Less than a year since Spain’s crowning achievement in South Africa, qualifying for the 2014 World Cup has begun in CONCACAF and Asia.
Although these preliminary matches involve teams with little hope of reaching the final tournament in Brazil, the pursuit provides a wealth of story lines, such as Montserrat, a Caribbean island that was nearly obliterated by a volcano, playing its home leg against Belize in front of 100 spectators in Trinidad and Tobago.
And then there is the Philippines, which earned a 1-1 draw at Sri Lanka on Wednesday on a 50th-minute header by an American forward, Nate Burkey.
Burkey, 26, is from Alexandria, Va. He played at T.C. Williams High School, Louisburg (N.C.) College and Virginia Commonwealth University. After tryouts in Belgium and Bulgaria, he played in Washington area amateur leagues while teaching at Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy, a public charter school in Northeast D.C.
His mother has Filipino roots, which made him eligible to represent the country on the international level. With family assistance, he reached out to the federation, joined semipro Kaya FC and was named to the national squad ahead of training sessions and tuneup matches.
The Azkals (street dogs) have never qualified for the World Cup or Asian Cup and are currently No. 29 of 46 in FIFA’s Asian rankings and No. 159 of 207 in the world. (They’ve never risen above 150th.) They didn’t enter the 2006 or 2010 World Cup qualifying tournament.
As one of the weakest teams in the region, Philippines was among 16 Asian sides required to play in the first stage. Following the away draw with Sri Lanka, in which Burkey entered in the 40th minute and departed in the 76th, the Azkals are preparing for the return leg Sunday in Manila. The survivor will advance to the 30-team second round and play Kuwait in a two-leg series in late July.