Asia is set to start its 2026 World Cup journey, giving the lower-ranked teams such as Afghanistan, Bhutan and Pakistan a chance to grab some attention and secure matches against football’s continental heavyweights.
The Asian Football Confederation’s 20 lowest-ranked teams compete in two-leg, home-and-away series on Thursday and next Tuesday, with the 10 winners advancing to the second round of the qualifying group stage.
Afghanistan, ranked 158th, takes on No. 183 Mongolia. Getting to the next stage, where each team will have six games, is not just valuable financially but also in terms of experience.
“It’s very important for us to get past Mongolia into the second round as we would play India, Kuwait and Qatar,” Afghanistan coach Abdullah Al-Mutairi told The Associated Press. “We need as many games as possible, and these are strong teams, but we have the quality to show what we can do.”
With little in the way of domestic football in Afghanistan, Al-Mutairi has tapped into the country’s diaspora and selected talent based in Europe, Asia and Australia to fill the national team’s roster.
“We have six or seven local players and we want more in the future but there has not been a regular league in Afghanistan for two years,” Al-Mutairi added. “Most come from Europe and Asia such as Singapore, India, Indonesia, Georgia, England and Sweden.”
Due to the security situation in Kabul, Afghanistan will play its home game against Mongolia in neighboring Tajikistan.
“The weather is similar to Europe and we hope that the Afghan people living there will come and support us,” Al-Mutairi said.
Yemen, ranked 156th, is another team unable to play on home soil and will take on Sri Lanka in Saudi Arabia. Sri Lanka is Asian football’s lowest-ranked nation at No. 202 on FIFA’s global list of 207 members. The Sri Lankans are, however, happy to play at all after FIFA lifted a ban in August that was imposed in January for government interference in the running of the federation.
Indonesia and Hong Kong are the two highest-ranked teams in the first round at 147th and 148th. Indonesia is taking on Brunei, and Hong Kong is the clear favorite against Bhutan.
Singapore and Guam will play off to go into a second-round group with South Korea, while Myanmar and Macau will meet to decide a spot in a second-round group against Japan, which beat Germany 4-1 last month.
Pakistan’s hopes of winning a first ever World Cup qualifier have improved with the news that the AFC has allowed Islamabad to host the second leg of the series against Cambodia, for what will be a first home game for eight years.
With no domestic league since 2018, Pakistan’s English coach Stephen Constantine, appointed just 13 days before the first qualifier, has a difficult job in his attempt to take the team, ranked 197th, to the next stage.
“Everything is an area of concern in my opinion — defense, midfield and attack,” said Constantine, who has had two spells in charge of India. “The most important thing is for the players to understand their roles in the system.
“If we get the combination right, watch out.”
In other games, Maldives will play Bangladesh, Taiwan is against Timor-Leste and Nepal takes on Laos.
The second round of Asian qualifying will feature 36 teams divided into nine groups, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the third round.
With the expansion from 32 to 48 teams for the 2026 World Cup, Asia is guaranteed eight places at the tournament being staged in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.