FIFA’s decision to officially confirm a 48-team format for the World Cup, beginning with the 2026 edition, is expected to be a boon for Asian and African nations.
The expansion, which will see the group stage consist of 16 groups with three teams each, is designed to spread football beyond the traditional powerhouses of the sport.
Africa’s current allocation of five World Cup slots and Asia’s current allocation of 4.5 are both set to increase.
The UAE, currently Asia’s fifth-highest ranked team, could be one of the nations to benefit, having fallen short of qualifying for the World Cup in recent tournaments.
An expanded World Cup would provide an excellent opportunity for the UAE to add to its one World Cup appearance, which came back in 1990.
Other nations which could capitalise on the expanded format include China, which is investing heavily in its bid to become one of the world’s new football powers.
China has struggled in World Cup qualifying since its previous appearance at the showpiece event, in 2002, but its newfound financial muscle could see the nation return to the World Cup even before the expanded format debuts in 2026.
Outside of Asia and Africa, New Zealand are likely to be the biggest beneficiary of the expanded format.
The All Whites usually cruise through the Oceania regional qualifying, but under the current format, that only qualifies them for a playoff against a North American team for a World Cup slot.
An expanded format will almost certainly guarantee direct qualification to the World Cup for the Oceania winner.
In the Malabar region of Kerala, India, people are crazy about football. It starts from childhood as kids play, discuss and watch football more than any other sport.
Many football players for the Indian national team come from the area, but while the traditional 11-a-side format is popular, it is sevens that truly reigns here.
Sevens in Kerala dates all the way back to pre-independence years when the British played XIs in their army camps. The locals weren’t allowed to play, so they started to play in their own fields, with limited players.
Seven-a-side was born and is still going strong today with each game lasting for an hour on a smaller field. Red cards are rarely taken out by the referee and offside rules are mostly overlooked.
The sevens season runs from November to May and in the local teams, two foreign players can appear – with players from countries like Sudan, Nepal, Nigeria and Ghana taking part alongside their Indian team-mates.
Basel Abdulfattah made an unfamiliar move (Image: psyrianp.com)
Is it really possible that a foreign footballer came to play in Syria in 2016?
Some of Basel Abdulfattah’s friends and relatives still find it hard to believe, but the Russian defender spent six months at Al Jaish of Damascus last year – and insists he never felt unsafe.
While numerous regions are completely torn apart by civil war, the Syrian capital continued to function relatively normally – with his experience shedding some light on life in a country at war with itself and foreign foes.
Abdulfattah is not a regular Russian name, of course, and Basel was born in 1990 to a family of mixed background in St Petersburg.
“My father, Mansur, came to the Soviet Union in 1980 to study engineering at the Transport University,” Abdulfattah explains in an exclusive interview with Sport360. “He met my mother Tatiana there, and they fell in love. I’ve lived in Russia all my life, even though we visited uncles and aunts in Syria a few times – and I remember what the country was like before the war started.”
In his young days, Basel was a promising player. He represented Russia at Under-21 level, alongside future stars Oleg Shatov, Artyom Dzyuba, Fyodor Smolov and Aleksandr Kokorin. Having graduated from the famous Smena academy in St Petersburg, he joined Zenit and trained with legends like Andrei Arshavin, Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov, all the while dreaming of emulating their careers.
So how did he end up in Syria?
“The aspirations didn’t materialise at Zenit. I loved the club but when I was 20, I understood that I needed to leave Zenit in order to play. I joined Krylya Sovetov Samara, but that didn’t really work out, and I had to move to lower divisions. When an offer from the Syrian FA arrived, it was rather interesting.
“The Syrians got in touch with me much earlier in my career. They heard that a player of Syrian origin plays for Zenit and wanted to give me citizenship, so that I would represent their national team. It was irrelevant for me in those days, of course, because I only wanted to play for Russia. However, by the age of 25 it was obvious that Syria was my only option to taste international football.”
And so, in the summer of 2015, Abdulfattah made the trip to Damascus to meet the president of the Syrian FA.
“I came with my father, and we had positive talks. They promised to prepare all the necessary documents, so that I would get Syrian citizenship,” Abdulfattah recalls.
A few months later, he came to train with the national team, and then coach Muhannad Al Fakeer was satisfied with his performance. However, by the beginning of 2016, Al Fakeer was dismissed under remarkable circumstances.
“The team successfully went through the second qualifying stage of the World Cup, but the coach threw four important players out of the squad for breaking disciplinary rules. The story made big headlines, and there was a huge outcry from the fans. The federation decided to stand with the players and sacked the coach.”
Considering the ongoing war tearing away at the country, it is hard to believe such a minor issue led to an outcry in Syria, but Abdulfattah explains: “People need a distraction from their worries, and football offers it. Fans are emotional about their national team and they hope to qualify for the World Cup.”
Born: March 6, 1990 in Leningrad, Russia
Previous Clubs: Zenit, Krylia Sovetov, FC Yenisey Krasnoyarsk, FC Chernomorets, Dynamo St Petersburg, Al Jaish
Honours: Syrian Premier League 2016
Such passion made it easier for Abdulfattah to accept an opportunity to play for Syrian champions Al Jaish at the start of 2016.
