In a meeting held in Zurich on 10 January, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has unanimously decided on a World Cup expansion. Starting from 2026, the World Cup will be a 48-team affair (16 more teams than the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will have). The mammoth edition will consist initially of 16 groups of three teams each.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino is the driving force behind the move and the motive for it is simple - money. But not money merely in terms of the tournament, but money that will stem from the growth and popularisation of the game as a result of added inclusivity.
In December, during a sports conference in Dubai, Infantino talked about the move benefiting the development of football across regions. He also added, "There is nothing bigger in terms of boosting football in a country than participating in a World Cup".
What we know
- There will be an initial stage of 16 groups of three teams. This will precede a knockout stage for the remaining 32 teams that survive the initial groups.
- Drawn group matches will be decided by penalties. This is done to avoid teams working together to manipulate results in the final round of the group stage games. This though, is still a suggestion and hasn't been approved as of yet.
- The top two teams from each group will qualify.
- The number of matches during the tournament will rise to 80.
- The eventual World Cup champions will still only be playing seven matches, the same as now.
- The tournament will still be completed within 32 days. This is apparently being done to 'appease' the European football community, who were largely against the move because of a 'crowded international calendar'.
- A quarter of FIFA's 211 member associations will now be taking part in the world cup.
- According to FIFA's own estimates, there is expected to be a $1 billion increase in television, sponsorship and ticketing revenue in the first expanded edition alone.
- According to the New York Times, there were three other options on the table: "40 teams with eight groups of five (88 games); 40 teams with 10 groups of four (76 games); and 48 teams, but with a 32-team, single-elimination round before a 32-team group stage (80 games)."
- No idea where the 16 extra places will go to.
- The final decision is expected to be taken "in principle" before the FIFA Congress that takes place in May.
- Some are saying that UEFA has been offered three of those 16 spots (up from the current 13) and the rest are to be offered to Africa and Asia.
- The 2026 World Cup, the first to feature the new format, is expected to take place in USA or North America (a combination of USA/Canada and Mexico).
The likely breakdown of the new spots
Chief sports reporter for The Times, Martyn Ziegler, has given what looks like the final breakdown of the expected spots, though these will only be confirmed later.
Fifa members close to consensus on distribution of new World Cup places - final decision on that likely in May pic.twitter.com/h4MhRpIpQZ— Martyn Ziegler (@martynziegler) January 10, 2017
How the change came about
FIFA supremo Gianni Infantino had campaigned for an expansion of the World Cup when he ran for the presidency last year. "Everyone sees that the increase of the participation for the World Cup is really a tool to promote football in more countries," Infantino said last fall.
This move was seen as a play to get more countries on board his campaign. While the decision is likely to go down very well in Asia and Africa where the vote-rich confederations are, the bigger countries may not be best pleased. An additional sticking point will be where the additional spots go, with a potential political nightmare on the horizon for FIFA.
Downsides of expansion
Two questions remain for the hosts from the 2026 World Cup onwards. Firstly, where will the extra 16 teams be placed? While the governing body doesn't expect there to be a need for more than 12 stadiums from the host country, the question remains as to how they will provide housing and training facilities to these 48 squads along with their entourages.
The other question is that where will the host nation get the extra 10% in costs needed to host such a grand event? The other downsides, as some have said, is that this will make a mockery of the qualifying process. It won't be "prestigious" anymore for a nation to qualify.
There's absolutely no downside for the minnows. Just for showing up they are expected to be richly rewarded. Take a look at the 2014 World Cup that took place in Brazil. Each and every team that qualified took home a minimum of $8 million. England, which didn't even manage to win a game took home that much. An amount of $8 million is enough to keep many an association alive for years.
One thing that wasn't necessarily stated outright, but is bound to play an important factor in future editions is joint hosting, like that of Japan and South Korea in 2002. With a need for more finances, more training facilities, more housing, etc., countries are more like to submit joint bids, with the first edition likely to be hosted by North America.
In the end, the question is simple: Will this increase the competition between the nations and will this benefit the viewer watching on TV? The answer to the latter is a resounding yes, especially if their nation is participating. Whether or not it will increase competition is to be seen. If a minnow or two can spring a surprise each World Cup, and a big team finds gets eliminated in the groups stage, then the expansion will have been a huge positive.