How FIFA’s World Cup expansion may make the games more global than ever

Sixteen additional countries will get a crack at the World Cup competition.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/ File
South Africa's soccer fans react as they watch a television broadcasting the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup match between South Africa and France at Soweto in Johannesburg on June 22, 2010.

FIFA’s governing council voted unanimously on Tuesday to expand World Cup competition from 32 teams to 48, the first change to the Cup’s structure since 1998.

The change, which is set to go into effect in 2026, will split the first round of competition into 16 groups of three teams each, with two out of the three countries advancing to the knockout contests. Eighty matches will be played instead of the current 64. 

The league expects the expansion to generate an extra $1 billion in revenue from broadcasting, ticket sales, and sponsorships. 

Just where the extra spots will go – which federations and from which part of the world – hasn’t been announced yet. Many expect them to benefit countries in Africa and Asia that were shut out of the competition until the mid-1970s, and still tend to appear on the global stage more fleetingly than the traditional European and South American powerhouses.

The disparity carries the geopolitical overtones of that earlier period, particularly in Africa, where nations were just starting to emerge from under European colonialism. But FIFA’s latest vote illuminates how the council’s internal politics, combined with the organization’s profit motive, may be destined to push the biggest tournament of the “universal game” toward greater inclusivity. 

“The continent that really benefits, and has really suffered the most from the Europeans, is Africa,” says Kirk Bowman, a professor in soccer and global politics at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

With the formation of the African Football Confederation (CAF) in 1957, African nations began to contest what was then a rigidly Eurocentric FIFA; in 1966, several of them boycotted the Cup after Africa and Asia were offered a single combined slot.

The turning point came in 1974, with the ascent of Brazilian businessman Joao Havelange to the head of FIFA after persuading African and Asian electors – FIFA’s council operates on a “one nation, one vote” principle – with a charm offensive that underscored ethnic and sociopolitical commonalities between South America and Africa, and called for FIFA to invest in sports infrastructure and development in the Third World, according to an essay by University of Ulster sports sociologist Paul Darby.

Since then, African soccer has blossomed. And that’s been good for FIFA, especially through sponsorships and advertising, says Agbenyega Adedze, an Illinois State University professor of history who has written about intersections of soccer and politics in Africa.

“If you look at ads in African countries, there are African players selling beer, selling cars, et cetera,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. “Everything stops for the World Cup, in African countries.”

“Giving more opportunities to African teams, they’ll prevail. You saw the performance of Africans in World Cups in previous years,” he adds.

Their appearance is part of the legacy of Mr. Havelange, who expanded the tournament from 16 teams to 32 – a move that won him support from the organization’s non-European electors.

Some believe FIFA’s current president, Gianni Infantino, is trying a similar gambit.

“I think it’s primarily about Infantino preparing for a second and third term,” Dr. Bowman tells the Monitor. “He’s trying to get votes from all those small islands of the Caribbean. Those are the places that turn the election.”

The powerhouses from Europe and South America aren’t all so happy with the new arrangement: European clubs, because they train and pay the bulk of salaries for the top World Cup players; and South America, because the continent’s bottom-tier teams are often more competitive than top-tier teams from other regions.

"If [African and Asian countries] can generate another billion dollars off human capital provided by European teams, then they’re getting a big win," he says. "But I think it's all much more about power itself."

This report contains material from Reuters.

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