FIFA president Gianni Infantino is set to get his way on expanding the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, a move which will boost his chances of re-election in 2019.
A vote to expand world football’s premier event by 16 teams is second on the agenda at Tuesday’s meeting of the FIFA Council in Zurich, with one insider telling Press Association Sport it is a “fait accompli”.
Increasing the number of teams at the World Cup was one of Infantino’s manifesto pledges last year, although his 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 – have 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.
This increases the number of games from 64 to 80 but the tournament stays at 32 days, with the semi-finalists playing seven games (including the third-place play-off), which is the same number as now.
The council meeting, which starts at FIFA’s headquarters at 0800GMT, will actually have all four of the proposed expansion ideas on the table, as well as leaving the tournament at 32 teams, but nobody in Zurich is expecting anything other than strong support for the 16-groups-of-three plan.
Infantino has repeatedly said his main motivation for doing this is to give more nations a chance of experiencing the joy of a World Cup, which will bolster international football in developed markets and help its growth in new ones.
As evidence of international football’s inspirational qualities, Infantino has pointed to Costa Rica’s success in 2014 and the Euro 2016 runs by Iceland and Wales.
But just in case this is not persuasive enough, FIFA has conducted some internal research for the council’s 33 members that has been widely leaked.
This research suggests Infantino’s 48-team World Cup could bring in £800million more in broadcasting, commercial and match-day revenue than the 2018 World Cup in Russia, taking total profits to nearly £3.5billion.
While this should be more than enough to win the day – only the German federation has gone public with its concerns about the dilution in quality – many of the key details are likely to be left to a later date and more consultation.
These include Infantino’s proposed remedy to avoid the risk of teams colluding in their third games to eliminate the other member of the group – he has suggested settling draws with penalty shoot-outs.
But by far the most contentious topic will be how these 16 extra slots are allocated among the six confederations, with the African and Asian nations expecting significant increases on their current four apiece.
European confederation UEFA, however, is desperate to defend its position as the largest provider of World Cup teams, even though its percentage of the finalists will inevitably decrease.
Europe currently gets 13 slots and is understood to be aiming for no fewer than 16 in the new format – a negotiation that will be closely watched by the home nations.
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 a 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.