FIFA World Cup teams groups

The Indian football team poses for a group photograph during a qualifier match for the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018, against Nepal on March 17, 2015.The teams drew 0-0 but India went through on aggregate. Prakash Mathema/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

After successfully navigating the first round of qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, India was on Tuesday drawn in Group D for the next phase of Asian qualifying.

It won’t be an easy task for a nation that has long underperformed at soccer. Joining India in the group is Iran, the top-ranked team in the Asian Football Confederation, as well as Oman and Turkmenistan. The nation of more than one billion people should surely fancy its chances against Guam, though.

India will play the four teams at home and away. The Asian qualifying competition begins on June 11 and runs until March 29. The countries that finish top of the eight groups and the four best second-placed teams will progress to the third and final qualification phase for the World Cup in Russia. They will also qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

India jumped 26 places to 147 in the latest FIFA world rankings, which were released last week, after getting past Nepal in the first round of the Asia World Cup qualifiers. India won 2-0 on aggregate thanks to a 2-0 victory on March 12 in Guwahati and a 0-0 draw on March 17 in Katmandu.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Asia won’t feature the highest quality soccer on the planet but there will be some interesting and potentially awkward matchups.

Following the official draw Tuesday, one to immediately catch the eye was China versus Hong Kong in Group C. Hong Kong was first out of the hat for that group, and it seemed inevitable that China would join when the seeded teams were drawn last. It duly was. That pits the mighty mainland against its crowded territory recently rocked by protests against Beijing.

China stands out in that group, not just as the best team – ranked 82nd in the world – but as the giant. In addition to Hong Kong, the other three nations are tiny Bhutan, the Maldives and Qatar, with a combined population that could just about squeeze into a Shanghai tower block.

In Group B, Australia, the host and winner of the 2015 Asian Cup, faces long journeys to unwelcoming venues in Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Jordan. Australia has qualified for the past three World Cups, as well as the tournament in 1974.

There are 40 countries and eight groups for this section of the qualifiers. The final round of qualifiers is scheduled to begin late next year. Four or five Asian nations will qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

At Tuesday’s draw in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia happened to be the first of all nations picked. The process saw the bottom eight ranked teams drawn initially and put into the eight groups, then the pot of the next lowest ranked teams was drawn until eventually it was left with the eight seeded teams.

After Iran was picked in Group D with Oman, India, Turkmenistan and Guam, its neighbor Iraq is in Group F with Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Chinese Taipei. The teams in Group A face plenty of travel, as joining Malaysia is East Timor, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

As the draw came to a close, it looked like North and South Korea were destined to be drawn together. But with just two picks left, South Korea was drawn in Group G with Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar and Laos, leaving Uzbekistan with North Korea, as well as Bahrain, the Philippines and Yemen.

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