FIFA announced Wednesday it is abandoning plans to expand the 2022 World Cup’s competitive field to 48 teams.
The tournament, to be held in Qatar, will instead feature 32 teams, the same number of participants as every men’s World Cup since 1998. Unlike previous World Cups, which have taken place in the summer, this tournament will be played between November and December to mitigate the effects of Qatar’s climate on matches.
Future World Cups after Qatar will feature 48 teams, starting with the 2026 edition, which will be co-hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.
With the size of the 2022 World Cup’s competitive field determined, the focus now shifts to qualification, even though the process for getting to Qatar is mostly up in the air.
As hosts, Qatar has qualified automatically, though the remaining 31 spots need to be filled before the tournament’s group stage draw in April 2022.
Each of the six continental FIFA confederations – Concacaf (North and Central America, plus the Caribbean), Conmebol (South America), Uefa (Europe), OFC (Oceania), AFC (Africa), and CAF (Asia) – will construct a qualification process that meets FIFA approval for their respective countries to compete for 2022 World Cup berths.
Concacaf can send up to four countries to Qatar, Conmebol five, UEFA 13, AFC five, CAF five and OFC one.
Qualification changes likely
While the size of its competitive field is the same, this tournament will be very different from previous editions.
The tournament will be the first FIFA World Cup that is both played in the Middle East and scheduled during winter months. Qatar is also the smallest nation, in terms of land mass, to ever host a men’s World Cup.
No qualifying process is ever the same from World Cup cycle to World Cup cycle, either, but many federations are expected to make changes to their qualification structure in an effort to minimize the physical toll on players and be more inclusive to smaller nations that are traditionally eliminated from contention within the first six months of qualifiers.
Concacaf president Victor Montagliani told the Associated Press in 2016 that he saw the qualification process as “archaic.”
“Something needs to change because you can’t have 85% of your members who are on the outside looking in two years before the World Cup,” Montagliani said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
For Concacaf nations, the stakes largely rest on a six-team group dubbed “The Hex” in which all countries face off in a home and away round robin over the course of one year. The top three nations automatically advance to the World Cup, while the fourth place team faces a country from another confederation in a home and away playoff with a World Cup berth at stake.
The U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago were all in The Hex during the last World Cup cycle. Meanwhile, the other 28 Concacaf member nations were eliminated within the first year of qualification.
“It’s great for those six teams … but how about the other ones?” Montagliani added. “It’s hard.”
Time is probably the most coveted resource for many FIFA member countries and confederations, especially when the international soccer calendar tries to balance international friendlies, World Cup qualifiers and intra and inter-confederation events like the Concacaf Gold Cup and Copa America.
But those don’t even take into account the Olympic Games and youth international events (like the FIFA U20 World Cup) that need to be scheduled as well, or the accommodations for club teams and offseasons.
FIFA has 13 windows for international matches between the qualification draw in July and the World Cup group stage draw in April 2022.
The last World Cup cycle saw Concacaf use 12 FIFA windows.
Aside from timing the qualifiers, Concacaf wants to balance the level of competition as well. That can be tricky given how countries that routinely qualify for The Hex are typically exempt from playing smaller nations that aren’t able to invest as much into soccer infrastructure or play as many games.
The Cayman Islands men’s national team, for instance, has only played four games since the start of 2018 and routinely ranks in the bottom 20 of FIFA’s world rankings. Other Concacaf nations, like Grenada and Belize, play more games and aren’t ranked as low but still struggle to keep qualification hopes alive for more than a few months.
Potential new qualifying structure
Ending Concacaf qualification with eight teams – let’s call it an “Oct” – rather than six could feature a more competitive final round and include more games for more teams earlier in qualification.
The Oct would require 14 matches and seven FIFA windows. The top three teams would clinch automatic berths for Qatar, while the fourth place team would participate in an intercontinental playoff against a team from another confederation. The intercontinental playoff would take one FIFA window.
Under this structure, 46% of Concacaf nations are in contention for a World Cup berth from March 2020 through at least October 2020, which is up from 34% during the same time frame in the previous World Cup cycle. Two more Concacaf teams also get a realistic shot at qualifying by using the Oct.
During qualification for the 2018 World Cup, 23 of the 35 Concacaf nations were eliminated between March 2015 and September 2015.
This potential structure would allow for most teams to play additional friendlies and does not interfere with the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup.