FIFA votes to expand World Cup by half, to 48 teams, as of 2026

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More teams will get to compete for the World Cup trophy, starting in 2026. (Getty Images)
More teams will get to compete for the World Cup trophy, starting in 2026. (Getty Images)

After a significant push by newish FIFA president Gianni Infantino to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams as of the 2026 edition, soccer’s global governing body approved the 50 percent expansion by a vote it claimed was unanimous on Tuesday. It rejected options to keep the tournament at 32 teams or to grow to merely 40.

[ FC Yahoo: World Cup expansion disregards the many downsides it will bring ]

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The 2026 edition will be the first World Cup that will have a new format since the 1998 edition in France. The world’s most popular sporting event was first held in Uruguay in 1930 with just 13 teams. Bidding for the rights to host the 2026 World Cup doesn’t officially begin until late 2018. A decision will be made in 2020. The United States is an early favorite to host its second World Cup — after doing so successfully in 1994 — in a bid that could also include Mexico, Canada or both.

The new World Cup format will consist of 16 groups of three, rather than eight groups of four. The top two teams in each group would advance to the knockout stages, which will now be one round longer than before — five rounds, including the final.

This means the World Cup will grow from 64 games to 80, which FIFA anticipates will boost its revenues from the tournament by as much as a billion dollars — two-thirds of which would be profit. A need for added venues is believed to favor an American bid, given the wealth of World Cup-ready stadiums already available all over the country. The last time the U.S. staged the tournament, nine stadiums were used for the 24-team tournament. In 2026, a dozen venues will be required, not to mention practice facilities and accommodations for 16 more teams than in tournaments past.

In growing the World Cup, Infantino has delivered on an election promise when he ran to succeed the ousted Sepp Blatter in early 2016. He vowed to include more countries in the sport’s signature event. Cynics have called it a cash-grab, suggesting that Infantino was merely pandering to blocks of smaller countries in order to secure their votes for future elections.

Then again, Africa and Asia are currently dramatically underrepresented at the World Cup, with just four berths apiece. The fight for places has always been political, rather than being decided on population size or a continent’s number of countries. Expanding the World Cup should make it more equitable as Africa and Asia are expected to receive a large share of the new places, potentially doubling their stake.

European clubs, who supply the large majority of World Cup players, were vehemently opposed to the expansion, as were some of the older European federations, like England’s. The clubs argue that an already bloated tournament puts too much strain on their players — whose salaries they pay and for whose services to their countries the clubs aren’t compensated — and that making the tournament bigger will only exacerbate that.

In truth, playing from the group stage through the final will still only encompass seven games, as the first round will be shortened by a game, but the tournament will likely grow longer in duration and of course envelop more players than before.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 edition in Qatar remain unaffected.

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