning the initial two competitions in 1956 and 1960, they’ve made it all the way to the Final Four seven times, dropping the last match on four occasions. We’ll tap them as favorites to capture their first title in 58-long-years here. In a bizarre coincidence it looks like they’ll do it without a single player possessing the surname “Park”.    

 Projecting the Taeguk Lineup (4-4-2) 

       Son Heung-Min    Ji Dong-Won
   Hwang Hee-Chan         Lee Jae-Sung
     Ki Sung-Yueng     Lee Chung-Yong 
  Hong Chul                        Lee Yong
        Kim Min-Jae  Kim Young-Gwon
                   Kim Seung-Gyu       

 China PR (Winning Odds—10 to 1) 

At this point I think we can all agree that the International China Cup has been a genuinely awful idea. Luring third-tier European sides to the lush southern city of Nanning for a Spring Invitational seemed perfectly harmless, but getting absolutely crushed by likes of Iceland, Wales, and Croatia pretty much trashed any of the promising aspects to be built upon during the Marcelo Lippi era. Might as well call it “The Rape of Nanning”. (Not be confused with Nanjing). 

The old Italian maestro has pieced together some successes for Team Dragon. A solid WM Qualifying Campaign saw them defeat South Korea for the first time ever in a competitive match. The defensive ranks constituted a bit of a mess, but they fell only a single point short of the fourth round thanks to timely and well-executed goals from veteran strikers Gao Lin and Xiao Zhi. Wu Lei, another striker who has previously earned props in the syndicate pages, chipped in with some offensive prowess of his own. 

When building the lineup, your friendly bookie found many holdovers from the team that convincingly topped their group and advanced to the Quarters four years ago. The real challenge was finding ways to spread some speed and youth around the file. I’ve done my level best, mostly pushing youth towards the back and selecting some defensive-minded midfielders. The result yields a strange 3-4-3 typecast that may bear little resemblance to what we witness on the pitch. 

In any event the roster should be strong enough to hold off the potential spoilers in this group.  

 Projecting the Dragon Lineup (3-4-3) 

     Wu Lei    Gao Lin   Yu Dabao  
  Yu Hanchao                       Wu Xi 
        Piao Cheng  Chi Zhongguo
   Liu Yang                  Zhang Linpeng
         Yu Yeng     Li Xuepeng 
                   Wang Dalei

 Kyrgyzstan (Winning Odds—15 to 1) 

Not exactly the greatest footballing tradition in the one former S.S.R. that obstinately refused to even attempt to translate their nation’s name out of the Cyrillic. One would think a trainer could find plenty of room to put the Bishkek Boys out to practice out on those lovely spacious steppes. Oh wait a minute. That’s the Kazaks. Dammit. Why must I always get these two countries confused? 

Preliminary research into the program’s recent rise to “radar-worthy status” revealed that, unsurprisingly, a competent coach revamped the roster by recruiting Kyrgyz-born internationals into the fold. Such was the case with Germany’s Vitalij Lux, Viktor Maier, and Edgar Bernhardt. Additionally, there were several players of Russian descent eligible for Kyrgyz passports. Enter Valery Kichin, Valery Kashuba, and Mirlan Murzaev. 

It’s always easy to spot the misplaced names when initially studying a former S.S.R. Roster. What shocked the hell out of me was the preponderance of clearly African handles. What in the hell were Daniel Tegoe, David Tetteh, and Elijah Ari doing here? Naturalized Ghanaians! What?! Evidently there’s some allure to living, working, and eventually becoming a citizen of this mountainous backwater. Must be a high ratio of pretty girls there.

Your friendly bookie, being your friendly bookie, then spent entirely too long scouting a bunch of players he had no truly had no business learning about. At one point I even caught “Upset Alert” Fever and placed them second in this group. Thankfully I came to my senses. One can structure a decent eleven out of this crew, but there’s nowhere enough offensive talent to get them very far.

Note that as of this writing the Kyrgyzs still haven’t submitted a final roster. Bookie thus assembles with a 35-man-provisional squad.

