The powers that be at FIFA voted to expand our beloved World Cup to 48 teams in 2026. The group stage will now consist of 16 groups with 3 teams each resulting in a 32 team knockout stage. The impacts of this change are many and will be analyzed over the course of the next few years. But one change that may have the biggest effect is the expansion from 8 groups to 16 because the importance of the draw and the embarrassingly bad FIFA rankings will be more pronounced. There's more likely to be a greater disparity in the quality of the groups which will leave the outcome of the tournament more to luck than ever before.
Let's walk through the process as it stands for 2018. Once the 32 teams have qualified FIFA will divide the groups into 4 pots. The first pot will consist of the the top seven teams in the world according to FIFA, plus Russia the host. Next, in order to avoid having too many teams from one confederation in the same group the pots are roughly broken up by region. For example, CONCACAF and AFC were combined into one pot for World Cup in Brazil. Africa was combined with South America in another pot.
Let's assume that FIFA does something similar with a 16 group draw and that draw was today. The top 15 teams in the FIFA ranking would go into pot 1. That would include teams like Germany as well as Poland and Croatia. Notable difference (and let's delay the debate of whether or not Poland is truly a better team than Italy, as today's rankings suggest).There are 10 UEFA teams in the top 15 and 5 from CONMEBOL as of now. How many teams will qualify from each region is still up in the air but even if UEFA jumps to 16 teams from 13 and CONMEBOL goes from 4.5 to 6 that would only take up 7 teams in the second pot. A region with decidedly weaker teams would have to be combined with those teams. Last time Africa was combined with CONMEBOL so let's assume that happens again.
Using today's rankings, the 2026 World Cup could very conceivably have a group with Germany and Italy and a group with Poland and Burkina Faso. Set aside who the host will be in 2026. If you are the United States, sitting in pot 3, you'll be getting on your hands and knees summoning divine intervention to land in the group with Poland and Burkina Faso.
But let's keep going. Following the pot 3 draw that combines Asia and CONCACAF, there may be a group that is Germany, Italy and the United States and another that is Poland, Burkina Faso and Uzbekistan. The fact that only one team from each group will get eliminated is of little consequence with these outcomes. They are still clearly unfair. Don't forget that matchups in the knockout stage are randomly determined by group matchups as well. Perhaps a second place Burkina Faso moves on to the round of 32 to play Croatia, while second place Italy takes on Argentina.
In order to avoid these very real scenarios FIFA will need to factor in the quality of more teams during the draw while maintaining the goal of separating regions as much as possible. If determining quality is more critical then the FIFA rankings become more critical and their ranking system needs an overhaul.
The many issues with the FIFA rankings are well documented, and I don't think it would surprise anyone that FIFA executes something so poorly. But briefly, the FIFA rankings consider four factors: (1) the result of the match (2) the importance of the match (friendly vs. qualifier vs. confederation tournament vs. World Cup) (3) the FIFA ranking of the opponent (4) an adjustment based on the strengths of the confederations. The score is averaged for each of the prior four years and then those averages are weighted with more recent years counting more heavily.
The rankings don't factor in goal differential or home field advantage, which are two monumental factors in assessing the quality of an outcome. And a loss is a loss no matter what. The United States gets just as much credit for their 4-0 home loss to Argentina as Uruguay does for their 1-0 road loss in Argentina in qualifying. Hmmm. The fact that FIFA doesn't use that information in their ranking is a missed opportunity to say the least.
In the women's game FIFA has been more progressive and uses an ELO rating system that takes into account goal differential and home field. It's a similar method used to rank chess players globally, and if it's good enough for chess players, it's probably a lot better than what FIFA has dreamed up. It would be a very big change that FIFA needs to strongly consider.
As for the draw, 16 team pots is simply too many, and even if the rankings are improved oddball groups will challenge the integrity of the tournament more than they do today. FIFA will need to keep the pots small and will therefore need to rank the quality of the pots. Perhaps they will create 6 pots of 8 teams and pair pots with each other in a fair way. Perhaps how a team finishes in qualifying will factor into the pot placement of the team, creating more urgency around qualifying, which will become less of an event for the major nations.
As FIFA expands their premier event the issues with their flawed draw process and ranking system become bigger concerns. The quality of the 2026 World Cup is already being questioned, and unless FIFA makes big changes to their ranking system and the draw there will be questions surrounding the integrity of the Final as well.