FIFA to expand World Cup to 48 teams in 2026

ZURICH (AP) — FIFA will expand the World Cup to 48 teams, adding 16 extra nations to the 2026 tournament that is likely to be held in North America.

 

Benefits and pitfalls of a 48-team World Cup

By GRAHAM DUNBAR,  AP Sports Writer

ZURICH (AP) — As the soccer world digests FIFA's decision to expand the World Cup, a look at the some of the benefits and pitfalls of a 48-team tournament in 2026:

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PROS

— With 16 more teams joining the World Cup party, feel-good stories should keep flowing in soccer. Just look at Costa Rica's run to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals and Wales reaching the European Championship semifinals in 2016. FIFA President Gianni Infantino believes this generates "football fever" far beyond the host nation(s).

— With 16 additional games, there's more soccer for fans to watch in stadiums and on television, generating additional cash for FIFA. For broadcasters, there are 24 extra broadcast slots, not just 16, because there will no longer be final rounds of group games kicking off simultaneously.

— FIFA estimates its commercial income will climb 20 percent, and raise profits by $640 million compared to the equivalent rates for the $5.5 billion 2018 World Cup. This would help guarantee the $5 million grants from each World Cup for each of the 211 FIFA member federations, and create extra for development projects.

— The 80 games can be squeezed into 32 days, the current length of the 32-team World Cup, according to FIFA. The individual players' workload won't increase as the four semifinal teams will still play a maximum of seven matches.

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CONS

— There will be no rest day for players or fans until the quarterfinals. And there's a grueling rate of four games per day — up from the current three — for each of the first 16 days, including a new round of 32.

— There could be fewer top quality matches. FIFA acknowledged that higher-ranked teams will meet less often in the 48-game group stage, leading to a tournament of lower "absolute quality" than the popular 32-team format used since 1998.

— A group stage allowing too many teams to advance reduces the drama. The 16 three-team groups would be tenser if only the group winner advances. Two will go through, creating a new round of 32 where the excitement should ramp up.

— With more teams making it to the World Cup, qualifying could be devalued, particularly in the Americas. There will be less uncertainty about whether the big teams in CONMEBOL and CONCACAF could miss out on the World Cup, so matches will be less captivating for fans considering watching qualifiers on television or in stadiums.

— FIFA expects World Cup profits to rise $640 million but European clubs will want a bigger share of the increased revenues. Currently $209 million per tournament is distributed under a European Club Association deal with FIFA.

President Gianni Infantino's favored plan — for 16 three-team groups with the top two advancing to a round of 32 — was unanimously approved Tuesday by the FIFA Council.

It meets Infantino's election pledge of a bigger and more inclusive World Cup going beyond European and South American teams, which have won all 20 titles.

"We have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century," said Infantino, who also promised funding increases for FIFA's 211 member federations at his election last February.

With 80 matches instead of 64, FIFA forecasts the equivalent of $1 billion extra income at current rates from broadcasting and sponsor deals, plus ticket sales, compared to $5.5 billion revenue forecast for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

FIFA projects an increased profit of $640 million despite some extra operating costs and prize money for teams.

FIFA's six continents should find out by May how many extra places they will each get.

"No guarantees have been made," Infantino said. "The only sure thing is that obviously with 48 teams everyone will have a bit more than they have today."

UEFA wants 16 European teams at the tournament, which is strongly favored to be played in North America. The CONCACAF region has not hosted the World Cup since the 1994 tournament in the United States.

American, Canadian and Mexican soccer leaders have had informal talks about a co-hosting bid.

FIFA members are scheduled to pick the host in May 2020, though there could be little competition in a process Infantino said must be "bullet-proof" to meet all integrity rules.

Africa and Asia could be winners in a bigger World Cup with up to nine places each. They had only five and four teams, respectively, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Still, FIFA said it expects the standard of soccer to drop compared to the 32-team format locked in for the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar.

The "absolute quality" of play, defined by high-ranked teams facing each other most often, is achieved by 32 teams, FIFA acknowledged in a research document sent to members last month. It made 10,000 tournament simulations to reach that conclusion.

Instead, Infantino wants to create fervor and months of anticipation back home in the 16 extra nations which would qualify, some probably making their World Cup debut. FIFA has pointed to Costa Rica, Wales and Iceland as examples of teams which overachieved at recent tournaments.

FIFA must break with soccer tradition to make its new format work after an original 48-team plan — with an opening playoff round sending 16 "one-and-done" teams home early — was unpopular.

Instead, three-team groups will replace the usual groups of four to create simple progress to a knockout bracket. However, it leaves one team idle for final group games and could risk collusion between the other two teams.

FIFA said it could guard against result-rigging by introducing penalty shootouts after group games that end in draws.

Infantino said a decision could wait until 2024 to agree on competition rules.

Despite the 16 extra games, FIFA believes the current maximum of stadiums needed will stay at the 12 used by Brazil and Russia. However, the demand for more training bases and hotels means developed countries would be better equipped to win future hosting contests.

North America is the strong favorite for 2026 because European and Asian countries are blocked by a FIFA rule excluding continents which hosted either of the two previous tournaments. Russia will host the World Cup next year and Qatar in 2022.

South America has been focused on a centenary tournament including original 1930 host Uruguay, and African nations are seen as lacking existing capacity and unlikely to fund multi-billion dollar infrastructure spending.