After their recent success in the Intercontinental Cup 2023, confidence is high in the Indian national football team as they head into SAFF Championship 2023.

Currently 101st in the men’s FIFA rankings, India will be playing plenty of football in 2023 which is sure to bode well for the development of the sport in the country. 

The Blue Tigers will have plenty of games under their belts prior to the postponed Asian Games 2022 where India’s youngsters will mostly be featuring.

However, the pinnacle for international football will always be the FIFA World Cup and India’s history of participation in this showpiece event doesn’t make for kind reading as they haven’t played in any edition of the tournament.

While India did qualify for the 1950 edition of the World Cup after Philippines, Myanmar, and Indonesia pulled out of the tournament, the Blue Tigers also opted to withdraw from football’ showpiece event.

Even though the exact reason behind their withdrawal was never made clear, some believe it was due to India wanting to play the game barefoot against which there was no FIFA regulation at the time while others claim that travelling costs to Brazil for the World Cup could have also been a reason.

Looking ahead, India’s quest for their maiden appearance in a World Cup finals continues and here we have a look at if India can qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Can India qualify for FIFA World Cup 2026?

Can India qualify for FIFA World Cup 2026? Well in theory, the short answer is yes. However, that’s unlikely to come to pass since plenty of things must fall into place for that to happen and while the odds of such a thing happening isn’t in India’s favour, here we take a look at how the Blue Tigers can make the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Firstly the fact that the 2026 World Cup has expanded to 48 teams instead of 32 is a slight boost for India since the change in format increases slots for Asian teams from 4.5 to 8.

As India are ranked among the top 20 Asian teams in the FIFA rankings, they do not need to be a part of the first round of Asian qualification for World Cup 2026.

They do, however, need to participate from the start of Preliminary Round 2, where 36 teams will be divided into nine groups of four sides each. 

Preliminary Round 2 is slated to begin in November 2023 and will continue till June 2024, and it is here where India need to make a major push if they’re to finish among the top two spots in their group.

One way India can slightly boost their chances of finishing in the top two is if India can push to be pot 2 of their FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers Preliminary Round 2.

Prior to the draw for the qualifiers, the Blue Tigers will be aware of the fact that the higher their FIFA ranking is the more possibility they have to be in a group with teams ranked lower than them in it.

With that in mind, being a part of Pot 2 for the draw can be of great help for India. To be in Pot 2, India needs to be ranked 99 or higher by the end of the ongoing international break and have a minimum AFC ranking of 18.

If the Blue Tigers can continue winning matches and get ranked among the top 18 Asian teams and be ranked 99 or above in the FIFA rankings, it would put them in Pot 2 for the draw, thereby boosting their chances of playing inferior ranked teams in their group in Preliminary Round 2 and aid their hopes of a top two finish in it.

All things considered, even if India were to make it beyond Preliminary Round 2 they would still need to get beyond the third, fourth and fifth rounds of the 2026 World Cup qualifiers in Asia.

These rounds will see the best teams in Asia competing, including the top 10 sides from the continent, which means India’s chances of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup 2026 is slim at the very best.

Photo credit: Alamy