Updated: Jul 28
After arguably one of the best World Cup finals of all time I at least was already looking forward to the 2026 World Cup hosted by your very own USA with a USA, Mexico, and Canada tri-bid. So as we learned more about the host cities-go Atlanta!-and the expanded field of teams competing I got to wondering who would make it into the tournament. So this is my way to early prediction, emphasis on way.
Of the 48 slots the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) is granted 8 for their 47 members plus a play-in slot, the CAF (Confederation for African Football) gets 9 slots guaranteed plus a play-in slot for their 54 member nations, CONCACAF (North America) currently gets 6 guaranteed slots and 2 play-in slots for their 35 members, CONMEBOL (South America) gets 6 slots plus a play-in game for their 10 members, the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) only gets 1 slot in addition to a play-in slot for their 11 teams, and lastly, UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) gets 16 slots for their 55 members with no play-in slots. This distribution is interesting because it is statistically easiest to qualify from South America with over half of their members qualifying while Asia and Africa have a combined 17 guaranteed spots for over 100 member countries.
The AFC will be an interesting region in the coming years as they have historically been very poor teams but have the largest populations in the world, so in the coming years many of their teams could see a rapid improvement. For the 2026 World Cup, though, there are a few clear picks and then it gets questionable. Japan, Iran, South Korea, and Australia should all qualify easily, and yes Australia is in the AFC. After them, the quality drops steeply. Based on FIFA rankings Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iraq qualify after them but then the UAE, Oman, and Uzbekistan are all back to back to back in the rankings at 72,73, and 74. So that last spot and then the play-in spot is debatable. I don't know much about any of these teams so I will just go with the FIFA rankings and say that the UAE makes it in and then Oman makes the play-in slot.
Moving on to the largest federation the Confederation for African Football is notorious for being hard to qualify from with really strange rules around who gets to play-in the World Cup. These were the rules that saw Egypt not make the 2022 World Cup. Like Asia, there are also a clear top few teams but then it gets messy below there. Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt should all qualify, but then after that, there are a lot of teams that realistically occupy those 6-9 spots to represent Africa. I also disagree with the FIFA rankings on these spots and think that Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso are the four next-best teams with Mali following in the play-in slot.
Looking at the hosts' confederation there are still a lot of questions about automatic qualification but I am just going to assume for now that none of the three countries automatically get in because they still make it in either way. The US, Mexico, and Canada will easily qualify followed closely by Costa Rica. Then it gets interesting again. I think Panama and Honduras will qualify in the last two guaranteed slots with Jamaica and El Salvador filling the play-in slots.
The CONMEBOL is always interesting because of how few countries are in the federation and how few don't qualify. Over half of the countries in the federation qualify with a number of the countries qualifying almost every cycle or, in Brazil's case, literally every tournament. This makes the top teams easy with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Colombia being far better than the rest of the field. The teams after them are still very good though which makes the qualification difficult. Despite this Peru and Ecuador will qualify in the last two slots. Then, just because I want to see Miggy in the World Cup, Paraguay will fill in the play-in slot.
The OFC is weird. In previous World Cups, they haven't had a guaranteed slot in the tournament which resulted in New Zealand destroying the competition to get to lose in the play-in game. In this cycle, however, New Zealand will get to automatically progress followed by the Solomon Islands in the play-in slot.
Lastly, the highly competitive European federation was allocated 16 guaranteed slots and no play-in slots. That is a lot of slots. Like so many other federations there is also a clear separation between the top teams, good teams, and cannon fodder. The top section of teams is just a lot larger than the other federations. That allows me to pretty confidently say that France, Belgium, England, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and Denmark will pretty easily qualify in no particular order. That leaves five remaining slots, two of which will more than likely be filled by Poland and Serbia. Then Austria, Wales, and Sweden will bring up the rear, narrowly edging out Ukraine, Hungary, and Scotland.
Once all of the federations have set their rankings and allocated their slots the play-in tournament can commence. For the 2022 World Cup, the tournament was just two games with the winners advancing to the tournament. Costa Rica beat New Zealand 1-0 and Australia beat Peru on penalties. This is most likely the same format that will be used for the 2026 World Cup which would see Oman represent the AFC, Mali represent the CAF, Jamaica, and El Salvador represent CONCACAF, Paraguay represent CONMEBOL, and the Solomon Islands represent the OFC. If FIFA kept the same format as the last World Cup we would see Oman vs. Paraguay, Solomon Islands vs El Salvador or Jamaica, and the other CONCACAF team vs. Mali. From this, I would predict Paraguay, Mali, and one of the CONCACAF teams getting through, for the sake of completeness Jamaica.
This all results in this final list of 48 teams qualifying for the World Cup:
Japan, Iran, South Korea, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and UAE.
Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.
US, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras.
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.
France, Belgium, England, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, Poland, Serbia, Austria, Wales, and Sweden.
Play-in slot winner:
Paraguay, Mali, and Jamaica.
Who Could Win?
Now that we have a rough idea of what teams could make the tournament we are able to look at who could go far and potentially win. Definitely, not biased but could see the U.S. making it to the quarterfinals if we can get a little lucky with our opponents. As for who could win the tournament Brazil and Argentina are perennial contenders from South America. From Europe any of France, England, Spain, and Germany could always put together a title run, even if Germany has hit hard times recently. I don't think Belgium could win it but I could see a Switzerland, Denmark, or Italy run if they get a little lucky. No team from a non-South America or European country can win quite yet but Japan could make a run fairly deep along with Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, or Algeria. My prediction to win the tournament would be Spain as they have a lot of younger players that I could see potentially winning if they can find a good coach.