FIFA World Cup qualifiers round up: Saudi Arabia scrapes through; Palestine powers on

Less than six weeks after the AFC Asian Cup final, most of the continent’s teams were back in action as the race for a spot at the 2026 FIFA World Cup finals continued in earnest this past week.

For the first time ever, there will be a minimum of eight places up for grabs for Asian nations as the tournament expands to 48 teams in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. AFC qualifying is currently at its second stage, with 18 teams set to advance to the next round. The final set of matches will take place in June.

Here, Al Arabiya English highlights some of the key storylines from the latest World Cup qualifiers – all of which were home and away double-headers.

Grounded Green Falcons fly again

Coach Roberto Mancini was desperate to put Saudi Arabia’s disappointing Asian Cup campaign behind him after the Green Falcons were grounded in the last-16 by South Korea. For the World Cup qualifiers against Tajikistan, uncapped Al Ahli defender Rayane Hamidou received his first call-up, while Abbas al-Hassan and Ayman Yahya – excluded from the roster in Qatar over disciplinary reasons – returned, along with Yasser al-Shahrani and Fahad al-Muwallad. Saud Abdulhamid, Ali al-Bulaihi, and Hassan al-Tambakti were Asian Cup regulars, but were omitted this time.

Tajikistan had an incredible run to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup, though the Green Falcons were boosted by the recent departure of coach Petar Segrt, who masterminded that run. Still, two matches against the Central Asians proved a tough test and one that Mancini’s side narrowly passed, securing a 1-0 home win and scraping through with a 1-1 away draw to leave the team in pole position to reach the next round.

In the first match at Al-Awwal Stadium, a poor defensive clearance allowed Salem al-Dawsari to tiptoe through the Tajikistan defense and fire home Saudi Arabia’s winning goal in 23 minutes. The return match in Dushanbe on Tuesday saw the Green Falcons take the lead through Firas al-Buraikan’s header – the goal coming after the match was temporarily interrupted due to a power outage in the stadium. A late equalizer from Rustan Soirov saw Tajikistan share the spoils, but Mancini’s team now only need a draw against minnows Pakistan in its next match to progress.

Jordan keeps maiden hopes alive

After a fairytale run to the Asian Cup final, Jordan was high on confidence ahead of their two matches against Pakistan earlier this week. Hussein Ammouta’s side were expected to comfortably earn six points from six against a Pakistan outfit that had scored one and conceded 10 in their first two FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Sure enough, Jordan successfully bolstered their goal difference, which could be a key factor in deciding the outcome of Group G. A professional 3-0 win was secured in Islamabad, courtesy a brace from Asian Cup hero Mousa al-Tamar, before the team received a warm homecoming in Amman, including an audience with King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein. On the pitch, Jordan ran riot, racking up a 7-0 hammering as Al-Tamari netted an eye-catching hat-trick alongside goals from Yazan al-Naimat, Saed al-Rosan, Al-Olwan, and Mohammad Abu Zrayq.

It means Jordan is now second in Group G and in better shape, having previously lost at home to Saudi Arabia and only just snatched a 1-1 away draw with Tajikistan back in November. It is ultimately the return match against Tajikistan in June that will be most important for Jordan, who has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup – coming closest in 2014 when it lost an intercontinental play-off to Uruguay.

“The main aim was to get the six points against Pakistan no matter what,” midfielder Noor al-Rawabdeh told Al Arabiya English. “I think the Tajikistan game is going to be so important in deciding who is going to the next round, and we will try from now on to be ready for that. All of our focus is on the qualifiers, and we will do everything we can to reach the World Cup because it’s not just one player’s dream; it’s the dream of more than 11 million people.”