 Projecting the Kyrgyz Lineup (5-4-1) 

                           Vitalij Lux
   M. Akhmedov                         Viktor Maier 
          Daniel Tagoe    Edgar Bernhardt 
V. Kichin       A. Zemlyanukhin      M. Yusupov               
        Azamat Basimatov   Tamirlan Kozubaev  
                         Pavel Matiash

 The Philippines (Winning Odds—30 to 1) 

With American Football in such continued disarray, might as well start scratching the fur on your mangy colonies. What? Seriously, what? The nickname of the team happens to be the “Street Dogs”. Don’t blame you friendly bookie for the canine innuendo. Fans of the USMNT will immediately feel comfortable once they see this team take the pitch in their star-spangled uniforms. Plenty of Anglicized names to make you feel home as well. Won’t you consider adopting them as your team, brothers?

Ordinarily we’d refuse to give a team who named themselves after a domesticated pack animal incapable of surviving without Simian assistance much of a chance, but they’ve brought in Sven Goran Erikson! Everything’s possible with Sven…and by “everything” your friendly bookie actually means nothing. I sometimes wonder whether Sven actively seeks to have a Don Revie-like career.

Nah. Don’t waste your money here, mates. The Philippine Football League possesses about as much cache as any non-accredited law or medical program you’re likely to find on the isles. Loads of German names on the roster, but they’re mostly a collection of guys who couldn’t make the first string at Schweinfurt or Unterhaching. Erzgebirge Aue midfielder John Patrick-Strauß might still make a name for himself….or he could be warming the bench at Ceres-Negros before the year is out.

I’ll happily eat my words should an experienced group accustomed to playing with each other prove that grit and heart can shock the world. Just not buying in yet. The team just bombed in the 2018 AFF Cup and Sven didn’t even bother to call up Neil Etheridge. 

 Projecting the Philippine Lineup (3-4-3) 

                      Patrick Reichelt
     Stephan Schröck         Phil Younghusband
I. Ramsay   A. Reed J.P. Strauß   J. Younghusband
   Alvaro Silva                  Luke Woodland
                      Carli de Murga
                  Nathaneal Villanueva

Vicey’s Fearless Group Projection (3 to 1 Odds for Bookie)

 1) South Korea  
 2) China PR 
  3) Kyrgyzstan  
  4) the Philippines 

Round of 16 Odds

 South Korea (NO BETS)
 China PR (NO BETS)
  Kyrgyzstan (2 to 1) 
  The Philippines (5 to 1)

Quarterfinal Odds

 South Korea (NO BETS)
 China PR (Straight Up)
  Kyrgyzstan (5 to 1) 
  The Philippines (10 to 1)

Semifinals Odds

 South Korea (NO BETS)
 China PR (Straight Up)
  Kyrgyzstan (10 to 1) 
  The Philippines (20 to 1)

Group D (Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Yemen)


Two mid-eastern footballing giants in this group render it perhaps the most interesting. Ideally we’ll get ourselves an Iran-Iraq Derby to mirror the six-goal shootout thriller we witnessed four years ago. That match will take place on January 16th. Mark your calendars.

I’ll augur that Yemenis will overachieve so close to home soil, but probably not enough to overcome a Vietnamese squad flying high as AFF Suzuki Cup Champions. Of course the heart years for a different prediction, and I wouldn’t be at all disappointed to be controverted.   

 Iran (Winning Odds—Straight Up) 

All throughout last Summer your friendly bookie lavished praise on Carlos Queiroz for the masterly and miserly defensive tactics he deployed in one of the tournament’s most difficult groups. I accord this man the status of a bloody wizard for that brilliant 3-4-3 that neutralized Morocco, the modified 4-2-3-1 that shut down Spain, and that well-disciplined 4-5-1 that effectively strangled Portugal. C.Q. never lacks a well-researched and perfectly-tailored game plan when facing his opponents. 

This competition’s version of “Team Melli” isn’t a mere tactician’s delight. They’ve gone unbeaten in five since the Summer with virtually all major players clicking. If they can get out of this group largely unscathed, they may very well deserve the title of favorites. That’s a huge if, though, gentlemen. 

Azmoun returns to spearhead the attack. He’ll never live up to the ridiculously sensationalist moniker of the “Iranian Messi”, but he has equaled his previous year’s production in half a campaign for FC Rubin Khazan. This suggests at the very least that he’s entering his prime. Advancing years notwithstanding, Vahid Amiri has found his form and place on the left wing in the Turkish League. Mehdi Taremi is also in fine form and he slides in nicely behind as a short striker. 

