MENA Countries in World Cup Qualifiers

After more than 100 games over seven months, the second round of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup came to an end on Tuesday, June 11. 

What is the Format of the World Cup? How Many Teams from Asia can Qualify?

The World Cup has had 32 teams compete in the tournament since 1998, when it increased from 24. Now, FIFA, the governing body of soccer, is further expanding the field to 48 teams for the 2026 edition. As a result, the AFC will have eight spots to fill, with the opportunity for one more through an extra playoff game.

Who are the Teams that Made it to the Third Round of Qualifying?

The broader Middle East is well represented in the upcoming 2026 tournament. Ten out of 18 teams that made it out of the second round are from the region: Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Palestine.

Alongside these countries are: Japan, North Korea, South Korea, China, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and Australia.

The third round will see much of the final selection determined, as the top six teams will qualify directly for the World Cup while the next best two will go to another playoff round. The draw for the round, where the 18 countries will be sorted into three groups of six, will be held on June 27.

Key Facts

Almoez Ali, a striker for the Qatar national team, leads the field so far as the top scorer of qualifying with seven goals.

Iraq had one of the best campaigns of the entire 36-team field, winning a perfect six out of six games, while the UAE, Iran, and Qatar also went undefeated. 

This was an especially notable victory for the Palestine national team, as they advanced to the third round for the first time in history despite their inability to host home games.

How Else has the Middle East been Involved with Soccer?

While the region has a long history of sport, recent years have seen a rise in commitment, especially in investment from Gulf states. 

In 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG) took over a controlling stake in the club Manchester City in England. Since the change in ownership, the club has spent almost $2 billion on players. ADUG, a private equity company based in the UAE, is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s vice president and deputy prime minister, chairman of two sovereign wealth funds, and member of the royal family. The company has also founded or purchased clubs in the United States, Spain, France, Australia, India, Japan, China, Brazil, and Uruguay.

In 2011, Qatar Sports Investment, a subsidiary of the country’s massive sovereign wealth fund, followed suit and bought a majority stake in Paris Saint-Germain, a club team based in Paris, France. Since the purchase, the club has spent more than $2 billion on player transfers, including the massive purchases of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe for $240 million and $190 million, respectively, which are the two most expensive transfers in history.

After winning the bid to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010, Qatar spent the next decade investing more than $200 billion into building the stadiums and other infrastructure necessary for putting on the international tournament. The massive construction efforts also came with a public relations cost, as reports of worker deaths and rights concerns surrounded the months building up to the first whistle.

Since 2022, Saudi Arabia has spent more than a billion dollars buying internationally-recognized soccer players and bringing them to state-owned teams in the country’s domestic league to increase interest in Saudi soccer and the country as a whole. 

  • The most well-known buy is the Portuguese attacker Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined the club Al Nassr in late 2022 for a reported salary of over $200 million per year, the highest in history. 
  • Other notable players who made the move include Neymar, who cost Al-Hilal $100 million, and Karim Benzema, who is also making close to $200 million annually
  • Also notable is the reported offer made to Lionel Messi: over $1.5 billion, which the Argentinian player declined.

Furthermore,  in 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund led a purchase of the Premier League club Newcastle United, to much criticism in England amid concerns of the country’s human rights record. Riyadh also recently won the rights to host the 2034 World Cup.

While the rapid rise in investment has cooled down as of late, there is an obvious commitment from countries in the region to boosting their profiles through sport. 

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