The Fifa Council has unanimously approved plans to expand the Fifa World Cup from 32 teams to 48 from 2026.
World soccer's governing body confirmed the first format change to its showpiece tournament since 1998 at a meeting in Geneva on Tuesday. The finalists will be divided into 16 groups of three, with the best two teams in each group advancing to a knockout round of 32. The changes mean that the competition will now consist of 80 games overall, although the winners will continue to play seven games.
The plans were led by Fifa president Gianni Infantino, who promised to create more opportunities for World Cup qualification as part of his successful election campaign in February 2016. The Fifa Council - which was created last year to replace the body's discredited executive commitee - was given four options for the future format of the competition. One was to retain the existing 32-team set-up, another was the creation of a 40-team event with either eight groups of five or ten groups of four, while a 48-team format was also floated with a 32-team preliminary knockout round.
According to a confidential internal Fifa report, leaked to the media ahead of the council meeting in Zurich, the expanded format will generate an additional US$1 billion in revenues - rising from an estimated US$5.5 billion in 2018 to US$6.5 billion in 2023, with a US$505 million growth projected in broadcast income. The report also noted that expansion would likely reduce the overall quality of the tournament, and that penalty shoot-outs may be used at the end of drawn games in the group games to mitigate the risk of decisive results being manipulated.
Speaking at the Dubai International Sports Conference in December, Infantino suggested that the reforms "should not just financially driven" but were motivated by a desire to further soccer's development around the world.
"There is nothing bigger in terms of boosting football in a country than participating in a World Cup," he said.
Fifa has already insisted that the event will be completed within 32 days, so as not to affect the club soccer calendar. In December, European Club Association (ECA) chief executive Karl-Heinz Rumminegge outlined the opposition of the continent's leading club sides to the proposed expansion, saying: "We have to focus on the sport again. Politics and commerce should not be the exclusive priority in football. In the interest of the fans and the players, we urge Fifa not to increase the number of World Cup participants."
The ECA has now reiterated its antipathy position, releasing a statement in which it questioned the reasoning and timing of the reforms.
'We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives,' it said.
"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.
"ECA will analyse in detail the impact and the consequences of the new format and will address the matter at the next meeting of its executive board, scheduled for the end of January."
The details of qualification for the 2026 World Cup, including how many places will be awarded to each confederation, have not yet been confirmed. According to reports in Chilean newspaper El Mercurio last weekend, Infantino has considered proposing that Concacaf and Conmebol - the confederations for North and Central America and South America respectively - merge their qualifying tournaments in return for a greater shared number of places. Martyn Ziegler, the chief sports reporter for British newspaper The Times, has reported that Fifa members are 'close to a consensus' on a system that would award 16 places to Europe, up from 13, with Africa going from five spots to nine, and Asia from 4.5 places to 8.5 - with the .5 denoting an intercontinental qualification play-off place.
South America would go from 4.5 places to 6, with the Concacaf nations getting 6.5 places instead of 3.5. Oceania would get an outright qualification place for the first time, with its members previously having had to advance to the finals through a play-off. Confirmation of those changes would be expected in May.
The host of the 2026 World Cup will not be chosen until 2020, although the USA is widely recognised as the clear frontrunner - either as a lone host or in a share with either or both of its neighbours, Canada and Mexico.
The 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 edition in Qatar will be played in the existing 32-team format.