There remain concerns. Ansarifard has struggled with both form and injury. Jahanbakhsh has hardly factored for Brighton at all. Bookie thus selects Torabi over both of them. Ali Karimi’s fight with form leaves him squeezed out and dropped off altogether. Same applies to Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh. He leaves large shoes for a 22-year-old centerback to fill.

Shjoaei and Dejagah, now 34 and 32 respectively, are still in great shape, but how deep can they go in the grueling world of expanded tournament football? Hard luck injuries to Saeid Ezatolahi and Ali Gholizadeh may deny Queiroz the depth he needs down the stretch should any more misfortune befall them. Probably could have used Kaveh Rezaei too. Signs of terminal snakebite encroach upon this team.   
Overall I’ve been able to assemble something workable. The only reason I can’t confidently augur a fourth continental title concerns how bruising and battering I believe the final group stage match will be. As much faith as I have in Quieroz to make do with less, he may have too many turrets pointed at him.

 Projecting the Persian Lineup (4-5-1) 

                    Sardar Azmoun
Vahid Amiri   Mehdi Taremi  Mehdi Torabi     
      Masoud Shojaei Ashkan Dejagah
 Ehsan Hajsafi                  Ramin Rezaeian 
         P. Montazeri       M. Hosseini
                  Alireza Beiranvand

 Iraq (Winning Odds—4 to 1) 

As dead wrong as your friendly bookie is often apt to be, he infrequently rides his intuition to a great underdog pick. Four years ago few had the “Lions of Mesopotamia” attaining the Semis, but the bookie just fancied them after completing glowing introductory write-up of their improbable heroic run to the 2007 title. I stuck with them through their initial sputtering, only failing to back them against Iran in the Quarters upon learning that Justin Meram would be starting. 

To be fair, who could have predicted that match? Justin Meram, as augured, didn’t play well. Younis Mahmoud was effectively shut down for most of the match, even when the Persians were reduced to ten me. The initial 90 minutes unfolded much as any amateur oddsmaker might have expected. No sane forecaster can prognosticate FOUR goals in extra time. 

In any event, your friendly bookie is prepared to back these boys again even though the current team features an entirely new cast of characters. Practically every player from the previous 23 has either retired or been dropped. Keeper Jalal Hassan joins midfielders Ahmed Yasin and Osama Rashid as the only three holdovers from the 2015 roster. This trio are also the only players above the age of 25. Slovenian manager Sredko Katanec went “all-in” when delivering the final cuts, slashing Mohannad Abdul-Raheem, Brwa Nouri, Mahdi Kamil, and Yaser Kasim. 

As a result, we’re left with an attack led by two 18-year-old strikers and a highly intriguing young dynamic midfield. Working with the formation, your friendly bookie really likes the manner in which it all comes together. Lead forward Mohanad Ali has already scored six goals in eleven appearances for the national side just this calendar year. Much like Moroccan phenom Ayoub El Kaabi he’s come out of nowhere to dazzle as a seemingly unstoppable force. 

Beshar Resan, Human Tariq, Ayman Hussein and Ali Husni also happen to be players wise beyond their years. They’ve amassed a ridiculous amount of caps for their age. Can’t wait to see Mohammed Dawood, Alaa Abbas, and Safaa Hadi in action too!

Straight Up odds for the Semis, gentlemen. Roar, Lions roar!
 Projecting the Iraqi Lineup (4-2-3-1) 

                  Mohanad Ali
M. Dawood    B. Resan    H. Tariq
   Ayman Hussein  Ahmed Yasin
    Ali Adnan                    Waleed Salim
       S. Natiq-Naji    Rebin Sulaka    
               Mohammed Gassid

 Vietnam (Winning Odds—15 to 1) 

Meet the Golden Dragons, otherwise known as the “Numberless Nguyens”. The surprise winners of the ASEAN Football Championship cruise in on a ten-game-unbeaten streak. As anyone who has ever kept a football book knows, inflated value can translate to over-performance on the pitch. Your friendly bookie bears witness to this phenomenon in the pre-tournament friendlies. This crew clearly hasn’t yet come back down to earth yet. How much longer can they overreach? 

