ZURICH • Fifa's ruling council yesterday unanimously approved an expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, in a major coup for the world football governing 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 tweet from Fifa's official account said. The move 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.
Mr Infantino took over as Fifa president 11 months ago, with a vow to repair the damage done at the end of Mr Sepp Blatter's tenure by growing football across the globe.
Enlarging the World Cup Finals, the planet's top sporting competition, was the centrepiece of that plan.
Africa and Asia could be the big winners with a rise in their number of places - currently at five for Africa and between four and five for Asia.
NUMBER OF PARTICIPATING NATIONS IN WORLD CUP FINALS
(In 1950, the proposed 16-team format competition was hit by withdrawals during and after qualifiers.)
1934, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978
(In 1938, 15 teams played, after Austria qualified but withdrew on being merged with Germany.)
1982, 1986, 1990, 1994
1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018, 2022
But in order to smooth over scepticism about World Cup reform within Uefa, it is likely that Europe will also see its allotments rise above the current 13 places.
A source close to Fifa told Agence France-Presse that under the new format, Europe could get 16 places, with Africa earning nine.
However, that information remained unconfirmed, and football's governing body was not expected to immediately announce its final decision on allotments, which may fuel a tough debate in the months ahead.
The council officially weighed five proposals during yesterday's meeting at Fifa's snow-covered Zurich headquarters, including maintaining the status quo of 32 teams.
The landmark decision to expand the tournament is the latest overhaul of the World Cup, which has seen its global popularity and financial might surge since the inaugural edition in 1930.
That contest, won by Uruguay, had just 13 countries. The World Cup expanded to 24 teams in 1982 in Spain, before moving to the 32-team version in France in 1998.
Earlier World Cup enlargement plans foresaw a longer tournament, raising alarm that international football's already stretched calendar would be further tested.
The format approved yesterday envisages 80 matches - 16 more than the current set-up. But crucially, they will still be played over the same 32 days. Two teams from each group will advance to a 32-nation knock-out 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 Mr Infantino has voiced support for two countries sharing the duty, easing the financial burden on a single host nation.
Sources close to Fifa have said that a joint bid by the United States and Canada - possibly involving Mexico - could emerge, while Morocco has also been mentioned.