In the first major overhaul of the international tournament since 1998, FIFA has voted in favour of extending the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, commencing in 2026. The unanimous decision means that the new format will include a three-teams-per-group stage; the top two of which will proceed to the usual 32-team knockout stage.
The number of players competing will increase by 50 per cent; but the tournament will continue to be 32 days long, with the finalists still playing a maximum of seven matches – something that is surely a sweetener to professional managers concerned with the ever increasing demands on players. Football fans around the world have reacted gleefully to the decision. Denmark follower David relishes the “room for more diversity at the World Cup”. Ever-present nations are slightly less enthusiastic. “The expansion cheapens the quality of the tournament.” said England fan Richard Whitter.
Even those from countries with an increased chance of qualification are sceptical: “I’m happy with the current format. The best compete with the best – as it should be” said Malaysia supporter, Bob Libau. But it is not as though the expansion will let anything able of kicking a football to grace the world stage; only 23 per cent of FIFA members will participate in the expanded format, suggesting that it will remain an elite competition involving just the top layer of teams in world football.
I see value in the expansion: it gives more players the luxury of representing their nation on the world stage, and it spreads football fever and national pride to more fans. Costa Rica’s success in the last World Cup proves that so-called weaker teams, if involved, will reward the world with surprises. The true impact of the new World Cup format, however, will not be fully seen until the 23rd FIFA World Cup in 2026.