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Schedule & Format Of The FIFA World Cup 2026 Asian Qualifiers

19 Mar 2024
Nikhil Kalro 19 Mar 2024
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  • AFC Asian Qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup began in October 2023 and will end in November 2025.
  • The qualifying format underwent some changes, allowing direct qualifications for eight Asian teams and playoffs for one additional spot.
  • Canada, Mexico, and the United States will host the World Cup, marking the first time more than 32 teams participate.
AFC world cup qualifier
Australia's Mathew Leckie and UAE's Khalifa al-Hammadi vie for the ball during the FIFA World Cup 2022 play-off qualifier. (Getty Images)
The AFC Asian Qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America started in October 2023 and will go on till November 2025. 
  • First Round
  • Second Round
  • Third Round
  • Fourth Round
  • Fifth Round
  • Schedule Of The FIFA World Cup 2026 Asian Qualifiers

Canada, Mexico, and the United States will host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, in which the number of teams will be over 32 for the first time in history. The 23rd edition of World Football’s grandest tournament will feature 48 teams, leading to an increase in the number of qualifying spots across all continents.

The Asian qualification format was slightly tweaked before its commencement. The new format enables direct qualification for eight Asian teams, while one will nab a playoff qualifier spot in 2025. The entire qualification process has been divided into five rounds and the teams are categorized according to their ranks in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) standings.

First Round

The first round of the Asian Qualifiers for the World Cup featured 20 teams that were ranked between 27 and 46 in the AFC standings. The ten higher-ranked teams were in Pot 1 for the draw, and the ten lower-ranked teams were in Pot 2. Pot 1 comprised Hong Kong, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei, Maldives, Yemen, Afghanistan, Singapore, Myanmar, Nepal, and Cambodia.

Meanwhile, Pot 2 housed Macau, Mongolia, Bhutan, Laos, Bangladesh, Brunei, Timor-Leste, Pakistan, Guam, and Sri Lanka. Once the draws were out, the teams played two matches against their opponents, with each team getting one home and one away match. The team that won on aggregate advanced to the second round.

Eight teams from Pot 1 emerged victorious in the first round. Only Maldives and Cambodia failed to win in their matches against Bangladesh and Pakistan, respectively. Bhutan became the best loser after winning one leg against Hong Kong and secured qualification for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, while the other losing teams qualified for the same tournament’s playoff round.

Second Round

In the second round, the winners from the first round joined the top-26 ranked teams in Asia. The 36 teams were divided into nine groups, with each group holding four teams. In this round, the teams are following a double-round-robin format. Each group will eventually have its winner, and those teams will advance to the third round.

The runners-up will also qualify for the next round. In addition, the winners and runners-up of every group will earn automatic qualification for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup. The remaining two teams in every group will be eliminated from the World Cup qualifiers but will secure third-round qualification for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.

Teams like Qatar, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Malaysia are top favourites to win their respective groups and advance to the next stage. It may also be the end of the road for all teams that advanced from the first round of the qualifiers. Meanwhile, 18 teams will gear up for the third round, in which the competition will get even tougher.

Third Round

The third round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifiers is expected to start in September 2024. The 18 teams will be divided into three groups, with each group holding six teams. This is a crucial stage of the qualifiers, as the teams that finish first or second in their respective groups will qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

The teams that finish third and fourth will get another chance to qualify for the mega event in the next round. Meanwhile, the long journey and the dream of playing in the World Cup will end for the teams that finish fifth and sixth in the three groups. The top-ranked teams, like Japan, Australia and more, are expected to become the first Asian teams to confirm their qualification.

In the third round, the double-round-robin format will be retained, giving every team two chances to win a tie – one at home and the other at the opposition’s playground. Six teams will secure direct qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup group stage. Six other teams will have to wait and try and secure their place at the World Cup in the next round.

Fourth Round

Compared to the previous stage, the fourth round could be slightly easier for the six teams that finished third and fourth in the third round. This is because all the top teams would have already qualified for the World Cup and would not be involved in this round. However, several evenly matched teams will play against each other in a single match at a neutral venue.

The six teams will be divided into two groups of three, and there will be no margin for error since there will not be a double-round-robin format in this round. The winner of each group will secure qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The teams that finish second in both groups will get yet another chance to qualify for the grandest event in World Football.

Meanwhile, the side that finishes at the bottom of the table will return home without anything. Their dreams of playing in the World Cup will shatter, and they will be forced to wait for another four years to try and reach the promised land. However, there will be nothing else but jubilation for the teams that win these two groups.

Fifth Round

Only two teams will reach the final round of the AFC Qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. After finishing as runners-up in the previous round, these two teams will battle it out over a single two-legged fixture for a spot in the inter-confederation playoffs. The loser will walk home with nothing, and the winner will have a tough journey ahead.

The inter-confederation playoffs will feature six teams. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the host confederation, The Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), will each have two spots. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) will get one spot, and the winner of the fifth round of the AFC Qualifiers will nab the final spot.

Schedule Of The FIFA World Cup 2026 Asian Qualifiers

The first round of the qualifiers was held between October 12 and October 17, 2023. The second round started on November 16, 2023, and will continue until June 11, 2024. After a three-month break, the third round will start on September 5, 2024.

There will be a lengthy break of almost a year before the fourth-round fixtures kick off in October 2025. A month after that, the final round will be played, and the Asian representative at the inter-confederation playoffs will be decided.

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