World Cup Expansion- How much is too much?

My favorite sporting event only comes around every four years. No, its not the Olympics like some of you may be thinking. The World Cup in soccer happens every four years also. It is when 32 teams from around the world compete to crown a champion. This is done after a grueling four year qualification process that pits countries from the same continent against each other for qualification purposes.

The world cup’s charm stems from the journey that each team takes to get to the differently hosted site every cycle. The ups and downs of qualifying comes with the thrill of victory and the heartbreak of defeat.

FIFA has been involved in some shady dealings over the last few years, and were just recently called out on it over the last couple of years. A change in President due to corruption inside the federation led to Sepp Blatter being replaced by Gianni Infantino. Infantino, instead of doing an internal investigation with his first action has instead elected to go with a much different plan instead. In order to get even more revenue out of the World Cup he has proposed, and passed over the last few months a vote to expand the field to 48 teams by 2026. The vote passed with ease, as many smaller countries hoping to get a chance to play were eager to see their country have better odds of getting into the tournament. This was a clear money grab by the new FIFA regime and they seem to be back to their old tricks, when it comes to thinking about their own pockets then the game. This raises the question can 48 teams work in the 2026 World Cup?

The Breakdown of the current format

UEFA 16 (13 currently)
CAF 9 (5)
AFC 8.5 (4.5)
CONMEBOL 6 (4.5)
CONCACAF 6.5 (3.5)
Oceania 1 (0.5)
Host Country 1 or more if co-hosted (1

Figure 1. FIFA.com

The following chart is a breakdown of how things are set up currently in the (parentheses) while the numbers outside are what they will be increased to. To give you a quick rundown of what each continent gets. Europe is by far the most currently as they get 13 countries. Next on the list is Asia with 5 currently. Then Africa with 4.5 which can mean either 4 or 5 depending on who wins in a playoff between other continents after the qualification process is over. South America is the same with 4.5 also. North America is bumped down to 3.5. Lastly the Oceanic region gets a half birth. Which essentially means even their top qualifier has to still win a playoff to get in. The only other way to get in is if your country is hosting the World Cup, this gives you automatic qualification.

This addition makes sense in theory for a few continents. Europe is insanely competitive when it comes to qualification, and it is always unpredictable who will be the 13 qualifiers each cycle. This process will allow the top two finishers from the eight qualification groups to get through now as opposed to just the winners and the winners of a playoff. Continents like Africa will also benefit with a more competitive style of play reaching the continent over the last decade, their qualification process will also see newer fresher faces emerging each cycle.

Pros

It does give new countries an opportunity that did not have one before. This can be exciting for fans to follow throughout the tournament. The last European championship which also expanded was a great example. Iceland a team not known for their soccer playing ability not only qualified but made a Cinderella run in the tournament two years ago. Stories like this are ideally what many hope to see from a few different new teams in 2026.

It all but guarantees that any team considered a power in their continent. Mexico and the United States in North America; Australia and Japan in Asia will never again have to worry about qualifying. For example for the United States to miss the 2026 world cup they would have to finish behind potentially with the playoff 7 different teams in the North American region. This does include teams like Mexico but this would also start including small island countries like Honduras and Guatemala.

Cons

Potential for less competitive games in the tournament. This is bound to happen as the quality of team’s dip once a FIFA ranking gets below the thirties. A great example of this was at the Confederation’s Cup in front of Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup. The Confederation’s Cup is a Run through for the host country to get a chance to host an event a year prior to the world cup to get the experience of hosting the festivities. It is also an opportunity for teams who were champions of their continent tournament to play valuable games 12 months away from the big tournament. The one outlier that made this tournament was the little country of Tahiti, out of the Oceanic region. They were paired with African champion Nigeria, South American champion Uruguay, and the prior cycle’s world cup winner Spain. Game 1 was a 6-1 loss to Nigeria, while game 2 was a 10-0 drubbing at the hands of Spain, and the last game was 8-0 against Uruguay. Games like with inferior teams is something that could become a normality at future World Cups.

More teams will also qualify for the knockout stages which will also water down teams qualifying for the next round. The knockout round will now have 32 teams instead of 16. This means third place teams will still advance through. This can effect how a team may choose to play during a tournament. The free flow of some teams, may turn into defensive shells that are just hoping to survive and live another day.

The Verdict

Is 48 teams going to deter me from watching my favorite sporting event. No, it probably won’t. This is a slippery slope we are going down  at the moment. If 48 teams is deemed successful what is to stop FIFA from thinking 64 is not such a bad idea. I think it is an interesting idea and if it is done correctly and for the right reasons I can see myself getting behind it and embracing it. Sadly, that is not why I think this was done. I think this was something done out of the greed of the federation. We won’t know for sure how this experiment works until the 2026 cycle.

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