Doha, QATAR — It’s becoming something of a theme across most senior international tournaments these days, that men or women, world or continental, the gap between the perceived haves and the have-nots, the heavyweights and the lightweights, is shrinking.
As the United States, Canada and Mexico prepare to host an expanded, 48-team men’s World Cup in 2026, the dreams of some of world football’s lesser-known forces are coming to the fore. With Asia effectively doubling its representatives in 2026, this month’s Asian Cup is proving that the competition for a berth at FIFA’s showpiece event is hotter than ever.
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Across the group stages in Doha, the historical bullyboys of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have all managed to progress through to the knockout stages, but they’ve found the going much more difficult than they have in previous years; South Korea’s draws with Jordan and Malaysia and Japan’s surprise 2-1 loss to Iraq a case in point.
In the modern age of football, even the so-called minnows have access to coaching and sports science that allows them to challenge larger footballing nations physically and with tactics designed to frustrate and contain. But there have also been examples of bravery, of underdogs taking it up to their opponents and not backing down.
“One thing that has surprised me a little bit has been the physical side of a lot of the nations now, they’re some big boys,” Australia coach Graham Arnold said during the group stages. “One of the first things you’ve got to do is win that physical battle.”
The potential flow-on of this on a global level is obvious. Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, five nations have had an almost complete monopoly on Asia’s four and a half places on offer. Korea and Japan have qualified for all seven tournaments since France ’98, Saudi Arabia and Iran for five each, while Australia has booked its place at every World Cup since it joined the AFC in 2006.
But with eight and a half slots available for the 2026 World Cup in North America — eight direct qualification places and one spot in an inter-confederation playoff — we’re guaranteed to see some fresh faces amongst the familiar ones next time around. And while other teams could emerge from elsewhere to challenge for a place, several nations are putting their best foot forward at this Asian Cup and demonstrating they’re strong contenders to make their bow in 2026.
Ok, getting the obvious point out of the way, yes, Qatar were already at the last World Cup, even if their three straight defeats and hasty group-stage exit made it a rather ignominious stint. However, their presence at that tournament came by virtue of their status as hosts, and it represented the first time they had ever stepped foot on football’s grandest stage. When it comes to actually doing it on the pitch, Qatar has never qualified for the World Cup since its independence in 1971, getting in the vicinity of being somewhat close on a few occasions, such as France ’98, but never actually booking their place.
That, however, should change in 2026, and there’s a strong chance it would have done so even without the tournament’s expansion to 48. Led by Al Sadd attacker Akram Afif, the Maroons have become one of Asia’s strongest teams in recent years, becoming Asian champions in 2019 and putting together a strong push to retain their crown as hosts of the tournament this year.
Coach Tintín Márquez’s side may not have been at its best to this point, but it has still progressed through to the knockout stages without conceding a single goal across the past fortnight: topping Group A after defeating China and Tajikistan and then handling Lebanon 3-0. And, as an aside, Hassan Al-Haydos’ goal to defeat China is one of the best you’ll ever see.
Hassan Al-Haydos with an absolute beauty!
Qatar’s captain comes off the bench to score a belter. pic.twitter.com/thtlkhfrwX
— CBS Sports Golazo (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 22, 2024
They will face Palestine in the round of 16, with Uzbekistan or Thailand waiting in the quarterfinals.
Iraq first went to a World Cup in Mexico in 1986, where Raad Hammoudi led the Lions of Mesopotamia into games against Paraguay, Belgium, and the host nation — falling 1-0 in the first and last fixture and going down 2-1 to the Belgians, Ahmed Radhi scoring what is, to now, Iraq’s only goal on football’s biggest stage. 1986 also marked the debut of Canada and Denmark at the World Cup but whereas both of those nations have been back since, the Iraqis have been forced to watch from the sidelines every four years — coming closest to returning, funnily enough, the last time the World Cup was staged in the United States back in 1994.
Under Jesús Casas, Iraq has become one of the stories of the Asian Cup, taking a maximum of nine points from their three group stage fixtures, including a 2-1 win over tournament favourites Japan.
Boasting a team featuring several players based in Europe, and tapping into its diaspora to secure the services of the likes of former Manchester United prospect, Zidane Iqbal, now with FC Utrecht, they will face Jordan in the round of 16, with Tajikistan or the United Arab Emirates waiting after that.
“Football is fighting. You need to be competitive — if not, it is impossible to win a match,” Casas said after their Japan win. “I choose the players that can be fighters, but good players too.
“The difference at this level with the national team is you need a balance between fighting and quality.”
