When FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced in January that the 2026 World Cup would be expanded from 32 teams to host 48, it evoked widespread negativity from the football World.
However, none that reacted to that meeting in Zurich with discontent, could have anticipated what would follow 11 months later. As a dramatic World Cup qualification campaign culminated in some of football’s most distinguished nations, failing to book a place at the penultimate 32 team World Cup.
Most notably missing out, as a result of finishing second in qualifying group G behind Spain, then failing to muster a goal against 25th ranked Sweden in the subsequent play off game four time World Champions Italy will be absent at a World Cup for the first time since 1958.
The Azzurri aren’t Europe’s sole absentee, as The Netherlands followed up finishing third in the 2014 tournament by failing to qualify for Russia 2018, it’s something that has led to many questioning whether the tournament will hold the same levels of quality and intrigue as previous tournaments.
As part of the World Cup expansion, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin’s request was granted for Europe to be allocated an additional three spots at the the tournament in 2026, increasing the number of UEFA teams from 13 to 16, however from a percentage perspective this will represent a decrease the number of teams at the competition that are from Europe.
Issuing a larger allocation of World Cup places to regions outside of Europe could perhaps be perceived as a way to increase the globalised interest in football, when questioned over why the World Cup expansion was necessary, Infantino stated: “Football is more than just Europe and South America.”
The effect of how damaging qualification failure can be will be witnessed first hand, at this Summer’s tournament as the USMNT failed to book a place at the tournament, something that Meir Moses of Don Best Sports stated will be “a shock to hundreds of thousands of Americans once the event rolls around.”
The decision to expand the World Cup follows on from the expansion of the European Championships from 16 to 24 teams, something that was arguably a rare moment of positivity from Michel Platini. It is hard to dispute that whilst many were sceptical, Platini’s idea elevated interest in the tournament from European nations that wouldn’t have normally been considered candidates to play at such a big event.
Therefore, it begs the question, that if it serves to increase the global interest of football and the World Cup, without heavily diluting the quality of the tournament, in fact potentially increasing the tournament’s standard because of the calibre of players that won’t be missing out. Is it time for the football World to truly embrace the expansion of not only the World Cup, but also all other major football tournaments?
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