Starting in 2026, the World Cup might finally look more like a tournament for the “world.”
The governing body of the international competition, the FIFA, the worldwide soccer organization, announced on Thursday its proposed slot allocation for the recently enlarged 48-team tournament. The proposal, which gives significantly more spots to Africa, Asia, and the CONCACAF region (the FIFA federation for Central and North America and the Caribbean which includes the United State), highlights the growing incorporation from outside the traditional European and South American powerhouses into the global competition.
Under the new plan, still awaiting a final decision at the next FIFA council meeting in May, assigned CONCACAF six automatic qualifiers, up from its current three. Africa will get nine guaranteed spots – up from five – while Asia will receive eight, double its current quota of four.
Oceania, which includes such countries as New Zealand and other Pacific nations, will have one automatic place. Europe will also get 16 direct places, up from 13, and South America’s 10-member confederation, CONMEBOL, will get six, instead of its current four.
The host country will take one spot from the allocation of its confederation, as it will qualify automatically.
In addition to the expansion in guaranteed spots, teams worldwide will also have the opportunity to compete in a six-team playoff tournament, which will decide the two remaining places. Each confederation, except the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), will have one team in the tournament, with an extra one from the continent of the host country. According to FIFA, the six-team playoff will possibly be held in the November before the finals.
Aleksander Ceferin, president of UEFA, said in a statement that he was “satisfied" with the proposal.
“We feel that UEFA will be fairly represented with a total of 16 national associations competing in the new format of the World Cup,” he told Reuters. “We look forward to this proposal being ratified by the FIFA Council.”
The expansion of the tournament, which had only 16 teams in 1978, is long in the making. In 2013, UEFA's then-president Michel Platini expressed his hope to expand the slots to improve the game in places where the sport is underfunded.
“It’s not based on the quality of the teams because you don’t have the best 32 at the World Cup. But it’s a good compromise,” he told The Times of London in 2013. “It’s a political matter so why not have more Africans? The competition is to bring all the people of all the world. If you don’t give the possibility to participate, they don’t improve.”
The move may also underscore how much room the sport has to grow, including in the US.
Being the “Grand Daddy of sporting events,” the World Cup also draws an increasing amount of attention each time, as The Christian Science Monitor explained in 2014.
However, the new plan has also drawn much criticism. Sports commentator Billy Haisley said the plot will “ruin the World Cup.”
“What is bad is the mechanism they’ve chosen. The reason the World Cup is such a massive event is because of its exclusivity. It only comes once every four years, involves only the best nations around the globe, and is extremely hard to advance because the competition is so stiff,” he wrote on Deadspin on Friday. “Taking that lean 32-team format and ballooning it to 48, with the bulk of those new [additions] consisting of garbage teams, runs the risk of killing the golden goose."
This report includes material from Reuters.