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FIFA approves 48-team World Cup from 2026

Ben Simon
10 January 2017 | Africa
FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks during a press briefing closing a meeting of the FIFA executive council at FIFA headquarters in Zurich on January 10, 2017.  By Michael BUHOLZER (AFP)
FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks during a press briefing closing a meeting of the FIFA executive council at FIFA headquarters in Zurich on January 10, 2017. By Michael BUHOLZER (AFP)

Zurich (AFP) - FIFA voted Tuesday to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 in a victory for its president Gianni Infantino but derided by critics as driven by money and politics.

In a deeply divisive move which will enrich scandal-tainted FIFA's coffers, its ruling council unanimously adopted an expanded format with 16 groups of three nations that will bring "benefits without negatives," said Infantino.

"We have to shape the World Cup of the 21st Century... football is more than Europe and South America," the FIFA president said after the vote.

"Many more countries will have the chance to dream."

It represents the first major change to the World Cup since the tournament was boosted from 24 to the current 32 teams for the 1998 tournament in France.

But its many critics strongly oppose the latest move and it was branded a "money grab and power grab" by New FIFA Now, a group campaigning for reform of FIFA.

Infantino took over the body 11 months ago with a vow to repair the damage done at the end of Sepp Blatter's tenure by growing football across the globe.

Enlarging the World Cup was the centrepiece of that vision, but opponents say a bigger tournament will dilute the quality of play and overburden already exhausted players, particularly in Europe's money-rich leagues.

Football's powerful European Club Association reiterated its strong opposition, describing the current World Cup model as "the perfect formula".

FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks during a press briefing closing a meeting of the FIFA executive council at FIFA headquarters in Zurich on January 10, 2017

"We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable," the body which represents Europe's leading clubs said in a statement.

Javier Tebas, president of the Spanish La Liga, made no attempt to hide his disgust.

"FIFA is doing politics. Gianni Infantino is doing politics," he thundered.

"To be elected he promised more countries at the World Cup. He wants to honour his electoral promises. But the promises made to professional football, he's not sticking to.

"It is without our agreement and it makes us very angry."

Big winners, big money

The new format envisages 80 matches -- 16 more than the current set-up -- but crucially will still be played over the same 32 days, a nod to opponents who fear player burn-out.

Two teams from each group will advance to a 32-nation knock-out round.

A confidential FIFA report seen by AFP projects a 48-team tournament would bring a cash boost of $640 million (605 million euros) above projected revenues for next year's finals in Russia.

Africa and Asia could be the big winners in a larger format of 48 teams at an expanded World Cup, currently at 5 and 4.5 respectively

But Infantino also argues that more World Cup berths would help serve football's interest by boosting "inclusion" in the "biggest social and sporting event".

Africa and Asia could be the big winners with a rise in their number of World Cup places -- currently five for Africa and between four and five for Asia.

To smooth over deep scepticism about World Cup reform within UEFA, it is likely that Europe will also see its allocation rise above the current 13 places.

A source close to FIFA told AFP that under the new format Europe could get 16 places, with Africa earning nine.

But that information remained unconfirmed and world 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 the meeting at FIFA's snow-covered Zurich headquarters, including maintaining the status quo of 32 teams.

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.

Who will host 2026?

A journalist stands under the snow next to a logo of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, during meeting of the FIFA's governing council on January 10, 2017

Bidding to host the 2026 tournament has not yet opened, but 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 US-Canada bid, possibly involving Mexico, could emerge, while Morocco has also been mentioned.

Tuesday's landmark decision 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 its current 32-team version in 1998.

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