Doha (AFP) – Forty-eight teams, three host nations, and potentially over 100 matches.
FIFA, which successfully organized the most compact World Cup in history, is now preparing to organize the biggest one.
The dust of Sunday’s World Cup final had just calmed before attention turned to the colossal figure of 2026 looming on the horizon.
Football’s biggest tournament will be held for the first time in three host nations, the USA, Canada and Mexico.
The tournament will expand to 48 teams from the current 32-team format in effect since 1998, doubling the number of teams that participated in the last World Cup held on US or Mexican soil.
The expanded rivalry represents a victory for FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who made expanding the World Cup a priority after becoming the leader of world football in 2016.
The 16-team increase marks the biggest expansion in World Cup evolution.
The 13-team finals in the inaugural tournament in 1930 remained a 16-team event from 1934 to 1978, rising to 24 in 1982.
Africa and Asia will benefit most from the expansion to 48 teams.
Under the new format, Africa will receive nine qualifying places for the finals (compared to the previous five places), while Asia will almost double to eight (4.5 places).
Oceania, which has traditionally been forced to compete for a World Cup via a playoff, will automatically receive a qualifying berth.
‘Heavenly sent’ opportunity
“It’s like heaven for us Africans,” said former Nigeria national team Sunday Oliseh.
“I always thought (Africa) should send more reps – the more you play, the better your chances.
“A continent with more than a billion people. My country is 200 million people.
“It’s fascinating to see a bigger, bigger World Cup for us.”
Expanded African unity is welcome news for some of the region’s powerhouses. Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria were eliminated from the Qatar finals during the qualifiers.
The representation of Europe will also be increased from 13 to 16, while South America will increase from 4.5 places to six.
With Canada, the United States and Mexico as hosts, CONCACAF will secure three more places for a total of six teams from the region.
Two additional places will be determined by the play-offs.
We’ll see what this expansion means for the tournament format later.
FIFA stated that it initially favored 16 groups of three teams, with the top two in each group progressing to a 32-team qualifying stage.
But the success of the first stage of the four-team group in Qatar – where several groups fell on the wires – prompted rethinking.
Infantino told reporters on Friday that FIFA now plans to “reconsider” its three-team group format.
The most likely 2026 scenario is a group of four of 12 where the top two teams advance to the knockout rounds, with the top eight third-place finishes.
However, this format means 104 games out of 64 games in Qatar, while a team that reaches the final will have to play eight games.
increase in profit
The number of places for the finals will double from eight stadiums in Qatar to 16.
Eleven venues will be in the US, three in Mexico and two in Canada.
All USA games are played in venues used by NFL teams, whose stadiums are predicted to host the finals, such as the $5 billion SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and the New York Giants’ 82,000-seat MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
The majority of games will be played in the United States, including all matches from the qualifying rounds.
Given the geographic distribution of the tournament, FIFA tries to base teams on regional clusters to minimize travel.
“When we’re dealing with a big region like North America, we need to care about the fans and make sure that teams play in groups, that fans and teams don’t have to go crazy distances,” Infantino said. .
Infantino said FIFA expects a large increase in its expanded World Cup revenues.
Revenues in the four-year cycle leading to 2026 are expected to grow from $7.5 billion in the cycle ending in 2022 to $11 billion.
“We are optimistic about the power of football,” said Infantino. “We believe the impact of the game will be huge.
“It’s been tremendous here and it’s going to be incredible in North America.”
© 2022 AFP