Photographer: Alexander Hassenstein - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

World Cup May Expand to 40 Teams by 2026, Soccer Body Says

  • Top FIFA committee discussed expanding tournament Thursday
  • FIFA members also agreed to changes amid ongoing crisis

Soccer’s World Cup may expand to 40 teams by 2026 as the sport’s global governing body looks to give more slots to African and Asian nations without blocking European and Latin American squads with some of the biggest stars.

The increase was discussed at a meeting of the group’s executive committee, which also agreed to a group of reforms to help embattled FIFA bounce back from the biggest crisis in its 111-year history. The World Cup, sport’s most-watched event, was increased to its current 32-team format for the 1998 tournament in France.

FIFA said in a statement following the meeting that further talks are scheduled on widening the participants in the tournament.

The World Cup has been a boon for sponsors such as Coca-Cola Co. and Adidas AG, FIFA’s longest-standing corporate partners. The competition is responsible for almost all of FIFA’s income, which in the four-year period that included the 2014 World Cup in Brazil topped $5 billion.

The news of the expansion was overshadowed by several dawn arrests at the same luxury hotel in Zurich where Swiss police detained a group of officials in late May. Two vice presidents, Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay and Alfredo Hawit of Honduras, were arrested Thursday morning.

Executives Suspended

The U.S. case and a separate probe in Switzerland have led to the fall of long-time president Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, who is temporarily banned amid an investigation into an alleged illicit payment to European soccer body head Michel Platini, who is also suspended.

Amid the crisis, the top committee has endorsed reforms, which include a maximum of three four-year terms for all senior officials, the split of the executive into two separate committees, the creation of more roles for women and independent oversight of key financial decisions. Top executives would also have to disclose their salaries.

"These reforms are moving FIFA towards improved governance, greater transparency and more accountability,” FIFA’s acting president Issa Hayatou said. FIFA’s full membership must sign off on the majority of the proposals at a special meeting in February, when they will also elect Blatter’s successor.

Income Provider

While FIFA is responsible for regulating soccer, much of its importance and income is derived from owning the World Cup.

Choosing hosts has been controversial. Swiss investigators are looking into the choice of Russia and Qatar as the venues for the next two tournaments amid accusations of wrongdoing against officials who made those selections.

Separately, German soccer federation’s head recently resigned following reports of a slush fund set up to ensure it got to host the 2006 World Cup. U.S. authorities said in the May indictment that led to the initial arrests of FIFA officials that South Africa may have made an illegal payment to a former FIFA vice president for his support in landing the 2010 tournament. Both nations deny making illicit payments.

Assuaging Members

Increasing the competition to 40 squads would assuage African and Asian soccer members, who have traditionally been underrepresented at the tournament. South American and European teams -- which feature players like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo -- have won all of the previous events, and have resisted cutting their quotas to allow more squads from other regions.

It may also prove more complicated to organize than the current 32-team format, which sees the top two from each group of eight qualify for the knockout phase.

“You could see that especially representatives from Asia and Africa were in favor of it,” Wolfgang Niersbach, a member of the FIFA executive committee, said to the DPA news agency.

Some of the candidates for February’s election to replace Blatter have been offering to increase the size of the World Cup to attract voters.

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