Although the matches themselves have proven to be incredibly unpredictable, fans of the FIFA World Cup have pretty much come to expect the same rules and format from the tournament for decades. Recent news, however, suggests that this may all change, as we previously discussed on BallTribe regarding the changes to the 2022 World Cup.
Chief among these changes is the possibility of expansion to 48 teams and the addition of a co-host for Qatar. Forbes’ writer Steve Price describes that the likely addition of a second host has yet to happen, but what’s more shocking is the decision by FIFA to expand the number of nations in the tournament to 48. While this is already the decided format for the 2026 tournament, FIFA president Gianni Infantino himself is pushing to implement these changes by 2022.
An expanded tournament naturally means more spots for all continents. Therefore, more countries who have previously failed to qualify, or have not qualified for a very long time, are sensing an opportunity in their midst.
China knows the pain of failing to qualify all too well. Recognized as China PR by FIFA, the team had a good run throughout the Asian Cup only to be unceremoniously knocked out later by continental heavyweights Iran. Although having already made its debut at the World Cup back in 2002, the pressure may have proved to be too much as the team failed to score a single goal throughout the tournament and has failed to return ever since. News of more spots up for grabs may just be the extra incentive they need.
Another Asian nation to consider is Vietnam. The Vietnamese Football Federation (VFF) has set its sight on 2022 qualification, with hopes buoyed by a stellar performance at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. In this regard, soccer development has not been the only priority, with government initiatives largely credited behind the moves to bring in more sporting events like Formula 1 and the 2021 Southeast Asian Games. However, after having reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup, the VFF has now promised to prepare the best of facilities for manager Park Hang-seo and his national team. To top it off, the government has now also eased restrictions on legalized sports betting with ExpatBets noting how locals now are allowed to place bets on international soccer games. As Vietnam’s betting market is projected to bring in billions in revenue, the benefits this could have for soccer’s appeal in the country stand to be massive. Combined with World Cup qualifying games coming up, don’t be surprised to see many more Vietnamese soccer fans in the stands.
With 8 past qualifying attempts, it isn’t too far-fetched to think the Indian national team may want to try again. It is worth noting that the nation actually already qualified for the World Cup’s 1950 edition in Brazil. After all the other nations in their qualifying group withdrew, however, they also withdrew just before the tournament began, mainly because Indian soccer officials didn’t consider the World Cup big enough of a deal to warrant traveling half-way around the world. Although there has been a resurgence in the team’s form after winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, failure to make it out of their group in the recent Asian Cup suggests more work needs to be done.
Also with 8 past qualifying attempts, the African nation of Gabon could be a surprise competitor sooner than most anticipate. Although not as decorated as some of their neighbors, they have qualified several times for the African Cup of Nations and provided upsets over heavyweights Cameroon, in the past few years. With Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as their team captain and top scorer, an increase in Africa’s slots could provide the breakthrough for which they have been looking.
The tiny European nation has had the most World Cup qualifying attempts, with a record of 20 throughout Luxembourg’s history. Despite this, qualification has always been out of their reach due to factors such as lack of experience and star players. Yet soccer’s beauty is its unpredictability- -this team succeeded in holding eventual World Cup champions France to a 0-0 draw back in a World Cup qualifying match back in 2017. Considering that they compete in the continent with arguably the highest level of competition, they will have to do more than rely on miracle performances.