The very first ball on the road to World Cup 2026 will be kicked next week Thursday, 7 September when Paraguay host Peru. Later that same day, Argentina begin their title defence when they host Ecuador.
That is just 263 after they lifted the World Cup at Qatar 2022. Preliminary competitions for Africa and Asia will also get under way before the end of the year as nations battle it out for coveted spots at the global finals.
In Asia which is the most populous confederation, eight teams are set for direct qualification and a further berth possible via the Play-off Tournament.
The first round of the FIFA World Cup 26 Asia Football Confederation (AFC) qualification competition will take place in October. Twenty teams will contest 10 two-legged home-and-away ties, with the winners joining 26 other nations in the second round.
There are five qualifying rounds in total to determine the eight direct slots Asia has been awarded at the FIFA World Cup 26, with one additional nation progressing to the FIFA Play-off Tournament.
Africa’s preliminary tournament begins on 13 November 2023.
The 54 CAF nations will compete in nine groups of six, with each of the group winners qualifying automatically for the FIFA World Cup 26.
The four best group runners-up will advance to a play-off stage to determine the Mother Continent’s sole representative at the FIFA Play-off Tournament.
Co-hosts Canada, Mexico and USA all receive automatic berths, leaving three direct slots and a possible further two via the Play-off Tournament up for grabs in Concacaf.
The qualification tournament will begin in March 2024. The region’s four lowest-ranked teams will be split into two match-ups and will contest home-and-away ties. The winners will advance to the second round.
In the second round, a total of 30 Concacaf sides will compete in six groups of five teams. The nations will play the other teams in their groups once. Each country will play two home matches and two away games. The group winners and runners-up (12 teams in total) will progress to the final round.
The 12 nations in the final round will be split into three groups of four teams. Within each group, teams will play each other home and away. The three group winners will qualify directly for the World Cup, joining hosts Canada, Mexico and USA. The two best second-place finishers will qualify for the FIFA Play-off Tournament.
CONMEBOL qualifying will begin on 7 September 2023 and end in September 2025.
Ten teams will compete in a single league format and play each other home and away. The top six teams will qualify automatically for the World Cup, with the seventh-placed side entering the FIFA Play-Off Tournament.
For the very first time, Oceania will have a guaranteed qualification spot for the World Cup, as well as a second second slot via the Play-off Tournament.
The first of three preliminary rounds, which will involve the continent’s four lowest-ranked nations, is due to take place in September 2024. A second stage, entailing two four-team groups, will then be played out over the next two months, before a decisive third round in March 2025 brings together four teams for semi-finals and finals that will determine OFC’s World Cup and Play-off Tournament representatives.
Europe’s qualifying competition is scheduled to begin in March 2025 and conclude in March 2026.
The first round will follow a familiar format, with 12 groups of four or five teams, and the section winners securing World Cup slots. The continent’s four remaining berths will then be settled in a 16-team UEFA play-off competition involving the 12 group runners-up and four best-ranked UEFA Nations League section winners.
The FIFA Play-off Tournament will see six sides fight it out for the final two places at the 23rd FIFA World Cup.
It will involve two teams from Concacaf and one team apiece from the AFC, CAF, CONMEBOL and OFC. The four lowest-ranked nations will meet in bracket semi-finals. The two highest-ranked teams will go directly into the finals. The winners of the two bracket finals will reach the FIFA World Cup 26.
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