48 teams for the expanded World Cup football in 2026: Is this madness?

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Suresh Nair

CRAZY some may say, making the World Cup competition as crowded as Chinatown or Little India but a vote will be taken this week to have 48 countries at the 2026 event.

In numerical terms, it’s 50 per cent bigger and there will be 80 matches as opposed to the current 64.

Holy cow, you will probably scream. It is indeed. Mind you, the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 comprised just 13 countries. But football has grown since then, you may have noticed, and FIFA (the world football controlling body) currently claims 211 national football associations as members.

FIFA’s expressed ambition for this expanded tournament is that it will allow less celebrated footballing nations – think China and India or even Singapore! – to join “the world’s greatest party” or whatever they call it nowadays.

Money is perhaps one of the most tempting “carrots”. Well there is the fact that by expanding the tournament, FIFA can expect to raise an extra US$1bn (S$1.32bn) in revenue from greater television rights and sponsorship. But given the organisation’s reputation as a bastion of fiscal probity, nobody’s going to be worrying about that.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has strongly defended the decision to expand the World Cup from 32 competing national teams to 48, in the face of immediate criticism from top European clubs. The new format will create a first round of 16 groups, from which two of three teams will qualify and proceed to a knockout competition beginning with 32 countries.

EXTRA MONEY FOR DEVELOPMENT

hE said the money will be reinvested in football; he has promised all FIFA’s 211 member countries’ associations US$5m a year to aid development.

Mind you, Infantino is seeking re-election as head of FIFA in 2019, and keeping as many federations as possible happy won’t do his chances of a second term any harm, but if this proposal moves forward, he is likely to face a backlash from the big European leagues over the disruption it will have on their fixture schedules.

Responding robustly to criticism from the German football association (DFB) and European Club Association (ECA), which derided Fifa’s decision as having been taken for “political reasons rather than sporting ones,” Infantino said: “We are in the 21st century, and we should shape the World Cup for the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America; football is global.”

FIFA’s football associations, particularly in Africa and Asia, have historically been in favour of the tournament’s expansion, which Infantino said will give them all more places in the finals.

Arguing that qualification for the World Cup provides a key boost to football development in smaller countries, he pointed to the advances of Iceland, Wales and Hungary in last year’s European Championship as examples of “beautiful stories”.

European football’s governing body, UEFA, decided in 2008 to expand its tournament from 16 countries to 24, and Europe’s representatives on Fifa’s council supported the World Cup increase, despite the opposition from leading clubs.

Under the current proposals, every continent will get a big boost with Europe receiving three more places in the tournament, 16 in all (one per group). The proposed breakdown would comprise: Europe 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (0.5), Host nation 1 (1).

QUALITY OF FOOTBALL

Former FIFA coaching instructor and award-winning ex-Singapore coach Jita Singh says: “Increasing the size of teams which can participate will increase the investment in football development, to make sure that the teams can qualify. The quality of football is improving around the world, just look at the elimination of both England and Italy by Costa Rica in the last World Cup in 2014.”

Jita believes that FIFA must work with UEFA and the other European associations to understand how the 48-team FIFA World Cup will work. The priority has to be consideration of the potential impact on fans, players, teams and leagues, and also recognition of the importance of sporting integrity and commercial viability.”

Even Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho said he was “totally in favour” of the idea. The Portuguese, who has won titles in Portugal, England, Spain and Italy, says as a club manager, the fact there wouldn’t be an increase in matches or a reduction in recovery time either side of the competition for players, is a big plus.

“The expansion means that the World Cup will be even more of an incredible social event. More countries, more investment in different countries in infrastructure, in youth football,” he added.

If you’re going to make it bigger, at least try and make it better, says London-based sports journalist Richard Hart. He says: “Europe currently sends 13 teams, expected to grow to 16 or 17. However, Uefa boasts 27 of the top 47-ranked nations on the planet, meaning a glut of top teams would miss out while minnows will take their place.”

Schoolteacher Juliana Hashim of Serangoon North Avenue 1 says: “First it was 24, then it was 32 and now it’s an eye-watering 48. Given that the only logic seems to be to add to the ever-increasing piles of gold accumulating in the vaults of each national football federation, who is to say it stops here? By 2034 we could be seeing a World Cup where more teams go to the finals than don’t!”

Weighing the pros and cons, and having covered World Cup football for over three decades, I believe Infantino is keen to spread the love. He wants the World Cup to be more “inclusive” and that means giving more of FIFA’s 211 member associations the chance to take part in the tournament.