World Cup expansion good news for Asia
Fifa says sport's biggest showpiece will expand from 32 teams to 48 in 2026
ZURICH: Asia and Africa are set to be big winners after Fifa's ruling council yesterday unanimously approved an expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026.
The move is a major coup for the body's president Gianni Infantino.
In a bid to widen the game's global appeal and enrich its coffers, the Fifa panel endorsed a format with 16 groups of three nations, a move that represents the first major change to the World Cup since the tournament was boosted from 24 to 32 teams for the 1998 tournament in France.
Critics strongly oppose the move, and it was branded a "money grab and power grab" by New FIFA Now, a group campaigning for reform of the scandal-tainted body.
Among those who backed Infantino was Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who had said a 48-team format "will give more possibilities to countries that have never reached that level of competition".
Currently, Asia has between four and five slots for the World Cup while Africa has five.
The two continents are expecting significant increases on their allocation and Asian nations such as Uzbekistan (world-ranked No. 62), Qatar (87) and South-east Asian giants Thailand (126), who are currently in the final round of qualifiers for next year's World Cup in Russia, will almost certainly have a better chance of playing in their first World Cup in 2026.
Infantino took over the body 11 months ago, vowing to repair the damage done at the end of Sepp Blatter's tenure by growing football across the globe.
Enlarging the World Cup, the top sporting competition, was the centrepiece of that plan.
Critics say the expanded tournament would dilute the quality of play and overburden already exhausted players.
Football's powerful European Club Association (ECA) reiterated its opposition, describing the 32-team model as "the perfect formula".
"We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable," the body, which represents European football clubs said, in a statement.
A confidential Fifa report seen by AFP projects a 48-team tournament would bring US$640 million (S$919m) above projected revenues for next year's finals in Russia.
But Infantino has also argued that more World Cup berths would boost "inclusion" in the "biggest social and sporting event".
In order to smooth over scepticism about World Cup reform within European governing body Uefa, it is likely that Europe will get more than its current 13 places.
A source close to Fifa told AFP that under the new format, Europe could get 16 places, with Africa earning nine.
But world football's governing body is not expected to immediately announce its final decision on allotments, which may fuel a debate.
The new format envisages 80 matches - 16 more than the current set-up - but will still be played over the same 32 days.
Two teams from each group will advance to a 32-nation knockout round.
Some have pointed to Euro 2016 - which expanded to 24 nations - as evidence that competition can remain fierce with more countries involved, noting the stunning achievements of football minnows such as Iceland and Wales.
Bidding to host the 2026 tournament has not yet opened, but Infantino has voiced support for two countries sharing the duty, easing the financial burden on a single host nation.
Sources have said that a joint US-Canada bid, possibly involving Mexico could emerge, while Morocco has also been mentioned. - AFP
Also read: Mixed reaction to World Cup expansion