FIFA expands World Cup to include 48 teams

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The past five installments of the FIFA World Cup have been the same – a 32-team tournament with eight groups consisting of four teams each. This format will remain in place for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as well as the controversial 2022 World Cup in Qatar. However, beginning in 2026, the FIFA World Cup will take on a different look, expanding to its largest field yet.

Beginning in 2026, the FIFA World Cup will consist of 48 teams, expanding the field by 50 percent. Numerous international soccer tournaments have been expanding recently, including the European Championships expanding from 16 teams to 24 teams for the 2020 installment of the tournament, and the Gold Cup (the soccer tournament held once every two years between teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean) reportedly set to expand from 12 teams to 16 teams in 2019, according to a report by Caribbean soccer reporter Nathan Carr.

This expansion was voted on unanimously by FIFA, and will consist of 16 groups of three teams. The top two teams from each group will advance to the 32-team knockout round, where the tournament will take on a single-elimination format. Much like the current format, the maximum number of games a team can play is seven; however, under this new format, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, revenue could increase by 10 percent, or roughly $1 billion.

On the expansion, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said, “The upside is 16 more countries, some which would never have dreamed of playing in the World Cup, will be able to participate.” While the expansion received some criticism for potentially diluting the field, of the 211 FIFA nations, less than 23 percent of the world will be participating in the tournament, even despite the expansion. By comparison, the postseason for Major League Baseball, considered to be the most exclusive postseason in American sports, is comprised of 33 percent of the teams in the league.

Under a 48-team World Cup, the United States arguably walks away as one of the winners. Under the current format, CONCACAF (the Confederation representing all Countries in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean) receives three automatic spots in the World Cup. While the U. S. usually qualifies for the World Cup under this format, as they have qualified for every World Cup since 1990, they have sometimes struggled to qualify. Currently, the U. S. is in danger of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, having gone winless in their first two games during the final round of qualifying. While qualifying for the 2020 World Cup, the U. S. needed a come-from-behind victory against Guatemala to avoid being eliminated from the qualifying process. However, under this expanded format, CONCACAF is projected to receive five or six spots in the World Cup, almost guaranteeing that the U. S. qualifies for the World Cup every year.

An expanded World Cup increases the chances of the United States hosting a World Cup in the future. After missing out on hosting the 2022 World Cup in controversial fashion to Qatar, the U. S. is considered to be the favorite to host the 2026 World Cup due to the infrastructure. The U. S. is one of the only countries in the world that could host a 48-team World Cup without having to build any additional stadiums. In 1994, the U. S. hosted the World Cup; despite the fact that the U. S. did not have a strong soccer team or any professional soccer league, and despite the fact that there were only 24 teams in the World Cup at the time, the tournament brought in over 3.5 million fans (an average of over 68,000 per match), which is a record that still stands today. A tournament twice as large would set record numbers for FIFA unlikely to ever be matched.

This is the largest expansion to ever take place in World Cup history. The tournament expanded from 16 teams to 24 teams in time for the 1982 World Cup, and expanded from 24 teams to 32 teams in time for the 1998 World Cup. How the 16 extra slots will be divided up between the confederations has yet to be determined; however, it is expected that there will be a significant increase in slots given to Asia, Africa, and North America.

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