Not long if they continue to line up in a perilously porous 3-4-3. I remain convinced that such formations, however fashionable, possess little real utility if the fastening midfielders don’t have clear positioning assignments. That looks to be the case with Nguyen Huy Hung and Nguyen Trong Hoang, two attack-minded players who are given far too much leeway to pour forward. That leaves an incredibly young back line with limited experience in timed-tackling vulnerable. 

A rude awakening beckons for a team that clearly has difficulty maintaining its shape. Ha Duc Chinh and N. Quang Hai can’t seem to figure out where in the hell they’re supposed to be. It’s generally a poor portent when even the captain can’t consistently clear his lines. The unexpected retirement of Dinh Thanh Trung doesn’t help this ingrained lack of discipline. 

Confidence abounds in the attacking core, but all the centerback pairs in this group shouldn’t have a problem shutting them down. If the Yemenis can take advantage they might find a back door. 

 Projecting the Vietnamese Lineup (3-4-3) 

            Phan Van Duc      Nguyen Van Toan      
                           Ha Duc Chinh
Doan Van Hao                         Nguyen Trong Hoang        
      Nguyen Huy Hung       Do Hung Dung
  N. Quang Hai Luong Xuan Truong Do Duy Manh      
                           Dang Van Lam

 Yemen (Winning Odds—30 to 1) 

The “Happy Yemen” qualifies for their first ever continental championship as a unified country, just in time to be likely splintered and partitioned as well ; ( How lovely it would be to watch them stun everyone by making the knockouts and bashing the Saudis. If ever a country could use a spot of good news, not to mention an endless supply of food drops, it would be this devastated land that has actively sought to present a unified front through football for over three decades. 

Those averse to any more agonizing news concerning this country best not read forward. The whole team finds itself in shambles. Over half of the team isn’t on the Transfermarkt Radar. Nearly a third of the roster doesn’t even have a professional club contact. The Qahtanis haven’t won a match against a competitive opponent in over four years. 

An assemblage of 23 players who have only scored 24 international goals enters the tournament on a six-game-losing streak against regional opponents. Swept out of last year’s Arabian Gulf Cup and completely destroyed in three pre-tournament friendlies, one cannot presage much more than a meek exit here. 

Miracles remain worth rooting for, provided one sets a low bar in defining them. A single solitary goal or a nil-nil draw would constitute marvel enough. Best of luck, lads. Aim for the modestly moral “Wunder”. 

 Projecting the Yemeni Lineup (4-4-2) 

       Tawfiq Ali Mansour  Mohammed Ba Rowis
    A.S. Al-Hagri                       Ahmed Al-Haifi
      Mohsen Mohammed    Ala’a Al Sassi
 Ammar Hamsan                       Mohammed Al-Saori
    Mohammed Fuad Omar Hamada Al Zubairi
                     Salem Abdullah Saeed

Vicey’s Fearless Group Projection (2 to 1 Odds for Bookie)

 1) Iran  
 2) Iraq 
  3) Vietnam 
  4) Yemen 

Round of 16 Odds

 Iran (NO BETS) 
 Iraq (NO BETS)
 Vietnam (2 to 1) 
 Yemen (4 to 1)

Quarterfinal Odds

 Iran (NO BETS) 
 Iraq (NO BETS)
 Vietnam (8 to 1) 
 Yemen (12 to 1)

Semifinals Odds

 Iran (NO BETS) 
 Iraq (Straight Up)
 Vietnam (12 to 1) 
 Yemen (20 to 1)

Group E (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, Korea DPR)


Of all the Group favorites the Saudis are by far the weakest. Lebanon and Qatar aren’t easily separated, meaning we could potentially label this one a “Group of Life”. Some surprises are possible.

Bear in mind, however, that it looks as if the North Koreans have brought along an appallingly bad side. (Though we can never say that with much certainty). With everyone getting a chance to smack them down, everything may fall neatly in the proscribed pecking order.  

 Saudi Arabia (Winning Odds—6 to 1) 

We get a chance to square our ethics here as backing the Saudis is neither noble nor rational. Perhaps we can proclaim that there’s some justice in this world after all. While we won’t get the pleasure of watching the crown prince awkwardly observing the total dismantlement of his team, I’ll aver that the House of Saud will have little to celebrate once the numerous holes in this squad manifest themselves. 

