Why is FIFA expanding to a 48-team World Cup?

The World Cup will jump from 32 teams to 48 by 2026, according to a plan approved unanimously by the governing council of FIFA.

Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP
Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, speaks after the FIFA Council meeting at the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.

For soccer fans who can’t get enough of the World Cup, FIFA could have some good news.

The organization will expand the number of teams eligible for the World Cup from 32 to 48, a decision that passed unanimously in a vote Tuesday. The change, which will be the largest single addition to the slew of competitors in FIFA’s history, is slated to come into effect in time for the 2026 World Cup. The addition will shift the month-long event’s structure, likely adding more matchups to the tournament.

FIFA has 211 teams under its umbrella, but the vast majority never come close to qualifying for its signature event. By adding an additional 16 slots, more mid-level organizations could compete alongside the recurring household names, including those from rarely represented regions, such as Oceania and Africa.

Currently, eligible teams are organized into four groups of eight that play concurrently in an initial round. From there, the top two contenders move onto the final 16, when the cup shifts to a straight knockout format.

An expanded version of the tournament would likely feature 16 groups of three teams each, with the top two from each group in the first round moving on to a 32-team knockout phase. That would likely boost the number of games from 64 to 80, but the cup’s champion would still only play seven games throughout the tournament.

Many parties, including smaller nations for which the competition has historically remained out of reach, were overwhelmingly in favor of the move and applauded a change that will increase participation and bring more diverse teams into the fold. But some remain skeptical of the change, worrying that increased play and an easier qualifying round could hamper the quality of the game in the long run.

Others have decried the plan as a money grab by an organization just re-emerging from a series of financial missteps. Gianni Infantino, the new head of FIFA, proposed the change as he campaigned to replace Sepp Blatter, who left FIFA in 2015 following a scandal that led to the arrests of several high-ranking members.  

FIFA estimates that the expansion could add $1 billion in television, sponsorship, and ticketing revenue during the first phase of the tournament alone, but will also place a burden on host nations, which will have to accommodate an additional 16 teams, and it could place a strain on some of the world’s top players by making their schedules more rigorous.  

"We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives," the European Club Association, which represents some 200 European clubs, said in a statement.

New FIFA Now, a group that has campaigned for reform of the organization, also remained critical, saying that strong teams will now easily qualify for the tournament, ridding the cup of a certain suspense and making the initial games more of a formality for some teams.

"It will not help development of the game or provide improved competitive opportunities for lower-ranked nations," it said in a statement. "Instead, it will make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations."

The two upcoming World Cups, in 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar, will be played in the current format.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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