Africa Sets Its Sights on the 2026 World Cup to be Held Under New Rules

A two-year cycle of qualifying tournaments for the FIFA World Cup 2026 began in Africa on 15 November 2023. It is the first qualifying round after a significant change in FIFA rules that raised the number of teams competing at the finals of the World Cup to 48 from 32.  

This means more African teams can take part in the coveted tournament and, therefore, greater chance for Africa’s footballing stars to shine brightly, particularly the Moroccans led by Walid Regragui, the unstoppable Senegalese led by Sadio Mané, and the promising players from Burkina Faso led by Mohamed Konaté.  

Except for Eritrea, which pulled out at the last minute, 54 African countries have started the qualification process for the 2026 World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by the US, Canada, and Mexico.

Moroccan team prepares for the African qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup, in France, on 11 September 2023. Photo: ChinAfrica.

Early upsets 

At the very beginning of the lengthy qualifying phase, the spectators were treated with some exciting matches, as well as unexpected results and incredible shocks. For instance, the favourites Ghana in Group I are in trouble after losing both their matches against Madagascar and Comoros – both by a single goal. The underdogs Comoros on the other hand surged ahead with two wins, one of which came against Chad. 

Another heavyweight in trouble is Cameroon. After defeating Mauritius 3-0 and drawing with Libya 1-1, Cameroon – which own the African record for the most appearances in the World Cup finals with seven times – share the first place in Group D with Cabo Verde. 

After defeating South Sudan 4-0 and drawing with Togo, Senegal – the current African champions – are also facing fierce competition in their group. Morocco, which had advanced to the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar last year – a first for an African team – are tied for the first place in their group alongside Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After defeating the Seychelles 9-0, Côte d’Ivoire went on to win the Gambia match and take first place in Group F. 

An updated formula 

The 54 FIFA-affiliated countries on the continent are divided into nine groups, each with six teams, for the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifying round for the African Zone. There will be 260 matches played in this biennial tournament, mostly in five phases that FIFA has set: November 2023, June 2024, and March, September and October 2025. Each group’s winners will automatically advance to the 2026 World Cup finals. 

Furthermore, in November 2025, a play-off event will be held among the top four clubs in the second division. In an attempt to earn the 10th and last spot in the World Cup, the winner of this competition will next play a team from the CONCACAF zone, which is composed of North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Six teams will compete in this last qualifying event, which is set for March 2026. 

This new qualifying method was developed by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) during its most recent executive committee meeting held in Kigali, Rwanda, in March 2023. It is a departure from the traditional format of a preliminary round, group stage, and lengthy play-offs. This modification comes after the FIFA World Cup format was altered for the 2026 finals, going from 32 to 48 teams. The drawing for the qualifying round for this new format took place in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, on 13 July 2023.

Egypt 6-0 Djibouti in the first round of the group stage of the African qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup in Cairo, Egypt, on 16 November 2023. Photo: ChinAfrica.

African history 

Africa currently has nine spots in the World Cup, with the possibility of a 10th if the final play-off is won. In previous World Cups, the continent had two to five representatives. “Having more African representatives at the World Cup finals gives African teams a better opportunity to showcase their football and aim for performances comparable to those of the European and American continents,” said Albert Roger Milla, a football icon of Cameroon and the country’s record holder for appearances at the World Cup. With more representatives, the Europeans have historically had a much higher chance of making it to the semi-finals. 

CAF General Secretary Veron Mosengo-Omba expressed his excitement about this new chance for African football, saying that previously, encounters between African teams were virtually restricted to the World Cup elimination round, enabling just a few sides to stand out. Now that there are more teams, they will have more chances to compete against international teams, showcasing the excellence and diversity of African football. 

Africa is set to break its previous record for World Cup participation as a result of this move, which represents a historic turning point for the continent. Of the more than 50 nations on the continent, only 13 have participated in World Cup finals. With eight appearances, Cameroon is in the first place, closely followed by Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia, each with six. 

The qualification for the finals reveals tight contest for supremacy on the continent. Ghana and Algeria, with four appearances each, are slightly ahead of a group of four countries – Egypt, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa – all of whom have taken part in three editions of the tournament. Angola, Togo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have also had a presence, each having taken part in the finals once. 

On 4 October 2023, King Mohammed VI of Morocco made a significant declaration against the background of African football’s increasing popularity. The news that Morocco, Spain and Portugal had been chosen by FIFA as the only contenders to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 brought the king to tears. This choice comes in the wake of Morocco’s remarkable World Cup semi-final performance in 2022.

This is the second time an African nation will host a big tournament, the first being South Africa in 2010. The trio from Morocco, Spain and Portugal has been awarded the 2030 World Cup, which is a reflection of the increasing popularity of African football and gives the region more opportunity to compete internationally.

African Times has published this article in partnership with ChinAfrica Magazine.



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