How India has a realistic chance of qualifying for 2026 FIFA World Cup
Earlier this year, the FIFA Council in Zurich decided to incorporate a change in the traditional World Cup format from the 2026 edition by changing it to a 48 team event. The current format is a 32 team affair
The increased number of teams will obviously mean a lot more slots for teams from all of FIFA’s confederations, giving relatively smaller teams a chance to make their presence felt on the international stage.
The Bureau of the FIFA council, which comprises of Presidents of the six confederations and the FIFA President himself, has proposed a new qualification format that gives football’s underdogs like India much higher chances of qualifying for FIFA’s showpiece event.
The new format proposes eight direct slots for countries from the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), which is a significant upgrade over the current allocation of four and a half slots.
For those who are not aware of the current qualification process, the four and a half team allocation is done via a five-step qualification process which starts with the 12 lowest ranked teams in the confederation being halved.
These teams then join the remaining 34 Asian teams in the second round. The 40 teams are divided into five groups, from which eight group winners and four best runners-up go to the third round. Then, two groups of six teams each are made and two group winners and two runners-up qualify for the automatic slots.
The allocation of the ‘half team’ comes from the two third-placed teams engaging in a fourth round of fixtures. The winner gets the opportunity to play in a playoff with a CONCACAF team for the final slot in World Cup.
The new proposed qualification format will have 46 teams qualifying by the modified processes, which will bring with it higher chances of teams qualifying from confederations like the AFC.
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In order to provide further opportunities for teams to qualify for the mega event, the Bureau is proposing a playoff tournament involving six nations, slugging it out for the remaining two slots. The six nations will involve one team per confederation with the exception of UEFA and an additional team from the host nation’s confederation.
The top two ranked countries will be seeded according to FIFA World Rankings prevailing at the time. The first knockout round will involve the four unseeded teams, the winner of which will face off against the seeded teams for the final two slots in World Cup 2026.
The Indian football team is likely to have its established stars from the current crop of U-17 footballers vying for the qualification spots then. The players, who are preparing to play the U-17 World Cup to be held in India in October later this year, will have a glorious chance to make it to the grandest stage of all with increased qualification slots.
These footballers will be the first ever batch of Indian footballers to have a big tournament (U-17 World Cup) experience, being the first time any Indian team will feature in a FIFA World Cup.
With the kind of footballing taking place in the country, India will have hopefully produced enough talented players by 2026 who will help the team rise in the FIFA rankings as well.
However, qualification for the event is still likely to be a challenge with the current top ten AFC teams being miles ahead in terms of quality. The Blue Tigers, as of today, are ranked 20th out of 40 teams in the confederation.