South Africa's Teboho Mokoena, right, celebrates with teammates after scoring...

South Africa's Teboho Mokoena, right, celebrates with teammates after scoring his sides second goal during the African Cup of Nations round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and South Africa, at the Laurent Pokou stadium in San Pédro, Ivory Coast, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Credit: AP/Sunday Alamba

GENEVA — FIFA has teamed with Saudi Arabia to launch a new series of men’s international friendlies that aim to help lower-ranked teams better prepare for one day playing at a World Cup.

Announced on Monday, the 20 teams taking part in the first FIFA Series games next month include just four that ever qualified for a World Cup. They are Algeria, Bolivia, Bulgaria and South Africa.

Saudi Arabia will host — though not play in — two of the four-team pools playing from March 18-26, in the kingdom’s latest cooperation with FIFA after staging the seven-team Club World Cup in December. Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the 2034 World Cup will be confirmed this year when it is the only candidate in a vote by FIFA member federations.

Algeria, Azerbaijan and Sri Lanka also will host pools they will each play in next month.

The games hosted by 2019 Africa Cup of Nations winner Algeria also include Bolivia, South Africa, an Africa Cup semifinalist this month, and European minnow Andorra.

The FIFA Series project was revealed at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar by the governing body’s president, Gianni Infantino. He has targeted raising the level of play in countries outside soccer’s power bases of Europe and South America and making World Cups more competitive.

European and South American teams have dominated all 22 men’s World Cups with only three teams from outside those continents ever reaching a semifinal: the United States in the inaugural 1930 tournament, South Korea in 2002 and Morocco in 2022.

South Africa's goalkeeper Ronwen Williams receives the goalkeeper of the...

South Africa's goalkeeper Ronwen Williams receives the goalkeeper of the tournament award from FIFA President Gianni Infantino the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Ivory Nigeria and Coast, at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. Credit: AP/Themba Hadebe

The 2026 tournament being hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico will be the first 48-team edition instead of 32, giving more chances to teams who never qualified for a World Cup.

In 2026, Africa will have nine guaranteed places at the World Cup instead of five, and the Asian Football Confederation will send at least eight teams instead of four. Extra entries can be earned in intercontinental playoffs.

The FIFA Series aims to accelerate progress for national teams who rarely play outside their own continent. Some will have their travel costs paid by FIFA.

FIFA chief member associations officer Kenny Jean-Marie said teams were being offered “windows of opportunity” to learn from other styles of play.

Cape Verde's Jamiro Monteiro, left, battle for the ball with...

Cape Verde's Jamiro Monteiro, left, battle for the ball with South Africa's Mothobi Mvala during the African Cup of Nations quarter final soccer match between Cape Verde and South Africa, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. Credit: AP/Themba Hadebe

“It could be an additional opportunity for member associations to travel to Saudi Arabia to play matches at their nice stadiums,” Jean-Marie said in an online briefing, “and for Saudi Arabia to gain international experience of hosting different friendlies.”

The Saudi-hosted pools next month will each feature teams that reached the Africa Cup quarterfinals. Cape Verde will play with Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea and Guyana. Guinea will play with Bermuda, Brunei Darussalam and Vanuatu.

Azerbaijan will host Bulgaria, Mongolia and Tanzania. Ranked No. 204 of FIFA's 211 men's national teams, Sri Lanka will host Bhutan, Central African Republic and Papua New Guinea.

None of the three European teams playing in the first FIFA Series qualified for the 24-team Euro 2024 being played in Germany.

The next FIFA Series in March 2026 is intended to include more than 20 teams with plans for higher-ranked teams to play.

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