Friday 28 June 2024, 07:00

Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 26™ will inspire young people in the region - FIFA President

  • Asia will have record number of teams at FIFA World Cup 26™

  • Gianni Infantino says recent tournaments show Asian football improving

  • Qualifying matches will “unite through football”, FIFA President adds

The Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 26™ will be an inspirational and unifying force across the region, Gianni Infantino said before the draw for the third round of the competition. In a video address to the 18 teams still in the contest, the FIFA President spoke about the progress that Asian football was making and the opportunities that FIFA had made available for further development. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) will have a record eight participants at the FIFA World Cup 26, following the expansion of the tournament, with the possibility for a ninth slot through the Play-Off Tournament.

Japanese former footballer Shinji Okazaki (2nd L) and Iranian former footballer Mehdi Mahdavikia (R) stand on stage after the 2026 World Cup qualifying draw for Asian Football Confederation teams in Kuala Lumpur

"These matches will inspire young people all over Asia and are another opportunity to unite through football," said the FIFA President. "My congratulations to the 18 teams who have got this far and the very best of luck in the next stage of this exciting contest. At least eight of you, and possibly nine, will experience the thrill and excitement of participating in a FIFA World Cup™ following our decision to expand the tournament to 48 teams. "The FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup this year both showed how much Asian football is improving and I am sure it will continue to do so, especially if you use the support of the FIFA Forward programme and Talent Development Scheme."

Asia has recently become a centre of the football world with the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup India 2022™ and the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, where, for the first time, three Asian teams reached the knockout stage. Those were followed by the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™, co-hosted by Australia, the FIFA U-17 World Cup Indonesia 2023™, the FIFA Club World Cup Saudia Arabia 2023™ and the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup UAE 2024 Dubai™. Central Asia will host its first FIFA event in September and October with the FIFA Futsal World Cup Uzbekistan 2024™ while Qatar will stage the next five editions of the FIFA U-17 World Cup™, starting from 2025.

The expanded FIFA World Cup will create more playing opportunities for national teams everywhere, in line with FIFA's strategic objectives for the current cycle.

The draw brought Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia together in Group C, the third time in a row the trio have faced each other at this stage of the competition. Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan, both bidding for a maiden World Cup appearance, will meet in a Central Asian derby after being drawn together in Group A, while five West Asian nations will do battle in Group B.