Less than nine full months since Argentina lifted the World Cup trophy in Qatar last year, the long qualification process to determine the 48 countries that will grace the fields across the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026 gets underway.
Three host nations are receiving automatic places in the final tournament. Consequently, 208 nations are vying for 45 slots in North America in the summer of 2026. The distribution across the Confederations has a new look with so many teams. The AFC gets eight spots, CAF has nine and CONMEBOL has six. UEFA leads the way again with 16 spots allotted and Oceania will have a guaranteed representative in the tournament’s group stage. Six teams from North America will compete, and that includes the three host nations. Additionally, two more nations will qualify via a six-team tournament. That features various runner-up finishers from all the confederations except for UEFA.
South America kicks off World Cup 2026 qualification process
On Sep. 7, CONMEBOL starts its qualifying tournament as it did for several World Cups prior. A 10-team league-style competition has each nation play the others home and away. Previous versions of the competition determined four qualifying nations and one playoff participant. This time around, the top-six nations qualify directly. Then, the seventh-placed nation plays in FIFA’s six-team playoff. The first matchday features the following fixtures:
Paraguay — Peru
Colombia — Venezuela
Argentina — Ecuador
Uruguay — Chile
Brazil — Bolivia
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Following CONMEBOL’s kickoff of qualifiers, AFC will follow with qualifiers beginning during the October 2023 FIFA International Break. During the November 2023 International Break, African (CAF) qualifiers kick off. CONCACAF nations will begin their journey to World Cup 2026 in March 2024 while UEFA will start its qualifying campaign in March 2025.
Sacrificing quality for quantity?
The debate about a 48-team World Cup has been ongoing. It is the length of the final tournament itself that is more problematic than the actual number of nations. The increase in the number of matches from 64 to 104 could bring fatigue to fans. Less concerning is the number of nations as the quality gap between nations has steadily decreased over the years. We can expect upsets during the tournament. A much bigger concern is in the qualifying process itself – particularly in South America. With all but the bottom 3 teams either directly qualifying or making the playoffs in CONMEBOL, we will likely see many matches in the final rounds of qualifying meaning very little if anything. That is bad news for fans who have enjoyed some incredible matches in CONMEBOL qualifying in the past.
PHOTO: IMAGO / NurPhoto
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