—– The quest to reach the FIFA World Cup 2026 begins for 20 Asian teams on Thursday with the confederation’s preliminary joint qualification round 1.

Having been divided into 10 pairings at the official draw ceremony two months ago, these sides will play two-legged ties – one home and one away match, on October 12 and 17 respectively. The winners on aggregate of each pairing then proceed to Round 2, where they join the remaining 26 Member Associations to continue their campaign.

A quartet of teams will set their sights on advancing from the first round for the first time: Brunei Darussalam, Macau, Pakistan and Timor-Leste.

Asia will be the second Continent to get the qualification process underway after the CONMEBOL started last month; 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 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™. Four teams have been involved in all previous 10 qualifying rounds: Bangladesh, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Yemen.

The opening Round 1 fixture takes place at the Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon, where Myanmar (FIFA rank: 160) start their fifth qualifying campaign at 4pm against Macau (182), participating for the 10th time; the hosts have come out on top in all four previous international encounters.

Chinese Taipei (156) begin their ninth appearance at 7pm at the National Stadium in Kaohsiung City, where they welcome a Timor-Leste (196) side taking part for the fifth time as both meet for the first time at the senior international level.

An all-ASEAN clash between Indonesia (149) and Brunei Darussalam (191) takes centre stage at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta at 7pm when they meet for the 12th time. The Garuda, who reached the third round in the 2010 Qualifiers, are at their 10th qualifying campaign while their opponents are involved in their fifth.

A duo who are very familiar with each other resume rivalries for a 17th occasion at 4pm at the National Stadium in Male, where the Maldives (154) mark their eighth qualifying appearance against a Bangladesh (192) side who came out on top in their South Asian Football Federation Championship match in June.

Nepal (174) embark on their ninth qualifying campaign at the Dashrath Stadium in Kathmandu when they host Laos (188) at 5.30pm, with the away side making their sixth appearance and looking to avoid a fourth defeat in as many head-to-head meetings.

Guam (206) have good memories from their last visit to Singapore in March 2015, when they held the home side (158) to a 2-2 friendly draw in the sole encounter between the pair to date. The Lions, who reached the third round of Qualifiers in 2010 and 2014, will be keen to do better against the visitors – playing in their fourth Qualifiers – when the first whistle goes at 7.30pm at the National Stadium.

The National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh will provide the backdrop when Cambodia (176), appearing for the seventh time, face the challenge of Pakistan (195), who will notch their 10th involvement, at 7pm. The first ever international encounters between this pair took place at the same stage in the 2022 Qualifiers and saw Cambodia win both ties.

Similarly, the only two prior battles between Hong Kong, China (147) and Bhutan (185) occurred in the Qualifiers – during the second round of the 2018 edition. The third will kick off at 8pm at the Hong Kong Stadium, which coincides with the visitors’ third qualifying appearance.

The first leg between Afghanistan (155) and Mongolia (183) – participating in the Qualifiers for a sixth and seventh time respectively – will be played at a neutral venue: the Republican Central Stadium in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. The Afghans emerged 1-0 winners in their sole previous encounter in March 2013; kick-off is scheduled for 7pm.

Yemen (157) and Sri Lanka (207) are the second pair of Round 1 sides who will play each other for the first time in their history when they come together at the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz SC Stadium in Abha, Saudi Arabia – a neutral venue – at 8pm to begin their 11th and eighth qualification campaign respectively.

Find the full match schedule here and follow the latest World Cup qualifying action on the-AFC.com