Why you should care
A pre-Cup round would allow FIFA to spread the joy and money without clogging international soccer’s big event.
The men’s soccer World Cup is coming back to North America in 2026, and it’ll be bigger than ever. Better than ever? Probably not.
The event will kick off with 48 teams, nearly one-fourth of the countries on Earth. A 50 percent expansion of the current field of 32 will be bloated, diluted and incredibly cumbersome for scheduling group play. Not to mention when it comes to staging the Cup, smaller countries that would struggle to host 80 games need not apply.
We can do it while building upon some interesting initiatives FIFA and other world bodies have already started.
“On one hand, I think it’s great because the World Cup is such a special event that brings people together in so many different but ultimately positive ways both on and off the field, so I say the more, the merrier,” says Jimmy Conrad, who played for the USA in the 2006 World Cup and is now a commentator and YouTube personality. “But on the other hand, it feels like a big money grab that puts financial gain ahead of preserving the integrity of this tournament, which already has a rigorous qualifying process in place to make sure that you have truly earned the right to be there, so … I’m torn.”
Now, whether you believe the cynical version that FIFA expanded the Cup for greed and politics, or with an altruistic motive to give more countries the opportunity to bask in the Cup’s glow, there’s a better way to go about it. My proposal would keep the Cup at a manageable size, allowing smaller countries to host while spreading the wealth and glory of the Cup more broadly. And we can do it while building upon some interesting initiatives FIFA and other world bodies have already started.
FIFA recently launched “Nations League” play to determine some qualifiers for the 2020 European Championships. Europe and North America will start Nations Leagues this fall, while FIFA hopes to take the concept worldwide soon. The governing body also envisions a “mini-tournament,” held the year before the World Cup, to decide the final places in the Cup.
The Nations Leagues are promising ventures, but they’re a bit redundant with qualifying games for the World Cup and continental championships. The mini-tournament idea is also interesting, but why make it so “mini”?
Instead, let’s do this:
- Reward the top 16 teams in the Global Nations League with direct qualification to the World Cup. They get one summer off, aside from some tune-up friendly matches.
- Take the next 64 teams in the Global Nations League, including some from the lower tiers, and have them play off for the other 16 berths in the World Cup.
- Split them into four 16-team tournaments in different sites across the globe.
- Call the whole thing the Pre-Cup.
To visualize such a setup, here’s how it could’ve looked in 2017, based on World Cup qualifying standings, world football Elo rankings (in parentheses, as of June 25) and a semi-random draw to make each group competitive. We’ll also grab some wildcard teams that overachieved in World Cup qualifying.
Direct Qualification to 2018 World Cup (16)
- Host: Russia (34)
- 6 from Europe (group winners, then Elo): Spain (2), Germany (3), France (4), Portugal (5), England (6), Belgium (7)
- 3 from Africa (group winners, then Elo): Senegal (22), Nigeria (40), Morocco (44)
- 2 from Asia (group winners): Iran (20), Japan (33)
- 2 from North America (top two in final group): Mexico (12), Costa Rica (42)
- 2 from South America (top two): Brazil (1), Uruguay (11)
Qualified for Pre-Cup (64)
- 3 remaining European group winners: Serbia (21), Poland (25), Iceland (39)
- 2 remaining African group winners: Tunisia (52), Egypt (56)
- 9 European group runners-up: Croatia (8), Switzerland (9), Italy (15), Denmark (16), Sweden (19), Slovakia (26), Ireland (35), Northern Ireland (46), Greece (48)
- 9 European group third-place finishers: Netherlands (13), Wales (23), Ukraine (27), Bosnia (29), Czech Republic (41), Scotland (42), Montenegro (61), Hungary (65), Albania (68)
- 5 African group runners-up: Ivory Coast (59), Burkina Faso (61), DR Congo (64), Zambia (95), Uganda (123)
- 6 Asian group second- through fourth-place finishers: Australia (30), South Korea (45), Syria (57), Uzbekistan (60), Saudi Arabia (69), United Arab Emirates (74)
- 7 North American finalists and third-place semifinalists: United States (24), Panama (54), Honduras (63), Canada (72), Guatemala (79), Haiti (83), Trinidad and Tobago (101)
- 5 South American third- through seventh-place finishers: Colombia (10), Argentina (14), Chile (17), Peru (18), Paraguay (36)
- 2 Oceania finalists: New Zealand (81), Solomon Islands (163)
- 12 next highest-rated worldwide: Ecuador (28), Austria (31), Venezuela (32), Turkey (36), Romania (38), Bolivia (47), Ghana (49), Cameroon (49), Norway (51), Slovenia (53), Bulgaria (55), Finland (58)
- 4 wild cards, one from each continent (aside from Oceania and South America): El Salvador (87), Cape Verde (98), Thailand (112), Faroe Islands (135)
More countries get the opportunity to play in a major tournament — and to host one that would be less of a burden than the full-fledged World Cup. It’s a simple win-win … so it probably won’t happen.