Which Asian nations can still qualify for the FIFA World Cup?

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At the end of a long 2023-24 football season, the final round of fixtures for a number of players in Asia was a pair of FIFA World Cup qualifiers over the past week. For some AFC national teams, this meant the end of the road in their bid to reach the 2026 World Cup in the USA, Canada and Mexico.

But for others, the end of the second phase of FIFA World Cup qualifying was met with celebration, as they progressed to the next round and kept their hopes of making the quadrennial global football gathering alive.

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Here, Al Arabiya English examines which Asian nations still have a chance of competing in the new-look 48-team tournament in 2026.

Group A

Going through: Qatar, Kuwait
Going home: India, Afghanistan

Two-time Asian champion Qatar flew through Group A with four wins from its first four matches - securing top spot before this final round of fixtures. It meant that coach Tintin Marquez opted for a youthful squad - with just two players over 30 and an average age of 22 - for matches against Afghanistan and India. The former took advantage to claim an impressive 0-0 draw in the Saudi city of Hofuf, and India was also close to causing upset, but a second-half fightback saw Qatar win 2-1 in the final match in Doha.

At half-time in the last fixture, it seemed India would be heading through as it led the Asian champion and Kuwait was being held by Afghanistan. But Qatar’s comeback and a winning goal from Kuwaiti forward Eid al-Rashedi turned things around. Qatar is chasing its first ever direct qualification for the FIFA World Cup, having only played in the tournaments once - last time out as hosts - while Kuwait has one previous appearance, at the 1982 finals in Spain.

Group B

Going through: Japan, North Korea
Going home: Syria, Myanmar

Continental heavyweight Japan flexed its muscle in Group B with six wins from six to progress, with no team scoring more than its 24 goals in second-round qualifying. The Blue Samurai is looking to secure a spot at its eighth straight World Cup since making its debut in 1998 and is joined in the next round by North Korea, which pipped Syria to second place thanks to a 4-1 victory over Myanmar in its last game.

Although Syria has never reached the FIFA World Cup, it came close in 2018 and after a solid AFC Asian Cup was expected to finish runner-up to Japan in Group B. However, a dramatic last-minute defeat to North Korea in Laos last week proved to be the key result as Syria - needing a positive result in its final match away to Japan - also fell short in Hiroshima, suffering a 5-0 thrashing to allow North Korea through in its place, two points ahead.

Group C

Going through: South Korea, China
Going home: Thailand, Singapore

No team in Asia has played in more FIFA World Cups than South Korea (11) and in this all-East Asian group it was the Taegeuk Warriors that comfortably triumphed. Jurgen Klinsmann was sacked as coach after the shock Asian Cup exit at the hands of Jordan in February but caretaker Kim Do-hoon has overseen a draw and three wins as South Korea finished top of Group C on 16 points, conceding just one goal. Thailand needed a big score against bottom nation Singapore in its final match in order to finish second but its 3-1 win was not enough, so China took second place and a spot in the third round despite losing 1-0 to South Korea.

Group D

Going through: Oman, Kyrgyzstan
Going home: Malaysia, Chinese Taipei

When Oman lost its second match 1-0 to Kyrgyzstan it seemed a major setback to its hopes of reaching the third round but Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side regrouped well and that Kyrgyzstan goal was one of just two it conceded on its way to winning Group D. Oman has never reached the FIFA World Cup but came agonizingly close to making the play-offs for the 2022 tournament, Australia eventually pipping the Gulf nation by a solitary point.

Now it has its sights set on going a stage further and will be joined by Kyrgyzstan, which finished as runner-up. Malaysia still had a shot at qualifying for the next round going into the last game, but it was relying on a heavy Kyrgyzstan loss to Oman, which failed to materialize as the two nations drew their final match 1-1 in Muscat.

