FIFA World Cup
Steffen Schmidt / Insidefoto

The unanimous decision by FIFA to go ahead with a 48 team world cup in 2026 is totally political, with sporting aspects that should not be overlooked and with major implications in economic terms.

The newspapers discussed this subject at large and it is interesting to comment on some of what was said.

The first and most debated: more games (from 64 to 80) do not guarantee better quality matches (Zapelloni, Gazzetta Dello Sport). True. However, the format chosen totally cancels the unnecessary third matches of the group stage as well as the annoying permutation of combinations that always dominate the four team groups. The return of the three team group was proposed in the only way possible, that is with two teams advancing after it was understood from Spain in ’82 that only a single team advancing in a group of three was risky.

Zapelloni goes on to say that “There was also lots of criticism when the Euro went from 16 to 24 teams, however we all enjoyed what Iceland accomplished last summer. Fairy tales, as manager of the year Claudio Ranieri teaches us, are good for football. With 48 teams there obviously is a better chance for storylines a la Leicester.”

Marco Bellinazzo (Il Sole 24 Ore): FIFA expects to make €4 billion in revenue compared to the estimated €3.5 billion from the World Cup 2018. Half a billion from TV rights and €370 million from sponsorships less €325 million of additional costs (80 matches instead of 64).

Most likely the core of the debate is much more political than sport and economics. Here comes the importance of football as a “soft power” which we mentioned on talking about the future role of England during the time of Brexit or framing the Chinese strategy for entry in football (and in the transfer market).

FIFA Infantino
Steffen Schmidt / Insidefoto

Gianni Infantino won the FIFA elections last year thanks to a large contingent of federations. Today they all cashed in. Just look at the distribution of allocations. In 2018 the distribution for the World Cup in Russia is as follows:

Asia: 4+1
Africa: 5
South America: 4+1
North America: 3+1
Europe: 14 (including Russia as host country)
Oceania: 1 team in a playoff

This instead is what FIFA’s proposal will look like:
Europe 16, Africa 9.5; Asia 8.5; South America 6.5; North America 6.5; Oceania 1. The 0.5 represent playoff spots.

Let’s take a look at the last 50 years. Mexico ’70 Europe had 9 out of 16 participants (56.25%) same in ’74 (first time with an African country, Zaire or Republic of Congo as it is named today). In ’54 Europe had 12 out of 16 (75%). In ’78 10 out of 16 (62.5%). In 1982 in Spain 14 out of 24 participants were from Europe (58.3%), remained this way till Italy ’90 and went down to 13 during USA ’94 with America as the host country.

USA Soccer Federation Logo
USA Soccer Federation Logo

It is no coincidence that the arrival of the US on the world football scene, who only qualified for the first time in Italy ’90 and has emerged during the past two decades, sparked the beginning of the end of Europe’s central role in the politics of football.
There is a possibility that the USA will host the World Cup in 2026 with Mexico and Canada. The same country which has Donald Trump as President and his divisive wall, noted Il Sole 24 Ore.

When the World Cup in France ’98 expanded from 24 to 32 teams, Europe had 15/32 participants (46.875%). Never had UEFA had less than half the participants since the end of the world war.

In 2006 another loss of a spot (including host Germany) 14/32 (43.75%) and then 13/32 in Brazil 2010 (46.625%) – same will be in Russia who as host country is part of UEFA.
If in 2026 Europe will get 16 spots as planned, the revolution will in fact be completed with UEFA reduced to a third of the spots in the World Cup.

In other words, UEFA will have 16 teams out of 54 member associations (29.6%), while South America will go up to either 60% or 70% (6.5 / 10), North America 6.5/35 could be 20%, however if we look carefully the seventh ranked Concacaf nation is Curacao (which is not only a liqueur that is made of the peels of the “Laraha”, but also an island with a population of 153,000 people)!

Spain China
Insidefoto / Acero

To complete the picture, Africa will have 9.5/53 associations, Asia 8.5/47 (the 0.5 at the moment of the rankings is represented by China, who is emerging in the football world especially in the transfer market), Oceania 1/14 (with Australia in the Asia group, this practically paves the way for New Zealand).

The reality is after the world war football was only played in Europe and South America while today it is played virtually everywhere. In 1950 there were 34 nations registered for the qualifications, and it grew by 9 four years later. Today FIFA is composed of 211 nations and Europe only represents a quarter of the total.

It is not our role to judge the reform, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
If football is to retain its status, it is justified to point out that the superior quality of European football today represents a measly 3% more spots in UEFA’s ranking in FIFA, perhaps too low.

Alternatively, you can emphasize the role of politics and growth of football in continents less developed but becoming more and more decisive. If football is to become a way to unite the people, the path to more participation cannot be considered incorrect, since – after all – Europe represents only 10% of the world population, the United States alone is about 5%, compared to 16% in Africa and 18% in China.