FIFA announced earlier Thursday morning revealed how it seeks to allocate a 48-team World Cup in 2026.
The proposal to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 was passed in Jan. 2017, and today’s announcement was meant top be a proposal for how that 48-team World Cup would look.
As part of the restructuring, FIFA would impose caps on each of the confederations in terms of how many teams can qualify from each competition. FIFA released a list of what those caps might look like, along with how playoffs would work in the World Cup.
FIFA will vote on the measure in a meeting in Bahrain on May 9.
In terms of “caps,” each confederation would get the following:
- Asian Football Confederation: 8 guaranteed bids, up from 4 or 5
- Confederation of African Football: 9 guaranteed bids, up from 5
- CONCACAF (North, Central and Carribean Football Associations): 6 guaranteed buds, up from 3 or 4
- CONMEBAL (South American Football Associations): 6 guaranteed bids, up from 4 or 5
- Union of European Football Associations: 16 guaranteed bids, up from 13
- Oceania Football Confederation: 1 guaranteed bid, up from 0 or 1 (only confederation with no guaranteed bid prior to change)
- Host country will still be an automatic qualifier, taking one spot from their confederation’s quota. In the case there are multiple hosts, FIFA will decide how to handle that situation.
The inter-confederation playoffs would also be eliminated starting in 2026 to accommodate the change in format.
Those are notable changes in and off themselves, but perhaps the biggest change (and the one that could have the most controversy) is the addition of a first-round playoff to determine the teams to be included in the normal group stages.
The playoff will be set in a similar fashion to the current Confederations Cup, where one team from each confederation (excepting UEFA), and an additional team from the hosting confederation will be selected to play. The top two teams by FIFA rankings will then be seeded and play the winners of knockout games between the four other unranked teams.
The winners of those games would move on to the full World Cup. This World Cup Playoff would be played the year before the tournament, with a current expected date of Nov. 2025.
This is being described as “a test event” ahead of the 48-team World Cup, which could feature a first round of group play that would look very similar –if not identical– in structure.
Clearly, the structure benefits most every member confederation in that everyone is guaranteed at least one qualified bid, with many confederations (most notably Africa and Asia) dramatically increased in representation
The new playoff structure would most likely result in the death of the Confederations Cup, but there are more stakes involved in the World Cup Playoff, so it might work out in the end for FIFA.
What is immediately apparent to me is that the new structure could be a potential nightmare for member confederations in terms of how they currently handle their World Cup qualifiers.
Each confederation has different rules for qualifying teams, due in part to unique geographic problems that each member faces.
CONMEBOL, for example, has only 10 members, but would qualify the majority of their members under this proposal. Neighboring confederation CONCACAF currently hosts six member associations in its final round (known as The Hex or Hexagonal) and would have to completely change its playoff structure to accomodate having 6 automatic bids.
The CAF, which would have 9 automatic bids, would have to restructure their qualification rounds as well, as they currently have five groups of four teams with the winners advancing to the World Cup. They’ll most likely have to add some sort of playoff to get to nine teams.
UEFA, which is exempted from the World Cup Playoff, had their allocation increased to 16 (from 13) and could have a problem of its own. Currently, it runs nine groups of six teams, with the winners of every group advancing to the World Cup and eight group runners-up going to a playoff to determine the other four spots.
Under this new format, UEFA may have to reorganize how they allocate qualifications altogether because at current, there’s really no perfect solution unless you add three more runners-up in a playoff with an even number of teams (which largely defeats the purpose of the playoff) or eliminate the playoff altogether and take seven runners-up based on a ranking system. UEFA will have to do some soul-searching here to figure out how to make it work.
Overall, it looks to be a pretty bold move for FIFA, which up to this point, has been largely conservative in terms of making changes to most anything involving international soccer.
The new regime in charge at FIFA looks to expand the game into parts of the world it may not have major access to, and the expansion of bids could very well make that possible. A change in group stage format for the World Cup itself could also present for intrigue, as a knockout group could present different results than a traditional round-robin group.
It’s yet to be seen how the World Cup would work past that first round, but indications are FIFA is well-aware it is venturing into new territory and will be working with confederations moving forward to make sure these ideas work in practice.
Get used to it, soccer world. If it works, it’ll probably be here to stay.