Your friendly bookie identifies plenty of problems with Juan Antonio Pizzi’s selection. It’s not quite as ill-concealed and conceived as the manipulation engineered by the Kingdom with respect to FIFA’s governing decisions, but it’s still enough for me to project a karmic Round of 16 exit. 

Been keeping a watchful eye on this team since they began imploding last Summer. The Falcons still lack a natural striker. Mohammad Al-Sahlawi hasn’t earned a call-up since Russia. Muhannad Assiri succumbed to injury. Attempts to plug Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari, and Salman Al-Faraj into the role haven’t yielded reliable results. At present, complete tyro Mohammed Al-Saiari stands as the only declared Stürmer traveling with the team. 

Seeing as how this reveals obvious intent to roll with the unaltered and unambitious 4-5-1 so easily cracked in the previous tournament, I’ll presage a breakdown of the system once teams find a means of exploiting both the width of the pitch and a very soft defensive midfield. 

Not entirely sure what Pizzi is thinking in terms of attack, so I’ll insert the versatile Otayf as a false 9. At this point he’s played everywhere else, so why not? Hattan Bahebri occupies his former place in the back right pocket while Al-Faraj and Al-Muwallad get license to undertake forward runs. A most sensible system still counts as a downgrade since opponents know full well that they need only wait for a triplicate break to effectively orchestrate a counter. 

Apropos downgrades, I don’t like this new back four at all. Shifting Al-Briek inward and moving Al-Bulaihi to his unnatural side seems the latest effort to compensate for the inability to find a legitimate right back. They’ve looked less than inspiring all along that side in recent friendlies. Opposing teams will take note.

An early goal from anyone of the rivals in this grouping could seriously jeopardize their chances. They’re simply not built to come from behind. The Qataris could overtake them here. Unfortunately, they can’t be sunk until we get to the knockouts.       

 Projecting the Saudi Lineup (4-5-1) 

                          Abduallah Otayf
        Yahya Al-Shehri       Salem Al-Dawsari
                        Fahad Al-Muwallad
              Salman Al-Faraj      Hattan Bahebri
Y. Al-Shahrani M. Al-Briek O. Hawsawi A. Al-Bulaihi    
                          Waleed Abdullah

 Qatar (Winning Odds—8 to 1) 

The hosts of the 2022 World Cup continue to inundate their program with money and the team incrementally improves. They remain far off pace to do less than fully embarrass themselves in their newly constructed overtly vaginal stadiums. Some of this has to do with the political, diplomatic, and trade isolation the country has endured since essentially all of its Gulf Neighbors abandoned it approximately 18 months ago. 

The standoff shows no sign of abating. Christ they just left OPEC. One wonders if they’ll be any regional amity left once the WM rolls around. The team needs exhibition matches against the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Egyptians in order to test their mettle. Their players stand to benefit from playing in their domestic leagues too. Isolation costs them quite a bit.

Anyways, here’s the lowdown on the present team. Al Duhail striker Almoez Abdulla and Al Saad forward Hassan Al-Haydos are the two noteworthy players in attack. They play for the two best clubs in the Qatari first division. Both well-scouted players are linked with potential moves to larger clubs. 

Almoez’s club teammate Karim Boudiaf anchors the midfield while Portuguese transplant Pedro Miguel appears the defensive skipper. Perhaps the most glaring issue facing long-time Spanish head coach Felix Sanchez involves lack of depth at the center-back position. In many instances, he’s had to move more defensive-minded midfielders like Tarek Salman and Salem Al-Hajri back to fill the gaps. 

Mixed results for this result in the pre-tournament friendlies almost earned them a significant downgrade. In the end we’ll stick with the original odds as Miguel or Hassan can move inward if need be.  

 Projecting the Qatari Lineup (4-2-3-1) 

                        Almoez Abdulla 
Akram Afif    Hassan Al-Haydos    Ahmed Alaaeldin   
            Kareem Boudiaf  Assim Madibo
Abdelkarim Hassan                          Pedro Miguel  
           Boualem Khoukhi Tarek Salman
                          Saad Al-Sheeb

 Lebanon (Winning Odds—9 to 1) 

Happy as hell to see the Cedars make the tournament. I was even more delighted to discover that   they match up well against all of the other teams in this group. It would absolutely make my day, a probably Saad Hariri’s as well, if they could upset the Saudis. One can even reasonably tip such an outcome. Montenegrin coach Midrag Radulovic presides over a golden generation of performers who have taken this team to its highest ever global rankings. They qualify as sleepers.

