Football's world governing body announced via a Twitter post on Tuesday that the FIFA Council had voted unanimously to back President Gianni Infantino's plan to expand the World Cup from the current 32 teams to 48, beginning with the 2026 tournament. The first stage of the World Cup is to be played out in 16 groups of three, with the top two in each group advancing to a round of 32.
Infantino, who was elected last February to replace the banned former longtime president, Sepp Blatter, had pledged during his campaign to expand the tournament. This was particularly appealing to many of FIFA's 211 national associations who have never or only rarely qualified for the finals of the World Cup. The plan was far less popular among the bigger footballing nations such as Germany.
The FIFA president had initially suggested expanding the World Cup to 40 teams, but back in October, revised his plan upwards to 48.
This means that instead of the current 64, there will be a total of 80 games played at the 2026 World Cup, which is likely to be held in North America. The increase in the number of teams and matches is expected to lead to major revenue gains, with a FIFA study showing that it should generate the equivalent of $1billion in extra income at current rates from broadcasting rights and sponsoring deals, plus ticket sales.
In the weeks and months leading up to the FIFA Council meeting, critics of the plan, such as the European Club Association (ECA), warned against increasing the burden on the players.
"We have to focus on the sport again. Politics and commerce should not be the exclusive priority in football,"ECA Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in the statement issued on the matter last month.
Just last week, the German football association's (DFB) president, Reinhard Grindel, warned FIFA against tampering with a winning formula, arguing that the higher number of teams represented at the World Cup could lead to a drop in the quality of football. Grindel said he had "immense reservations" about the danger of watering down the tournament.
FIFA's six continental federations are to find out by May how many extra places they will get at the 2026 World Cup.