Saudi Arabia’s path to the 2026 World Cup being played in North America will start in a first qualifying group drawn on Thursday with neighbouring Jordan, Tajikistan plus either Cambodia or Pakistan.
Players in the Saudi national team — which stunned eventual winner Argentina in a 2-1 win to open the 2022 tournament in Qatar — will now prepare for the next edition training and playing with a slew of global stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema lured to the multi-billion dollar project that the Saudi Pro League has become.
An added incentive for Saudi Arabia is that the top two teams in each of the nine qualifying groups also qualify direct for the 2027 Asian Cup that will be hosted in the oil-rich kingdom.
None of Asia’s eight direct qualifying places to the expanded 48-team World Cup — co-hosted in three years’ time by the United States, Canada and Mexico — are on offer from this group stage.
The 18 teams advancing from the first group stage played from November through June 2024 will enter another round of six-team groups starting next year.
In other groups, Japan was drawn with Syria, North Korea plus either Myanmar or Macau, who have a two-leg playoff in October.
Australia’s home-based players will have at least one round trip of about 25,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) in a group with Palestine, Lebanon and either Maldives or Bangladesh.
South Korea, whose run of 10 straight qualifications started at the 1986 World Cup, is with China, Thailand and either Singapore or Guam.
Qatar, the 2022 host which has never advanced through the qualifying stages, is grouped with India, Kuwait plus Afghanistan or Mongolia.
The current security situation in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen means those teams are likely to play “home” games in neutral countries.
Asia has perhaps the most complex path of all soccer’s six continents to reach the 48-team World Cup.
Six teams will qualify via the subsequent group stage played from September 2024 to June 2025. Two more places will be decided by another group stage in October 2025 involving six teams.
Source : Indianexspres