The roster exhibits full balance. Domestically trained players generally occupy the starting roles whilst foreign recruits bring wait in the wings. Radulovic clearly went to great lengths to augment this squad with multi-national talent. Peaking strikers Hassan Maatouk and Hassan Ali Chaito (sometimes referred to as Moni) have netted 24 goals in over one-hundred combined international caps. German trained Hilal El-Helwe and former Danish international Basel Jradi provide still more prowess off the bench. 
Adnan Haidar, a dual Bulgarian citizen, holds the line in central midfield. For now, I’ll insert Mohamad Haidar and Samir Ayass into the winger positions, though I’m most excited to see this new Swedish kid George Felix Melki who just got called up. Possible phenom alerts for both him and his older brother Alexander in the defensive corp. Both recruits have been highly touted.

German-born centerback Joan Oumari captains a lock-tight defense whose only perceived weakness involves a late injury to Right Back Nassar Nassar. This could actually prove advantageous as they could either give the above-mentioned Melki a shot or simply reformat to a 4-4-2 with Ataya or Matar slotted above.

Getting lost in a somewhat wonkish Cedar forest here so we’ll wrap matters up by saying that they’re a team well worth both parsing and rooting for.

 Projecting the Lebanese Lineup (5-3-2) 

          Hassan Maatouk   Hassan Ali Chatio
  Mohamad Haidar                       Samir Ayass
                            Adnan Haidar
Waleed Ismail                                 Alexander Melki
      Joan Oumari  Nour Mansour  Ali Hamam           
                            Mehdi Khalil             

 Korea DPR (Winning Odds—15 to 1) 

Simply stated, they simply suck. Lord do they ever suck. Like every other North Korean squad we’ve covered in the syndicate pages, the Hermit Kingdom assembles a team built to little other than confuse one with some solid play early, then quickly fall apart. This time your friendly bookie won’t allow the allure of the unknown to seduce him. Never again! We’re declaring them junk from the outset. 

Commentators often mistake secrecy for intriguing schemes, mystery for intrigue, and random furtiveness for elaborate machinations. One automatically infers that some sort of stratagem led to the exclusion of Yu-Song Kim, Yong-jik Ri, and Byong-Jun An. One imagines that there must be a reason for giving the captaincy to twenty-year-old Kwang Son-Han. One conjectures that they have a coherent vision for Kwang-Ryong Pak, Yong-Il Kim, and Il-gwan Jong. 

Trust me, brothers. There’s no plan. There never is. Your friendly bookie has been studying this team for the better part of a decade. It’ll all be pieced together into a whimsically perverse mess that has more to do with the player’s latest behavioral trends than anything approaching genuine football tactics. So it goes inside reclusive anachronistic states.

As usual I’ll project a lineup, but that’s it. Zero chance we’ll witness anything this logical on the pitch.  In accordance with our tradition, denizens of the backwards kingdom gets their names listed backwards, because hell with it.

 Projecting the Chollima Lineup (4-3-3) 

     Kwang-song Han  Kwang-ryong Pak  Il-gwan Jong 
                  Un-Chol Ri                      Yong-Il Kim
                                   Kyong-hun Kim
    Chang Ho-Ri                                              Song-Il An   
                         Kuk-Chol Jang   Thong Il-Ri      
                                   Myong Guk-Ri      
Vicey’s Fearless Group Projection (Straight Up Odds for Bookie)

 1) Saudi Arabia  
 2) Qatar 
  3) Lebanon 
 4) Korea DPR

Round of 16 Odds

 Saudi Arabia (NO BETS)
 Qatar (NO BETS)
  Lebanon (Straight Up)
 Korea DPR (3 to 1)

Quarterfinal Odds

 Saudi Arabia (2 to 1)
 Qatar (3 to 1)
  Lebanon (4 to 1) 
 Korea DPR (6 to 1)

Semifinals Odds

 Saudi Arabia (4 to 1)
 Qatar (6 to 1)
  Lebanon (7 to 1) 
 Korea DPR (8 to 1)

Group F (Japan, Uzbekistan, Oman, Turkmenistan)


The Blue Samurai, having for some reason failed to schedule any pre-tournament tune-ups, are perhaps the most difficult squad to handicap. Obviously they’ll top the group, but I wouldn’t bet on them making a serious run.

