World Cup expansion: How will it work? What does it mean for us?
A total of 48 teams will now take place in a revamped tournament format from 2026
On Tuesday morning the Fifa Council met in Zurich and voted unanimously to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 teams from 2026 onwards.
While there is no doubt that the club game now dominates the football landscape in every way, the four-yearly meeting of nations from all around the globe is still a huge deal, particularly for Fifa and their cash reserves.
New president Gianni Infantino used the expansion as one of his key marketing tools during his campaign for election and he has now been vindicated. While full details won’t emerge for some time yet, here is everything you need to know about how the biggest sporting event in the world will play out from 2026.
First off, how will the format change?
The World Cup is currently played between 32 countries with eight groups of four. The top two in each group then advance to the last 16 before the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. You know the drill.
However, from 2026, the influx of 16 extra teams will mean that the number of groups will be doubled to 16 (that means that there will be such things as Group O and Group P) with three nations in each.
Each nation will play each other once before the top two advance to the new last-32 knockout stage and from there to the final the status quo is maintained.
So, essentially, it’s kind of like the current format just going straight into a knockout stage?
In a lot of ways, yes. You can rest assured that seedings will ensure we don’t see the likes of Germany, Spain and Brazil all drawn together in Group M with Saudi Arabia, Suriname and Dijbouti in Group N. It’s highly unlikely that any of the big nations from Europe or South America will manage to get themselves knocked out in groups of three with the top two advancing.
However, what it does throw up is a stronger possibility of teams finishing tied on the exact same points, head-to-head records and goal difference.
For example, imagine a group made up of Germany, Ireland the USA.
Now imagine Germany beat both Ireland and the US 2-0 and, in the final game of the group, a 43-year-old Wes Hoolahan pops up to score a last minute equaliser against a United States team personally hand-picked by president/men’s national team coach Donald Trump.
Okay, just imagine Ireland and the USA draw 1-1.
That means both teams will finish the group with identical records. What happens then?
Well, this is where Infantino, in his wisdom, has a plan. The man who replaced Sepp Blatter as Fifa chief is proposing that all drawn games during the group stages are decided by a penalty shootout.
While this idea has been much derided it’s worth noting that it’s a fairer system than the drawing of lots currently used in international competitions to separate teams with identical records.
So what are the benefits of the new format?
Well, Infantino says his motivation for expansion is to give more countries a chance of experiencing the World Cup, which will bolster international football in developed markets and assist the growth in emerging areas. Fair enough.
There is also the small side-note of the extended tournament expected to bring in an extra €920million in broadcasting, commercial and match-day revenue, according to research from Fifa.
Does it mean we will have more football to watch?
It does. Under the current model there are a total of 64 games played at the World Cup. From 2026 that will increase to 80 matches.
So will club managers not be up in arms about their players playing more matches?
They won’t, because, in this case, more actually means less for each nation.
That’s because, with 50 per cent more teams taking part, the average number of matches teams have to play will fall from 4 to 3.33.
So more teams mean more stadiums are needed, then?
Yes, and this is where England could benefit. While the FA stated last week that it opposed the motion, an increased number of teams does help its chances of hosting a first World Cup since 1966.
England is one of the few countries with the stadiums and infrastructure needed to host 80 football matches between 48 nations.
It’s for that reason that the USA is favourite to host the 2026 tournament.
Is this the first time the World Cup format has changed?
No. The expansion of the World Cup has been constant since the first tournament was played in 1930 and this is simply the next step. While it is quite a big change - 23 per cent of the 211 Fifa registered nations will now compete - it is not unprecedented.
For the 1934 tournament in Italy the number of teams increased from 13 to 16.
In 1982 that rose again to 24 teams before the current model of 32 teams came into play at France ‘98.
What we really want to know is if this means Ireland have a better chance of qualifying?
Unfortunately that is something we don’t know yet and, most likely, will not know for some time. While the answer is most likely yes, nothing has been confirmed.
There is set to be an almighty battle between the six confederations for the 16 extra spots with the general consensus being that Africa and Asia will benefit most as both are currently under-represented.
At the moment there are 13 qualifying spots available to the 54 teams that take part in European qualifying. While it is expected that that number will increase to 16, it will come as a surprise if it’s any more than that.
But it does mean that, in 2026, Ireland could potentially qualify as the 33rd team?
It does indeed. John Delaney’s request to Sepp Blatter after Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009 may, finally, become a reality. The chances of a 49th team being allowed in? Pretty slim.