So Gianni Infantino got his way. From 2026 the World Cup Finals will feature 48 rather than 32 teams. The biggest sporting event in the world just got 50% bigger.
But the burning question for most countries will be: what does this mean for me? How many spots will each confederation get when the new pie is sliced up?
As things currently stand, the 32 team pie is sliced as follows:
South America 4.5
North America 3.5
Host country 1
The new groupings are reportedly:
South America 6
North America 6.5
Host country 1
But in his speech, Infantino was careful to say that the World Cup was not just about Europe and South America. It is about the whole world, so surely that means some positive discrimination in favour of the other confederations?
It ought to be clear to FIFA that the biggest opportunities for growth in the game are in Asia and Africa, which (with Oceania) get the smallest proportion of finals spots per member nation. Accordingly, the lion’s share of new spots should go to those confederations.
And, to be fair, that seems to be the case if the reported numbers turn out to be correct. Both Africa and Asia are almost doubled but it seems to me there is another opportunity here.
Surely this is also the time to roll up Oceania into Asia, and then split Asia into East and West (with 9.5 spots).
That could mean something like:
East Asia 5
West Asia 4
With the next best teams in both confederations playing for the right to play off against North America (CONCACAF).
You’d draw the line between East and West somewhere around India (putting them in the West) with more countries in the East. The traditionally strong countries (Australia, Japan, South Korea) would all be in the East (with North Korea and China also) and for those reasons the East deserves the extra spot.
The reality is, Asia has over half the world’s population but we're still getting only 20% of the finals spots. If FIFA wants to fish where the fish are they will adopt at least the proposed numbers (although I would argue Asia is worth a couple more). Countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, New Zealand…Uzbekistan, Iraq, Bahrain, UAE, Oman (eventually India) will have a realistic chance of making the finals and imagine what that could do for the game in these already football-mad regions.
The qualifying process within East Asia would be a multi-phase event (as it is now) with unseeded countries playing qualifying rounds before taking on the big guns.
Then, in the finals, there would 16 teams seeded A, 16 teams seeded B and all the others seeded C. Alternatively, you could have 16 teams seeded A with the rest all divided into two pots according to confederation to avoid (as far as possible) teams from the same region playing each other in the finals.
Mind you, the prize for each participating nation will be slightly diluted. With 16 groups of three there will be only two guaranteed games, rather than three, which immediately begs the question: how will teams be separated? You can just about guarantee that in groups of only three games there will commonly be one team winning both and the two losers drawing against each other. What happens when they both lost to the superior team by the same score?
Gianni has suggested that drawn games be decided by penalty shootout, but I suspect that opportunities for tanking will still be vastly increased when a superior team can effectively decide who they want to go through (especially in the last game of any group).
Still, on the whole I’d have to agree this gives vastly better opportunities for developing countries to make the finals – and maybe also to host the finals. Few countries would have the capacity and infrastructure to house 48 teams plus the fans from 48 countries by themselves so I expect host coalitions will become standard (although this will mean less spots to play for within a confederation)
The other thing to take out of the new format is the waning political power of Europe – each member nation only has one vote after all and there are a lot of countries who’ve never played at the World Cup. Let’s hope they also use their rising influence to discriminate in favour of Asian and African slices of the 48 team pie. Everyone tells us this will be the Asian century. Make it so FIFA…make it so.
Adrian’s latest book Political Football: Lawrie McKinna’s Dangerous Truth is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.