FIFA approved a 48-team 2026 World Cup with “one hundred per cent unanimity”, a confederation president has claimed.
In the face of fierce opposition to expansion from European clubs, Victor Montagliani, the head of Concacaf, said: “The decision was made on the facts and the figures, not on, hey, a wink and a nod. Maybe the time has come when we don’t do things on a wink and a nod anymore.”
Fifa’s 37-member Council waved through a scheme for 16 groups of three, with more countries from each of the six confederations. But Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, said penalty shoot-outs in group-stage games may not be approved until “two years” before the 2026 tournament, which could be jointly hosted by America, Canada and Mexico. An alternative, Infantino said, would be for finishing positions in groups to be decided on “rankings”.
While the Canadian Montagliani claimed there was “no opposition – period”, Spain, Germany and the European Club Association (ECA), who called it a “political” move, criticised the growth from 32 to 48 teams.
Spain’s La Liga president Javier Tebas told L’Equipe: “Infantino behaves like [Sepp] Blatter. He also made decisions alone without consulting anyone about them and I’m very angry. It is easy to expand this competition without having to pay the players. The football industry is maintained thanks to clubs and leagues, not Fifa.”
The ECA said in a statement: “We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives. Questionable is also the urgency in reaching such an important decision, with nine years to go until it becomes applicable, without the proper involvement of stakeholders who will be impacted by this change.
“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 Football Association is said to be resigned to the change.
Infantino, who stood on a manifesto of World Cup expansion, said here in Zurich: “We have to shape the football World Cup on the 21st century. It’s not any more the 20th century. It is the future. We have to look into that. Football is more than just South America. Football is global.”
He also rejected German opposition: “Whatever format you have, Germany will be there. But for many other countries it is a chance indeed to qualify. It is a chance to participate. It is one month every four years and the one month doesn’t get longer. It stays in the same 32 days.
“In Germany I hope that with time we can discuss it and they can see the benefit for the world, bearing in mind that in Germany today there are many many players in the Bundesliga from all around the world, and it’s nice for these players as well to maybe have the possibility to participate once in their lifetime in the biggest event in the world.”
Montagliani, who represents North, Central American and Caribbean football associations, dismissed the possibility of political complications from a Donald trump-led America co-operating with Mexico. “I’m a football guy, not a politician,” Montagliani said. “The only thing I would say from afar is Trump is a big sports guy. I think he’s proven that in the past. So you would hope that football – no pun intended – would trump politics.”
Scotland was one of the first minor nations to publicly approve expansion. Their chief executive, Stewart Regan, said: “This will also allow these nations to invest further in their footballing infrastructure and youth development, which in turn can yield significant social benefits.
“The exploits of Wales, Iceland, and Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 showed what an impact the smaller teams can have, and how beneficial to a tournament their participation can be. A greater eclectic mix of footballing cultures at the Fifa World Cup will create a bigger and better atmosphere than ever before.”
Infantino said as much as $1 billion in extra revenue would go into “football development” – but was not specific. The pressure group NewFIFANow were also hostile, arguing: “It will dilute the competitiveness of the tournament and, therefore, the enjoyment of fans.
“It will not help development of the game or provide improved competitive opportunities for lower-ranked nations. Instead, it will make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations.
“It is a money grab and power grab. The aim is to increase revenue in order to fund the extravagant election promises of the Fifa President, Gianni Infantino, as well as to consolidate Infantino’s personal position.”