Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, on Tuesday voted to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, brushing aside concerns that the expansion would lower the overall standard of the tournament, making it too big and unwieldy.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, fulfilling a promise he made during last year’s election campaign, said the move meant that “more can participate and many more will have a chance to dream.”
“It’s not the 20th century any more. It’s the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America. Football is global,” Infantino told reporters. “The football fever you have in a country that qualifies for the World Cup is the biggest promotion of the sport you can have.”
FIFA’s 211 member associations each hold one vote in the presidential election and 135 of them have never played at a World Cup, so expansion of the tournament was always likely to appeal.
The new format, to be introduced in 2026, is to feature a first round of 16 groups of three teams, with the top two in each qualifying for a round-of-32.
From then on, it would be a straightforward knockout contest.
The hosts of the 2026 tournament are to be decided in May 2020.
The CONCACAF Confederation, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean, is seen as a strong contender, possibly providing a joint bid from at least two of the US, Canada and Mexico.
The new-look tournament would increase the number of matches from 64 to 80, but Infantino said it would require the same number of match days and stadiums.
“This format can be played in exactly the same number of days as today, 32, and the winning team will play the same number of games, seven, as today, and in the same number of stadiums, 12, as today,” he said.
Critics have said that FIFA is tampering with a winning formula — the previous World Cup in Brazil was widely regarded as one of the best in the competition’s 87-year-old history, featuring shock results, last-minute drama and outstanding individual performances.
One of the concerns is that the new format would make the group stage merely a matter of avoiding elimination and so encourage negative play.
Infantino said it had not yet been decided whether penalty shootouts could be used to decide drawn group-stage matches.
Meanwhile, the qualifying competition is likely to become a mere formality for many of the strongest teams.
The number of extra slots for each continental confederation, as well as the formats of the qualifying competitions, are to be decided at a later date, Infantino said.
He had initially suggested a 40-team tournament, but then added another eight to that total in October last year.
Those who have never qualified include 41 of FIFA’s 54 African members and 10 out of 11 members in the Oceania region.
Reinhard Grindel, head of the German federation, said he saw a danger that “in the future we will see more defensive-minded teams.”
“If the World Cup stops being as attractive, then fan and sponsor support suffers, as does its marketing,” he said.
CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani said: “From the organizational standpoint, there will be more games, more training facilities, but it increases the opportunity for revenue, for exposure. In the end, I thought the decision was made for the right reasons.”
“Some countries are maybe spoilt because they go all the time, like Germany, so maybe they take it for granted, but for a lot of countries making it to the World Cup, it’s the biggest thing to happen to that country,” Montagliani said.