November 23 – The qualification road for Asia’s nations for the 2026 World Cup is a long one. The first round saw 20 teams play knock-out matches to qualify for the first group stage. There will be a further group round and play-offs before the AFC’s 2026 qualifiers are confirmed.
The nine groups of four at the current qualifying stage have just completed the first two rounds of group matches with eight of the groups seeing unbeaten teams at the top.
Japan and South Korea, ever present at World Cup finals, lead their groups along with Qatar, Malaysia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Australia.
Iran and Uzbekistan sit joint top of their group on four points having drawn their opening match against each other 2-2.
The nine group winners and group runners-up advance to the third round of 2026 qualification as well as automatically qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2027 in Saudi Arabia.
While there were no major surprises at the top of group tables, there are interesting battles emerging for the second group spots. Not least with the world’s two most populous nations, China and India.
China were well beaten 3-0 by South Korea in their opening game but rebounded with a 2-1 win over an emerging Thailand team.
India similarly lost their opening game 3-0 to Asian Cup holders Qatar, but followed that up with a significant 1-0 win away to Kuwait.
While the giant nations are showing signs of awakening from football slumbers, the strongest emotions were with the Palestinians who opened their campaign with a 0-0 draw against Lebanon before losing 1-0 to Australia.
The Palestine team witnessed the destruction of their country from afar once the Israel bombing began. Australian players donated part of their match fees for Palestinian relief initiatives. A donation that was matched by Football Australia.
Asia has eight direct qualifying slots and two inter-confederation play-off slots for the expanded 48-team 2026 World Cup.
World Cup group qualifying will now take a break until March. Before then Qatar will host the 2023 AFC Asia Cup.
Once World Cup 2026 qualification resumes, the nine group winners and group runners-up will advance to a third group round that will see them divided into three groups of six.
The top two teams in each group will qualify for 2026. The six third and fourth placed teams will go into a further two groups of three with the winners of each group qualifying for 2026.
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