New qualification paths for 2026 FIFA World Cup

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup in the middle of the qualification steps, I’m looking ahead to the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

That’s because every confederation has extra spots for qualification, along with the intercontinental playoff tournament expanding significantly. With this in mind, I decided to create new systems for each confederation (where necessary) for qualification. I should note that I have not assigned an additional team for a host confederation because it will constantly change – I feel that it will make things easier for these initial calculations.

One thing that people will note is that I am a firm believer in national development. The more that countries play football at a competitive level, the stronger nations become as footballing nations. For the most part, I try to eliminate the initial stage that removes those nations.

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) (jumps from 4.5 to 8+1)

The AFC has 46 eligible members, with 8 qualifying for the World Cup and 1 for the intercontinental playoff tournament. I do appreciate how the AFC combines World Cup Qualification and Asian Cup Qualification, so I do want to keep that together.

Under my plan, I would broadly keep the same system. However, I would remove the first round – I think it would be better for those nations to be playing competitive matches, even if it’s in the later stages of Asian Cup qualification. More matches is a good outcome.

So in the table below, I will use FIFA Rankings for 21 October 2021 to determine the pots.

Pot 1Pot 2Pot 3Pot 4Pot 5Pot 6
AustraliaSyriaIndiaHong KongNepalTimor-Leste
South KoreaUzbekistanNorth KoreaYemenCambodiaPakistan
Saudi ArabiaJordanThailandMalaysiaMongoliaSri Lanka
United Arab Emirates (UAE)LebanonPhilippinesMaldivesLaos
IraqKyrgyz RepublicTurkmenistanChinese TaipeiBhutan
Pot for a potential 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualification Process

So if these are the pots, let’s conduct a draw – I tend to use Random Lists and their Random Team Generator to work pot by pot.

GroupPot 1Pot 2Pot 3Pot 4Pot 5Pot 6
Group AJapanOmanNorth KoreaChinese TaipeiIndonesiaGuam
Group BQatarBahrainThailandHong KongSingaporeBrunei
Group CSaudi ArabiaUzbekistanPhilippinesMalaysiaLaosPakistan
Group DUAEKyrgyz RepublicTurkmenistanMyanmarBhutanTimor-Leste
Group EIranSyriaIndiaAfghanistanMongoliaSri Lanka
Group FAustraliaChinaTajikistanMaldivesCambodiaBangladesh
Group GSouth KoreaJordanPalestineKuwaitMacauN/A
Group HIraqLebanonVietnamYemenNepalN/A
Groups for the first stage of 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualification – AFC

So, readers will notice that 6 of the 8 groups have 6 nations, while 2 have 5 countries. I did consider this when I was creating it. The top 2 from each group will automatically qualify for the Asian Cup while going to the next stage of World Cup qualifying, as will the four best 3rd placed teams. When assessing the four best 3rd ranked teams, matches against the last-placed team in the group are eliminated, so everyone is on the same number of games. This is a common way to even the groups up.

This leaves 20 nations – I would put them in 4 groups of 5. They play each other in a double round-robin (as they did in the first stage). The top 2 in each group qualify for the World Cup. The third-place nation in each group plays in a seeded knockout tournament to determine who goes to the intercontinental playoff tournament.

The remaining 26 nations would be put into 4 groups of 6 or 7. The winner of each group goes to the Asian Cup while providing competitive matches for the smaller nations.

Confederation of Asian Football (CAF) (jumps from 5 to 9+1)

CAF has 54 member nations, which is easily divisible by 9 – that makes life REALLY EASY, and I like that!

The most significant change I would make would be scrapping the first round of CAF qualification, which eliminates a bunch of nations. I think they need more matches, and I want to encourage them.

As a result, I would create 9 groups of 6. The top nation from each group qualifies for the World Cup. The runner-up in each group qualifies for a seeded knockout tournament that determines the competitor for the intercontinental playoff tournament.