One of Asia’s fastest-rising sides, Uzbekistan’s continued investment in its junior national team programs has consistently borne fruit at an underage level in recent years — defeating England to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Under-17 World Cup last year, Asian Under-20 champions the same year, and Asian runners-up at Under-23 level in 2022 — and the White Wolves are increasingly showing signs that they’re ready to translate that to success at a senior international level.
– Lynch: Why Uzbekistan could be the breakout stars at 2026 World Cup
Despite being without the services of Cagliari attacker (on loan from AS Roma) Eldor Shomurodov and losing figures such as Igor Sergeev and Sherzod Nasrullaev during the tournament proper, the Uzbeks were still able to progress from Group B as second-placed finishers behind Australia in Doha; still fielding the likes of Lens defender Abdukodir Khusanov and CSKA Moscow midfielder Abbosbek Fayzullaev.
Uzbekistan has never qualified for a World Cup since it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991; its closest run ended in a controversial playoff against Bahrain in 2005 when they were eliminated on away goals following the annulment and replay of their first leg following a refereeing mistake. The White Wolves presently sit second in their World Cup qualifying group, comfortably accounting for Turkmenistan in their opening fixture before returning to Tashkent and staging a second-half fightback to secure a 2-2 draw with Iran, with Sergeev providing the 83rd-minute leveller.
Syria had to deal with a few pre-tournament blows when Mohammed Osman, Mardik Mardikian and Mohammad Al Hallak were all forced to withdraw from the squad with injuries. Nonetheless, veteran Argentine coach Héctor Cúper was able to steer the Qasioun Eagles through to the round of 16 while only conceding once — grabbing a draw with Uzbekistan, a narrow 1-0 loss to Australia in which the Socceroos were held to just a single shot on target, and a 1-0 win over India. It being the first time Syria had reached the knockouts of the Asian Cup, emotions were running high in the aftermath.
Syria’s translator and interviewer couldn’t hold back the tears after they qualified for the Asian Cup Round of 16.
Manager Héctor Cúper wasn’t quite as emotional.pic.twitter.com/isREKgV1pT
— COPA90 (@Copa90) January 23, 2024
Cúper’s unit’s defensive fortitude will be put to a stiff test on Wednesday when they take on Iran in that knockout clash, as will their ability to maintain it while finding someway to beat Alireza Beiranvand in the Team Melli goal.
First attempting to do so in 1950, Syria hasn’t had much success on a global level to this point, either; never been to a World Cup in its history, coming agonisingly close to advancing to a playoff with Honduras for a spot in Russia 2018, only for the post to deny Omar Al-Somah’s last-second free-kick in an AFC qualifying playoff with Australia, a few inches of timber between them advancing on away goals and sending them home.
Of course, while there are promising signs for Syrian football, there’s still work to do on the round to North America 2026. Placed in Group B for the second phase of AFC qualifying, Syria got their campaign off to a promising start when they defeated North Korea 1-0 in Jeddah to commence their campaign but were subsequently well-handled by Japan in their next fixture, going down 5-0 against the Samurai Blue.
With North Korea, their main rivals for progression through to the next phase defeating Myanmar 6-1 in the other fixture that day, it sent Syria down to third in the group after the first international window on goal difference, adding pressure on them to get a strong result when they travel to Yangon in March.
The UAE is another nation with just a single appearance on football’s grandest stage to their name: qualifying for the 1990 edition before falling to defeats against Colombia, eventual champions West Germany, and Yugoslavia. Ismaïl Mubarak and Thani Jumaa became the first two men to score for the Emiratis at that tournament but, unfortunately for them, they did so against a tide of 11 goals going the opposite direction. They’ve come close on a few occasions since, most notably falling to Australia in a single-legged playoff for the right to face Peru for a spot in Qatar in 2022, but it to this point has eluded them.
But under the stewardship of Paulo Bento, who led South Korea to the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup, Al Abyad has made a solid start to both their Asian Cup campaign and World Cup qualifying. On the road to North America 2026, wins over Nepal and Bahrain have them sitting alone atop Group H after two games and, following a win over Hong Kong, a draw with Palestine and a 2-1 loss to Iran on the final matchday of the group stages, they’ve finished second in Group C of the Asian Cup on goal difference.
Featuring a squad made up entirely of players plying their trade in the UAE Pro League, they will now face fellow second-placed finishers Tajikistan in their round of 16 fixture, a contest they will be expected to win, before facing Iraq or Jordan in the quarterfinals. A semifinal meeting with a heavyweight in Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Australia most likely then awaits if they progress.