Soccer

World Cup expansion: needed change or cash grab?

By Andrew Keh / New York Times News Service

ZURICH — The World Cup will grow to 48 teams in 2026 under a plan approved unanimously Tuesday by FIFA’s governing council, an enormous expansion of soccer’s showpiece tournament that was hailed by supporters as a victory for inclusion but that was derided by critics as the latest money grab by an organization still emerging from a series of financial scandals.

The move was the largest expansion, in percentage terms, for the World Cup since it went to 24 teams from 16 in 1982, and the first since it moved to the current 32 nations in 1998.

The decision to expand was both political and financial. FIFA’s new president, Gianni Infantino, had pressed for the change when he ran for the presidency last year, as a way to invigorate the event and to include more countries, and expansion is sure to be popular in the vote-rich confederations of Africa and Asia that serve as any FIFA president’s power base. And few dispute that a 48-team World Cup would be a bigger, richer tournament, producing, by FIFA’s estimates, an additional $1 billion in television, sponsorship and ticketing revenue in the first cycle alone.

But critics of the plan argue it will be a diminished tournament, with nearly a quarter of FIFA’s 211 member associations earning a place every four years, and one that, at 80 games over nearly five weeks, will exhaust the players and lead to middling performances in the later stages.

The World Cup has used a 32-team format since the 1998 tournament in France and will keep that format for the coming competitions in Russia in 2018 and in Qatar in 2022.

But beginning in 2026 — in a tournament for which the bidding to host has not yet begun — 48 teams will be placed into 16 three-team groups for the first stage, with the top two teams from each group advancing to a 32-team knockout round.

The charged question of how to allocate the 48 slots among the sport’s six continental confederations has yet to be determined, but it is certain to be the subject of fraught discussion, intense negotiation and high-stakes political calculus.

Any plan to increase the size of the tournament field — at least four options for expansion were said to have been discussed Tuesday, including variants for 48 teams and 40 teams — seemed specifically tailored to appeal to smaller soccer nations, particularly those in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who often feel underrepresented at the World Cup. An expanded field of 48 teams in 2014, for example, might have included Egypt, Jordan, New Zealand and Tunisia.

A divisive proposal

The issue of expansion had divided the global soccer community since Infantino proposed it as part of his campaign to replace Sepp Blatter, who stepped down in 2015 amid a corruption scandal that led to the arrests of several members of FIFA’s leadership. The concept faced particular resistance in Europe, which has always had a disproportionate share of the automatic places in the tournament.

In the days before the vote, vocal opponents of the expansion plans grew to include the European Club Association, which represents 220 clubs on the Continent; it contended that there were already too many games on the soccer calendar, putting the general health of the world’s best players — most of whom earn millions playing for clubs in Europe — at risk.

Reinhard Grindel, the president of the soccer federation of Germany, the reigning World Cup champion, encapsulated other arguments against the plan last week when he publicly warned that the overall quality of play would be diluted and that the increased burdens on players could cause rifts between clubs and national teams.

The 48-team, 16-group format will have a total of 80 games, up from 64. But the champion will still play only seven matches.

Besides the current 32-team format and the new format approved Tuesday, there were three other options on the table for the council to ponder: 40 teams with eight groups of five (88 games); 40 teams with 10 groups of four (76 games); and 48 teams, but with a 32-team, single-elimination round before a 32-team group stage (80 games).

From 13 to 48

The World Cup tournament began in 1930, in Uruguay, with 13 teams, but as recently as 1978 it was capped at 16, with only one entrant each from Asia and Africa.

Infantino had campaigned on the benefits of expanding the World Cup field: more places for teams, more games to sell, more fans to engage in more markets and more money to make.

According to The Associated Press, FIFA’s internal calculations predicted that a 48-team tournament in 2026 would bring in $6.5 billion in revenue, an increase of $1 billion from the total it has projected for next summer’s tournament in Russia. Potential profit, FIFA said, could increase by around $640 million.

Still, the bigger tournament will presumably present new logistical challenges for host nations, which will have to accommodate 16 additional squads with training sites and housing, and will need at least a dozen stadiums capable of hosting games.

This would in theory be beneficial to the United States, which is viewed as a front-runner to host the 2026 World Cup, but also for China, which has expressed an eagerness to host in 2030, if not sooner. But it would also be good news for prospective bids from established powers, like England, that already have the required number of stadiums in place.

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