FIFA’S decision yesterday to expand the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 will allow more countries to “dream” of qualifying for the globe’s top sporting event, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said.
“We have to shape the World Cup of the 21st Century... football is more than Europe and South America,” Infantino told reporters. With the new format, “many more countries will have the chance to dream.”
The 2026 tournament will include 16 groups of three teams. Crucially, it will be played over the same time period as the current 32-team format.
Infantino insisted this was vital as there was reluctance to any prolongation of the tournament.
The new format “brings benefits without negatives,” he said. “Every match will be decisive,” he added, noting that qualifying round matches where the result is effectively meaningless will be eliminated in 2026 and beyond.
No decision was made on how the 16 extra places would be allocated among football’s regional confederations, but “everyone will get more” in the new system, the FIFA chief further said.
But critics were quick to blast it as a politically and money-driven ploy that will be detrimental to football’s showpiece tournament.
But there was support, particularly in Asia and Africa.
In Germany, the reigning World Cup winner, reaction was mixed.
“I am not happy with the decision and would have wished that all the important questions about the organization and the format had been completely resolved,” said Reinhard Grindel, president of the German Football Association.
“But since the decision was taken unanimously by the FIFA council, it is important to respect it and look forward. My main worry is that the attractiveness of the matches will suffer.”
Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff said he could “understand everyone who feels the increase of the field is a dilution (in the quality of the tournament). Also for me, the increase to 48 teams for the biggest and the most important tournament in the world feels like it’s too much,” he said.
Javier Tebas, president of the Spanish league, made no attempt to hide his disgust.
“FIFA is doing politics. Gianni Infantino is doing politics,” he thundered. “To be elected he promised more countries at the World Cup. He wants to honor his electoral promises. But the promises made to professional football, he’s not sticking to.
“It is without our agreement and it makes us very angry.”
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic said, “A 48-team proposal, especially one where the group stage trims the field to 32 teams, is clearer and fairer.”
Phillip Chiyangwa, the Zimbabwe Football Association president, said, “It is good because it is about accommodating more teams from Africa. That is positive.”
The Scottish Football Association also welcomed the decision with chief executive Stewart Regan saying it would allow the domestic game to develop with the extra finances.