Asian qualifiers for 2026 World Cup kick off in October 2023

South Korea celebrates a 2-1 win over Portugal in Group H at the FIFA World Cup qualifying round at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Dec. 2, 2022 to clinch a spot in the round of 16. The 28th-ranked Korea is the fourth-highest Asian team behind Japan, Iran and Australia. (Photo from Yonhap)

SEOUL – The Asian qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup will kick off in October, the continental football governing body announced Friday, with South Korea set to join the action beginning in November.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced details of the regional qualifying process for the 2026 World Cup, which will feature a record 48 teams and be co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Of the 45 AFC member nations, the bottom 18 teams in the latest FIFA world rankings will begin their qualifying campaign in the first round.

These teams will be divided into nine pairings, with each team playing one home and one away match on Oct. 12 and 17 this year.

The nine winners of the first round will advance to the second round, where they will be joined by the remaining 27 teams from the FIFA rankings.

South Korea, at No. 28, is the fourth-highest ranked AFC team, behind Japan, Iran and Australia.

These 36 teams will be drawn into nine groups of four and will play in a home-and-away round-robin format between November this year and June next year.

Group winners and runners-up from each of the nine groups will reach the third round. Those 18 teams will also secure their places at the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.

In the third round, the 18 teams will be divided into three groups of six. The top two teams from each group will qualify directly for the World Cup.

The third- and fourth-placed teams will proceed to the fourth round, where they will be divided into two groups of three. They will play against each other once at a neutral site, and the winners of each group will qualify for the World Cup.

The runners-up from each group will reach the fifth round, where they will compete home-and-away across two legs. The winning team will represent Asia in the inter-confederation playoffs for a chance to grab the final World Cup ticket.

The draw for the first two rounds will take place July 27 in Kuala Lumpur.

With the increase in the size of the World Cup, Asia will now have 8.5 slots available — eight direct slots and one inter-confederation playoff slot, up from 4.5 places for previous events. (Yonhap)