FIFA to Expand World Cup in Face of European Club Opposition

  • Field will expand to 48 teams from 32 starting in 2026
  • Move based on political reasons: European Club Association

Sport’s most-watched event, the soccer World Cup tournament, has been expanded to include 48 teams, a move that met with opposition from Europe’s elite clubs.

The increase from the current 32 teams will come into effect from the 2026 event, governing body FIFA said Tuesday, a decision that it expects to boost revenue by as much as 25 percent to more than $6.5 billion while diluting the “absolute quality” of the competition.

The move is based on political reasons rather than sporting ones, according to the European Club Association, whose 220 members include Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. The ECA said such a motive is “regrettable.”

“We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives,” the ECA said in an e-mailed statement. “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.”

The tournament’s expansion follows the election of Gianni Infantino to FIFA’s presidency last year. The Swiss was catapulted into the top job on promises of extra World Cup places and bigger handouts to national federations following the fall of longtime FIFA President Sepp Blatter amid a corruption scandal.

Revenue Boost

“When you take a decision, some are critical,” Infantino said at a press conference after FIFA’s board unanimously backed the tournament expansion. Other critics of the plan include Germany’s soccer federation and Javier Tebas, who heads Spain’s La Liga.

Dialog will continue with the clubs, Infantino said, noting that players won’t be expected to play any more matches than in the 32-team format.

The enlarged tournament could boost World Cup revenue to $6.5 billion, according to an analysis conducted by FIFA. The governing body expects to make $5.5 billion from the 2018 tournament in Russia.

Adding 16 more teams creates complications in arranging the event in a format that would reduce strains on players competing after long seasons with their clubs. Having more nations is also likely to affect affect the “absolute quality,” FIFA’s document said.

To limit the number of extra days needed to complete a larger tournament, FIFA has devised a format that starts with 16 groups of three teams. The top two in each pool will then qualify for a 32-team knockout competition. The 80 games, an increase from the current 64, will be played within 32 days.

FIFA is also considering other changes to its cash-cow tournament, including scheduling matches to hit prime time in major markets. That would mark a departure with games usually designed for fans in host countries.

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