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Salah or Mane, Portugal or Italy? World Cup play-offs show why expansion is necessary

12:00 EAT 24/03/2022
Sadio Mane Mohamed Salah Senegal Egypt Afcon 2022 GFX
By the end of this international break, we will know most of the teams playing at Qatar 2022 and some of the game's biggest stars are set to miss out

Just under eight months before the start of the 2022 World Cup and the tournament is starting to take shape.

This latest international break will feature the play-off rounds to determine the five African qualifiers, most of the final qualifiers in the European section, and the last round in the group stages of the Asian and South American preliminaries.

What is most striking, however, at this stage is not who will secure their place in Qatar – but who will miss out.

In Africa, for example, Sadio Mane's Senegal will battle it out with Mohamed Salah and Egypt for one finals berth – meaning one key part of Liverpool's fearsome attack will not feature in the biggest tournament in football.

We're also set to lose at least two other great nations, with Cameroon facing Algeria, and Ghana going up against Nigeria.

It's a similar story in the European play-offs, with the last two continental champions, Italy and Portugal, having been drawn in the same bracket.

So, fans of great football have a tough choice to make: support Roberto Mancini's Azzurri, who thrilled neutrals at Euro 2020 with their attacking play; or get behind Portugal legend Cristiano Ronaldo, who, at 37, may not get another chance to grace a World Cup.

You can only have one in Qatar, not both.

Then again, you may end up with neither, given both Turkey and North Macedonia – who have been drawn to play against Portugal and Italy, respectively, in the first round of the play-offs – are capable of springing a surprise.

Meanwhile, in the wonderfully tight race for qualification spots in the CONMEBOL confederation, we have Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru, Chile and Colombia battling for two automatic spots and one play-off place.

Whichever South American side qualifiers for the latter will meet a team from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), most likely one of World Cup regulars Japan or Australia.

Whatever combination comes out – the options range from Uruguay versus Japan to Colombia against Australia – a passionate group of fans will be left disappointed, and the World Cup will look a little less colourful.

The point of all this is that the current distribution of World Cup qualification spots is robbing fans of what should be one of the tournament's main selling points – the assembly of all of the greatest talent from all four corners of the football world.

It's an issue that only strengthens the argument in favour of one of the most controversial proposals in recent football history: an expanded World Cup.

While the idea of adding more teams – or holding the tournament every two years – is anathema to many in the game, from overburdened players to fans who already feel exploited, the problem of so many great teams missing out on the competition, as illustrated by the current play-off situation, will be remedied by a format change.

Indeed, the 2026 World Cup, which will be held across Canada, the United States and Mexico, will have 48 teams, meaning 16 representatives from Europe – up from 13 for 2022.

This expansion was not universally popular within European football.

Former Germany international, Bayern Munich chairman and European Club Association (ECA) chief Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said: “Only political and not sporting reasons are taken into account. I cannot understand why a 32-team format that has proven successful in all aspects is being changed."

Meanwhile, La Liga head Javier Tebas even threatened to go to court to challenge FIFA's decision.

However, it is likely Italy and Portugal would have already earned their place in the World Cup as one of the best runners-up in the UEFA qualifying section had the 2022 tournament been expanded to 48 teams.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino explored the idea at one stage but it was ruled out after a feasibility study bfound that it would have required other nations being asked to help stage the expanded tournament alongside Qatar.

However, the expansion to 48 teams still underrepresents federations from outside the traditional footballing powerhouses of Europe and South America – which is why there is support, especially in Africa, for a World Cup every two years.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) is going to have nine places in 2026 but the continent contains 54 member nations, meaning 17 per cent of its participants will qualify – the exact same percentage as the AFC (eight qualifiers from 46 countries) and Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), which will have six qualifiers from 35 teams.

Compare this to 16 places from 55 nations for UEFA (29%) and six spots for 10 teams in CONMEBOL – a whopping 60% share – and the demands for more World Cups from African federations, and the boost in finances that would provide, becomes a lot more understandable.

“CAF welcomes the FIFA Congress decision to conduct a feasibility study on hosting men's and women's FIFA World Cups every two years," a resolution from the continental authority stated last November.

“If the FIFA study concludes it is feasible, CAF will fully support hosting the men's and women's Fifa World Cup every two years.”

For many fans, it is hard to imagine a football landscape where the World Cup is played every two years – but it is even harder to stomach the thought of a tournament without Ronaldo and Salah involved, which is more of a real and present danger.

If expanding the World Cup or playing it more often is the way of ensuring the best men's players are present at the crucible of the sport, then there may be something to those FIFA plans after all.