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Is the radically changed 2026 Football World Cup format going to benefit the game?

FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Photo: Harold Cunningham/AFP

FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Photo: Harold Cunningham/AFP

Published Nov 19, 2021


Durban - While the debate about Fifa’s proposed biennial World Cup rages, the global football showpiece is about to experience another drastic transformation in format in 2026.

Next year’s World Cup in Qatar will be the last to incorporate 32 teams. The 2026 event, set to be jointly hosted by Canada, USA and Mexico will be the first to be contested by a record 48 countries.

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There is little doubt about Fifa’s preference for co-hosted World Cups going forward.

This will allow more nations to experience the World Cup while also reducing the costs of a nation hosting it individually.

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On the positive side, the new format brings more worldwide representation to the tournament as each continent will be represented. Even Oceania, the region which rarely features at any World Cup will get one certain spot, which is likely to be occupied by New Zealand given that Australia are technically part of the Asian confederation as far as football goes.

One of the biggest benefits of the new format is that it will bring more enjoyment to diverse people across the world.

There is no better way for most people to enjoy the game than by watching their home nation in action at the showpiece and more people and nations will now get that opportunity.

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The new format will also almost definitely bring new winners out of the World Cup by making it more like the English FA Cup which has a habit of churning out a totally unexpected winner from season to season.

The new format significantly increases the possibility of there being a first African or Asian team to win the World Cup in our lifetime.

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The 48 teams will be divided into 16 groups of three and the group stage games will be trimmed down to two per side before the knockout phase where anything can happen. Two out of the three sides will advance out of the group and into the last 32 stage before it gets trimmed down to 16, eight, four, two and ultimately the winner.

This will create opportunities for the likes of top Asian and African nations such as Algeria, Ivory Coast, Japan and South Korea to seriously fancy their chances of reaching very advanced stages of the tournament.

It must be said that there are also several flaws with the format, so much so that some have accused Fifa of being influenced by greed. The new format was, after all, suddenly introduced following an unexpected occurrence at the 2018 World Cup which saw three big sources of tourists and income for World Cup events USA, Netherlands and Italy all not qualifying.

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As part of the new format, it is unlikely that we will see these nations not qualifying. North America gets six spots from 2026 (up from three), South America six (up from four), Europe 16 (up from 13), Africa nine (up from five), Asia eight (up from four) and Oceania one (up from an uncertain play-off spot).

Due to the North American spots increasing and the region being one of the least competitive regions as far as Fifa Confederations go, it will be easier for the US to qualify for the World Cup than not qualify.

Some critics of the World Cup also feel that the tournament may decrease in the overall quality and make it boring due to the record 80 games that will take place, up from the usual 64 that the 32-team tournament entails.

For instance, Oceania will get an assured spot at the World Cup and this region is by far the weakest among the Fifa confederations with the majority of players playing in its ranks being semi-professionals.

Fifa had to move Australia to Asia in 2006 and away from this confederation due to the fact that it used to often win games regularly with rugby scores.

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In 2001, Australia inflicted the heaviest defeat ever in international soccer by routing American Samoa 31-0 with Archie Thompson scoring 16 goals. It was worse than Mamelodi Sundowns’ famous 24-0 win over Powerlines FC in South Africa in a Nedbank Cup fixture back in 2012.

Some could justifiably argue that the expanded World Cup could negatively impact upon the overall quality of the World Cup due to the increased entry of so-called weaker teams into the tournament. For instance, New Zealand are Oceania’s best team and the favourite to occupy the Oceania spot in the World Cup. Their Fifa ranking is 111 currently.

Due to the new more scattered format, we are also going to end up with cases where the actual best team will not win which does happen in club cup tournaments such as the Nedbank Cup in South Africa and the FA Cup in England.

Such a scenario played out in both club tournaments last year as unfancied Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila won the Nedbank Cup in South Africa while Leicester City won the FA Cup in England.

While there are clear benefits for opening up more spots in the World Cup, the cons of the new format will not be known until the new format gets tested.


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