Palestine seizes the opportunity

After a memorable AFC Asian Cup campaign in which they qualified for the knockout stage for the first time, Palestine further built their football profile with a pair of impressive wins against Bangladesh. Palestine’s first two FIFA World Cup qualifying results – a narrow 0-1 loss to Australia and a goalless draw away to Lebanon – were encouraging and the two triumphs against Bangladesh now make Makram Daboub’s side favorites to advance as the runners-up to Australia in Group I.

As the Israeli assault on Gaza rages, performances of the Palestine national team have offered the country’s beleaguered people some solace, and Daboub’s players did so again against Bangladesh, a team they had never previously lost to.

The support for Palestine on neutral ground in Kuwait City was remarkable, with more than 37,000 people in attendance to watch their 5-0 victory. Amazingly, the match saw more Kuwaiti supporters turning up compared to Kuwait’s own home World Cup qualifier against Qatar a few days later!

As was the case at the Asian Cup, Belgium-based striker Oday Dabbagh was Palestine’s hero against Bangladesh with a well-taken hat-trick, while Shehab Qunbar also added a double of his own.

In the return match in Dhaka, it seemed Bangladesh would hold on for a valuable point until Dado Termanini popped up in the 94th minute with a cool finish to hand Palestine a crucial 1-0 win. Should Daboub’s team draw against Lebanon in its next outing in June, Palestine will be certain of reaching the next round of AFC qualifying.

Afghanistan stuns India

The standout result from the recent FIFA World Cup qualifiers unquestionably belonged to Afghanistan, who sent shockwaves through Asian football pulling off an incredible 2-1 away victory over India at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati. Ranked 158 in the world, 41 places below India, Afghanistan had lost two previous qualifiers 8-1 and 4-0 to Qatar and Kuwait, respectively.

Yet, in the last round of matches, Afghanistan – led by English coach Ashley Westwood – first earned an impressive 0-0 ‘home’ draw in a match played in Saudi Arabia because of the ongoing conflict back home. Then, on Wednesday night, Afghanistan went a step further, securing one of the biggest surprises in their football history against a country and team with significantly more resources at their disposal.

India took the lead through a penalty by captain Sunil Chhetri, who was playing in his 150th international match for the hosts, but Rahmat Akbari, who plays his club football in Georgia, netted an equalizer with a deflected shot.

Then, in the 88th minute, Sharif Muhammad – a midfielder for Indian club Churchill Brothers – held his nerve to score a spot-kick and give Afghanistan an improbable victory that gave the nation an outside chance of qualifying for the next round, should they get a surprise result against Kuwait in their final group match on June 11.

Continental champions eye next big prize

After the celebrations that followed February’s second successive Asian Cup triumph, continental champions Qatar has quickly refocused on their next major goal. Coach Marquez Lopez delivered a memorable victory on home soil, but Qatar are now chasing something that has remained elusive in their football history so far: Consecutive qualification for the FIFA World Cup.

Keen to banish the demons of the FIFA World Cup finals the country hosted the last time in 2022, when it failed to win a single point, Qatar is now certainly among the favorites to be among the Asian nations competing on the big stage in 2026.

Qatar was top of its qualifying group, heading into a double-header against Kuwait, and has now sealed its passage to the next round after back-to-back victories over its Gulf neighbors. Kuwait had only beaten Qatar once in the past 21 years – a 1-0 Gulf Cup victory in 2010. Though Kuwait was somewhat of a stubborn opponent in both the earlier games, Qatar still emerged with six points from as many matches.

The first encounter in Al-Rayyan saw Qatar pounding in three second-half goals – a brace from Asian Cup MVP Akram Afif and one from Ahmed al-Rawi – to secure a 3-0 win.

Back in Kuwait City, a close game was decided in three frantic minutes. Almoez Ali fired Qatar ahead on 77 minutes, before Mohammad Daham equalized two minutes later for the hosts. Ali wasn’t done, though, snatching the winning strike less than 60 seconds after Daham’s leveler.

With that goal, the Qatar striker moved to the top of the FIFA World Cup qualifying Asian scoring charts with seven goals.

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