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What would expanded World Cup format look like in 2018?

Dries Mertens

Belgium’s Dries Mertens, centre, celebrate a goal during the World Cup Group H qualifying soccer match between Bosnia and Belgium at the Grbavica stadium in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)


An expanded World Cup field appears to be on track for 2026, but with the news breaking on Thursday regarding a decision to fast-track the expansion we could see it happen sooner rather than later.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s proposal to expand the World Cup to 48 teams originally looked in line to debut in 2026 (either in North America or Morocco), however, CONMEBOL appears eager to enhance the tournament’s field four years prior in Qatar.

[ MORE: FIFA visits Atlanta as part of 2026 World Cup evaluation ]

The addition of 16 teams would certainly benefit smaller countries across the globe, particularly within the ranks of CONCACAF, AFC and CAF, where as many as four nations would be able to join the World Cup from their respective confederation.

Here at Pro Soccer Talk, we decided to take a look at how the 2018 World Cup would select its 48-team field.

AFC (expanded from four or five to eight teams)

Two existing groups would select top four nations from each group

Iran, South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, United Arab Emirates

CAF (previously five, up to nine teams)

Five existing group winners advance, as well as four leading second-place nations

Tunisia, DR Congo, Nigeria, Morocco, Ivory Coast (Zambia left out because Ivory Coast has superior goal difference), Senegal, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uganda

CONCACAF (six countries qualify; previously was three or four)

Six final nations (Hexagonal) reach the World Cup

Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, United States, Trinidad & Tobago

CONMEBOL (six nations; previously four or five)

Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile

OFC (one nation automatically qualifies)

New Zealand

UEFA (previously 13 nations, now 16)

Nine group winners automatically qualify, while seven best second-place finishers advance

France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Greece

At this point, 46 teams have been selected for the tournament. That leaves two remaining spots available, which would be determined by a playoff involving five of the six confederations.

The proposed playoff would include representatives from AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and OFC, withholding an entry from UEFA unless a European nation is hosting the World Cup -- as is the case in 2018 with Russia.

In this instance, we’d take China (AFC), Zambia (CAF), Paraguay (CONMEBOL), Guatemala (CONCACAF) and the Solomon Islands (OFC), while the UEFA team would be the Republic of Ireland.

Based on the latest FIFA rankings, the Republic of Ireland and Paraguay would be the top-seeded teams and have a bye until the semifinal round. That leaves China, Zambia, Guatemala and the Solomon Islands to face one another.