Much love for the Uzbeks, also armed with a strong team. Absolutely not nipping at the heels of the two legitimate programs in this group are two godawful sides who can’t go away soon enough. 

 Japan (Winning Odds—3 to 1) 

Quite the journey they took us on last Summer. Originally discounted as a bunch of “Paper Tigers”, they made history with their upset of Los Cafeteros, advanced attained the knockouts through hitherto-unheard of tiebreakers, and took us all the way to the edge against the Belgians in the Round of 16. Your friendly bookie simply couldn’t resist. Before delving into the data, he simply had to review that match. Courtois’s amazing late saves against Kawashima and Honda. The dramatic late goal that was among the most spectacular ever. 

Okazaki lying prostrate on the pitch. Shoji unable to process his shock as he mercilessly pounded the pitch. Osako initially succeeding in fighting back the tears, then simply having to let them flow. Sakai burying his face in his scarf. All the drama. All the emotion. That’s why we love it, gentlemen. Global Football at its finest. 

Nearly all of the above-mentioned players turned it in after the tournament. Gen Shoji, Gotoku Sakai, and Shinji Okazaki have all hung up their cleats. Hasebe and Honda have called it quits as well. Kagawa and Inui have been furloughed from the national team. The sun sets on an entire generation that we’ve been covering for so many years. 

As I wrote in this Summer’s preview section, Halihodzic’s only infraction was to read the tea leaves correctly. He had it right all along. A cohort of players long past their prime necessitated a complete re-build. Understandably, the JFA wished to postpone the inevitable for one last Summer hurrah. Honestly who can blame them? In a certain sense the unforgettable moments we were treated to validate their decision as well. 

The new-look Samurai do retain Yuya Osako and Yoshiniro Muto in attack. New trainer Hajime Moriyasu also hasn’t tinkered with his fullbacks. Both Hiroki Sakai and Yuto Nagatomo are projected to keep their positions. Other than that, there’s loads of changes to report. 

Gaku Shibasaki moves up to take a more active role in the offensive push. He’s joined by rising star Junya Ito, a relatively mature J-League player only recently finding his stride. Two newcomers take over in defensive midfield. Kawasaki Frontale’s Hidemasa Morita and Groningen’s Ritsu Doan have been collecting most of the starts during Moriyasu’s tenure. Genta Miura and Truiden’s Takehiro Tomiyasu look to be the new centerbacks. Masaaki Higashiguchi relieves the retired Eiji Kawashima between the posts. 

Note that the bookie still picks Maya Yoshida and Genki Haraguchi for the starting eleven. It’s unclear how drastic this generational shift shall be. In any event I don’t advocate taking a Masayoshi-Son-style bet on this team. Kind odds are lain bare above, but I don’t see this incarnation making it past the Quarters. Despite their five-game unbeaten streak, there simply isn’t enough chemistry in this disjointed transitional squad. 

Throw money at them should you wish, but be advised it doesn’t bode well. 

 Projecting the Samurai Lineup (4-2-3-1) 

                          Yuya Osako
Gaku Shibasaki  Yoshi Muto   Junya Ito
      Hidemasa Morita       Genki Haraguchi
  Yuto Nagatoma                     Hiroki Sakai
            Tomoaki Makino Maya Yoshida 
                    Masaaki Higashiguchi      

 Uzbekistan (Winning Odds—6 to 1) 

Welcome back, White Wolves! The shock story of the 2015 tournament returns and your friendly bookie can scarcely contain his glee. Evidently I’m not the only now taking this program seriously. Scouting players for this team four years ago proved nearly impossible. Now virtually every portal provides player value data. Transfermarkt even has the roster valued at nearly 20 million!

Springer’s wonkish data rubes take them seriously. I take them seriously. Hell, even the UFA even takes itself seriously, snatching up Hector Cuper this Autumn after the Egyptian FA let him go. No shortage of qualified veteran leadership on this squad. Marat Bikmaev, Odil Ahmedov, and Anzur Ismailov all return in top form. Rashidov isn’t quite the player he was four years ago, but promising young talent like Rostov’s Eldor Shomurodov or FC Seoul’s Ikromjon Alibaev can step into his spot if need be.

