The next World Cup will be the biggest ever after world soccer organization FIFA jumps from 32 to 48 teams in 2026.
That means more so-called soccer “minnows” who didn’t make it to Qatar will get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the tournament hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.
That could be good news for those who reveled in Saudi Arabia’s victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina at this World Cup, Japan’s two wins over former champions Germany and Spain, or Morocco’s surprise quarterfinal defeats of star-studded Belgium and Spain. More surprises surely await us four years from now.
While 48 teams may increase the chances of fairytale moments, such as Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win over Argentina in the group stage, the opposite could also happen: more one-sided games could take some of the luster out of a match that was supposed to be the best of the matchups.
Spain 7, Costa Rica 0 also happened in this World Cup. England beat Iran 6-2, France beat Australia 4-1, and Qatar became the first host country to lose three group games. FIFA will need to dig deeper into the lower levels of international soccer in order to increase from 32 to 48 places.
“That means we have to find 16 more good teams,” said Wenger, FIFA’s director of global soccer development, who is central to getting 48 teams to the World Cup.
FIFA is still pushing for expansion as an upgrade and favors a global tournament. More places will be available on all continents, and FIFA says opening the tournament to more of its 211 member countries or regions should have an impact beyond the teams, with more people likely to pay attention to TV screens and more kids inspired to play soccer around the globe.
I believe that if teams, countries have more opportunities to appear on the world stage, it will contribute more to the country’s (soccer) development”, Wenger said.
The Qatar World Cup is the first in the Middle East and the furthest FIFA has been from the tournament’s heartland in Europe and South America. The decision itself drew harsh criticism, but the action on the pitch could be timely publicity for the 48-team plan, which FIFA announced in 2017 and has since had to defend over doubts about the exact format.
In Qatar, Japan is one of three Asian teams to advance to the round of 16, something that has never happened before. African teams have earned more points than ever before in the group stage. Morocco topped a group that included 2018 World Cup runner-up Croatia and semifinalists Belgium and beat Spain on penalties to advance to the quarterfinals on Tuesday. Cameroon ended with a win over Brazil, the first time an African team has beaten the five-time champion and most famous soccer team at a World Cup.
“Just look at how the World Cup has unfolded,” Senegal coach Alyusi Sé said.” It’s not like 30 years ago when the big fish ate all the little fish.”
In Japan’s battle against Qatar, winger Eiji Kukai said “they can’t underestimate Asia.” Ghana head coach Otto Addo said Africa deserved the extra spot and their team now has a better chance of going far.
However, the expansion may not have much of an impact on the final outcome of the World Cup.
To date, European and South American teams – the big fish Cisse refers to – have won each of the 21 World Cups, 12 of them in Europe and nine in South America. In nearly 100 years of World Cup history, no team from another continent has reached the finals. Of the 84 semifinals, 82 have come from Europe or South America. The exceptions were the United States in 1930 and South Korea in 2002.
In Qatar, while teams from outside Europe and South America did well in the group stage, only Morocco advanced to the quarterfinals, where they will face Portugal on Saturday. South Korea, Japan, Senegal, the United States and Australia all made it out of the round of 16.
Liga MX’s Senegal is the African champion but was beaten 3-0 by England. South Korea, ranked No. 3 in Asia, was eliminated by Brazil, 1-4. South Korean forward Son said, almost enviously, “Look at their players.”
The much larger World Cup does, however, offer clear opportunities for promotion for FIFA.
More than 3.5 billion people – more than half of the world’s population – watched the 2018 World Cup in Russia, according to FIFA, and the soccer body earned a record $7.5 billion in revenue from commercial deals related to the Qatar World Cup.
With those numbers for the 32 teams, the 48 teams clearly have the opportunity to sell their World Cup aspirations to more people in more places.