The next World Cup looks big: after an edition in 2022 concentrated in the middle of the calendar and in a single city, Doha, the event in 2026 will be held throughout the North American continent, between Mexico, Canada and the United States, with the participation for the first time of 48 teams.
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With the 22nd World Cup edition ending this Sunday, the 23rd will begin in just three and a half years and almost a third of the countries affiliated with FIFA will participate in it, after three decades of a tournament played with a 32-team format.
The number of participating countries in the largest soccer tournament has varied and expanded over time: from the 13 teams in the first edition in 1930, to 16 until 1978, expanded to 24 until 1994 and 32 since that edition
This change concretizes the first major reform of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, adopted in 2017, although it is threatened by the logistical challenges of staging 100 matches instead of the usual 64 since 1998.
But for the more modest nations it is the great opportunity to be invited to the great football event.
“For us Africans, it’s a godsend,” former Nigerian international Sunday Oliseh congratulated himself last week. “I always thought we should have more representatives. The more we can play it, the better our chances will be.”
– A format to define –
The new distribution by confederations favors Africa and Asia: 9 places (for the current 5) for Africans; 8 (by 4.5) for the Asians, and one for Oceania, which until now had only one place in the playoffs.
Given the level of the African teams eliminated at the gates of Qatar-2022 (Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria,…), the 2026 edition looks particularly exciting.
Europe, for its part, will go from 13 representatives to 16, South America from 4.5 to 6 and Concacaf will have a total of 6 teams (counting the three hosts), for the current 3.5. The last two tickets will be distributed via the repechages.
The competition format remains to be defined: at the beginning, FIFA had in mind 16 groups of three teams each, with two classified by key and the crosses from the round of 16. This formula allowed the teams to maintain the same maximum number of games (7 for the finalists), with a total of 80 games, but it had the danger of agreements between teams to qualify both in the third game of the first phase.
On Friday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino confirmed that the body wants to re-examine this format in the “coming weeks.”
“Here (in Qatar), the groups of four have been absolutely incredible until the last minute of each game. We must reconsider, at least re-discuss the format, whether it is 16 groups of three or 12 of four…”, he declared.
– “Increase the number of guests” –
If the option of the 12 groups of 4 teams is finally decided, the number of matches would increase to more than one hundred…
The number of host cities will double, with 16 stadiums in 2026 compared to eight in the current edition, and the economic and environmental puzzle that entails the long distances to travel.
Another consequence of the change in format will be an increase in the income of FIFA, whose large part of the benefits come from the organization of the World Cup. The instance has just announced a record budget forecast of 11,000 million dollars during the next 2023-2026 cycle, for the 7,500 million in a World Cup with 32 teams.
It remains to be seen if the irruption of the more modest nations will lower the level of play.
Sunday Oliseh, a member of FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG), doesn’t think so and bases himself on the numerous surprises that occurred at the Qatar World Cup: “I don’t think the quality (of the game) is going to suffer. On the contrary, we have seen Saudi Arabia play their first game (2-1 win against Argentina) and it was magnificent”.
The Brazilian Ronaldo Nazario, double world champion (1994 and 2002), was also “favorable” to the extension.
“I think that this format, which gives other countries the opportunity to participate in this great party, is worthy,” said the former center forward. “It will not lower the technical level of the next editions, it only increases the number of guests.”