The FIFA Council has unanimously decided in favour of increasing the number of teams playing at the World Cup from 32 to 48 with effect from the 2026 edition of the global sporting event.
The world football’s supervisory and strategic body held its third meeting at the headquarters of FIFA in Zurich on 9 and 10 January, and decided on a new tournament format with the 48 national teams split into 16 groups of three. The top two teams from each group will then advance to a 32-team knockout stage.
Currently, the World Cup, the largest international team sport competition in the world, involves eight groups of four, with the top two going through the last 16 knockout round.
The new 48-team competition format has been drawn up in such a way that there is no reduction in the overall number of rest days and a guaranteed maximum of seven matches for the teams reaching the final, while the current 32-day tournament duration is kept, so as not to increase the length of time for which clubs have to release their players, FIFA explained.
The organisation said the decision to increase the number of participating national teams was taken following a thorough analysis, based on a report that included four different format options. The study took into account such factors as sporting balance, competition quality, impact on football development, infrastructure, projections on financial position and the consequences for event delivery. Over the course of its next meetings, the FIFA Council is set to discuss further details regarding the competition, including the slot allocation per confederation.
Since 1998, when the World Cup expanded to accommodate 32 teams, the format has stayed the same. Analysts say Africa and Asia will get increased slots; Africa, which currently sends five representatives to the competition, has been campaigning for years for more participants from the continent.
Meanwhile the world of football has started commenting on the new development. Jose Mourinho, one of the world’s most successful managers, currently at English Premier League club Manchester United, said he was “totally in favour.”
Mourinho, who has won titles in Portugal, England, Spain and Italy, told FIFA’s website: “The expansion means that the World Cup will be even more of an incredible social event. More countries, more investment in different countries in infrastructure, in youth football.”
However, the German football federation chief Reinhard Grindel said expansion could dilute the quality of football and overburden players. And Europe’s top clubs agree.
The European Club Association, which represents them, released a statement shortly after the decision was made public questioning the need to deviate from the current “perfect” formula.