Asia’s World Cup Qualifying Format Disadvantages Weakest Teams

Exploring the Challenges Faced by Low-Ranked Teams in AFC Qualifiers: A Closer Look at Pakistan’s Progress

Pakistan recently faced Jordan in a double-header for the FIFA World Cup-AFC Asian Cup joint second round qualification, suffering defeats by a margin of 10 goals over both games. The team, under new coach Stephen Constantine, had progressed to this stage after defeating Cambodia in the first round, securing Pakistan’s first-ever World Cup qualification victory.

Despite the recent losses, Pakistan’s participation in the second round signifies a step forward for a team that had never advanced beyond the initial stage of Asian qualifying matches. The team will now move on to the 2027 Asian Cup qualifiers, setting the stage for six more matches at a higher level of competition.

On the other hand, Cambodia will need to navigate a play-off round later in the year to continue their journey in the Asian Cup qualifiers. Several other teams that fell out of the World Cup cycle last year, including nine such as Bhutan and Laos, will face a similar challenge, with only Bhutan securing a spot in the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers as lucky losers.

The existing Asian qualification format for the World Cup has been criticized for leaving lower-ranked teams at a disadvantage. The two-legged first round, introduced by the AFC for the 2006 World Cup, forces teams like Pakistan to rely heavily on the outcome of a couple of initial games, determining their competitive fate for the next four years.

Experts like Ali Ahsan and Gaurav Phuyal emphasize the need for more opportunities for lower-ranked teams in the qualification process. The current structure, they argue, hinders the growth of football in countries with limited resources and prevents meaningful discussions on national team improvement and domestic football development.

As the debate on the fairness of the qualifying format continues, the focus remains on ensuring equitable opportunities for all teams, facilitating broader participation and development in the Asian football landscape.

Denis Hardin

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