The UAE will take on Bahrain and another two first-round qualifiers on the early road to the 2026 World Cup, after the draw for the second round of qualification was made in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
The national team, seeking to reach the country’s second global finals, will begin their Group H campaign on November 16, but must wait until October to discover which of Yemen or Sri Lanka, and Nepal or Laos will complete the pool.
Those teams, four of the 20 contesting Round 1, must negotiate a two-legged play-off to advance to the second round, with the matches played on October 12 and 17.
For Thursday’s draw, the UAE were placed in Pot 1, which also featured the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Japan, Iran, Australia and South Korea.
Saudi Arabia, looking to qualify for a third successive World Cup and seventh overall, will head Group G against Jordan, Tajikistan and the winner of the play-off between Cambodia and Pakistan.
The UAE, now managed by Portuguese coach Paulo Bento, reached the play-off stage for Qatar 2022 – they topped their second-round group and finished third in the next round – but lost narrowly to Australia in Al Rayyan last summer. The country’s only previous participation in a World Cup was in 1990.
The 2026 tournament, staged across Canada, Mexico and the United States, has been extended to 48 teams – a first in World Cup history – with the Asian Football Confederation’s allocation increasing to eight-and-a-half slots.
Drawn in nine groups of four, the 36 teams contesting the second round of qualification will compete in a home-and-away, round-robin format between November and June 2024.
The nine group winners and the respective runners-up advance to the third round, at the same time securing their places at the 2027 Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.