The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on Thursday held the much-anticipated draw for the Asian zone qualifiers of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will feature an expanded format with 48 teams.

Among the countries in South Asia, only India directly qualified for the group stage, leaving six others to compete in the preliminary round.

To secure a place in the qualifying group, the Maldives have to overcome Bangladesh in the first round of the preliminary qualifiers. The first leg of the clash is scheduled to take place on 12 October in the Maldives, with the return leg set for 17 October in Bangladesh.

The Maldives lost to Bangladesh in the SAFF Championship held in India last month, the first such defeat in the tournament in 20 years.

Before heading to the World Cup qualifiers, the Maldives national team will undergo a change in the coaching staff. The current assistant coach, Ali Suzain, will be taking charge of the team once the contract of the current head coach, Francesco Moreiro, expires next month. The Football Association of Maldives (FAM) has decided to hand over the reins to Suzain again, preferring continuity over bringing in a new coach. 

Under his previous stint as the national team coach, Suzain led the Maldives to victory against Bangladesh in the group stage of the 2021 SAFF Championship, a feat that he hopes to replicate in the upcoming qualifiers.

Apart from the Maldives and Bangladesh, four other South Asian nations will face off in the preliminary qualifiers. Pakistan will face Cambodia, Bhutan will take on Hong Kong, and Nepal will play Laos. 

However, Sri Lanka’s involvement is subject to the resolution of their ongoing suspension. Although Sri Lanka will be included in the draw, their football federation must conduct an independent election at least 10 days before the first leg to become eligible to compete.