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With the recent announcement from Lord Protector of The Round Ball, Gianni Infantino, that FIFA was to expand the current 32-team World Cup format to 48 teams by the 2026 tournament, it got me and my friend having a cheeky punt at what it might look like considering the current allocation. Although Infantino has defended the expansion to be beneficial to the game in the long run and would not dilute the overall quality of the tournament, he is of course spouting the same bullshit rhetoric to appease his commercial overlords.  Anyone that has followed the debaucherous circus known as FIFA would understand by now that the only thing that matters in football is the dollar signs planted across their greedy faces. No doubt the expansion to 48 teams will bring more revenue to individual confederations, but it would undoubtedly also give the fat cats the ability to negotiate the bigger slice of the pie for themselves.

However, despite my clear pessimism and attacks at the intentions of thou-holy FIFA, my personal impressions of the expansion is actually one of jubilance because this would certainly give the ‘world’ aspect back to the ‘World Cup’, and not continue the quadrennial squabble between Europe and South America to see who can flout their football riches the most. Sure, the winners for the next century are still likely gonna come from either the CONMEBOL or UEFA confederations, it nevertheless, will incentivise smaller nations like New Zealand to consider football more seriously (and hopefully to trickle down the success to grassroots level). The common arguments against the expansion to 48 teams consists of; (1) it dilutes the quality of the matches forthcoming, (2) makes qualifying less meaningful, (3) player/supporter fatigue, and (4) *insert joke that Scotland would still not be able to qualify*. These arguments are attractive on face value and are no doubt observable with the current pattern in the Euro and WC’s, where a lot of countries just play to get a result through a mixture of possession based football and having every player play centre-back once the whistle blows (cue Costa Rica and Greece in 2014 WC). An increase to 48 teams would likely mean an influx of even shittier teams getting through to the finals, in order to show how well they have learned to park the bus over the last 4 years. Even FIFA’s own simulation models projected a reduction of the top teams playing against each other under the expansion, suggesting the current format is indeed the best. Despite agreeing with the majority of criticisms above, I found it hard to ignore the potential upsides to the expansion as there are a lot of benefits. For one, increasing the number of competing nations by 16 is not a substantial increase relative to the current amount of members that is 211. The 50% increase would still only mean roughly around 1/5 of current members get into the final, but even this point is neglectable when we consider that the 16 (the host nation gets one automatically) allocated spots will also be unevenly split between the different confederations. Confederations like Africa and Asia have roughly the same amount of member nations respectively, but their combined allocated spot for the WC of 9.5 (the 0.5 representing a qualifying berth) still dwarfs the 13 spots given to UEFA. If the 16 expanded spots were given more to Asian and Africa given their size, this would actually represent an equitable outcome considering the deficiencies of the current allocation.

Table showing FIFA Confederations and the current allocated spots
North America South America Europe Africa Asia Ocenia
Number of member states 35 10 56 54 46 11
Allocated Spots 3.5 4.5 13 5 4.5 0.5
Percentage of spots given to relative number of states 10% 45% 23% 9% 10% 4%

The current model rightly favors the South American and European confederations the due to their quality of infrastructure for the sport and their overall dominance in the world rankings such as that the top 16 teams at the moment all come from either SA or Europe. But part of the reason why expanding the number of spots to places like North America, Africa and Asia is that it gives these nations a better chance of qualifying in the long run. Countries like Canada, China, India and South Africa are not traditional football powerhouses, yet these major nations have an untapped audience and an existing infrastructure that expanding the WC would allow football in these nations to flourish. Not only would it increase the anticipation from viewers of these newer nations that would get in, the potential to unlock the next Messi or Ronaldo (depending on your preference) would inspire a whole new generation to the beautiful game. The status quo means that the lesser nation never gets to face the top sides of the world.

