Everything you need to know about 48-team World Cup
FIFA has backed president Gianni Infantino’s plan to expand the game’s showpiece event from 32 teams to 48 – here, Goal gives you the lowdown on what happened and why
In the interest of reason and rationality, Goal is here to bring you all of the facts and figures behind the most important alteration to the World Cup since 1998.
WHAT WAS THE VOTE ALL ABOUT?
Expansion. At present, the World Cup is made up of 32 teams, who are divided into eight groups of four, with the top two in each pool progressing to the knockout stage. This has been the format since France 1998 and will also be the format for Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022.
However, in 2026, we will have 48 participants and it’s all down to Infantino. The Italian succeeded Sepp Blatter as FIFA president last year and one of his key election promises was to increase the size of the World Cup. He initially pushed for a 40-team tournament before eventually proposing to invite a further eight nations to the party.
“FIFA’s idea is to develop football in the whole world and the World Cup is the biggest event there is,” he explained last year. “It’s more than a competition; it’s a social event!” And a very lucrative one at that.
FIFA expects to make €5.2 billion from the 2018 World Cup in Russia and, based on those projections, its number-crunchers believe that a 48-team World Cup will generate a further €950 million in revenue.
Thus, in order to make the event bigger than ever before, Infantino proposed having 48 qualifiers, to be divided up into 16 groups of three teams, with the top two in each pool going through to the round of 32.
However, there were four other options available to the voters:
– A 48-team tournament featuring an initial round of 32, with the winners of those knockout games then joining 16 seeded teams in the main event
– A 40-team tournament with 10 groups of four that would see all of the group winners but just six of the runners-up reach the last 16
– A 40-team tournament consisting of eight groups of five teams, with the top two going through to the knockout stage
– Retaining the present format of 32 teams in eight groups of four
The 37 FIFA Council members voted unanimously in favour of their president’s proposal – and that wasn’t the least bit surprising. Indeed, Infantino had claimed beforehand that he had the support of the six major federations (UEFA, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, AFC, CAF, OFC).
“They are all clearly in favour of a World Cup with more teams,” he stated at the International Sports Conference in Dubai in December.
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho had also given the idea his full support. “I’m totally in favour,” the Portuguese told FIFA’s official website. “As a club manager, if the expansion meant more games, less holidays and less pre-season for players, I would say no.
“But it’s important for critics to analyse and understand that expansion doesn’t mean more matches. Players are protected and clubs are protected in this way.”
Indeed, while Infantino’s ideal 48-team tournament means more matches overall, increasing from 64 to 80, the winners will still only have to play seven games and the length of the tournament will remain unchanged.
WAS ANYONE AGAINST THE EXPANSION?
“In the interest of the fans and the players, we urge Fifa not to increase the number of World Cup participants,” the ECA chairman stated last year. “Politics and commerce should not be the exclusive priority in football.”
There are also already concerns that the three-team groups could easily result in sides playing out mutually beneficial draws in their final group game in order to ensure that both progress to the knockout stage. This has already sparked speculation that penalty shootouts may have to be introduced to settle matches that end level after 90 minutes.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
We first listen to Infantino tell us why this is such a great development for the global game and wait for the precise details of how exactly the new, ‘improved’ format will work.
As of the time of writing, we are not expecting FIFA to announce how the 16 additional World Cup berths will be divided up between the six federations.
As it stands, there are 30 guaranteed berths – UEFA (13 teams); CONMEBOL (5); CAF (5), CONCACAF (3); AFC (4) – with the two other slots dependent upon play-offs between CONMEBOL and the AFC, and CONCACAF and the OFC.
However, it is highly likely that there will be significant increases for Asia, Africa and North America, as well as at least one automatic qualification place for the OFC.
As for the venue for the 2026 World Cup, it’s CONCACAF’s ‘turn’, with the United States, Canada and Mexico considering a first tri-hosted tournament. However, Colombia is also in the running. The South Americans were selected to stage the 1986 edition but had to hand it over to Mexico due to financial problems.
So, there are still some big decisions to be made. All we now know for sure is that the 2026 World Cup will, for better or for worse, have 48 teams for the first time ever.
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