What is the new FIFA World Cup format, can it help India? — Explained
According to the AIFF, the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 sets India up to feature in future editions. How accurate is this promise?
Every four years, as the FIFA World Cup comes around, there is one inevitable question within Indian football - how soon can the 'Blue Tigers' feature in the 'greatest show on Earth'?
Shaken up from their slumber of covering European football leagues around the year, the media fraternity descends on the Indian football administration to ask some 'hard questions' for a few days, before these questions are again forgotten for four more years.
There is an adage that a wise AIFF President always targets the World Cup edition that is at least 12 years away. When the Indian team came as close to qualify as they have ahead of the 2002 WC, the erstwhile AIFF President Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi said the path looked clear for qualification in 2014. The same tradition has been followed since.
The new AIFF President, Kalyan Chaubey, was faced with the predictable 'hard question' during his visit to Nagaland on Sunday. Chaubey's response was to pin his optimism of India qualifying for the FIFA World Cup on the expansion of the tournament to 48 teams from the existing 32-team format.
"With FIFA increasing the number of teams from the present 32 to 48 for the 2026 World Cup, India will surely have its players at the top level in future editions," Chaubey told reporters.
What could the new format be and could India really stand to benefit from it?
New FIFA World Cup format in 2026
Back in 2017, it had been decided that the 2026 World Cup was going to feature 48 teams. Hosted by North American neighbours the United States, Canada and Mexico, the edition was expected to have 16 groups of three teams, with 32 teams advancing to the first knockout round.
However, there has been a rethink on this. According to the current plan, the three teams in groups were to play each other once, with the top two from the group advancing to the round of 32. However, this could lead to two teams in the final group fixture playing out a specific result to send both teams through at the expense of the team not playing.
READ | How the FIFA World Cup gives Jhargram's tribal kids a new life
Two alternate formats have been suggested from within FIFA to overcome this problem. One is that there would be 12 groups of four teams, with the best third-placed teams advancing with the top two to the round of 32. The other is to split the 48 teams into two halves, each featuring six groups of four teams. The winner of each half would meet in the final.
What it means for respective confederations
The expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams is to benefit two continents primarily - Asia and Africa. Both continents will have almost double the representation from the next edition.
South America stands to gain considerably too. Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru, all of whom missed out on qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, would be looking to the two extra assured spots for Conmebol as an increased advantage for next time.
North America will also get double the representation, with the three host countries - USA, Canada and Mexico - accounting for three of those spots. Expect some of the Caribbean islands to show up four years down the line!
The new allocation of slots:
AFC (Asia) – 8 (up from 4.5)
CAF (Africa) – 9 (up from 5)
CONCACAF (North and Central America) – 6 (up from 3.5)
CONMEBOL (South America) – 6 (up from 4.5)
OFC (Oceania) – 1 (up from 0.5)
UEFA (Europe) – 16 (up from 13)
Could it benefit India?
While the simple maths of it is that increasing the scope of the World Cup by 50% gives a chance to all countries in the World to qualify, it would seem that for India, it would still be premature to expect an upturn.
Currently ranked 106 in the world, India are 19th in Asia, comfortably away from the top 8 nations. Even when India had achieved the best ranking of 94, they had been far away from the continent's top 10.
READ | Decoding Kylian Mbappe's snub of French President Macron at FIFA World Cup final
For further perspective, the difference between the points held by India (19th in Asia) - 1192 - and the UAE (8th in Asia) - 1337 - is roughly the same as the difference between the points held by UAE and Australia (4th in Asia), who have 1488 points.
Countries like Iraq, Oman, Uzbekistan, China, Jordan, Bahrain and Syria, all placed above India, could draw a lot of hope of making the most of the four extra spots.
India's record against Asia's top nations has been nothing to write home about either. Since 2018, the best results they have enjoyed against the teams mentioned above are all draws - 1-1 vs Oman last year, 1-1 vs Syria in 2019, 0-0 vs China in 2018.
In the same period, India have lost to lower-ranked teams Maldives, Tajikistan, North Korea, and have drawn far too frequently against the likes of Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
India's best bet of making it to the World Cup is of course the market share that comes with the country.
Qatar, the first Arab nation to host the World Cup, were accused of paying Fifa officials £3 million to secure their hosting rights. They were eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but a FIFA report said there were "certain indications of potentially problematic conduct of specific individuals".
For the world's third largest economy on the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP), it can be an uneducated guess that such a swoop might not be out of reach of its corporate giants. At the least, such a swoop would be less unlikely than India matching up to the top 8 Asian nations to make it on sporting merit.
"Football is also business," Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said on Sunday, adding that "48 national teams means more interest all around the world."
The interest is unmistakable. The only challenge would seem to be to turn the attentions of a population drunk on 'premier leagues' - Indian and English - to homegrown football leagues, which struggle to even get airtime on television.