FIFA approved on Tuesday to expand the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 from its current 32, a move considered as the first major change to the World Cup format since the tournament was boosted from 24 to 32 teams for the 1998 tournament in France.
Soccer’s governing body said on its Twitter feed that the FIFA Council, its decision-making panel, had voted unanimously in favor of the change which will be introduced at the 2026 tournament which is likely to be held in North America.
President Gianni Infantino’s favored plan — for 16 three-team groups with the top two advancing to a round of 32 — meets his election pledge of a bigger World Cup, and should help fund promised raises for FIFA’s 211 member federations.
With 80 matches instead of 64, FIFA forecasts the equivalent of $1 billion extra income at current rates from broadcasting and sponsor deals, plus ticket sales, compared to $5.5 billion revenue forecast for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Infantino took charge of scandal-tainted FIFA 11 months ago with a vow to repair the damage done at the end of Sepp Blatter’s tenure by growing football across the globe.
Enlarging the World Cup, the planet’s top sporting competition, was the centerpiece of that plan.
The controversial proposal faced tough criticism in some of football’s key camps, including warnings that it would lower the standards of play and overburden already exhausted players.
But Infantino has also argued that more World Cup berths would help serve football’s interest by boosting “inclusion” in the “biggest social and sporting event”.
Among those who seemed convinced by that argument was Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who on Monday said a 48-team format “will give more possibilities to countries that have never reached that level of competition”.
The “absolute quality” of play, defined by high-ranked teams facing each other most often, is achieved by 32 teams, FIFA acknowledged in a research document sent to members last month. It made 10,000 tournament simulations to reach that conclusion.
Instead, Infantino wants to create fervor and months of anticipation back home in the 16 extra nations which would qualify, some probably making their World Cup debut. FIFA has pointed to Costa Rica, Wales and Iceland as examples of teams which overachieved at recent tournaments.
FIFA must break with soccer tradition to make its new format work after an original 48-team plan — with an opening playoff round sending 16 “one-and-done” teams home early — was unpopular.
Instead, three-team groups will replace the usual groups of four to create simple progress to a knockout bracket. However, it leaves one team idle for final group games and could risk collusion between the other two teams.
FIFA said it could guard against result-rigging by introducing penalty shootouts after group games that end in draws.
Despite the 16 extra games, FIFA believes the current maximum of stadiums needed will stay at the 12 used by Brazil and Russia. However, the demand for more training bases and hotels means developed countries would be better equipped to win future hosting contests.
North America is the strong favorite for 2026 because European and Asian countries are blocked by a FIFA rule excluding continents which hosted either of the two previous tournaments. Russia will host the World Cup next year and Qatar in 2022.
South America has been focused on a centenary tournament including original 1930 host Uruguay, and African nations are seen as lacking existing capacity and unlikely to fund multi-billion dollar infrastructure spending.