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Men’s World Cup expansion: Who?

Should FIFA expand the Men’s World Cup to 48 teams? It would be a bad idea, but there are ways to make it less bad.

This expansion has been approved, though, which means that short of Gianni Infantino being visited by the Ghosts of Men’s World Cups Past, Present, and Yet to Come, the 2026 Men’s World Cup will be a large, ungainly beast of 80 matches in 32 days.

But of course, there are a lot of places at this new, bigger table. We have asked the GoobNet Special Projects Enhancement and Enforcement Division [SPEED] to figure out which teams will qualify to sit at this table. They will take as their example a 2026 Men’s World Cup jointly hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the United States; for your convenience, we here at GoobNet have already projected what such a Men’s World Cup would look like.

AUTOMATIC QUALIFIERS

We will allocate four automatic qualifying places: three for the host nations, and one for the 2022 Men’s World Cup champion. With a new expanded tournament, we should once again grant an automatic place to the title holder.

GENERAL FORMAT

The remaining 44 places will be divided into two categories. 28 of them will be direct qualifying places, and 16 will be awarded via intercontinental playoffs, which we will call the repechage. This means we need a total of 32 teams to compete in the repechage.

We have previously proposed making most of the confederations’ qualifying formats similar: a final round with a certain number of groups, each containing six teams. The top team qualifies directly, and the second placed team advances to the repechage.

Taking this approach, we need only decide how many groups will be contested in the final round of each confederation. Because each group sees one team qualify directly and one team advance to the repechage, this will automatically determine how many qualifying places each confederation has.

CONMEBOL

Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol
Current members: 10

The CONMEBOL group phase, in which all ten member nations play one another twice, has become exceedingly popular. We propose retaining it, but with a twist: Only two teams qualify directly, and five other teams advance to the repechage. Should a CONMEBOL nation win the 2022 Men’s World Cup and qualify automatically for 2026, the CONMEBOL group phase would be played with nine teams, still with two direct qualifiers and five repechage entrants.

UEFA

Union of European Football Associations
Current members: 55

We have unashamedly ripped off UEFA’s qualifying tournament for our proposal of six team groups with one direct qualifier and one repechage participant. We propose twelve qualifying groups; however, because UEFA only have 55 members, this means that we will have seven groups containing five teams, and five groups containing four teams. Regardless, the top team in each group qualifies directly, and the second placed team advances to the repechage.

CAF

Confédération Africaine de Football
Current members: 54

We propose six qualifying groups, which means a total of 36 teams participating in the final round. As a preliminary round, we suggest nine groups of four teams, with the top two in each group advancing to the final round. Eighteen teams would receive a bye into the final round.

AFC

Asian Football Confederation
Current members: 46

We propose five qualifying groups, which means a total of 30 teams participating in the final round. As a preliminary round, we suggest eight groups of four teams, with the top two in each group advancing to the final round. Fourteen teams would receive a bye into the final round.

CONCACAF

Confederation of North/​Central American and Caribbean Association Football
Current members: 35 [Canada, Mexico, United States to qualify automatically]

CONCACAF will have three automatic places for the host nations. We propose two additional qualifying groups, which means a total of 12 teams participating in the final round. As preliminary rounds, we suggest a first round with eight head to head serieses, with the eight winners advancing to a semifinal round. This round would include six groups of four teams, with the top two in each group advancing to the final round. Sixteen teams would receive a bye into the semifinal round.

As the host confederation, we will grant CONCACAF one additional place in the repechage, to be contested by the winner of a playoff between the third placed teams in the final round groups.

OFC

Oceania Football Confederation
Current members: 11

We propose one qualifying group, which means a total of six teams participating in the final round. As a preliminary round, we suggest three groups, two of four teams and one of three, with the top two in each group advancing to the final round.

PLAYOFFS

As shown above, we have a total of 32 repechage participants. They will be drawn into sixteen pairs, with the constraint that teams from the same confederation cannot play off against one another. Each pair will play a home and away series, and the winners of these repechage playoffs will qualify for the 2026 Men’s World Cup.

However, at the same time as these repechage playoffs, we will also have seeding playoffs for the direct qualifiers. Including the title holder and host nations, there are 32 direct qualifiers. They too will be drawn into sixteen pairs, and teams from the same confederation still cannot play off against one another. Each pair will play a home and away series. This time, the winners will earn the top seeds at the 2026 Men’s World Cup. The losing teams will be the second seeds, and the repechage winners will be the third seeds.

SUMMARY

This qualifying tournament not only decides the 48 teams to compete at the 2026 Men’s World Cups, it automatically creates the seeding pots for us. Instead of using the FIFA rankings to decide seedings, which grants preference to teams with past successes, our approach means that teams who want a higher seeding need to earn it.

Furthermore, as Gaby has already shown us, the seedings can also be used to decide the schedule in each group. This gives teams a tangible incentive to win their seeding playoff and earn their first choice of off dates in their group.

ConfederationCurrent MembersDirect QualifiersRepechage Participants
Defending ChampionN/A10
HostsN/A30
CONMEBOL1025
UEFA551212
CAF5466
AFC4655
CONCACAF3523
OFC1111
Total2113232
DIRECT QUALIFIERS REPECHAGE PARTICIPANTS
  1. [Defending champion]
  2. Canada
  3. Mexico
  4. United States
  5. [1st CONMEBOL]
  6. [2nd CONMEBOL]
  7. [1st UEFA group 1]
  8. [1st UEFA group 2]
  9. [1st UEFA group 3]
  10. [1st UEFA group 4]
  11. [1st UEFA group 5]
  12. [1st UEFA group 6]
  13. [1st UEFA group 7]
  14. [1st UEFA group 8]
  15. [1st UEFA group 9]
  16. [1st UEFA group 10]
  17. [1st UEFA group 11]
  18. [1st UEFA group 12]
  19. [1st CAF group 1]
  20. [1st CAF group 2]
  21. [1st CAF group 3]
  22. [1st CAF group 4]
  23. [1st CAF group 5]
  24. [1st CAF group 6]
  25. [1st AFC group 1]
  26. [1st AFC group 2]
  27. [1st AFC group 3]
  28. [1st AFC group 4]
  29. [1st AFC group 5]
  30. [1st CONCACAF group 1]
  31. [1st CONCACAF group 2]
  32. [1st OFC]
  1. [3rd CONMEBOL]
  2. [4th CONMEBOL]
  3. [5th CONMEBOL]
  4. [6th CONMEBOL]
  5. [7th CONMEBOL]
  6. [2nd UEFA group 1]
  7. [2nd UEFA group 2]
  8. [2nd UEFA group 3]
  9. [2nd UEFA group 4]
  10. [2nd UEFA group 5]
  11. [2nd UEFA group 6]
  12. [2nd UEFA group 7]
  13. [2nd UEFA group 8]
  14. [2nd UEFA group 9]
  15. [2nd UEFA group 10]
  16. [2nd UEFA group 11]
  17. [2nd UEFA group 12]
  18. [2nd CAF group 1]
  19. [2nd CAF group 2]
  20. [2nd CAF group 3]
  21. [2nd CAF group 4]
  22. [2nd CAF group 5]
  23. [2nd CAF group 6]
  24. [2nd AFC group 1]
  25. [2nd AFC group 2]
  26. [2nd AFC group 3]
  27. [2nd AFC group 4]
  28. [2nd AFC group 5]
  29. [2nd CONCACAF group 1]
  30. [2nd CONCACAF group 2]
  31. [Winner CONCACAF playoff]
  32. [2nd OFC]

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