The FIFA Council voted on Tuesday to back President Gianni Infantino’s plan to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 nations for the 2026 edition. Regardless of how critics may react, the politics of soccer have already moved on to the new reality: The horse-trading starts now.
The impact of this change goes well beyond the issues of how the final tournament is organized, and the Law of Unintended Consequences will certainly apply. No decision has yet been taken on how the 16 extra places will be divided among regional confederations, or how the qualification process will work. Neither will be easy to work out.
For those nations who believe expansion gives them a real chance of making the World Cup finals for the first time, the issues are vital. The big money and prestige at stake could lead to a real dogfight inside FIFA.
The 32-team World Cup had its own political balance and kept an equilibrium between including the best teams in the world, mainly from Europe and South America, while giving opportunity to those from football’s less successful, or emerging, continents. How far will that balance shift for 2026?
The United States is likely to bid for the 2026 hosting rights — either alone or with one or both of Canada and Mexico as joint hosts — and is widely seen as having a great chance of winning that bid. So the first taste of the new, bigger World Cup could well take place on American soil.
The structure of the tournament has been agreed, however: The 48 qualifiers will be organized into 16 groups of three, with the top two in each group advancing to a 32-team knockout stage.
The risk contained within that structure is that teams could go into a final group-stage game knowing a draw would be enough to send them both through — hence Infantino’s idea, yet to be put to a vote, for group-stage games to be decided by penalty shootouts if they end level.
So 2026 could a traditionalist’s worst nightmare: games in air-conditioned NFL stadiums with no draws permitted. But before we even get to thinking about 2026, there is the fight for who gets the new slots. Here’s what each region has a stake:
- Europe: In terms of its share of places in the finals, UEFA is expected to lose out. Europe receives 13 of the 32 slots available in the current format. Many predict that it will get no more than 16 of the 48 — down to a third from nearly half the field. Three extra places will slightly increase the chances for nations such as Scotland, which has not qualified since 1998, but the overall impact could be minimal for European teams. A 16-team allotment would also offer FIFA the chance to place one European team in each group, which may satisfy broadcasters worried about having too many games between long shot African and Asian nations.
- Africa: If Europe is the biggest prospective loser, Africa could be the biggest winner, with its allocation possibly doubling or at least going from five to nine. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has 52 member nations, a powerful voting bloc in FIFA elections. The teams that made it to Brazil were Algeria (18th in the 2014 FIFA world rankings), Ivory Coast (No. 34), Ghana (37), Cameroon (42) and Nigeria (43) made it to Brazil. The teams that missed out — but would have qualified under a doubled allocation — were Senegal (35), Ethiopia (111), Egypt (60), Tunisia (22) and Burkino Faso (63).
- South America: CONMEBOL has the simplest — and arguably best — qualifying process of any confederation. With just 10 nations there is a de facto national team league, with a single table and home and away fixtures. Currently the top four teams qualify automatically with the fifth-placed team playing off against a team from another continent for an extra place. South America is weak politically within FIFA due to its small numbers so can only expect a limited increase, perhaps to six nations. No wonder then that Venezuela, which struggles to compete with the likes of Argentina and Brazil and has never appeared at a World Cup, is pushing the unlikely idea of merged qualification with the CONCACAF region, which might improve its chances. If sporting merit were the main factor, CONMEBOL would have all its teams in the World Cup. But FIFA politics decides and South America looks set to be the biggest loser, unless the idea of a merger catches on and it can get the chance to beat up teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
- Asia: In contrast, the Asian Football Confederation looks set to be a major winner in the changes. Currently given four automatic places plus the chance of another through an intercontinental playoff, the AFC can expect eight or nine places in a 48-team format. Good news, then, for China, which is itching to get on the biggest stage for only the second time. Also good news for the likes of Australia, Uzbekistan, Jordan and Qatar, as well as traditional regional powerhouses Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. A possible wrinkle? The division in the AFC between the East and West Asian federations. With the Arab nations, such as 2022 host Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, enjoying a growing influence in the game, sorting out the qualification structure might not be so straightforward.
- Oceania: Currently gets only a playoff against another continent’s team, which is usually lost. The region is expected to be given one automatic slot, which New Zealand will expect to win.
- CONCACAF: At first glance, CONCACAF looks set to be a major beneficiary of this change, a reward for the alliances that led to Infantino’s victory in last year’s FIFA election. The existing six-team final qualifying process offers three guaranteed places in the finals, plus a fourth team sent to an intercontinental playoff (currently against Asia’s fifth-place team). Expect the region to have, at least, double the automatic spots in a 48-team World Cup. Six teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean would remove the need for ‘the Hex,’ but here things get complicated. CONCACAF is made up of 35 full FIFA member associations: seven from Central America; Canada, the United States and Mexico from North America; and then 25 Caribbean nations. The island nations of the Caribbean have rarely reached the World Cup; Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 and Jamaica in 1998 being the most recent to get through. But politically, the Caribbean holds the cards. Could its national federations push for a separate Caribbean qualifying process to guarantee them one or two places? How would the rest of CONCACAF react to that? And what if there is support elsewhere for a merged qualification with CONMEBOL? Things are rarely straightforward in CONCACAF; they are unlikely to be in the new reality.