HONG KONG (Reuters) - In front of a smattering of fans on a Thursday evening heavy with humidity, the amateur footballers of Macau took their first step forward in their unlikely quest for a place at the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.
The former Portuguese enclave, represented by a team featuring firemen, teachers and hotel workers, notched up a 1-0 win in the first leg of their meeting with Sri Lanka as the lowest-ranked nations in Asia started their pursuit of a place among the elite in Qatar.
While the game’s leading lights wait until September to start their journey towards 2022, Mongolia and Brunei were the first nations to set off on the road to Qatar as Asia’s lowest ranked teams launched the qualifiers in low-key fashion.
The Mongolians who, like the other countries competing this week have never gone close to securing a spot at a major competition, earned a 2-0 win in Ulaanbaatar to claim a first- leg advantage.
Bangladesh defeated Laos 1-0 and Cambodia earned a 2-0 first-leg lead over Pakistan while Bhutan won 1-0 against Guam at the unique, ornate Changlimithang Stadium in Thimpu.
Malaysia and Timor-Leste meet on Friday with the return games to be played on Tuesday.
At stake is a place in the qualifying draw proper for the World Cup finals when the minnows of the Asian game face could be pitted against World Cup regulars such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran in the second of four qualifying rounds for one of the continent’s four guaranteed spots at the finals.
For a Macau team who can only dream of joining the elite in Qatar, the Zhuhai Sports Center Stadium - a few miles over the border into China - served as a temporary home for the squad as their regular Estadio Campo Desportivo was closed due to renovation works.
That meant only 901 fans witnessed Macau - better known for the city’s neon-clad casinos and high-stakes gambling industry than for its soccer team - create history as Felipe Duarte, the only semi-professional player in the team, scored the goal that gives the hosts an advantage before the return in Colombo.
“Today we got our first win ever in qualification, so that was our first goal,” said Macau captain Nikki Tarrao.
“Our second goal is to go through this elimination and that’s how our national team works. We can’t aim to go to the group phase, we have to think step by step.
“We’re not even semi-professional in Macau. We’re amateur. There’s still a long way to go before we can have consistency our the national team.”
Editing by Ed Osmond