With sixteen months to go until European nations even start their qualification campaigns for the 2026 World Cup, ten teams from Asia have already been eliminated.
The rest of Asia is starting the second round of World Cup qualifiers this week, on what is the longest World Cup qualification journey by far.
Asian sides will play six games in this round, then ten games in the third round. The teams that finish third and fourth in that group stage will go through to a fourth round, and possibly a fifth round and then an inter-continental playoff.
This means that a team from the first round of Asian qualification could potentially have to play 25 games to reach the World Cup. Countries in Europe meanwhile could have as few as ten games, and countries in Africa, which also starts its World Cup qualifiers this international break, will play between ten and 14 games. Some countries in Oceania could play as few as five matches.
With Asia having at least eight World Cup spots up for grabs, many teams will feel like they now have a good chance of reaching the World Cup.
Palestine is one of those teams. Ranked 16th in Asia, Palestine is the second-highest ranked team in Group I and could be considered likely to reach the third round. It faces Lebanon in its opening match, with that game taking place in the United Arab Emirates due to the proximity of the home team, Lebanon, to the Israel-Hamas conflict and the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah around the Lebanese border. Palestine will then on November 21 play its home game against Australia in Kuwait.
Algeria had previously stepped in to provide a home venue for Palestine’s team, but the Asian Football Confederation didn’t want the match to take place on a different continent. With Lebanon and Palestine both targeting the second spot in Group I, the match between them could be crucial in their hopes to reach the 2026 World Cup, but Palestine could be without at least three players, who reportedly are unable to leave the Gaza Strip.
In Group A, Afghanistan also could be short of players, with 18 Afghani players planning to boycott their games, accusing the country’s soccer association of misappropriating FIFA funds. Afghanistan beat Mongolia in the first round, but were almost forced to forfeit those games after their head coach refused to sign the team sheet. Whatever Afghan team is left after the boycott faces a trip to Qatar this week followed by a home game against Kuwait which will be played in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is also hosting Syria and Yemen’s home games.
The other side in Group A is India, who could be one of the main beneficiaries of the AFC’s new World Cup qualification format. As the 18th highest-ranked team in Asia, India scraped into Pot 2 when the draw was made, and as a result has a very good chance of reaching the third round. Veteran striker Sunil Chhetri believes India is better prepared than before with players having a lot of game time under their belts. Igor Stimac’s side starts its World Cup campaign against Kuwait, who India beat on penalties in the final of the South Asian Football Federation Championship in July.
The increase in World Cup spots removes some level of jeopardy for World Cup regulars like Japan and South Korea, while Roberto Mancini couldn’t have asked for an easier first competitive match as Saudi Arabia head coach. The Saudi team has only won once since its famous World Cup victory over eventual 2022 champions Argentina, but this week is at home to Pakistan — the lowest ranked side in the tournament.
Pakistan would need to pull off the shock of the century to finish as one of the top two sides in Group G, let alone qualify for the World Cup, but for the second tier of Asian nations, the World Cup dream is closer than ever.
Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, who last played in the World Cup finals in 1986 and 1990, respectively, have a good chance of a return to soccer’s biggest stage, while Uzbekistan, who came within one game of qualifying in 2018 and reached the Asian qualification playoff round in 2014, will be hoping to go one step further and finally qualify for the 2026 World Cup.