February 1, 2023

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In the year 2026 in America a new 48-team format

The Qatar World Cup closed its doors between successes and criticisms distributed evenly. However, there is one thing that the Qatari championship has shown: that the World Cup in the fall and winter is not a one-off frenzy. With a bit of goodwill from UEFA, the matches were adjusted without much inconvenience, and for once, players were seen on the pitch in tip-top physical shape (Messi would still be the same if he had been played in June?). And if the championship in 2030, as it is hoped, will end in South America to celebrate the centenary, then it is hoped that the formula approved for Qatar will be revived. On the other hand, the whole world is entitled to enjoy a World Cup in the sun from time to time, not just those in the northern hemisphere.

But this is a story for the future, because we are going to America in four years. And if it is played with handkerchiefs in Qatar, then in 2026 the distances will be vast between the United States, Canada and Mexico. After three decades of World Cups contested by 32 teams, the overseas team will be first for 48, nearly a quarter of the 211 FIFA-affiliated nations will take part. A nice change from the 13 national teams invited to compete in the first cup in 1930 in Uruguay but also from the 24 teams present in the United States in 1994 when Switzerland re-emerged after a hiatus of 28 years.

At the moment it is known that the 23rd edition will be played with 48 teams: on the other hand, the format is still not defined, as FIFA may have to put a total of more than 100 matches, against the current 64 teams. All this, with the addition of quite a bit of travel, given that the World Cup will be hosted by, for example, Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, Mexico City and Guadalajara in Mexico, and New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas in the United States.

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Africa will benefit the most from the increase to 16 teams, which will see its representatives move from five to nine. There has never been a better time for such a change in light of what Morocco did in Qatar. There will be three more tickets in favor of Europe (from 13 to 16), South America will move from 4.5 to 6, while North America, which will automatically qualify the three organizing countries, will start from 3.5 to 6 current representatives. The last two tickets will be awarded via playoff. The format is still to be determined. FIFA was considering 16 groups of three (the top two qualified for the Round of 32). A formula that makes it possible to maintain the same number of matches for all teams (7 for the final competition), with a total of 80 matches, but with the risk of “cookies” between two teams in the third round. However, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he wanted to change the format, as four-team groups were proving very interesting in Qatar. One could think of 12 sets of four, but in this case the number of games would jump to over 100.

We may know more in the coming weeks. And as we have seen in Qatar, the expansion to 48 teams cannot be detrimental to the show, in view of the fact that even the ‘small’ teams have reached a more than appreciable level of play. Certainly, the increase will bring great financial benefits, with a record budget estimated by FIFA at $11 billion for the next four-year cycle.

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