The World Cup will grow to 48 teams within a decade under a plan approved unanimously on Tuesday by FIFA’s governing council, an enormous expansion of soccer’s showpiece tournament that was hailed by supporters as a victory for inclusion but that was derided by critics as the latest money grab by an organization still emerging from a series of financial scandals.
The larger field, which will be put in effect for the 2026 event, was ratified on Tuesday in a vote by the governing council of FIFA, the sport’s governing body. The move was the largest expansion, in percentage terms, for the World Cup since it went to 24 teams from 16 in 1982, and the first since it moved to the current 32 nations in 1998.
The decision to expand was both political and financial. FIFA’s new president, Gianni Infantino, had pressed for the change when he ran for the presidency last year, as a way to invigorate the event and to include more countries, and expansion is sure to be popular in the vote-rich confederations of Africa and Asia that serve as any FIFA president’s power base. And few dispute that a 48-team World Cup would be a bigger, richer tournament, producing, by FIFA’s estimates, an additional $1 billion in television, sponsorship and ticketing revenue in the first cycle alone.
But critics of the plan argue it will be a diminished tournament, with nearly a quarter of FIFA’s 211 member associations earning a place every four years, and one that, at 80 games over nearly five weeks, will exhaust the players and lead to middling performances in the later stages.
How will a 48-team World Cup work?
The 32-team finals since 1998 have felt long enough, but for purely sporting reasons – nothing to do with money – Fifa has decided to add 16 sides and fiddle with the format.
What has happened to the World Cup?
Well, it’s still there last time we checked, and next year’s tournament in Russia is going ahead as planned. But enjoy the compact, in-no-way-sprawling, 32-team month-long format for only another couple of tournaments. After a vote by the FIFA congress on Tuesday, it’s going to get a lot bigger.
How much bigger?
50% bigger. In 2026, 48 countries will take part in the World Cup and there will be 80 matches as opposed to the current 64 (the hosts are as yet undecided, but for argument’s sake let’s say it’s the Cayman Islands).
That’s a lot of teams
It is indeed. The first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 comprised just 13 countries. But football has grown since then, you may have noticed, and Fifa currently claims 211 national football associations as members. Fifa’s expressed ambition for this expanded tournament is that it will allow less celebrated footballing nations – think China and India – to join “the world’s greatest party” or whatever they call it nowadays.
So nothing to do with money, then?
Well there is the fact that by expanding the tournament Fifa can expect to raise an extra $1bn (£823m) in revenue. But given the organisation’s reputation as a bastion of fiscal probity, nobody’s going to be worrying about that.
Hooray! So how will the tournament work?
Well here’s where things get truly novel. The current Fifa proposal will reformat the World Cup so that the opening stages comprise 16 groups of three teams. Each team will play each other – ie three games per group – and the top two will progress to a knockout round with 32 sides. From that point on, the format will be as you remember it from the glory days of your childhood.
OK … sounds a bit weird?
Well it’s half as many group games per team as we’ve been used to. But we’ve also been used to a lot of dead rubbers in the past, or at least rubbers where both teams were happy to settle for a draw. Fifa believe this version of the tournament will lead to fewer such games. Indeed no less of an expert in scintillating football than José Mourinho declared last week: “I prefer groups of three. Two matches and then through to the knockout stages or go home. This way, the two group matches will be crucial.”
Either that or we’ll have a massive load of bus-parking like in Euro 2016
Yes, maybe. And there’s also the risk of the two teams playing the last match knowing that a particular result would send them both through. Though one, currently unconfirmed, proposal that has been bouncing around the corridors of Fifa HQ is that every group game would have to end in a positive result. In other words, if you’re drawing at full time, the game goes to penalties.
Anyway, enough of all that, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Does it mean Scotland will qualify?
Current proposals, which look likely to ratified by Fifa, would mean Europe receiving three more places in the tournament, 16 in all (one per group). So I’d say there was still a strong chance of Scotland stuffing that up.
The proposed breakdown would comprise: Europe 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (0.5), Host nation 1 (1).
That’s weird … Your figures suggest that South America, with nine World Cup wins, would have fewer places than the footballing hotbed of North America and the Caribbean.
Yes it does, doesn’t it. Maybe 2026 will be in the Cayman Islands after all!