Asian Heavyweights Begin World Cup Qualifying with Warning for Japan
Tokyo (AFP) – Japan, Australia, and Jurgen Klinsmann’s South Korea will kick off their qualifying campaigns on Thursday for the 2026 World Cup, with Palestine also among the 36 teams in action in Asia.
A record eight direct spots and one intercontinental playoff berth are up for grabs for Asian Football Confederation sides at the expanded World Cup in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
The AFC will be divided into nine groups of four, and each team will play home and away matches. The top two teams from each group will advance to the final qualifying round.
Japan is expected to secure their place at an eighth consecutive World Cup after an outstanding run of form since last year’s tournament in Qatar, where they reached the round of 16.
The Blue Samurai have won their last six games, scoring 24 goals and conceding only five.
In September, they traveled to Europe and defeated Germany 4-1 and Turkey 4-2, which resulted in both opposing managers losing their jobs.
Coach Hajime Moriyasu, whose team will kick off their campaign against Myanmar in Osaka, cautioned that Group B, which also includes Syria and North Korea, will not be easy.
“They are teams that could easily compete in the final round,” the coach said, despite Japan thrashing Myanmar 10-0 at home during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
“We cannot afford to be complacent and we need to strive for improvement,” he added.
South Korea initially faced difficulties when German legend Jurgen Klinsmann took over as coach in February, but their results have improved in recent games.
The Koreans won friendly matches against Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Vietnam, scoring 11 goals without conceding any. They will begin their qualifying campaign at home against Singapore.
China and Thailand have also been drawn into what appears to be one of the toughest groups in the qualifiers.
“We will take every World Cup qualifying game very seriously,” said Klinsmann, who failed to secure a win in his first five games in charge. “Getting points right from the start is crucial.”
Australia, who reached the round of 16 in Qatar along with Japan and South Korea, will start their campaign against Bangladesh in Melbourne.
Coach Graham Arnold stated that the time for “experimenting is over,” as the Asian Cup in Qatar is also just two months away.
“Now it’s all about getting the tactics right, getting the players on the pitch and performing well, and winning those games at any cost,” he said.
The Socceroos have also been drawn into Group I alongside Lebanon and Palestine.
Palestine will play their first match away against Lebanon, but due to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, they will play their home game against Australia on neutral ground in Kuwait next week.
The first matchday this week will be followed by the second on November 21 in Asia.
On Thursday, Iran will host Hong Kong, while Saudi Arabia, who achieved a stunning victory over eventual champions Argentina at the Qatar World Cup, will host Pakistan.
Pakistan secured their first-ever qualifying win by defeating Cambodia in the preliminary round.
Qatar, now under the guidance of former Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, will host Afghanistan.
Reportedly, 18 of Afghanistan’s players are planning to boycott the match in protest against what they describe as poor treatment by their country’s football association.
North Korea is set to play their first World Cup qualifier since 2019 when they face Syria on neutral ground in Saudi Arabia.
The North Koreans withdrew from the 2022 qualifiers midway through when the Covid pandemic struck.