The expanding sphere of the FIFA World Cup

The allocation of World Cup slots by FIFA broadly takes a continent-wise approach, aiming to balance sporting merit and geographical coverage  (Photo: AFP)
The allocation of World Cup slots by FIFA broadly takes a continent-wise approach, aiming to balance sporting merit and geographical coverage  (Photo: AFP)


European nations have dominated participation in football’s showpiece international event. It is something the authorities are seeking to redress in future editions

The 22nd edition of football’s biggest extravaganza, the FIFA World Cup, will be held in Qatar this November. Following the latest round of qualifiers, 29 nations have booked a berth, and the remaining three spots will be decided by June. As many as 13 European countries will compete in Qatar. Africa features five countries, while Asia, North America and South America currently have four representatives each. Two more—from Asia, South America or Oceania—will join them.

Even as football has become a truly international sport, Europe dominates the global footballing landscape. The allocation of World Cup slots by FIFA broadly takes a continent-wise approach, aiming to balance sporting merit and geographical coverage. Driven by commercial imperatives, FIFA is seeking to make participation more inclusive.

The first edition, held in Uruguay in 1930, featured 13 countries, and was purely a European and American affair. Today, FIFA has 211 member-countries, but just 32 World Cup slots. Thus, only 78 countries—or just above a third—have featured in the 21 editions held so far. Only Brazil has played all 21 editions.

FIFA has 211 member-countries
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FIFA has 211 member-countries

The continent-based qualifying process also means even traditional heavyweights can miss out, as Italy has this time. Still, teams from Europe and South America, both footballing powerhouses, have better qualification odds. Thus, while 60% of European countries have featured in the World Cup, that figure for Africa and Asia—where about three-fourths of the world population resides—is 24% and 22%, respectively. With the World Cup expanding from 32 to 48 teams in 2026, many more countries could debut.

European Tilt

In terms of historical appearances, European countries dominate. Across editions, European nations have cumulatively featured 245 times in the World Cup, far ahead of the 85 from South America. Until the 1970s, each World Cup featured 16 teams, and remained mostly a European and American affair. In 1982, the number of teams expanded to 24, enabling countries like Algeria, Cameroon, Honduras, Kuwait and New Zealand to compete for the very first time. However, merely three teams featured from Asia and Africa, and 14 were from Europe.

In 1998, the number of teams was further increased to 32, and featured as many as nine teams from Asia and Africa. The format and qualification slots have remained virtually unchanged since. South Korea, with 10 appearances, has the highest participation for a country outside of Europe and the Americas, and has qualified for every World Cup since 1986.

Towards Equity

Due to limited slots, the participation of federations other than Europe has remained low. The number of slots according to continents or federations is determined by the relative strength of the teams as well as the total number of FIFA members. As things stand, South America has the highest proportion of qualifying teams among total members (40%), followed by Europe (24%). Asia, Africa and North America all have slots for roughly 9% of their members.

There have been calls for more equitable distribution of slots across continents. As the number of participating teams will expand to 48 in the next edition of the World Cup in 2026, there has been a move towards greater parity. The Asian and African Confederations will see a greater proportional increase in slots. However, with 16 slots, Europe will still comprise a third of the total number of participants in the tournament.

Sticky Top 50

Since 1998, the composition of the top 50 ranked countries in the FIFA world rankings has remained roughly consistent, with European countries comprising about half of these slots. Five of the six editions of the World Cup since then have also been won by European countries, underlining Europe’s reputation as a footballing powerhouse. Only eight teams have ever won the World Cup, with five from Europe and three from South America. In fact, no team from any other continent has ever made the finals.

However, this can potentially change if more countries from other regions can participate and host the World Cup. While Europe’s dominance over global sport is difficult to dislodge, the World Cup is a truly global celebration of the sport, and it is only fair that there is greater participation across the board. This would pave the way for more nations to script their own histories in the beautiful game. is a database and search engine for public data

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