The world football governing body, FIFA, on Tuesday, expanded the World Cup from its current format of 32 national teams to 48, effective from the 2026 mundial. The FIFA ruling council unanimously approved the expansion to 48 teams, with a format of 16 groups of three nations.
FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, at a meeting in Zurich, described the development as a historic decision which marks the entrance of the World Cup into the 21st Century. He also believes that the change will help develop the game and expand its reach.
This is the latest overhaul of the World Cup which has grown in popularity and financial might since the inaugural edition in 1930. That particular contest, which was won by Uruguay, had 13 countries in attendance. From that modest start, the World Cup expanded to 24 teams in 1982 in Spain and its present format of 32 teams in France 1998.
The expansion of the World Cup team was one of the promises of Infantino, when he was campaigning to replace his predecessor, Sepp Blatter. Although FIFA has not worked out how the new slots will be distributed, it is being speculated that under the new format, Europe could get 16 places, while Africa earns nine. Every continent is expected to get something.
Under the 48-team format, each team plays twice in its three-team group, while the top two advance into the last 32, which will be at knock-out stage. There will be 80 matches at the 2026 World Cup, as opposed to the current 64. With 48 teams and a squad of 23, there will be 1,104 players for the 2026 World Cup.
The matches under the new format will, however, take the same number of days as in the previous 32-team format, according to FIFA. This implies that the expansion will not add to the number of times that clubs would need to release their players. The organisation also said that the tournament will be played in 12 stadia as it is done currently.
The 48-team format is attracting mixed reactions from stakeholders of the round leather game. While some lauded the decision as one that will give more countries the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, others have warned that it will dilute the quality of play and overburden the players.
The European Club Association (ECA), which represents the interests of clubs at European level, has criticised the expansion, describing it as a political, rather than a sporting decision. However, Infantino maintains that the expansion will increase the quality of the teams in the competition. According to him, the game has changed. Football has now become a truly global game. To him, the change will help develop the game and expand its reach.
The decision to increase the number of teams for the World Cup from 32 to 48 is welcome. FIFA’s ruling council should be applauded for coming up with the new team format. It will give smaller footballing countries the opportunity to participate in the World Cup.
We do not believe that increasing the number of teams will dilute the standard of the game. The more countries participate in the mundial, the merrier. The 48-team participation will make the World Cup more inclusive than it is at present. Increasing the number of participating teams from 32 to 48 should not be allowed to bring down the quality of the game.
Available statistics show that of the 211 member associations in FIFA, 135 of them have never played at a World Cup. The 48-team format will allow more nations to participate in the competition. We urge all stakeholders to make the new format work. The participation of more countries makes the World Cup a true mundial.