Last month, FIFA, the world’s governing body of football, awarded the right to host the 2026 World Cup to the United States, Canada and Mexico, whose joint bid defeated Morocco’s.
While the outcome itself was hardly surprising, what truly deserves our attention is that FIFA is going to expand the number of teams participating in the tournament from the current 32 to 48 in 2026.
According to FIFA, the new arrangement is intended to further promote soccer worldwide.
However, the true reason could be that incumbent FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, was returning a favor to representatives from Asian, African and Latin American countries who voted him into office in 2016.
Most of the additional 16 places will go to Africa, Asia, Central and North America as well as Oceania.
Under the new format for the 2026 tournament, the 48 teams will be divided into 16 groups of three, and one in each group is going to be eliminated in the group stage. Then the remaining 32 teams will advance to the knockout stage.
In other words, even though the total number of teams will jump from 32 to 48, the actual number of matches which each team will have to play in order to get through to the final match will remain the same as before.
As expected, the so-called pushover teams are going to be among the beneficiaries of the new arrangement: they will have the chance to play at least two matches in the group stage, or even more if they manage to pull off some major upsets.
By enlarging the pool of participating teams in the tournament, the new arrangement can not only promote soccer around the globe but can also substantially boost fans’ spending worldwide.
Take Central and North America as well as the Caribbean as an example. At present the region is allocated 3.5 slots, and thanks to that, third-tier teams like Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama have all been able to make their debut in the World Cup tournament in 1998, 2006 and 2018 respectively.
By 2026, the region will receive a total of six quotas. Take the 2018 World Cup qualification as an example. There were six teams in the last qualifying round of the Central, North America and Caribbean section competing for three slots. The fourth-ranked team, which was Honduras, proceeded to the inter-confederation play-offs. But Honduras, the US, and Trinidad and Tobago were all eventually eliminated.
But as the US and Mexico are the hosts of the 2026 edition, under the new format, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago are both likely to secure a place in the 2026 World Cup tournament.
In fact, ever since the US hosted the 1994 World Cup, FIFA has been making every effort to make soccer popular among the Americans, but has only met with limited success over the years.
And even though the Major League Soccer was established in North America as early as 1993, which includes 20 US and three Canadian teams, and soccer is becoming increasingly popular in American high schools, the US national team has been performing pretty poorly over the past few years.
Asia, on the other hand, will be given a total of eight places in the 2026 championship, which means, judging from the final standings of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Syria, Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates are also likely to make it to the US-Canada-Mexico World Cup tournament.
On top of that, a ninth Asian team may also get a ticket to the final if it manages to win in the intercontinental playoffs. And again, based on the results of the 2018 qualifiers, that ninth place would go to China.
China is an undisputed gold mine for FIFA, and mainlanders are known for their intense enthusiasm for soccer.
Unfortunately, even though clubs in the Chinese premier league have been spending a great deal of money scrambling for first-class foreign players in recent years, the Chinese national team has made little or no progress in international games due to “various issues”.
As a matter of fact, China would probably never have made it to the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea had it not been for the extra slot available.
Now, as Asia is going to be given eight places in the 2026 tournament, China would at least stand a fighting chance to appear in the World Cup tournament again after 24 years.
There has been at least this target. It is not difficult to imagine how mainland fans would react if the Chinese team still failed to get a ticket to the FIFA World Cup.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 22
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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