What has happened to the World Cup?
Well, it’s still there last time we checked, and next year’s tournament in Russia is going ahead as planned. But enjoy the compact, in-no-way-sprawling, 32-team month-long format for only another couple of tournaments. After a vote by the Fifa congress on Tuesday, it’s going to get a lot bigger.
How much bigger?
50% bigger. In 2026, 48 countries will take part in the World Cup and there will be 80 matches as opposed to the current 64 (the hosts are as yet undecided, but for argument’s sake let’s say it’s the Cayman Islands).
That’s a lot of teams
It is indeed. The first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 comprised just 13 countries. But football has grown since then, you may have noticed, and Fifa currently claims 211 national football associations as members. Fifa’s expressed ambition for this expanded tournament is that it will allow less celebrated footballing nations – think China and India – to join “the world’s greatest party” or whatever they call it nowadays.
So nothing to do with money, then?
Well there is the fact that by expanding the tournament Fifa can expect to raise an extra $1bn (£823m) in revenue.But given the organisation’s reputation as a bastion of fiscal probity, nobody’s going to be worrying about that.
Hooray! So how will the tournament work?
Well here’s where things get truly novel. The current Fifa proposal will reformat the World Cup so that the opening stages comprise 16 groups of three teams. Each team will play each other – ie three games per group – and the top two will progress to a knockout round with 32 sides. From that point on, the format will be as you remember it from the glory days of your childhood.
OK … sounds a bit weird?
Well it’s one group game fewer per team than we’ve been used to. But we’ve also been used to a lot of dead rubbers in the past, or at least rubbers where both teams were happy to settle for a draw. Fifa believe this version of the tournament will lead to fewer such games. Indeed no less of an expert in scintillating football than José Mourinho declared last week: “I prefer groups of three. Two matches and then through to the knockout stages or go home. This way, the two group matches will be crucial.”
Either that or we’ll have a massive load of bus-parking like in Euro 2016
Yes, maybe. And there’s also the risk of the two teams playing the last match knowing that a particular result would send them both through. Though one, currently unconfirmed, proposal that has been bouncing around the corridors of Fifa HQ is that every group game would have to end in a positive result. In other words, if you’re drawing at full-time, the game goes to penalties.
Like I say, it’s yet to be confirmed.
Anyway, enough of all that, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Does it mean Scotland will qualify?
Current proposals, which look likely to ratified by Fifa, would mean Europe receiving three more places in the tournament, 16 in all (one per group). So I’d say there was still a strong chance of Scotland stuffing that up.
The proposed breakdown would comprise: Europe 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (0.5), Host nation 1 (1).
That’s weird … Your figures suggest that South America, with nine World Cup wins, would have fewer places than the footballing hotbed of North America and the Caribbean.
Yes it does, doesn’t it. Maybe 2026 will be in the Cayman Islands after all!