At the first ever World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 thirteen teams participated, seven from South America, four from Europe and two from North America. At the 2026 World Cup, nearly a century since the first World Cup footballers graced the field, little has changed in regards to the monopoly of allocated places that football’s historical hotbeds hold (See below).
It’s understandable that in an era when travel wasn’t as efficient as it is now and sport wasn’t the glamorous affair that it is today, that few teams ventured to South America from Europe. Nearly 100 years on however, you’d like to think that the disproportions would’ve been addressed. How can a World Cup truly be called a World Cup when the opportunity for some footballing nations to qualify is almost non-existent whereas in South America it’s harder not to qualify?
The question of quality is likely to be a first defence for those that demand South America and Europe maintain their monopoly. Population size could definitely come into the equation when dismissing Oceania’s case but would soon fall down when criticising Africa’s. Each continental version of the European Championship is strong. Teams like Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria from Africa as well as South Korea and Japan from Asia have shown the world that they can compete on the big stage. To dismiss these nations and their continent because of their lack of presence at the latter stages of previous World Cups is naive. If the proportion of their allocation is less then they’re playing against the odds from the start. If in every World Cup to date each continent had been allocated an even proportion of places then we would’ve seen countries from outside of South America and Europe grace the semi-finals and probably even final.
I’ve written on my cricket blog about how history prevents the game from being a truly global sport and contradictory to its name the past also prevents the football World Cup from living up to its name.
The 2026 World Cup will be the first to be increased to a whopping 48 teams. Those teams will be split into 16 groups of three which in itself will strip the globe’s glorious tournament of drama. At the 2018 World Cup the group that contained Spain, Portugal, Iran and Morocco went to the wire. In the final simultaneously played group games last minute goals in both were critical to qualification to the knockout stage. I remember following the action online via live text and possibly radio. Even if it was live text alone it was riveting. But of course viewers can’t watch simultaneously played games so maybe this is part of the thinking of the new structure. Given that there are so many groups however I wonder if games in different groups will be staged at the same time. To deprive the competition of such drama, similar to what can occur on the final day of the domestic season is a poor decision.
It was USA ’94 that, as an eight-year-old, peaked my football interest. I recall watching the opening ceremony live but my other memories possibly come from a video of the tournament. England weren’t there but boy were Ireland! Jack Charlton, Ray Houghton and a foul-mouthed John Aldridge et al. Goals from Phillipe Albert, Saeed Al-Owairan and the aforementioned Houghton lit up the tournament, not to mention just a few from Roberto Baggio, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario. The drama didn’t end there with the despair of Diego Maradona and tragedy of Andres Escobar never to be forgotten. In 2026 football will head back to the USA as well as Canada, a rapidly improving football nation and world football’s perennial under achievers… Mexico.
In North America there’ll be teams from all over the globe but not in equal measure. Australia now qualify via Asia, so bored were they at thrashing the likes of American Samoa time and time again that they risk not qualifying for the World Cup by challenging themselves against stronger opposition. Fair play I suppose. It’s not a foregone conclusion that New Zealand will make it though as qualification for the 2014 Confederations Cup proved. Tahiti were Oceania’s representative having beaten New Caledonia not Zealand in the OFC final.
We’ll find out in a few year’s time if a familiar name claims the World Cup trophy, be it a Brazil, Germany or Spain. Or could it be a virgin champion from Africa, Asia or America even? If we do have a maiden winner… it’ll have been one heck of a tournament!