GENEVA – World Cup expansion plans got even bigger Monday, and the 2026 tournament could have 48 teams playing instead of 32.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino outlined the idea that would see 16 teams go home after playing just one game in a new opening playoff round.
The 16 playoff winners would join 16 seeded teams to begin a 32-team group stage that follows the current World Cup format.
Expanding to 48 means “more countries and regions all over the world would be happy,” Infantino said in a speech in Bogota, Colombia.
Infantino’s suggested format would create a tournament of 80 matches instead of the current 64 – driving up the price broadcasters would pay for rights to the world’s most-watched sports event.
FIFA earned around $5 billion from the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
The 2026 World Cup format and bidding process will begin to be discussed next week when Infantino chairs a FIFA Council meeting in Zurich.
The United States, Canada and Mexico are potential bidders for a tournament that the North American soccer body CONCACAF believes it is overdue to host for the first time since the U.S. staged the World Cup in 1994.
The FIFA ruling council’s decision on the 2026 format is expected within months and is set to be a defining issue of Infantino’s presidency before he is due for re-election in 2019.
Infantino wooed FIFA voters by promising a 40-team World Cup before winning election in February. He is completing the mandate of Sepp Blatter, who supported a 32-team World Cup.
Now Infantino believes that “with 40 teams, the math doesn’t work.”
“You could have a tournament in which the 16 best teams advance to a group stage and the other 16 will came out of a ‘playoff’ ahead of the group stage, and the World Cup could end up with 48 teams,” Infantino said at a university in the Colombian capital.
How to define the “best” teams could ignite debate if seeding is decided on the merit of recent results, or a national team’s historical record at past World Cups.
On current FIFA rankings, the 16 best teams all come from Europe and South America, except for 15th-ranked Mexico.
Infantino’s previous employer, UEFA, provoked anger in recent weeks by changing future Champions League seeding and prize money distribution rules that favor traditional powers over emerging teams.
Staging a World Cup of 48 teams would also add stress on host nations with extra demands for stadiums and training bases.
That could favor candidates like the U.S. with existing infrastructure in place, or increase support for Infantino’s election campaign idea of regional hosting across multiple countries.
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