GroupPot 1Pot 2Pot 3Pot 4Pot 5Pot 6
Group ASenegalGuineaSierra LeoneSudanThe GambiaLiberia
Group BEgyptCabo VerdeGuinea-BissauTanzaniaBotswanaSomalia
Group CMoroccoCongo DRGabonNigerComorosSao Tome
Group DAlgeriaSouth AfricaLibyaMalawiTogoMauritius
Group ECote d’IvoireUgandaNamibiaMozambiqueBurundiDjibouti
Group FCameroonMaliMauritaniaThe Central African Rep.LesothoEritrea
Group GNigeriaZambiaKenyaAngolaEswatiniSouth Sudan
Group HGhanaBeninMadagascarEquatorial GuineaRwandaChad
Group ITunisiaBurkina FasoCongoZimbabweEthiopiaSeychelles
Groups for 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualification – CAF

An alternative approach could see the top 2 nations from each group combined into 3 groups of 6. The top half of each group would qualify for the World Cup, and the three nations in 4th place would have to play off for the intercontinental playoff tournament spot, probably through seeding.

This set of groups could be used for the African Cup of Nations qualification if they chose to.

Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) (up from 3.5 to 6+1)

CONCACAF has 35 member nations. With 6 slots, it would be easy to run six groups of 6 (albeit one group had 5 members) – you know that the Americans would call it the Hex-a-Hex or some other stupid name.

If we progress down that path, I would have the winner of each group progress to the World Cup, with the runners-up seeded to go into a knockout tournament, the winner of which is chosen to go to the intercontinental playoff tournament.

GroupPot 1Pot 2Pot 3Pot 4Pot 5Pot 6
Group ACosta RicaPanamaSurinamePuerto RicoSt LuciaBahamas
Group BCanadaHaitiDominican RepublicGrenadaArubaThe British Virgin Islands
Group CUSAGuatemalaBarbadosGuyanaDominicaUS Virgin Islands
Group DMexicoCuracaoSt Kitts & NevisSt Vincent & GrenadinesCayman IslandsAnguilla
Group EHondurasEl SalvadorAntigua & BarbudaBermudaMontserratTurks & Caicos Islands
Group FJamaicaTrinidad & TobagoNicaraguaBelizeCubaN/A
Groups for 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualification – CONCACAF

An alternative approach could see the top 2 nations from each group combined into 2 groups of 6. The top half of each group would qualify for the World Cup, and the two nations in 4th place would have to play off for the intercontinental playoff tournament spot.

South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) (up from 4.5 to 6+1)

I would not change anything about what CONMEBOL does. Their double round-robin system that involves every single nation works brilliantly. CONMEBOL only has 10 members, the top 6 qualify, and the seventh-place goes to the intercontinental playoff tournament.

Nice and simple 🙂

Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) (jumps from 0.5 spots to 1+1)

This is a massive development for the OFC. It is the first time they will ever have a permanent place in the FIFA World Cup.

With that in mind, I’d like to use the CONMEBOL method to get as many competitive games as possible for this, frankly, undeveloped part of the footballing world. It would mean a 20-game league, probably over two years and several match days. It could be used for the OFC Nations Cup qualification, with perhaps the top 6 or 8 nations qualifying for it.

Naturally, at the end of twenty games, the top nation would qualify for the World Cup, and the runner-up would be eligible for the intercontinental playoff tournament.

Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) (jumps from 13 to 16 spots)

UEFA doesn’t get any intercontinental playoff tournament spots unless some of their host nations host the World Cup.

UEFA is also challenging to work with because of the UEFA Nations League. I’m still not sure that I understand how the UEFA Nations League works with World Cup qualification.

However… looking at the Wikipedia entry for the 2022 World Cup qualification for UEFA, I’ve realised that minimal changes are required. There are currently 10 groups, with the 10 winners qualifying for the World Cup and all the runners-up joining…

the best two Nations League group winners, based on the Nations League overall ranking,[39] who finished outside the top two of their qualifying group

In total, that incorporates 12 nations. That needs to be reduced to six countries, which means that the existing seeding system built into the second round still works. The only change is that instead of using seedings to set teams across three different “paths,” they are now two-legged home and away affairs. This is not a significant change from what took place in previous iterations of European qualification for the World Cup (2018 and earlier).

Summary of my changes

I think that my methods see more international football across the world, to the benefit of countries. While some fans will complain about going to “lower” nations, it can be promoted as an opportunity for many fans to visit new places and cultures, develop new relationships, and form new bonds.

In my opinion, exploring new ideas for international tournament qualifications should be explored.

What do you think? Where do you want to go and watch your nation play in your confederation that they haven’t played before? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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