Five wholly new players complicated your friendly bookie’s prediction for the midfield. Cuper has mostly used Marsharipov on the left flank, so I’ll stick with him even though Sidikiov or Khamdamov might be better options. Simply couldn’t find a place for them as room had to be made for Shukorov. Looking forward to figuring out how they all fit into this scheme. Shorakmedov and Ismailov have the defensive ranks locked down. 

Who-gives-fuck-a-kov? I do. This team earned the bookie’s respect. Can easily see them cruising into the quarters or beyond.

 Projecting the Uzbek Lineup (4-2-3-1) 

                        Sardor Rashidov
J. Masharipov    M. Bikmaev   O. Shukurov
           Odil Akhmedov     Fozil Musaev
Oleg Zoteev                           A. Shorakhmedov  
        Islom Tukhtakhujaev  Anzur Ismailov
                         Ignatiy Nesterov          

 Oman (Winning Odds—12 to 1) 

Didn’t like these guys much when I covered them back in 2015 and I like them even less now. At least that roster had a competent keeper and six players earning their keep abroad. Since capturing the 2017 Arabian Gulf Cup—mostly against second-string sides—Dutch manager Pim Verbeek has complacently let mediocre domestic league players replace retiring talent. Recruitment came to a halt. International development appears to have ceased entirely. 

A mostly undefeated 2018 catapulted the Red Warriors to their highest global rankings in over fifteen years. Your friendly bookie remains unimpressed as most of their victories came in home friendlies carefully calibrated by their association. Eight of the fixtures in their eleven-game-unbeaten streak were drab draws, four of which ended nil-nil.

These boys couldn’t even manage a single goal against India. Offensive production among so-called “weapons” like Mohammed Al-Ghassani and Ahmed Al-Mahajiri dried up long ago. While younger players like Khalid Al-Hjjri and Moataz Saleh exhibit potential, they’re accorded no space in a shoddy defensive-minded formation that succeeds only in making me reach for my “Football Apologists Handbook”.

Yawn. Prepare to have you balls bored off. 

 Projecting the Omani Lineup (4-5-1) 

                      Emad Al-Hosni
     A. M. Kano  Q. Hardan    R.I. Saleh
           E.M. Al Farsi     M. Al-Siyabi
Basil Al-Rawahi                        Saad Suhail
      Ali Salim Al Nahar  Ali Al-Busaidi
                         Ali Al-Habsi

 Turkmenistan (Winning Odds—40 to 1) 

There must have been a pot-seeding error. It’s the only explanation How in the hell did the Emeralds get drawn into a third-round qualifying group that already included Taiwan and Singapore? Even against such opposition they struggled woefully to squeak in by a point on the final day. 

Expect nothing from the Emeralds. They expect nothing from themselves. Seeking out help from one of our Cyrillic-Skilled syndicate members, I discovered they didn’t even publish a final roster on their website. 

Ugh. I’d honestly rather write a review on spiritual lessons gleaned from the Ruhnama (which I’ve actually skimmed once upon a time) then discuss this team. Even your hopelessly-hyper-focused bookie has his limits. Below you’ll find a “stab-in-the-dark” conjecture of the lineup. 

Meanwhile, I’ll dust off my old copy of Niyazov’s book and get to work on the obituary. 

 Projecting the Emerald Lineup (4-5-1) 

                         Arslanmurat Amanov
V. Orazsakhedov  Ahmet Atatyew  S. Muhadow
                Ilya Tamukin          Serdar Geliyew
Resul Hojayev                                    Mekan Saparov
        Akmyrat Jamanzarow  Serdar Annaorazow
                      Mamed Orazmuhamedow

Vicey’s Fearless Group Projection (Straight Up Odds for Bookie)

 1) Japan  
 2) Uzbekistan 
 3) Oman 
 4) Turkmenistan

Round of 16 Odds

 Japan (NO BETS) 
 Uzbekistan (NO BETS)
 Oman (3 to 1) 
 Turkmenistan (8 to 1)

Quarterfinal Odds

 Japan (Straight Up) 
 Uzbekistan (Straight Up)
 Oman (9 to 1) 
 Turkmenistan (20 to 1)

Semifinals Odds

 Japan (2 to 1) 
 Uzbekistan (3 to 1)
 Oman (12 to 1) 
 Turkmenistan (30 to 1)