KUALA LUMPUR: Asia’s national teams will take another step towards the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027™ when the Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 kicks off next Thursday.

The dream remains alive for the 10 teams that made it through the first round of the Asian Qualifiers last month and they will join the remaining 26 Member Associations to continue their journey.

These 36 sides have been drawn into nine groups of four, within which they will face each other twice in a home-and-away round-robin format between November 16, 2023 and June 11, 2024.

All nine group winners and their respective runners-up will advance to the third round of FIFA World Cup qualifying, and at the same time seal their places at the AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027™.

Pakistan will appear for the first time at this stage while at the other end of the spectrum, 12 teams will target a return to the global showpiece: Australia, China PR, DPR Korea, Indonesia (as the Dutch East Indies), Iraq, Islamic Republic of Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

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 FIFA 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™.

The very first match in Round 2 of the Asian Qualifiers takes place at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, where hosts Australia (FIFA ranking: 27) face Bangladesh (183) in an 8pm kick-off.

The Socceroos have qualified six times for the FIFA World Cup, including the last five in a row, with the previous two coming through victories in the Inter-Confederation play-offs. This Group I opener will be their third meeting with the Bengal Tigers, having won both Group Stage matches at the same qualifying stage for the 2018 edition. The visitors, who were eliminated in the second round in their last three qualifying attempts, beat the Maldives to get to Round 2 this time.

In the same group, Lebanon (104) begin their ninth qualifying campaign against Palestine (96) at the neutral venue of the Khalid Bin Mohammed Stadium in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates at 6pm. Reaching the fourth round in the 2014 Qualifiers is the furthest that The Cedars have advanced, while the Lions of Canaan have reached the second round on four previous occasions. The away side are participating in their seventh Qualifiers and meet Lebanon for the sixth time, with both teams playing out a draw in their most recent fixture in August 2019 at the West Asian Football Federation Championship.

Since making their FIFA World Cup debut in 1998, Japan (18) have been at every subsequent edition, and they start their hunt for an eighth appearance at the Panasonic Stadium Suita in Osaka at 7.02pm. The Samurai Blue meet Myanmar (158) for the fourth time, having triumphed in their most recent two clashes at the same qualifying stage for the 2022 edition. The visitors are involved in only their fifth Qualifiers, with three second-round appearances their best results, and beat Macau in Round 1 to seal their place in Group B.

Syria (92), who came closest to appearing at a FIFA World Cup when they fell short in the final qualifying round for the 1986 edition, will aim to progress from Round 2 for a third consecutive time. Their first Group B opponent is DPR Korea (115), involved in the Qualifiers for a ninth campaign and targeting a third FIFA World Cup berth after 1966 and 2010. Both meet for the 10th time at 8pm at the Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – a neutral venue; it will mark DPR Korea’s first men’s international match since November 2019.

No Asian team has more FIFA World Cups under their belt than Korea Republic (24), whose quest to make it to a 12th edition – and 11th in a row – commences at the Seoul World Cup Stadium at 8pm. The Taeguk Warriors welcome Singapore (155) in their Group C opener, with the last of their 31 meetings coming at the 1990 Asian Games. The visiting Lions are hoping to reach the third round for a third time and edged Guam to progress from Round 1.

The last four qualifying campaigns of China PR (79) ended in the third round and they will have to go further than that if they are to add to their sole FIFA World Cup appearance from 2002. They travel to Bangkok to face Thailand (112) at the Rajamangala Stadium, with the Group C encounter set to kick off at 7.30pm. The War Elephants have thrice reached the third qualifying round and ran out 1-0 victors in their last international fixture with China PR in 2019; they will hope for a repeat outcome in their 27th meeting.

Progress to the third round in the last edition of qualifying was the furthest that Vietnam (94) have ever gone, and they will aim to surpass the feat in Group F. That entails a trip to Manila for the Golden Star Warriors, where the Philippines (138) await in their first match at 7pm at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. Making their sixth qualifying appearance, the Azkals have been eliminated in Round 2 in the last three editions and will play Vietnam for a 13th time, hoping to win for the first time in five encounters.

The other Group F game takes place at the Basra International Stadium, where Iraq (68) host Indonesia (145) at 5.45pm. The Lions of Mesopotamia made their sole FIFA World Cup appearance in 1986, while Indonesia’s came in 1938 when they were known as the Dutch East Indies. This will be the pair’s seventh meeting, the most recent coming in 2013 during the AFC Asian Cup qualifying, with the Garuda dispatching Brunei Darussalam in Round 1 to be here.

