Asian soccer sets schedule for delayed World Cup qualifiers

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The pandemic-delayed schedule of Asian qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup was set Wednesday by the Asian Football Confederation.

No qualifiers have yet been played this year because of the coronavirus outbreak. The AFC said the remaining games will be played in March and June on dates protected by FIFA for national teams to call up players from their clubs.

A subsequent group stage — of two six-team groups — is scheduled from September 2021 to March 2022. That will use new slots created by FIFA from Jan. 24-Feb. 1, 2022, to help national teams outside Europe clear their backlog of games.

Four Asian teams will qualify direct from those groups to the final tournament in Qatar. Two more advance to an elimination game that will decide Asia’s entry in the intercontinental playoff round.

FIFA previously extended the World Cup qualifying program into the May-June 2022 international dates to make space for the intercontinental playoffs. One team enters from each of Asia, the North American region, Oceania and South America to decide the last two places in the 32-team World Cup lineup.

One Asian qualifying game is scheduled to be played in 2020. Qatar’s soccer federation said Wednesday it will host Bangladesh on Dec. 4.

Although Qatar gets automatic entry to the 2022 World Cup as host, the current group stage also counts toward qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup in China. Qatar is the defending champion and leads its qualifying group with three matches to go.

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