SEOUL: The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirmed on Sunday that North Korea has pulled out of next month’s qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.
“The Asian Football Confederation has today confirmed the withdrawal of the DPR Korea Football Association from the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” the AFC said in a statement.
Pyongyang has not yet given an official reason for pulling out of next month’s qualifiers for the tournament, to be held in Qatar in November and December 2022, but South Korean media has reported that it is because of concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic.
Due to the spread of the virus, there have been no qualifiers in Asia since November 2019 forcing most of the second round of Asia’s preliminary tournament for the Qatar World Cup to be postponed until June.
The AFC said last month it would change the format of the tournaments so that each group of five nations would play in one host country.
South Korea is scheduled to host North Korea, Turkmenistan, Lebanon and Sri Lanka in Group ‘H’ qualifying matches from June 3-15 in the city of Goyang, just north of Seoul, but North Korean officials informed their southern counterparts of their intention to withdraw this month.
Prior to the withdrawal, North Korea were in fourth place in the standings after five matches, level on eight points with Lebanon and South Korea, who have played one game fewer, and one behind leaders Turkmenistan with three games still to be played.
Only the group winners are guaranteed a place in the third round of qualification, scheduled to start in September, along with the four best runners-up.
The AFC said it will refer North Korea’s withdrawal to governing body FIFA, with a decision on how the country’s exit from the competition will affect the group standings to be announced in due course.
The decision also means that North Korea will miss out on the 2023 Asian Cup, to be held in China, as qualification for the World Cup and the continental tournament are combined.
Pyongyang’s decision to pull out comes nearly a month after the country said it would not go to this year’s Tokyo Olympics, citing concerns over the pandemic.
North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders more than a year ago to protect itself from the virus that first emerged in neighbouring China.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2021