Football: 2026 World Cup to be biggest

Fifa chief Gianni Infantino speaking to local and international press at Four Seasons Singapore yesterday. The Swiss-Italian wants to see more World Cup co-hosts because of the scale of football's marquee event.
Fifa chief Gianni Infantino speaking to local and international press at Four Seasons Singapore yesterday. The Swiss-Italian wants to see more World Cup co-hosts because of the scale of football's marquee event.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Fifa president Infantino favours 48-team tournament with play-offs before group stage

Football's marquee event, the Fifa World Cup, is set for a reboot in 2026, with more teams, a new format, and possible co-hosting by a few countries among ideas mooted.

Gianni Infantino, president of world football body Fifa, confirmed yesterday that at least three formats - two 48-team versions and a 40-team one - will be put forth to the Fifa council for approval.

Addressing local and international press at Four Seasons Singapore, Infantino, who is in town for the Fifa executive football summit, said: "More teams in the World Cup means more countries involved in the top football competition in the world, which means more football promotion in the world.

"All the associations are for an expansion. We have now basically three formats that we're looking at... and whatever format will be decided by the Fifa council."

The current 32-team model was first played at the 1998 World Cup. The top two teams of each group qualify for the knockout stages.

The Swiss-Italian said he prefers a 48-team version with a play-off before the group stage as this "brings some excitement even before the start of the group stage".


    40 TEAMS

    • 10 groups of four

    • Group winners and the six best runners-up qualify for round of 16.

    48 teams

    • 16 groups of three

    • Top two of each group qualify for round of 32.

    48 teams

    • 16 teams enter group stage directly and are drawn into eight groups of two.

    • Remaining 32 teams compete in a play-off. The 16 winners are then divided into the eight groups.

    • Eight groups of four, top two qualify for knockout stage.

Appearing jovial and relaxed throughout the interview, Infantino also played down concerns that expanding the competition would water down the quality.

Pointing to how powerhouses Italy and England were pipped to a place in the knockout stage by Costa Rica at the last World Cup, he said: "I don't agree with that. The value and quality of football has grown incredibly all over the world.

"Historically the World Cup has expanded in size. We see that now probably the time is right to make the next step.

"Let's not forget we are speaking about 2026 (which is) 10 years from now."

Japan and South Korea are the only countries to have co-hosted a World Cup. They joined forces in 2002. And Infantino, who replaced the disgraced Sepp Blatter in February, backs the idea of co-hosting, noting that "a World Cup today has become such a big event" and that it needed to ensure that "our requirements are also sustainable".

Previous hosts have been left with white elephant stadiums after the razzmatazz petered out and the high maintenance costs hit home. The last World Cup in Brazil set the country back by US$15 billion (S$21.35 billion).

Noting the burden of hosting the tournament, "a huge competition with more than three million supporters and two million fans travelling to a country", Infantino admitted that "we need to come down to earth to some extent".

Which is why co-hosting could be a logical solution.

He argued: "If a country doesn't need to have 12 stadiums of more than 50,000 spectators but only four, then why shouldn't we allow three countries to join forces?

"That would then fit more in their football development strategy and more countries can participate in the dream of hosting at least one part of the World Cup."

Hosts are required to have 12 stadiums which can seat more than 50,000 spectators, among other criteria.

In a wide-ranging interview, Infantino was also asked about the Asean Super League, which is set to kick off next year. He did not say if he was for or against the ASL but said that Fifa would leave it in the hands of local football authorities.

He also touched on the upcoming Football Association of Singapore election and said he is pleased that everything looks well on track.


Gianni Infantino on possible changes to World Cup format

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2016, with the headline '2026 World Cup to be biggest'. Print Edition | Subscribe