In August last year, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) executive committee approved the new qualification format for the continent’s road to the 2026 World Cup. In order to select teams for the eight direct spots and a single intercontinental play-off slot allocated to the AFC by FIFA following the expansion of the finals to 48 teams from its usual 32, a new qualification format has been chosen.
Prior to the World Cup’s expansion, the AFC held 4.5 berths. However now, the new qualification format has been established after several consultation and dialogue with key stakeholders to make it more competitive and also feasible. It was decided that the 2026 World Cup qualification tournament will comprise four rounds excluding the Intercontinental playoffs which is regarded as the fifth round.
Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 1 (both World Cup and Asian Cup)
Twenty two teams that are ranked between 26 and 47, will be drawn to face off in a home-and-away format, where the 11 winners will be progressing to the Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2. The World Cup dream will immediately end here for all the losing teams in this round.
Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 (both World Cup and Asian Cup)
The second round will have 36 teams – teams ranked from 1 to 25 as well as the 11 winners from the first round. All 36 teams will be divided into nine groups of four teams each, who will each compete in a round-robin, home-and-away format.
The top two teams from each of the nine groups – 18 teams in total will march on to the next stage of qualifying for the 2026 World Cup, while also securing an automatic berth at the 2027 Asian Cup.
Asian Qualifiers (World Cup only)
The Asian qualifiers will have 18 teams that have come from Round 2. They will be divided into three groups of six teams each, competing in a round-robin, home-and-away format, with the top two teams from each of the three groups – six teams in total, qualifying directly to the 2026 World Cup.
The third and fourth-placed teams will still remain in the hunt, but the bottom two sides in each of the three groups will be eliminated from proceedings and will have to be content with an Asian Cup berth.
Asian Playoff (World Cup only)
All the third-placed and fourth-place teams from the three groups in Round Three will make up the six remaining contenders and they will be split into two groups of three teams that will be facing off in a single round-robin format. Each team at maximum will be playing two games at this stage.
The two group winners will join the six qualified teams at the 2026 FIFA World Cup from the previous round to complete the total of eight direct slots allocated to the Asian Football Confederation by FIFA.
Intercontinental Playoff (World Cup only)
The second-placed teams of both groups from the Round Four will then be facing off in a single playoff game for a place in the Intercontinental playoff which will then see the winner of the playoff game up against a team from another continent (a representative from the qualifiers of another confederation).
This is where the 0.5 berth comes in – not a guaranteed or direct spot at the FIFA World Cup, but a half-chance to add a 9th Asian representative in the finals at the expense of another confederation.
That was the explanation of how the 8.5 allocated slots of the AFC will be utilized by the participating teams in the 2026 FIFA World Cup that will be held combinedly by the USA, Mexico, and Canada. But if you can recall then it was a joint qualifier for the 2026 World Cup and the 2027 Asian Cup as well.
Then what about the remaining 5 teams for the finals of the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia? Well, that is what we will be explaining now about how the remaining teams will be qualifying for the next edition of the Asian Cup excluding the 18 teams who had already made it.
AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers Playoff (Asian Cup only)
With the Asian Cup qualification running in parallel, we now go back to the beginning. If you can recall the 11 losing teams all the way back from the preliminary joint qualification round 1 then excluding the highest-ranked side, the remaining ten teams will be drawn to compete in five home-and-away ties, with the five winners among them advancing all the way to the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers.
AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers Final Round (Asian Cup only)
The five winners from the playoffs, and also that highest-ranked side that was exempted, from the previous stage, along with the 18 teams that were eliminated from the World Cup considering in the preliminary joint qualification round 2, will combine to make up the 24 teams that will be competing in the final round of AFC Asian Cup 2027 qualifiers and join the previously qualified 18 teams in finals.
The 24 teams will then be divided into groups of six teams. Only the top team will advance to the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia. The winners of the six groups in the qualifiers will then join the 18 teams that had previously secured their berths to participate in the 24-team final tournament.
What are India’s Chances in the Qualifiers?
Well, then we are back to answering the same questions which some people who are mostly also fans of European Football and follow Indian football comparatively to a lesser extent always has. You might often see them asking you many questions like “When will India qualify for the World Cup” and will always be the most asked question by them. After all, they also want to see their country playing at the World Cup and signing the Indian national anthem, and cheering for the team which also happens to be one of the wishes one wants to fulfill before they die. So let’s get to the point straightaway then.
India has been placed in POT 2 of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers draw which will be taking place on 27th July in Kuala Lumpur. Ok, but what does that mean, and what have we got to do with that?
Well, that means that India will get a slight advantage of not facing another stronger opponent in the group stages of the Round 2 Asian Qualifiers. This will also give India a chance to finish among the top two teams in the group and qualify for the Round 3 of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup. A stage India has never managed to make it in the past.
This will certainly be a historic milestone in itself in case India is able to make it there. But, it’s hard to expect anything beyond that right now. Finishing among the top two teams in the group in Round 3 certainly sounds like a “Wild Dream” and being among the 3rd and 4th place will indeed be very difficult but certainly not impossible at all.
If India does manage to do that somehow by hook and crook then it will be like a fairytale for all the Indian football fans out there. But honestly speaking that’s expecting too much right away. India’s most realistic chance is to reach Round 3 and finish among the bottom two sides at the maximum.
By the way, hope you haven’t yet forgotten that finishing among the top two teams in Round 2 and reaching Round 3 will automatically give India a direct spot in the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia and it will be another massive milestone as India has always had to play separate qualifiers to make it in the Asian Cup except for a couple of occasions. Taking the upcoming campaign in the 2023 Asian Cup in Qatar into consideration, India has now appeared five times for the AFC Asian Cup finals.
The best result from it will undoubtedly be the second-place or runner-up finish to Israel (former AFC Member Association) at their home in the 1964 edition. The other three editions (1986, 2011, and 2019) have all seen India fail to make it beyond the group stages. Making it beyond the group stages will be the minimum target for the new India team which always tends to keep its aims sky high.
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