Ultra-minnows Bhutan, Guam and East Timor will be among the 28 teams in action on Thursday as they pursue their unlikely quest to reach the 2018 World Cup.
While normally consigned to the lower reaches of the FIFA rankings, recent performances have earned these underdogs the right to join powerhouses Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran in the second round of qualifying.
Thirty-nine teams — after Indonesia were suspended by FIFA for political interference — will fight it out over nine months for 12 spots in the third round and a place at the 2019 Asian Cup.
Guam are in the second round for the first time after being given a bye because of their improved position in the world rankings, following a win against Taiwan and a draw with Hong Kong in last year’s East Asian Cup.
The tiny western Pacific island will host Turkmenistan in their Group D opener on Thursday before traversing the continent to face India, Oman and four-time World Cup contestants Iran.
Bhutan were bottom of the rankings in 209th place just three months ago, but back-to-back wins against Sri Lanka pushed them 50 places higher and gave them a spot in Group C alongside China, Qatar, Maldives and Hong Kong, who they will visit for their opening game at Mongkok Stadium.
Impoverished East Timor, one of the most recent FIFA members, also qualified for the first time after a convincing 5-1 aggregate triumph over Mongolia.
They have been drawn in Group A and visit Kuala Lumpur for their opening match against Malaysia at the Bukit Jalil Stadium.
Also in Group A, at the other end of the Asian footballing scale, are regional giants Saudi Arabia, who are bidding to reach their fifth World Cup but their first since 2006.
With caretaker coach Faisal Al Baden at the helm following the January sacking of Cosmin Olaroiu after just two months in charge, the Green Falcons will host Palestine in Dammam.
The top seeds in each of the eight groups will begin their campaigns next Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse