With the FIFA World Cup set to expand from 32 teams to 48 teams in 2026, Asia will soon have eight guaranteed representatives gracing football’s biggest stage — as well as potentially a 9th representative via the playoffs.
On Monday, the Asian Football Confederation announced the new qualification format for the 2026 World Cup that will be jointly held in United States, Mexico and Canada, which — as has been the case in the past two editions — will also serve as part of the qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup in 2027.
All 47 AFC member associations will partake in qualifying, which teams potentially having to go through six rounds before booking their place at the World Cup in four years’ time.
Given it is a rather complicated process, we attempt to break down and figure out how the format will work with Asia now boasting 8.5 berths (the 0.5 will be explained in due course).
Preliminary joint qualification round 1 (both World Cup and Asian Cup)
The most straightforward section of the qualifiers, the road to the 2026 World Cup begins here for the AFC’s 22 lowest-ranked sides (No. 26 to 47) — drawn to face off in a home-and-away format.
The 11 victors advance to the next round of the joint qualifiers, while the World Cup dream immediately ends here for the losing teams.
Preliminary joint qualification round 2 (both World Cup and Asian Cup)
This is the stage where the heavyweights enter the fray, with the nations ranked No. 1 to 25 joining the 11 winners from the previous round to combine for 36 participants, who will be divided into nine groups of four.
Competing in a round-robin, home-and-away format, the top two from Groups A to I (18 in total) will march on to the next stage of qualifying for the World Cup, while also securing an automatic berth at the 2027 Asian Cup.
For the other 18 teams, the goal of reaching the World Cup will have to wait for another four years at least.
AFC Asian qualifiers (World Cup only)
The 18 nations still in the running will now be drawn into three groups of six and face off again in a round-robin, home-and-away competition.
The top two teams in each group (six in total) automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup.
The third and fourth-placed teams will remain in the hunt, but the bottom two sides in each group will be eliminated from proceedings and will have to be content with an Asian Cup berth.
Asian playoff (World Cup only)
The six remaining hopefuls will be split into two groups of three facing off in a single round-robin format, meaning each team will only play two games at this stage.
The two group winners will join the sextet from the previous round at the 2026 World Cup.
The second-placed teams will then face off in a single playoff for a place in the intercontinental playoff.
Intercontinental playoff (World Cup only)
This is where the 0.5 berth comes in — not a guaranteed spot at the World Cup, but a half-chance to add a 9th Asian representative at the expense of another confederation.
Prior to the World Cup’s expansion, the AFC held 4.5 berths and that is how Australia qualified for this year’s edition in Qatar, having defeated South American hopefuls Peru of CONMEBOL to complete an arduous but ultimately successful campaign.
AFC Asian Cup qualifiers playoff (Asian Cup only)
With Asian Cup qualification running in parallel, we now go back to the beginning.
Remember the 11 losing teams all the way back from the preliminary joint qualification round 1?
Excluding the highest-ranked side, the remaining ten will be drawn to compete in five home-and-way ties, with the winners advancing to the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers.
AFC Asian Cup qualifiers final round (Asian Cup only)
The five winners, and that highest-ranked side that was exempted, from the previous stage, along with the 18 teams that were eliminated from the World Cup reckoning in preliminary joint qualification round 2, will combine for 24 teams competing in the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers.
Divided into groups of four, only the top team will advance to the 2027 Asian Cup — with the six winners joining the 18 sides that had previously secured their berths to make for a 24-team tournament.