Explained: How can the Indian football team qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup?
The Blue Tigers are looking to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in their history
The Indian football team's fate in the FIFA World Cup 2026 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round Two of the AFC Asian Qualifiers has been revealed. The Blue Tigers have been handed a tough draw, after being slotted alongside Qatar, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.
However, Igor Stimac's men have made the perfect start to the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers with a 1-0 win away to Kuwait who according to FIFA rankings are India's biggest competitors for the second qualifying spot in their group.
A positive result against Qatar on Tuesday will go a long way in further strengthening their position but there is still a long way to go for the Blue Tigers.
India were placed in Pot 2 of the Qualifiers ahead of the Qualifiers after securing a 99th position in the FIFA Rankings at the time of cut-off for the draw. Qatar were ranked 59th in the FIFA Rankings, were the top-ranked team in the group, followed by India and then Kuwait, who were in the 137th position in the FIFA Standings at the time of the draw. Afghanistan (ranked 157th) at the time of the draw were the fourth team in the group.
All four teams from Group A, just like the eight other AFC groups, are competing in a double round-robin format on a home-and-away basis between November 2023 and June 2024.
How can India make it to the 2026 FIFA World Cup?
The route is simple, but difficult. India need to ensure a minimum top-two finish in Group A, with the nine group winners and the respective runners-up progressing to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. By doing so, India will also confirm their place in the 2027 edition of the AFC Asian Cup.
The draw for the third round of the global event will take place in 2024 with all 18 teams - the nine group winners and the respective runners up - to be slotted into three groups of six teams. The top two teams within these three groups in the third round will seal their place in the showpiece event.
During the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers, India finished third in their group, with group toppers Qatar and second-placed Oman advancing to the third round.
What if India doesn't finish among the top two group toppers in round three?
Things will get even more challenging for the Indian football team, in case they do not finish among the top two sides in round three. The third and fourth-placed teams among the three groups in the third round will have to battle it out in the fourth round.
The fourth round will consist of six teams divided into two groups each. The winner of the two groups will join the other six AFC sides that qualified from the third round at the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
Finishing bottom of the group in round four will ensure the end of the road for India. However, if they do finish second in their Group, they will make their way to the Fifth round. These two second-placed teams from the fourth round will then take on each other in a two-legged clash for a place in the Inter-confederation playoffs.
The winner of the fifth round will join the respective winners from the CAF (Africa), CONMEBOL (South America), OFC (Oceania) and two teams from the CONCACAF region (North America, Central America and the Caribbean). The four lowest-ranked FIFA teams will face each other in two knockout matches. The two winners will face the two highest-ranked teams in another set of knockout games. The winners of these two knockout matches will confirm their place in the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
In the previous edition of the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers for the AFC Region, Australia and the United Arab Emirates were among the two teams that finished third in the Third Round. The Socceroos later on defeated the Arab side 2-1 to make their way into the inter-confederation playoffs. In the fifth round, Australia beat CONMEBOL side Peru on penalties and joined Costa Rica, the other inter-confederation playoff winner, for a place at the showpiece event in Qatar.