The 2026 World Cup will see 48 teams competing in the finals for the most prestigious prize in sport.
It is set to be one of the most watched and marketed events in history, and it is a far cry from the humble beginnings in 1930 when Uruguay hosted the inaugural World Cup.
The small South American nation invited all the members of FIFA, as well as the countries of Great Britain to participate. Many nations rejected, mainly due to travel concerns, but the first World Cup went ahead anyway with just thirteen teams.
Seventeen days later, and on the centenary of the host nation adopting its first liberal constitution, Uruguay won it.
Fast forward to the present day and there is surely not a country in the world that would turn down such an invite.
From the birth in Uruguay to the first post-war World Cup in neighbouring Brazil, the number of countries qualifying for a World Cup varied. However, from 1954 until 1978, sixteen was the magic number and the following decades would see FIFA gradually widen its net.
First we saw twenty-four teams head to Spain in 1982 and then thirty-two made it to France in 1998.
For many, the current number of teams is perfect, and easy to break down. However, the governing body of football, and its president need to placate member states as often as possible, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to make the World Cup more inclusive and accessible.
In the current format, UEFA have 13 places allocated (14 with host nation Russia in 2018), CAF have 5 spots, CONCACAF 3.5, AFC and CONMEBOL both get 4.5 while OFC are left with 0.5.
The AFC and CONCACAF qualifiers in recent times have produced very few surprises, meanwhile the same five African nations made it out of qualifying for the last two World Cups.
In South America, Uruguay have ended up in 5th place and therefore in the intercontinental playoffs for the last four World Cups.
In Europe the lack of competitive matches in qualifying has arguably led to nations such as England and Italy to disappoint in recent editions.
It is therefore a competition that may just benefit from a freshening up.
This week, FIFA announced how the slots for the 48-team World Cup will be divided up. UEFA will get the 16 spots they asked for, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF have 6 each, but it is CAF and AFC who have emerged as the big winners.
Proposed 2026 World Cup berths as a pct of each confederation's associations. CONMEBOL the highest; Africa, Asia, CONCACAF all the same. pic.twitter.com/abZHCXRWdx
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) March 30, 2017
From 2026 it looks like we will see 8 Asian and 9 African countries. If you consider that not one African nor Asian nation competed in the 1962 edition in Chile, this represents a gradual yet seismic shift for the tournament.
You can count on one hand the amount of times nations from either Asia or Africa have troubled the latter stages of the competition, and that is often used as a clear reason why many believe the quality would be diluted by having such a large World Cup.
However, what is clear is that FIFA are willing to risk quality on the pitch in favour of growing the game across two continents that account for 75% of the world’s population, and are also the two biggest confederations in FIFA’s stable in terms of membership.
There is also a possibility of a six-team playoff tournament with one team from each confederation competing for the last two spots. It is a competition that would act as a test event ahead of the main event and could therefore signal the end of the Confederations Cup as we know it.
From the South American perspective, the increase in qualification spots looks fairly minimal, but six or possibly seven teams making it to World Cup will make a notable and negative difference to the drama of qualification.
Currently, CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying process is simple, dramatic and the most competitive on the planet. Ten nations play each other home and away as they compete for 4.5 spots. This means a number of football obsessed nations miss out on the glory qualification brings every four years.
Peru, who dazzled millions across the world in their iconic red diagonal sash on a white backdrop shirts in the seventies, haven’t qualified since 1982. While Venezuela have never made it to football’s greatest party despite the notable growth in the game in the country over the past decade where baseball remains the dominant sport.
However, regular World Cup appearances may yet see football become king in Venezuela and their recent impressive performance in the U-20 South American Championship suggests they may have a generation primed in time for qualification for the 2026 edition.
The recent international break saw over a million people attend World Cup qualifying matches across the six confederations, thus proving that international football is very much alive despite the English media’s attempt to tell you otherwise.
FIFA has always seen the World Cup as a key gateway for attracting new fans to the sport. And although many Eurocentric football fans appear to bemoan the changes, they are very much in the minority globally.
The majority of football supporters around the world will be glad of the chance to see their nation on the world stage. Moreover it is an opportunity for nations, as well as people, to unite in a time where they need the beautiful game to give them hope, inspiration, and distraction, in what we are told is an ever-increasing, interconnected yet fragmented world.