In November of this year, 13 teams hailing from UEFA begin their quest for a World Cup trophy. That means of the 32 nations represented at the World Cup, just under half come from Europe.
Europe, for its sake, is the hub of soccer in the world. It may not be the most vibrant or the most dramatic each year. However, on average, its nations are the most successful at the World Cup.
The last four World Cup winners are France, Germany, Spain and Italy. UEFA sides claim 12 World Cups, only rivaled by CONMEBOL’s nine. However, an increased disparity comes in the confederation’s placement of second, third and fourth.
European nations have 16 silver medals, 17 bronze medals and 15 fourth-place finishes. Nine finals have been contested between two European opponents.
The counter to that point would be the fact that, simply put, there are more European nations. If anything, it speaks to the ability of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina that the number is not higher.
Now with the 2022 World Cup Qualifying wrapping up across the globe, a number of notable European teams will not travel to Qatar. One of Italy or Portugal will not qualify due to the UEFA World Cup qualifying format. The same applies to Poland or Sweden and Wales or Ukraine.
Some Europhiles want to see more UEFA teams have the opportunity to play in the World Cup. They cite that these are the best teams, and thus should be able to compete to be the world’s best. However, it would consequently take away from other federations’ abilities to produce World Cup squads.
Consistent number of European nations at the World Cup
In 2026, the number of nations traveling to Mexico, Canada and the United States for the World Cup increases. Each FIFA confederation gains additional slots in the tournament finals.
For example, the Asian Football Confederation goes from four to eight nations in the tournament. Similarly, the Confederation of African Football goes from five teams to nine. CONCACAF and CONMEBOL increase representation by three and two, respectively.
There will be 16 European nations at the 2026 World Cup, an increase of three from Qatar 2022. However, the recent omissions of Italy and the Netherlands coupled with the aforementioned absentees in 2022 sparked conversation about how Europe deserves more countries competing at the World Cup.
This close-minded view likely extends from the fact that many of the world’s, not just Europe’s, best players represent European clubs. Therefore, Europe as a whole seems like the Mecca of soccer.
International soccer and club soccer have similarities. Few would dispute that Europe is the best at both overall. Yet, when determining the World Cup winner, representation should be as balanced as possible. FIFA does its best to cater to South America and Europe, understanding that these two continents will, as history would tell, produce the World Cup winner and runner-up.
However, Europe does not deserve more teams at the World Cup finals than the allotment it already receives.
The World Cup, not the Euros
Derek Rae, a Scottish commentator well-versed in the world of international soccer, has not seen Scotland compete in the World Cup since 1998. While discussing the overall expansion of the number of teams, he commented that he supports his home nation, which used to qualify frequently for the biggest sporting competition.
He says that some parts of the world have too few teams, while others have too many.
“When it comes to the World Cup, then the world should be there… There are certain parts of the world that are underrepresented and certain parts that are overrepresented.”
WATCH: Derek Rae interview: SHOW ‘n’ TELL
There is a reason the European Championships are so exciting. The controversial expansion of teams during the 2016 tournament provided storylines like Iceland, Wales and Portugal’s eventual victory. However, we do not need to see, what could essentially be, a European Championship every two years.
Even now, of 55 UEFA members, 13 qualify for the 2022 World Cup. That is just under 24% of UEFA members competing in the World Cup tournament. Of course, that number balloons up to 29% in 2026 with the increased number of teams.
UEFA clearly holds better national teams, on average, than CAF, which has 54 members. However, only five African teams qualify for this year’s World Cup. Additionally, this African teams always provide enthusiasm and life for the tournament, like Algeria in 2014, Ghana in 2010 and Nigeria’s relative consistency of six appearances in the last seven tournaments.
Increasing the number of European nations at the World Cup would consequently take away bids from the underrepresented confederations.
CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, is the most represented continent when compared to the number of federations. There are 10 FIFA eligible members, but five have the opportunity to qualify for Qatar 2022. For the United 2026 bid, six teams from CONMEBOL will qualify for the tournament.
European fans often point out the fact that UEFA World Cup Qualifying is more strenuous than that of CONMEBOL. Only the top team in each UEFA World Cup Qualifying group gets an automatic bid, and the second-place team enters a one-off playoff style bracket against other second-place teams. There are other nuances including the Nations League that impact placement into the World Cup as well.
Yet, UEFA has one of the simpler paths to qualify for the World Cup. It is up to the nations, which often underperform, to pull out results.
For example, one of Portugal and Italy will not qualify for the World Cup despite holding FIFA World Rankings of No. 8 and No. 6, respectively. The teams that topped their qualifying groups were Serbia (ranked 25) and Switzerland (ranked 14).
Portugal lost at home in the final matchday to Serbia, allowing the Serbians to qualify automatically. Italy had four wins and four draws over its eight games. Europeans can berate CONMEBOL sides for beating up on Venezuela (ranked 58) or Paraguay (50), but the opposition in UEFA is not exactly that thrilling when breaking it down group-by-group.
Portugal, which drew and lost against Serbia, also drew against Ireland (49). Meanwhile, Italy dropped points against Switzerland twice as well as Northern Ireland (54) Bulgaria (71) in Florence.
The best players
It is a shame that Cristiano Ronaldo may miss his last chance to play at the World Cup. Or, the defending European champions led by Gianluigi Donnarumma and Jorginho will miss a second-consecutive World Cup despite winning the competition four times.
However, if their nations win the games they should, this would not be the case. Plus, their absence creates other storylines. For example, Switzerland goes to its fifth-straight World Cup after only losing in the quarterfinals of Euro 2020 on penalties to Spain. The Netherlands returns to the World Cup after missing out in 2018.
Yet, the biggest stories also emerge from outside Europe, especially when it comes to relatively obscure nations holding elite players.
Look no further than Egypt’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Mohamed Salah lit up a nation with his dramatic clinching of a spot in Russia. Sure, Egypt failed to pick up any points. But the World Cup sparked Egypt into joyous scenes regardless of the outcome.
James Rodriguez bust onto the scene at the 2014 World Cup. Not only did he spark his career, but he reminded the world of Colombia’s ability on the world stage.
By no means is Europe excluded from this. Croatia in 2018 surprised seemingly everyone on its run to the final with Luka Modric earning player of the tournament honors. Poland qualified for 2018, and is in a playoff for 2022, based on the heroics of Robert Lewandowski.
Rather, it is simply selfish and biased for some fans to say more European nations deserve more teams in the World Cup because those countries have better players.
World Cup 2022 and 2026
The current format of the World Cup is great. FIFA’s expansion of the tournament in 2026 likely revolves around increased earnings, which frankly makes sense for their aims and goals. It will be interesting to see how it impacts the tournament itself. The Euros and Copa America had expansions recently that faced opposing takes on their success.
If the World Cup is truly meant for the world, and not Europe, then there is no reason to increase the quantity of European teams while taking away bids from other confederations. It just comes down to whether or not the best teams with the brightest players can qualify. If they cannot, then they do not deserve to be coddled into reaching the tournament. Rather it should leave a bad taste in the mouth like it did for the Netherlands, the United States and perhaps Italy.
Yet, time will tell if Italy will face consequences of poor performances for a second-consecutive World Cup qualifying cycle.
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