“I was out of contract, and Al Jaish offered me a chance to play. That way I could keep my form and also get accustomed to the local mentality. After all, I grew up in a regular Russian family. We always spoke Russian at home, and I don’t even know Arabic. It was natural to stay in the country and understand its people better.”
While most people may have approached such a move with trepidation given the volatile nature of the country, Abdulfattah insists he was simply focused on football.
“It was a bit unusual of course and people in Russia didn’t understand why I was going to a place considered dangerous. But during my visits to Damascus I saw that life goes on as usual.
“Yes, people are tired of war, and there are a lot of refugees on the streets, but overall everything functions as usual. The banks, the stores, the transportation, the schools – everything is perfectly okay. Everyone goes to work every morning.
“My relatives, who live in Syria, told me that everything should be fine and it seemed logical to play in the Syrian league at the time”.
Getting used to life in Damascus was actually fairly straightforward, and Abdulfattah even started picking up some Arabic.
Basel Abdulfattah and his Al Jaish team-mates.
“There are numerous security checkpoints, but that was okay. The only unusual thing was the sound of military planes that flew over the city very often. I could hear them very well, and that was weird at first. But you get used to everything, don’t you? I lived at a comfortable hotel and got around the city by taxi.
“The assistant coach Tarek Jabban is a local legend who played abroad and speaks very good English. He translated everything to me. I learned a few words in Arabic, too, to speak with the players. Football is a common language anyway. It was easy to understand each other, and the jokes are very similar everywhere around the world.”
Getting a warm reception certainly helped, and Abdulfattah’s Russian nationality was certainly no problem in the Syrian capital given the close relationship between the two countries.
“Most of the people in Damascus support [Syrian president] Assad, I only met five or six people who don’t. He is not a dictator, the whole image of him is wrong. Russians are very popular amongst Assad supporters. To be half-Russian and half-Syrian is the best combination there.
“Some people were really surprised that I came to play, but they understood my motives when I explained them. I was the only foreign player in the league.”
The football league has continued apace throughout the civil war, though Adulfattah admits Al Jaish crowds were disappointing.
“In Damascus it was absolutely normal, though our team was not very popular. Few fans came to watch our games, despite the fact that we won the title. [City rivals] Al Wahda are much more popular, and there are about 20,000 fans in the stands during their matches. Full stadium. Most of them are teenagers and young people. Older generations don’t really go to football in Syria.”
“One of the districts in Homs was completely ruined, like Stalingrad after World War II. It’s more dangerous there, but I wanted to play and wasn’t afraid.”
Even most away matches were rather typical for Abdulfattah, with one notable exception.
“Latakia was fine, it’s like a leisure resort,” says Abdulfattah. “The only strange experience was when we travelled to Homs. One of the districts there is completely ruined, like Stalingrad after World War II. It’s more dangerous there, but I wanted to play and wasn’t afraid to go. There were no incidents at the stadium, and then we just went home.”
Despite his personal fearlessness, Abdulfattah made the move to Syria alone, leaving his family at home in St Petersburg.
“My wife and daughter stayed in Russia. There were plans to bring them for a visit for about 10 days, but that never happened. I missed them very much, and came home for a vacation in May. My father came to visit twice, though, and I enjoyed the time with my Syrian family as well.”
From a professional point of view, the experience was certainly enriching, as Al Jaish were crowned Syrian champions and impressed in continental competition too. But Abdulfattah believes much more could be done to help the sport develop in the country.
“We won the title, and reached the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup, which is a remarkable achievement for the club. I was in the line-up most of the time, and the level of the Syrian league is good.
“Syrians have very good youth sides, too, but they lose many players in the transition to professional football because salaries are extremely low. The very best players are paid well, and they have a chance to play in Qatar or the Emirates as well, but all the rest are paid about $100 dollars a month.
“It is possible to earn more in other professions, and – unlike in other countries – becoming a footballer is not worthwhile financially. Personally, I couldn’t understand how people can make the ends meet with $100 dollars per month, even taking the bonuses into account. Inflation is high, and the salaries are paid in local currency. It’s very difficult”.
Abdulfattah was satisfied with his own salary, though he was left disappointed when the purpose of the trip was eventually unfulfilled – he was not allowed to represent Syria.
“At first, there were significant bureaucratic problems with getting a citizenship,” Abdulfattah explains. “It took much longer than anyone expected. Then, when that issue had finally been settled, I didn’t get the clearance from FIFA.
“According to the new rules, representing Russia at youth level shouldn’t have been a problem, but somehow the permission never arrived. The FA’s treatment of the matter was amateurish, FIFA didn’t answer them, and the Asian federation (AFC) refused to allow the switch.”
And so the defender returned home to St Petersburg in July, before taking the difficult decision to hang up his boots at just 26 years of age.
“Staying with Al Jaish for another season was out of the question. I never intended to spend more than six months in Syria in the first place.
“Unfortunately then no Russian teams were interested in me, because I hadn’t played in Russia for a year. The Syrian league is irrelevant as far as they are concerned. ‘Is there football there?’ they asked. In fact, some even didn’t believe that I played there at all!”
Still, Abdulfattah has no regrets.
“The World Cup will be staged in Russia, and there seemed to be a chance to take part in it. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It’s a shame it didn’t work out, but it was certainly a curious adventure.”