North Korea withdraws from 2022 World Cup qualifiers

North Korea is set to skip out on the 2022 FIFA World Cup after announcing its intention to withdraw from the Asian qualifiers for the Qatar-based tournament, due to COVID-19-related concerns.

According to Reuters, the DPR Korea Football Association (PRKFA) wrote to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) expressing fears about the current state of the pandemic, sending an official notice of its withdrawal from the second round of qualifiers in South Korea.

The country has been urged to reconsider its decision by both the AFC and South Korea’s football association, according to the Yonhap news agency. However, North Korea cited exposing players to the risk of contracting the coronavirus for its reason not to travel to the qualifiers.

North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the World Cup qualifiers reflects the country’s decision to pull out of the upcoming Tokyo Summer Games, although the latter decision was met with disappointment by South Korea, which hoped to use the Olympics to engage over cross-border talks and discuss a joint bid for the 2032 edition of the Olympics.

Chosen as a centralised hub for the Asian qualifiers in March, South Korea is set to host Group H matches between 31 May and 15 June. Along with North Korea, the group comprises Turkmenistan, Lebanon, South Korea and Sri Lanka.

Group H matches initially began in September 2019 but the restart was postponed until March 2020 as a result of the travel restrictions in place across Asian territories, before being pushed back again until June.

Meanwhile, the AFC’s club competition, the AFC Cup, has pushed East Zone Group J matches back from May to June at the request of the Hong Kong Football Association, which is represented by the Eastern Long Lions and Lee Man FC in the group.

In a statement, the AFC said the decision to postpone matches in the second-tier tournament was made when ‘taking into consideration the ongoing challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and to allow more time to ensure the optimal delivery of the matches’.