Asia’s national teams will take another step towards the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027 when the Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 kicks off next Thursday.
The dream remains alive for the 10 teams that made it through the first round of the Asian Qualifiers last month and they will join the remaining 26 Member Associations to continue their journey.
These 36 sides have been drawn into nine groups of four, within which they will face each other twice in a home-and-away round-robin format between November 16, 2023 and June 11, 2024.
All nine group winners and their respective runners-up will advance to the third round of FIFA World Cup qualifying, and at the same time seal their places at the AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027.
Pakistan will appear for the first time at this stage while at the other end of the spectrum, 12 teams will target a return to the global showpiece: Australia, China, North Korea, Indonesia (as the Dutch East Indies), Iraq, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
Of the 48 berths on offer at the 23rd FIFA World Cup, to be co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the United States, eight and a half have been allocated for the AFC’s national teams.
This will mark the 11th instance of standalone FIFA World Cup qualifying with direct slots available for Asia’s teams since the AFC’s establishment in 1954 and is the third time that the first two rounds will also serve as part of the Qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup.
The very first match in Round 2 of the Asian Qualifiers takes place at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, where hosts Australia (FIFA ranking: 27) face Bangladesh (183) in an 8pm kick-off.
The Socceroos have qualified six times for the FIFA World Cup, including the last five in a row, with the previous two coming through victories in the Inter-Confederation playoffs. This Group I opener will be their third meeting with the Bengal Tigers, having won both Group Stage matches at the same qualifying stage for the 2018 edition. The visitors, who were eliminated in the second round in their last three qualifying attempts, beat the Maldives to get to Round 2 this time.
In the same group, Lebanon (104) begin their ninth qualifying campaign against Palestine (96) at the neutral venue of the Khalid Bin Mohammed Stadium in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates at 6pm. Reaching the fourth round in the 2014 Qualifiers is the furthest that The Cedars have advanced, while the Lions of Canaan have reached the second round on four previous occasions. The away side are participating in their seventh Qualifiers and meet Lebanon for the sixth time, with both teams playing out a draw in their most recent fixture in August 2019 at the West Asian Football Federation Championship.
Since making their FIFA World Cup debut in 1998, Japan (18) have been at every subsequent edition, and they start their hunt for an eighth appearance at the Panasonic Stadium Suita in Osaka at 7.02pm. The Samurai Blue meet Myanmar (158) for the fourth time, having triumphed in their most recent two clashes at the same qualifying stage for the 2022 edition. The visitors are involved in only their fifth Qualifiers, with three second-round appearances their best results, and beat Macau in Round 1 to seal their place in Group B.
Syria (92), who came closest to appearing at a FIFA World Cup when they fell short in the final qualifying round for the 1986 edition, will aim to progress from Round 2 for a third consecutive time. Their first Group B opponent is North Korea (115), involved in the Qualifiers for a ninth campaign and targeting a third FIFA World Cup berth after 1966 and 2010. Both meet for the 10th time at 8pm at the Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – a neutral venue; it will mark North Korea’s first men’s international match since November 2019.
No Asian team has more FIFA World Cups under their belt than South Korea (24), whose quest to make it to a 12th edition – and 11th in a row – commences at the Seoul World Cup Stadium at 8pm. The Taeguk Warriors welcome Singapore (155) in their Group C opener, with the last of their 31 meetings coming at the 1990 Asian Games. The visiting Lions are hoping to reach the third round for a third time and edged Guam to progress from Round 1.
The last four qualifying campaigns of China (79) ended in the third round and they will have to go further than that if they are to add to their sole FIFA World Cup appearance from 2002. They travel to Bangkok to face Thailand (112) at the Rajamangala Stadium, with the Group C encounter set to kick off at 7.30pm. The War Elephants have thrice reached the third qualifying round and ran out 1-0 victors in their last international fixture with China PR in 2019; they will hope for a repeat outcome in their 27th meeting.