By Jonathan Copping, Sports Lawyer, Bolt Burdon Law Firm, London, UK
On 10 January 2017, at the FIFA Council meeting in Zurich, it was unanimously agreed that the World Cup would be expanded to 48 teams from 2026. The decision follows from the newt FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s pledge last year, during the FIFA presidential election process, to expand the World Cup.
Five options were presented to the FIFA Council, only one of which would have meant the World Cup would have remained a 32-team tournament. Two of the options proposed expanding the competition to 40 teams and the remaining two options proposed expanding the tournament to 48 teams.
FIFA decided to introduce a new 48-team tournament of 16 groups comprising 3 teams each (as opposed to the current format of 8 groups comprising 4 teams each). There will be 3 games played in each group, with the top two teams advancing to 32 knockout phase. After the 32 knockout phase, the tournament will proceed as it currently does.
FIFA hopes that, by introducing smaller groups comprising 3 teams, the number of ‘dead rubber’ games will be reduced. The current format of the World Cup can lead to scenarios where teams playing a final group game have nothing left to play for, either because they have already qualified or been eliminated, therefore, eroding the spectacle of a game at the World Cup.
The 48-team tournament will increase the number of matches from 64 to 80. The FIFA Council also decided the geographical locations from where the 16 additional teams will come. Europe, which currently has 13 teams, has been awarded a further 3 teams. Africa will see its number increase from 5 to 9; Asia from 4.5 to 8.5; South America from 4.5 to 6; North, Central America & the Caribbean from 3.5 to 6.5; and Oceania from 0.5 to 1. The 0.5 figure indicates that a play-off will take place between teams from different geographical regions. The host nation will retain an automatic place at the World Cup.
Commentators have questioned FIFA’s reasons behind expanding the tournament; with some stating that the increase in the number of teams will lead to a decrease in the sporting quality of the World Cup and that the expansion is due to political and financial reasons. It is unquestionable that the expansion will lead to increased revenues for FIFA. Ticket sales, advertising and broadcasting revenues will increase. The expanded tournament is likely to see teams qualify from nations that do not usually reach the World Cup.
China, for example, will probably benefit from the expansion and be able to reach the World Cup. This comes at a time when the Chinese Government is pushing for an increase in the participation of football and the teams in the Chinese Super League are paying huge sums to tempt top foreign players to move there.
An expanded World Cup will mean a significantly larger financial outlay by the host nation, in terms of infrastructure and stadia. Nations, who will potentially bid to host the 2026 World Cup include Morocco, USA, Kazakhstan and a joint bid from Australia and New Zealand.