One of the world’s most-watched sporting events is going to get even bigger.
The football World Cup will expand from 32 teams to 48 from 2026, giving smaller, emerging nations the chance to compete alongside the world’s elite and generating hundreds of millions in extra profit.
FIFA, the game’s governing body, ratified the decision on Tuesday. Its ruling council was able to vote on a range of options, including having 40 teams, but unanimously decided on 48.
Gianni Infantino, who replaced Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in February 2016, promised a larger and more inclusive tournament before his election and has said the expansion would aid football’s global development.
The tournament will still last 32 days and the winner will still play only seven matches – a concession to European FIFA members and clubs who were concerned about an overcrowded schedule.
The move highlights the changing political balance within FIFA. The expansion was backed by the majority of FIFA’s 211 members, including many emerging nations in Africa, Central America, and Asia who have long argued for greater involvement for smaller, less successful footballing nations.
FIFA’s own research has suggested that the expanded format – which will take the number of games from 64 to 80 – will mean an extra £500 million in profit, due to increased ticket sales and TV revenue.
Controversially, Infantino has suggested that group stage matches ending in a draw could be decided by a penalty shootout.
A key European football figure with in-depth knowledge of FIFA – who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity – said the move may generate more revenue but stressed that it was driven by the changing politics of the sport.
The expert explained that while the move could prove lucrative, it would also maintain the support of FIFA members, particularly those in Africa, Asia, and Central America – regions that have not historically been at the forefront of deciding the future of the sport.
“This is about pure politics. You can always consider that the TV market for the World Cup will always increase no matter how many teams,” he said.
“And if you consider that the 16 additional teams will very likely come from modest countries such as Burkina Faso or Romania or Uzbekistan, these countries do not represent huge TV marketing markets.
“India and China do, but even if they progress [as footballing nations], they would still be very far from being able to qualify. It’s politics. The money may increase, but I don’t think for the right reasons.
“When a political promise is made, sometimes it’s difficult to go backwards. That’s where we are. Of course it’s been ratified unanimously, but if you promise everyone sweets then everyone tends to agree with that.”
The source added that while the move is ostensibly intended to increase participation from Africa and Asia, the format could actually increase the chances that a European side would win the tournament.
Europe will send 16 of the 48 teams and if there is a European team in each of the first-round groups for three, where only the group winner progresses, that could make it very hard for a non-established national side to progress, he said.
“While in theory the rest of the world will have more opportunities, in the real World Cup we may have more European teams than we do today in the 32 [the knockout stages],” he said.
“Plus there are a lot of questions about the sports itself and the quality of the games. As we had in Euro 2016, some teams played defensively because they needed at least one point to be among the best third-placed teams.
“And this will contribute to the growing inflation of sports events, where we have too much football at a time when reports show a decrease of the football viewing audience.”
Football is currently experiencing the start of a cultural shift away from established European clubs as China develops its interest in the sport.
Already this year, several high-profile European-based players have left for the emergent Chinese Super League, including Chelsea’s Brazilian star Oscar and the Nigerian John Mikel Obi. Shanghai SIPG is reported to be paying Oscar £400,000 a week.
The European Club Association said in a statement: “We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives.
“Questionable is also the urgency in reaching such an important decision, with nine years to go until it becomes applicable, without the proper involvement of stakeholders who will be impacted by this change.
“ECA will analyse in detail the impact and the consequences of the new format and will address the matter at the next meeting of its executive board, scheduled for the end of January.”
The campaign group New FIFA Now said in a statement: “It will dilute the competitiveness of the tournament and, therefore, the enjoyment of fans.
“It will not help development of the game or provide improved competitive opportunities for lower-ranked nations. Instead, it will make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations.”
The Scottish FA, however, welcomed the move as a “positive step.”
The next World Cup will be in the Gulf state of Qatar in 2018, followed by Russia in 2022, but the host of the 2026 tournament has yet to be decided. The 2014 final in Brazil, which was won by Germany, was watched by more than a billion people worldwide.
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