After Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, which started on February 24, 2022, the country has faced backlash on multiple fronts. The implications have not been just political, but have stretched to the country’s sporting aspirations as well. After being banned from the 2024 Olympics, FIFA and UEFA released a joint statement, banning Russia from international competition.
This meant that Russia was not allowed to compete for a place in the 2022 World Cup that happened in Qatar. Under normal conditions, Russia would not be allowed to compete in the UEFA qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup as well, but there might just be a loophole that Russia can exploit if it wants a place in the next World Cup, happening in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
With three-quarters of Russia’s territory in Asia, there is a chance that the country will join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and play the AFC qualifiers for a berth in the 2026 World Cup. While there hasn’t been any official announcement regarding Russia’s plan, the country has been steadily making inroads in Asia by participating in its tournaments and getting invites as well.
Russia is not the only country, which would change its parent body if the move happens. Isreal initially started under the AFC but was excluded from the body in 1974. This came at a time of increased hostility in the region towards Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
After taking a hiatus from international football, Israel played European qualifiers and also participated in the Oceania qualification process. Clubs from Isreal started participating in European club competitions in 1991 and its football association became a full UEFA member in 1994.
How many slots do Asian teams have for the 2026 World Cup?
A total of 8+1⁄3 slots (8 direct slots and one inter-confederation play-off slot) in the World Cup are available for AFC teams.
The qualification process involves five rounds; the first two double as the qualification for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, which is taking place in Saudi Arabia.
How will the Asian qualifiers work?
What does Russia’s inclusion mean for other Asian teams?
It means that if the transition goes through, Russia will be one of the countries that will battle for the 8+1⁄3 slots. Currently, only four teams under the AFC have a higher football rank than Russia (38) in the official FIFA rankings. These four teams are Japan (20), Iran (24), Korea Republic (25) and Australia (27). While rankings are not absolute, if Russia joins the fray, it will inevitably have a massive advantage, and on paper, will have an upper hand in qualifying for the 2026 World Cup under the AFC berth.
If Russia joins AFC, what will happen to the Russian clubs?
Russia changing its parent body from UEFA to AFC would mean that Russian clubs will not be able to participate in the lucrative UEFA Champions League- the biggest club competition in the world. Spartak Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow, CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg, Dynamo Moscow and FC Torpedo Moscow are some of the clubs that have played in the Champions League. If Russia moves under AFC, these clubs will play in the AFC Champions League.
In terms of prize money, there is a big disparity between the prize money of the UEFA Champions League and the AFC Champions League. As per the latest reports, AFC Champions League winners get prize money of 4 million USD. Compared to that, current European champion Real Madrid earned a total of 146.4 million USD from UEFA competitions.
Making inroads and already receiving support
Saudi Arabia, the host of the 2027 Asian Cup, said it had no objections to Russia joining the AFC. Saudi Arabia’s Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal said, “If FIFA and the AFC allow it and there’s a benefit for Asia then I don’t think there’s a problem with that.”
While AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa refused to partake in speculations, he said, “We have a good relationship with the Russian Federation and with the rest of the European federations. We are always in contact with the federations on all occasions. We want the best interests of the game as we seek to keep politics away from football.”
Russia was invited as a guest nation for the 2023 SAFF U-17 Women’s Championship in Bangladesh, where it emerged as the champion. It won all four of its matches, including a 2-0 win against India in its final game. The Russian youngsters dominated the other teams, scoring 17 goals and conceding just one.
The Russians have also been invited to participate in the Central Asian Football Association (CAFA) Championship in June, which makes speculations of Russia’s AFC move even stronger.
The Tajikistan Football Federation (TFF) announced last month that Russia has been invited to CAFA’s inaugural men’s tournament scheduled from June 9 to 21 along with its six member nations and another country, which is yet to be confirmed.
CAFF is part of the AFC and was formed in 2014. It comprises the national federations of Afghanistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Last November, Russian Football Union (RFU) President, Aleksander Dyukov said that the country’s move to AFC is a possibility amid a widespread boycott. While FIFA will have the final say in this matter, the idea does not seem that far-fetched at the moment.
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