Does Expanded 2026 FIFA World Cup Format Enhance or Dilute Showpiece?

Does Expanded 2026 FIFA World Cup Format Enhance or Dilute Showpiece?

Jarryd Westerdale
March 26, 2024 at 12:24 PM
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  • The 2026 FIFA World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams for the next edition in North America
  • The tournament will see only 33% of the teams eliminated after the 104-game group stage
  • Africa's contingent will double from five to nine automatic qualifiers, plus one playoff spot

In the USA in 2026, we may find out that bigger is not always better.

The next edition of world football's greatest single spectacle will see the largest expansion since the tournament's inception over 90 years ago.

The 48-team field will be up by 50% from Qatar 2022, ending the perfect symmetry of the 32-team, eight groups of four format used since France 98.

FIFA World Cup, Format, FIFA, USA, Canada, Mexico, Qualification, UEFA, CAF.
FIFA's approved format for the 2026 World Cup in North America could be the biggest festival of football or a buffet too big to stomach. Photo: @eurofootcom.
Source: Twitter

AFCON 2023 and the 2024 Asian Cup showed how far those confederations have come, supporting the justification for expanding the World Cup.

Questions over possible collusion, thankfully ended the idea of the 16 groups of three format, with FIFA settling on what will be a 104-game, 39-day, full continental glut of football.

Expanded World Cup a positive?

Increased global representation

One of FIFA's key considerations was the need to give greater opportunities to confederations that have been poorly represented in modern times.

2026 will see Africa guaranteed nine qualifiers, Asia's complement will double and Oceania will get an automatic slot for the first time.

Except for UEFA, each confederation will have a chance to increase its participants through the six-team playoff tournament, which will decide an extra two places.

Loss of prestige

Opening the doors for more entrants is a noble gesture but throttling entry creates exclusivity. The quality of teams outside the traditional elite has improved drastically, which would make for an increasingly competitive 32-team competition.

A whopping 12 groups, extending up to Group L, will have the top two from each group qualify for the Round of 32. The claim around diluting the competitiveness comes from the manner in which the remaining eight knockout spots are decided.

Drama, created by each result carrying possible consequences, is what has made the FIFA World Cup exciting viewing from the very first kick. The third-placed avenue offers too great a safety net for do-or-die excitement.

Ivory Coast showed the value of second chances at AFCON 2023, but competitions allowing for best third-place qualifiers have been accused of lacking intensity in the early phases.

UEFA's preferential treatment

Europe's lion's share of entrants will increase in 2026 to 16 automatic spots, with no entrants into the playoff tournament.

Currently, Europe's top 16 teams occupy half of the top 30 in FIFA's rankings, giving credence to claims they deserve that level of representation. They have also made up at least half of the Last 16 qualifiers of the last two World Cups.

With the increase of the European Championships to 24 teams from Euro 2016, a case could be made that that expansion was sufficient enough to justify a reduction in UEFA entrants in a 32-team World Cup.

European teams failing to make the quarter-finals of the Euros are unlikely to make a dent at a World Cup, suggesting eight automatic qualifiers from UEFA would free up the required space for additional CAF, AFC or CONCACAF members in a 32-team tournament.

As argued by HITCSevens, the Euros have suffered a lack of intensity since its expansion, acting as a precursor to what could be in store for the World Cup.

Second-tier competition possibility

Many would argue that expansion incentivises and rewards lower-ranked nations, but reaching football's promised land is not meant to be lined with cushions.

An alternative could be a parallel competition featuring 32 teams who narrowly missed out on qualification. Just as UEFA has tiered club competitions, FIFA could simultaneously host an aptly named Intercontinental Championship in a country or region traditionally on the fringes of being granted hosting responsibilities.

Giving football's emerging nations a platform is key to global growth but not at the expense of the greatest showpiece in the history of organised sport.

The 2026 FIFA World Cup will be massive in all senses of the word, and one hopes the quality of the buffet is not sacrificed for quantity.

FIFA international calendar reshuffle

Sports Brief recently proposed an alternative to FIFA's international calendar conundrum.

International and club football are equally important but playing for one's country is the pinnacle.

FIFA held a review of the international calendar, and they announced a tweak that will run until 2030.

Authors
Jarryd Westerdale photo
Jarryd Westerdale
Jarryd Westerdale (based in Johannesburg) joined Sports Brief after four years in the community journalism sphere. He is a two-time Alet Roux Award winner and was a finalist in multiple categories at the Forum of Community Journalism Excellence Awards.