So what has been making the rounds since the start of the year following FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s proposal to extend the most glamorous football tourney became reality this week. The FIFA council during a meeting in Bahrain this week ratified the decision expanding the allocation for teams from 32 to 48, with this decision, here is what each continent has now being allocated,
Asia: 8 direct slots- increased from 4.5 (currently 46 members)
Africa: 9 direct slots – increased from 5 (currently 54 members)
North and central America: 6 direct slots – increased from 3.5 (currently 34 members)
South America: 6 direct slots – increased from 4.5 (currently 10 members)
Oceania: 1 direct slot – increased from 0.5 (currently 11 members)
Europe: 16 direct slots – increased from 13 (currently 55 members)
Final two places in 2026 to be taken by the host nation and decided by six-team play-offs, in which an African team will stand a chance of an extra slot, this is something that the Confederation of African Football has lobbied towards achieving for a while now though it was rumored that the former head Issa Hayatou was not predisposed to this, but changes at both FIFA and CAF has ensured that the changes have taken place.
When the issue of an expansion was first raised, a lot of top football voices aired their opinions with support for the cause coming largely from Asia and Africa, the President of the German Football Association Reinhard Grindel, was quoted as saying, “I am not happy with the decision and would have wished that all the important questions about the organisation and the format had been completely resolved,” But since the decision was taken unanimously by the FIFA council, it is important to respect it and look forward. My main worry is that the attractiveness of the matches will suffer.”
Javier Tebas, president of the Spanish league also was in disagreement saying “FIFA is doing politics. Gianni Infantino is doing politics”. FIFA however had the likes of Manchester United gaffer Jose Mourinho on its side, the Portuguese tactician welcomed the idea, “More nations taking part means more passion, more happiness, more enthusiasm. More countries mean more Africans, Asians, Americans together.
What the expansion translates to is that from 2026, 48 teams will take part in 16 groups of 3 teams (which doesn’t even make sense in itself) unlike the 8 groups of 4 that we have been accustomed to, with top two progressing to the knock-out stages, the total number of games will increase from 64 to 80, many have questioned if these changes is actually for the good of the game or more from political and financial grounds.
From an African perspective, I do not see this as something to get excited about, as the World Cup which many have even claimed to be less glamorous in comparison with the UEFA Champions League may actually now be likened to the Europa League in terms of competitiveness, attraction and quality of teams on display.
The most teams that Africa has previously had at the World Cup was six in 2010 when South Africa hosted, they were joined by Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast and the farthest any African team has gone in the competition is the Quarter final stages with Cameroon in 1990; Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010. It is worthy to note that since the inception of the world cup in 1930, the tournament which will have its 21st edition hold next year in Russia has only had eight winners, five from Europe and three from South America, the African teams did not do too well in the last edition at Brazil and have not exactly set the world ablaze in performances over the course of the last four years, we no longer even have an African Player coming close to the top 10 list of best footballers, the best of talents are in Europe’s major leagues, the majority of funds for football development is concentrated in Europe and lately China, the standards of CAF organized competitions have dropped and the leading Nations in African football like Egypt and Nigeria even struggle to qualify for local tournaments, it is thus very unclear how an increase in the numbers of teams that will be representing Africa will change the fundamental influence on the game on these teams and even in the World Cup.
The African Nations cup which was last hosted by Gabon earlier in the year and saw Cameroon winning their fifth title only features 16 teams and of the 16, it is really hard to point beyond eight teams as quality teams in the competition, so with the likelihood of 9 or 10 out of this pool featuring on the major stage, many fear that whilst it may be a jamboree of new faces, it could also be match practice and one sided games when matched against top oppositions. Egypt were the first African side to play at the World Cup in 1934 and it wasn’t until 1982 when the slot was doubled. Following impressive showings by the likes of Cameroon, Africa earned an extra slot in 1994 and in 1998 was increased to its current five. The slots seemingly have grown organically over the editions following the performances displayed by the African teams, one now begin to wonder, which African team of late has impressed on the International scene leading to an increase from five to nine automatic slots. Football in Africa have not reached the potential that many believe is present within its shores, African clubs have not caused major upsets in the World Club competitions and African players are no longer lighting up leagues across the world.
The argument has been made that worse teams don’t exactly lead to worse games and if these teams don’t get a chance to showcase what they have on the big stage, then one can never know the extent of their abilities. Big name teams matching up also don’t translate to competitive and better games (Germany VS Brazil comes to mind), but would you rather watch Germany route Brazil or stay up to see Italy play Djibouti? The World Cup is an elite tournament commanding the highest number of viewers and sponsorship and it is important that the competitive nature of the tournament must not be allowed to drop, blow-out results are not exactly low quality games but the type of football on display, the technicality, tactics, coaching and pattern on display at every single World Cup game is what has made it the global event it is today, and if the World Cup in 2026 features nations who can’t display these attributes, then it has begun to reward mediocrity.
2026 is still a long time and many things will change; increased revenue over quality, inclusiveness over elitism, but an expansion for expansion sake may just be an idea too grand for what is football’s most historic competition.