FIFA approve 48-team World Cup finals in 2026

KEY POINTS

  • 16 groups of three teams
  • Top two qualify for last 32
  • Knock-out stage from last 32 onwards 
  • 80 matches in total
  • 32-day tournament 
  • UEFA want at least 16 places for European teams 
  • Africa and Asia could see allocation increased from their total of five
  • USA, Canada and Mexico set to host the finals

A vote to expand world football’s premier event by 16 teams from its traditional 32 was ratitfied at Tuesday’s meeting of the FIFA Council in Zurich with Infantino backing the plan for six groups of three, followed by a 32-team knock-out, knowing it would boost his prospects of re-election in 2019. 

Infantino, elected last February to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter, pledged during his campaign to enlarge the tournament – a promise designed especially to appeal to the bulk of FIFA’s 211 member associations that rarely or never qualify for World Cups.

Infantino’s original idea was to follow predecessor Sepp Blatter’s preference for 40 teams.

But the two 40-team formats proposed by FIFA’s experts – eight groups of five or 10 groups of four, both followed by a 16-team knock-out – failed to attract much support for a variety of reasons.

This led Infantino to leap to 48 teams, with his first idea being a one-off play-off between 32 teams to decide who should join 16 seeded teams in the current eight-groups-of-four format.

That idea, however, was also panned, as it stretched the tournament beyond its current 32 days and meant 16 teams would be travelling to an event for just one match.

Infantino appears to have got it right, though, with his fourth attempt – 16 groups of three, followed by a 32-team knock-out.

Where matters get more complicated, though, is in the Americas, where two confederations, North and Central America’s CONCACAF and South America’s CONMEBOL, currently share seven guaranteed places and two play-off slots with other regions.

That may increase to 12 guaranteed slots, six for CONMEBOL’s 10 members, which will prompt many to suggest the two confederations should be merged to make qualification more of at contest.

The other major decision regarding 2026, who will host the event, is not scheduled for consideration until 2020 with a bid featuring the United States, either on its own or in conjunction with one or both of Canada and Mexico, the overwhelming favourite.

 

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