In the 24 hours or so, I have done nothing but see negative reaction to FIFA’s plans for the allocation of spots in the expanded 48 team World Cup in 2026. Every take was about the qualification process being ruined, the tournament itself would be crap, and that fans wouldn’t turn out to watch lowly nations play each other. Paul Mariner called the entire process baffling and confusing on ESPN FC.
Relax, FIFA Isn’t Ruining Soccer With the 48 Team World Cup
These takes are all hot headed overreactions expressing fear of something unfamiliar. The 48 team World Cup will not be the disaster it’s being made it out to be despite it being a massive change. Yeah, some of the games are going to suck. Germany will take on Saudi Arabia in the first round one of these years and smash them 6-0. But, that isn’t ruining the tournament. Neither is the watering down of an already watered down qualification process. Or the drive for FIFA to generate an even larger mountain of cash. In fact, the complaints these pundits have are complains that have been spewed about the World Cup for as long as I can remember.
Qualification is Already Ruined
The NBC Sports and Deadspin articles I linked to bemoaned the death of the World Cup qualification process. Well, I hate to break it to those writers, but the process is already ruined. World Cup Qualifying is already a formality for the biggest nations in every confederation. Spain, Germany, England, and other European powers spend the two years leading up to the World Cup smashing minnows on their way to an easy qualification. Even the USA, with it’s disaster of a start to the Hex, was never in any real danger of missing out on qualifying. The same can be said for the giants of Asia, South America, Africa, and New Zealand.
Qualification will still be meaningful for the minnow nations that don’t always get their shot at the World Cup Finals. CONCACAF nations like Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago will still need to gut out results in order to make it, much like they do now. Sure, they will be joined by the likes of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, and other nations we aren’t used to seeing. But, how is that a bad thing? Qualification battles will still be there. They will just involve countries we aren’t used to seeing.
The Competition Won’t Remain Watered Down Forever
The 2026 World Cup will probably feature a historic level of blowouts. That Germany-Saudi Arabia situation illustrated above will probably be relatively common in the early rounds for a tournament or two. Germany will still also take on a medium sized power like the USA, or Mexico, or Ecuador in the opening stage. Balancing that out are all the matches between middling powers. Australia will face a team like Ghana. Slovenia will have to grit out a tough result against Iran. There will essentially be three good or great games for every 6-0 snoozer. They just won’t involve all the usual suspects. And that’s just fine.
The benefits of allowing more teams will trickle down over time. As the Saudi Arabias and Nicaraguas of the world qualify for more tournaments, more attention (and money) will flow into those smaller nations. More attention (and money) means more kids interested in the game and more resources to allow them to reach higher levels. The 6-0 Germany over Saudi Arabia result could be a thing of the past by the 2034 competition because the smaller nations have more attention (and money) to develop higher quality players.
The World Cup Has Always Been About the Money
There is one think people complaining about FIFA using the 48 team World Cup as nothing more than a cash grab need to realize is that the World Cup has always been about the money. FIFA can claim that they are growing the game and trying to allow as many nations as possible the joy of playing in the World Cup all they want. We all know that more nations playing means more people watching means more money flowing into FIFA’s coffers.
The drive to earn more money is nothing new for FIFA. If you honestly believe the expansion of the World Cup from 16 teams to 24 teams in 1982 was solely about growing the game, you’re crazy. The same can be said for the expansion to 32 teams in 1998. It was always about making more money, just like adding a whopping 16 teams for 2026 is.
The game is bigger now than it was in 1982, or 1998, or even 2010. More countries are paying attention to the World Cup and more countries want in on the action. What’s the harm in giving them what we want.
All change is scary at first. Soccer fans have always shown the ability to adapt to change, and eventually embrace it. The 48 team World Cup will be no different. We will learn to love it before too long. FIFA knows this. And so do you.