The new format also means that each group stage would have 3 teams instead of the current 4, but it remains that 2 teams would be able to qualify. The argument that this would dilute the quality of the matches is ludicrous, considering that so many teams at the current group stage can play out a draw in their group knowingly they will both qualify. Changing it to a 3 team group is beneficial to the tournament because it means every group match would matter and the dominant teams can no longer rely on other results to progress through. The eventual winners would still need to play 7 games to win the tournament, meaning the tactical side to the game like the rotation of squad and player fatigue will still play a major part throughout the tournament. These points suggest that overall, the quality of the beautiful game would actually improve under the expansion, despite its poor intentions on the outset.

WC Spot Allocation

Coming back to the original premise of the increase to 48 spots for the 2026 WC spot, it is worth speculating where the new spots could be allocated towards. From a healthy dose of cynicism through a Corona bottle, these are my personal projected spots for the 2026 tournament, notwithstanding that these predictions may change suddenly depending how big those upcoming brown envelopes will be.

Table showing projected increase in allocated spots
North America South America Europe Africa Asia Ocenia
Number of member states 35 10 56 54 46 11
Allocated Spots 3.5 4.5 13 5 4.5 0.5
My Projected Spot Increase 4.5 5.5 20 8 8 1 (consisting of two play-off spots)
Possible increase in nations +1 +1 +7 +3 +3 + 1
Percentage increase 29% 25% 54% 60% 67% 100%

As shown above, these projected figures represent a possible fair distribution of the allocated spots that could happen in 2026. Perhaps the biggest factor here is that both North America and South America would not get any substantial increase. The reason for this is that if they increased South America spots to anywhere from 6-7 countries, it would almost give an unprecedented ease for any of those members to get through. Despite 8 of the current top 48 FIFA ranking nations are from South America, any increase of spots for CONMEBOL would make the initial purpose or goodwill of the increase redundant. An extra automatic spot would ensure the 5 powerhouses of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay (all within the top 10 FIFA ranks) would still likely to go through, and leaves the weaker nations like Peru, Ecuador, and Paraguay a good shot at qualifying through a playoff berth. North America could see a potential maximum of 5 teams in the WC Final which is more than generous, considering that most of their teams are generally very weak or from places with a small population size which would hardly grow the game.

Europe gets the most substantial increase with 7 spots due to several compelling reasons. One is that if we look at the top 48 teams in the FIFA World Rankings at the moment, there are 25 nations on the list, comprising more than half of all the top teams in the world. The UEFA confederation remains highly competitive with strong teams constantly unable to progress to the finals due to the minuscule 13 spots given at the current moment.  Giving 21 spots would still mean less than half of UEFA’s nations get through, meaning it will still be competitive and not be overly generous to the confederation. Asia and Africa likewise would get a substantial increase in 3 spots each for the reasons stated earlier.

The Australian Problem

As a Kiwi that would love to see New Zealand qualify for every WC, it pains to say that Oceania should not be given an automatic spot, instead, two qualifying spots against North America and South America should suffice. The reason for this is twofold. First New Zealand will always dominate that spot and would almost make the Oceania spot solely ours which is counter-intuitive in growing the game across the Pacific. Given that our country is still pretty shit at football, an automatic spot would almost seem like a pat on the back by FIFA rather than genuine hard work. With two qualifying spot, it means that the island nations like New Caledonia and Tahiti have a real shot in qualifying as well. The top qualifying berth in Oceania (likely New Zealand) will play the North American team whilst the second-rank Oceania spot will qualify against South America. The second and arguably more important reason in not giving Oceania an automatic spot is that it would stop the pests that is Australia crawling back to Oceania. One of the main reasons why Australia buggered off to Asia was their perceived ease of getting one of those 4 automatic spots. Giving that automatic spot would incentivise Australia to switch allegiance again and condemn New Zealand the inability to ever qualify again. Australia will always be a better footballing nation than New Zealand, due to their population, resources, and diversity. Having two qualifying berths would mean Australia is unlikely to come back, therefore the best outcome would be achieved for both sides.

At the end of the day, everyone wins if the number of teams involved gets expanded. What better way to have more underdogs team to support than actually getting more underdogs in the game. Of course, these expansion plans could totally backfire and became a footballing fiasco, but unless we see where these plans would take us, it seems logical and reasonable to give the expansions a chance. Let’s just hope it works.