Asia rewrites 48-team World Cup qualification format in 2026

Suspension

Brisbane, Australia – The Asian Football Confederation has confirmed a new qualifying format to take into account the growing number of direct participations for the 48-team World Cup in 2026.

The Football Association Board of Asia issued a statement on Monday saying that a four-round qualifier system has been designed to prepare for the direct eight places and the singles intercontinental qualifier slot designated for the AFC following the expansion of the World Cup.

Under the new system, teams ranked 26 to 47 in Asia will participate in the first round of qualifying, with 11 teams advancing to join the top 25 teams in the second round of a nine-group home-and-away series.

The top two teams in each of these groups will advance to the third round, which will be divided into three groups of six competing in a round robin format.

The top two teams in each of these groups will have direct entries to the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The third and fourth-placed teams will go to a play-off divided into two groups of three. The winners of these groups will secure their places in the World Cup. The runner-up will play a playoff against the Asian center in an intercontinental playoff for a last chance in the playoffs.

Asia has had four direct entries for the 2022 World Cup kicking off on November 21, with the first and second-place teams – Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan – in two groups of six from the third round of qualifying. Automatic spots to drop.

The two third-placed teams met for the right to play against the fifth-placed team from South America elsewhere in the World Cup. Australia beat the United Arab Emirates in the Asian qualifiers, then beat Peru in an intercontinental playoff to secure 31st out of 32 places at the World Cup in Qatar.

The AFC said the format for qualification for the 2026 World Cup and 2027 AFC Asian Cup, was based on the entry of all 47 member associations “and is subject to change depending on the final number of entries”.

The AFC also plans to move the timing of the main continental club competition, the AFC Champions League, to start with an initial stage in August next year and end with a final in May 2024.

The Executive Board also agreed to recommend eliminating the away goals rule as the tie factor for teams finishing evenly on competition points. Instead, extra time and, if necessary, penalty kicks will be used to determine the winner of matches in the home and away season.

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