The FIFA Council have unanimously approved a 48-team World Cup from 2026 at a vote in Zurich. The plans overseen by president Gianni Infantino mean the tournament will now begin with 16 groups of three teams, with the TOP two advancing into a 32 team knock-out stage. Infantino has previously suggested FIFA could introduce penalty shoot-outs after group matches that end in a draw in order to stop teams playing for a result that favours them both.
There will be a total of 80 games under the new format. Currently, in the 32-team schedule, 64 matches are played overall.
But if a team finishes in the last four in the 2026 tournament, they will have played seven matches, the same number as a 32-team World Cup. There were also options for the 37-member FIFA Council to vote for a 40-team tournament, with 10 groups of four or eight groups of five, but the only other 48-team proposal saw a 32-team one-game knockout round with the winners joining 16 already-qualified teams.
European places at the competition will likely rise from 13 to 16. Africa and Asia could have as many as nine teams each. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil they had five and four teams respectively. FIFA could decide by May how many entries each continent has.
The other major decision regarding 2026 – who will host the event – is not scheduled for consideration until 2020 with a bid featuring the United States, either on its own or in conjunction with one or both of Canada and Mexico, an early favourite. Extra teams also means increased revenue for FIFA. Their research suggests that an expanded tournament would rake in an additional £521million profit on the current format. They have calculated that tournament revenue would increase to £5.29billion with 48 teams, working on the projected revenue of next year’s 32-team World Cup in Russia.
Infantino’s expansion plans, which he made public during his election campaign to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter as president, have been fiercely criticised by the European Club Association (ECA) but have been backed by the likes of Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and Argentina icon Diego Maradona.The ECA, of which Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and United are all members, said in a statement reacting to the news on Tuesday: ‘The European Club Association reiterates that it is in principle not in favour of an expanded World Cup.
‘We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives. Questionable is also the urgency in reaching such an IMPORTANT decision, with nine years to go until it becomes applicable, without the proper involvement of stakeholders who will be impacted by this change.
‘We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable. ‘ECA will analyse in detail the impact and the consequences of the new format and will address the matter at the next meeting of its executive board scheduled for the end of January.’ But Mourinho and Maradona have previously spoken of their belief that there are many positives to the alterations.
Mourinho said: ‘I’m totally in favour. As a club manager, if the expansion meant more games, less holidays and less pre-season for players, I would say no. ‘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. Teams with less potential and experience will probably play two matches and go home. ‘But they would do so having improved and gained experience on the pitch, which would be added to the economic rewards of appearing at the finals – including further investment in their footballing infrastructure.’
Maradona said: ‘I’m delighted by Gianni’s initiative because it gives chances to teams that otherwise would start the qualifiers knowing they had no chance of getting to the World Cup. ‘It gives each country the dream and it RENEWS the passion for football, it appears to me to be a fantastic idea.’