Group D features a quartet that are all vying for maiden FIFA World Cup qualification and gets underway in the capital city of Malaysia (137), where the hosts welcome the Kyrgyz Republic (97) at 9pm at the National Stadium Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur. The Harimau Malaya’s only previous meeting with the visitors in October 2018 resulted in a friendly defeat, and both sides will hope to progress past the second round for the first time in history.

The best qualifying result of Oman (72) to date came in 2014 when they reached the fourth round and the Reds start this edition at the Sultan Qaboo Sports Complex in Muscat at 7pm. Chinese Taipei (152) – winners against Timor-Leste in Round 1 – will come calling, hoping to move into the third round for the first time and also avenge both defeats to Oman during the 1994 Qualifiers – the only two previous meetings between this pair.

The eighth involvement of Tajikistan (109) in the Qualifiers begins against Jordan (82) in Group G at the Republican Central Stadium in Dushanbe at 6pm. The home side will aim to reach the next round for a second time, while their opponents came agonisingly close to a historic FIFA World Cup qualification in 2014 when they succumbed to Uruguay in the Inter-Confederation play-offs. This will be a fifth meeting between the teams; the last saw Tajikistan record a 1-0 friendly win in 2021.

A 1-0 success at home to Cambodia in the second leg of their Round 1 tie sparked wild celebrations for Pakistan (193), and no wonder – it was their first ever victory in FIFA World Cup qualification. Their reward is an away test against Saudi Arabia (57), who have qualified for the last two FIFA World Cups and are seeking a seventh overall. The first meeting between both was a friendly win for the Green Falcons in 1978 and the second will kick off at 7.30pm at the Al-Fateh Club Stadium in Al Hofuf.

An 11th meeting between neighbours Turkmenistan (141) and Uzbekistan (73) is slated for a 7pm kick-off in Group E at the Ashgabat Stadium as the home side target a third round berth for the first time since the 2010 Qualifiers. The visiting White Wolves’ closest brush with FIFA World Cup qualification came at the fourth round of the 2014 Qualifiers – they finished third in their group due to an inferior goal difference, with the top two guaranteed qualification.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (21) are seeking a fourth straight FIFA World Cup qualification and seventh overall, with Hong Kong, China (150) serving as their first opposition in Group E. The Dragons, who beat Bhutan in Round 1, are aiming to avoid elimination in the second round for a sixth straight time. Team Melli have won all six of the previous encounters, including the last two during the 2022 Qualifiers, and kick-off is at 6pm at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.

Off their debut in 2022, Qatar (61) will not be short on motivation to make it back to back FIFA World Cup appearances as they kick off their Group A campaign at 6.45pm at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan. It will be their sixth meeting with Afghanistan (154) and a repeat of the 2022 Qualifiers, where both also met in their first Round 2 match. The Lions of Khorasan, playing their sixth qualifying campaign, saw off Mongolia in Round 1.

Kuwait (136), who reached the global showpiece Finals in 1982 in Spain, are targeting a berth in the third round for a fourth time. They begin their Group A journey at 7.30pm at the Jaber Al Ahmed International Stadium in Kuwait City against an India (102) side that has not progressed beyond this stage in their last three attempts. It will be the sixth encounter between the teams, with the last two ending in draws at the South Asian Football Federation Championship earlier this year.

The United Arab Emirates (69) came close to adding to their 1990 FIFA World Cup appearance in the 2022 Qualifiers, only to succumb to Australia in the fourth round. The quest for redemption in Group H starts at 7.45pm at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai against Nepal (173), making their third appearance in the second round after getting past Laos in Round 1.

Defeating Sri Lanka in Round 1 sealed Yemen’s (156) sixth second-round involvement, which begins at the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium in Abha, Saudi Arabia – a neutral venue – at 9pm. There, they face the challenge of Bahrain (83), who twice reached the Inter-Confederation play-offs (2006 and 2010) only to see their FIFA World Cup dreams dashed on both occasions. The 15th and most recent meeting between this duo took place in 2017, where Bahrain triumphed 1-0 in the Gulf Cup.

Find the full match schedule here and follow the latest FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027™ qualifying action on the-AFC.com!

*All times indicated are in respective local times
#########