Group E

Going through: Iran, Uzbekistan
Going home: Turkmenistan, Hong Kong

There was very little to choose between Iran and Uzbekistan in Group E as both nations easily progressed at the expense of Turkmenistan and Hong Kong. There were some nervy moments, with Iran struggling at times in its away match to Hong Kong before turning the screw to win 4-2, and Uzbekistan going 1-0 down in its away clash with Turkmenistan before triumphing 3-1. But it is Iran, targeting a seventh World Cup, and Uzbekistan, aiming for its debut at the tournament, who go through to the third round - finishing level on points after a final 0-0 draw in Tehran.

Group F

Going through: Iraq, Indonesia
Going home: Vietnam, Philippines

Iraq breezed through Group F as one of only two teams in AFC qualifying with a 100 percent record. While there were five-goal hauls against Indonesia and the Philippines, Jesus Casas’ team also had to work hard for narrow 1-0 wins away to Vietnam and at home to the Philippines - Al Shorta forward Mimi scoring late goals in both. The most recent round of fixtures saw a 2-0 win away to Indonesia and a 3-1 in front of its own fans in Basra. Iraq has only qualified once for the World Cup, back in 1986, and has high hopes of ending its 40-year wait for a return. Joining the Lions of Mesopotamia in the next round is Indonesia, which progressed after a 2-0 victory over bottom side Philippines in its final game.

Group G

Going through: Jordan, Saudi Arabia
Going home: Tajikistan, Pakistan

It seemed Roberto Mancini’s side had put January’s Asian Cup disappointment behind it after a home win and away draw with Tajikistan, plus a victory in Pakistan, helped the Green Falcons to pole position in Group G heading into the final match against Asian Cup finalists Jordan. But just as it did at the Asian Cup, Jordan was able to spring a surprise.

Al Nassr’s Ali Lajami gave Mancini’s side the lead at his home stadium of Al Awwal Park in Riyadh, but by half time the hosts were behind thanks to strikes from Ali Olwan and Noor al-Rawabdeh. That was how it stayed and despite Saudi Arabia dominating possession, Jordan held on for a 2-1 victory that took them through as group winners. Just a couple of months ago it seemed Tajikistan might edge Jordan out but back-to-back wins over the past week have taken Hussein Ammouta’s team a step closer to a FIFA World Cup debut.

Group H

Going through: UAE, Bahrain
Going home: Yemen, Nepal

Not since its debut appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 1990 has the UAE been at football’s top table but it has impressed in the second round of qualifying for 2026 with five wins from six. Nepal was beaten 4-0 home and away, while a battling performance from Yemen in March almost caused a shock in Abu Dhabi until Sultan Adil’s goal snatched a 2-1 win. The UAE has historically done well at this stage of qualifying, winning its group last time and often reaching the final hurdle only to then come unstuck. Coach Paulo Bento is aiming to take the Emiratis a step further this time.

UAE will be joined by Gulf neighbor Bahrain in the next round after Dragan Talajić’s side secured the single point it needed against Yemen to ensure progress and eliminate its opponent. In the final group game on Tuesday, goals from Bahrain’s Mahdi Abduljabbar and UAE’s Sultan Adil saw the points shared at Zabeel Stadium in Dubai.

Group I

Going through: Australia, Palestine
Going home: Lebanon, Bangladesh

After making history by reaching the knockout stage of the Asian Cup for the first time in January, Palestine did it again last week by sealing its debut appearance in the third round of FIFA World Cup qualifying.

Palestine will likely look back on Dado Terminani’s 94th minute winner against Bangladesh in March as the decisive moment in this qualifying group and in its penultimate match, a hard-fought 0-0 draw with Lebanon confirmed that it would be joining group winner Australia in the next round.

A 5-0 hammering by the Socceroos in Perth couldn’t dampen Palestinian spirits in the final match and Makram Daboub’s side now moves on to its next seemingly impossible dream. Elsewhere, Lebanon had a qualifying campaign to forget but finished with a flourish as veteran captain Hassan Maatouk scored a memorable hat-trick as it beat Bangladesh 4-0 in Qatar.

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