FIFA president Gianni Infantino / AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI
FIFA’s governing council is set to decide on Tuesday whether to expand the World Cup, a controversial idea that has created deep divisions among global football’s most powerful camps.
Making the tournament bigger for 2026 is a top priority of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who took over the scandal-tainted body last year with a vow to grow the game worldwide.
He has floated several plans to enlarge the competition from its current 32-team format, but ultimately decided to push for a 48-nation contest.
Infantino’s initiative may prove most popular in Africa and Asia, which want wider access to football’s showcase event.
But some, especially in Europe, have voiced concern that a larger tournament would dilute the quality of play and overburden already exhausted players — while boosting FIFA’s coffers.
Infantino insists that money should not drive the decision, but has noted that his preferred 48-team format would have a significant upside in terms of revenue.
A confidential FIFA report seen by AFP projects a 48-team tournament would bring a cash boost of $640 million (605 million euros) above projected revenues for next year’s finals in Russia.
The report forecasts television rights also rising by $505 million and marketing revenue by $370 million.
– The options –
FIFA’s 30-member council will weigh five scenarios at Tuesday’s one-day meeting: maintaining the 32-team status quo, two options for a 40-team tournament and two more options with 48 teams.
Late last year there appeared to be momentum behind a 48-team format which envisages 16 teams pre-qualified, and another 32 playing a one-game knock-out round — with the winners joining those 16.
That raised concern about teams mobilising a full World Cup effort, including travel and training, only be sent home after one match.
Infantino’s preferred option — 16 groups of three with the top two in each progressing to a round of 32 — appears to be more palatable to FIFA’s 211 member associations.
The meeting in Zurich begins at 9:00 am (0800 GMT).
– For and against –
Infantino says that expansion means “inclusion” in the “biggest social and sporting event”.
Among those who seem convinced by that argument is Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who on Monday said a 48-team tournament “will give more possibilities to countries that have never reached that level of competition”.
The powerful voices in the sceptical camp include UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who has complained of a lack of information on the project while pointedly adding that in his view the current system “works”.
The European Clubs Association, headed by former German international Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, also voiced opposition, citing an already overloaded calendar.
Defending World Cup champions Germany are also publicly against Infantino’s proposed reforms.
A landmark decision to expand the tournament would mark the latest overhaul of the World Cup, which has seen its global popularity and financial might surge since the inaugural edition in 1930.
That contest, won by Uruguay, had just 13 countries.
The World Cup expanded to 24 teams in 1982 in Spain before moving to its current 32-team version at France 1998.