Fifa president Gianni Infantino said a proposal to expand the World Cup finals to 48 teams, with 16 groups of three teams, received enthusiastic backing at a meeting of national federations yesterday.
That model, along with an alternative 48-team format and a 40-team event, were three proposals put forward for discussion this week by Fifa as it considers expansion of the World Cup from 2026 onward.
A select meeting of national federations from Asia, Europe and Oceania met with Infantino yesterday, and welcomed a change from the current eight-group, 32-team event.
“They are very supportive of expanding; everyone, unanimously – all those who were here,” Infantino said after the meeting.
“The big, big, big majority is in favour of the 48 teams with the 16 groups of three.”
Under that format, the top two teams from each of the 16 groups would advance immediately into knockout stages, eliminating the existing problem of some group games in which one or both teams had nothing to play for.
While some had voiced concerns that an expansion of the World Cup will dilute its quality and standing as an event for elite national teams, Infantino said those concerns were outweighed by the benefits.
“There is a big upside for football because it allows eight or 16 more teams and more countries and regions in the world to participate,” Infantino said.
He also stressed that all the expansionary models would increase the number of teams without stretching the length of the event, which would remain capped at 32 days, with the finalists playing seven games in that period.
“There is no downside for the players, and there is no downside for the clubs because the calendar isn’t impacted.”
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, however, was “sceptical” about plans to extend the competition to a 48-team tournament.
Wenger suggested the changes may not improve the competition and could be made for the wrong reasons.
“My thoughts on that are is it guided for popular reasons? Or is that guided to improve the level of football? I’m a bit sceptical,” he said yesterday.
“If somebody can convince me that it will make football better and that we can live with the time it will take to complete the World Cup, I am ready to listen.
“At the moment, I think I am not convinced. We have moved to 24 teams in Europe [for the European Championship], that’s basically 50 per cent of the teams we have in Europe.
“I can’t see that being a huge improvement on the quality of the game. But 48 teams... we have about 300 teams in the world, the percentage looks that it could be accepted.”
Wenger has, however, called for changes to be made to the “outdated” European qualifying process for future World Cups, as interest and attendances are dwindling in large parts of the continent.
“The qualifying in Europe has to be changed already,” he said. “You look at the percentage of wins of the big countries in the qualifiers. They go to the big tournaments with 90 per cent wins and then the competition starts.
“The qualifiers are outdated, the way the competitions are organised now, and we have to rethink the process because of the number of games the players play that have really no meaning.”
Even if Infantino’s preferred measures are not adopted early next year, there could still be changes made to the World Cup, with different permutations of the 48-team format or an expansion to 40 teams also on the agenda.