Despite widespread condemnation of the change, the Scottish Football Association chief executive hailed the expansion as a chance for smaller nations to make an impact on a high-profile stage.
“We believe this is a positive step, particularly for smaller nations, and will allow more fans across the globe to revel in their country’s participation at a Fifa World Cup finals,” said Regan. “This will allow the nations to invest further in their footballing infrastructure and youth development, which in turn can yield social benefits.”
Fifa, football’s world governing body, unanimously approved the change at a meeting of its Council in Zurich yesterday. The number of tournament matches will rise to 80 from 64, with a first round likely to comprise 16 groups of three teams.
The change could possibly result in as much as £1 billion additional income for the organisers. However, Fifa president Gianni Infantino, who promised to make such changes when campaigning for his current position last year, said the primary motivation was a need to make the World Cup “more inclusive”. He noted that the winners will still play a total of seven games, as is the case now.
“We are in the 21st century and we have to shape the football World Cup of the 21 st century,” said Infantino, who is up for re-election in 2019.
“It is the future. Football is more than just South America and Europe, football is global.
“The football fever you have in a country that qualifies for the World Cup is the biggest promotional tool for football you can have. This football promotion, in many parts of the world where today they have no chance to play [at the World Cup], was at the top of our thoughts.”
Fifa’s own research predicts revenue will increase to £5.29bn due to the extra matches, giving a potential profit rise of £521m.
But important details such as how many countries from each of the six confederations in Fifa will get the extra qualifications slots have still to be agreed. Uefa, who support the move, want the number of participating European countries to increase from 13 to 16.
There is also no confirmation of whether penalty shoot-outs will decide drawn first-round matches, as has been reported. Only 16 of the 48 teams will go out at the first stage. Infantino said a decision on the competition rules could wait until as late as 2024.
“No guarantees have been made,” he added. “The only sure thing is that everyone will have a bit more [representation] than they have today.”
Regan was in accord with the Fifa president. “We are pleased with the news that the Fifa World Cup will expand to 48 teams from 2026,” said the SFA chief executive.
“A greater eclectic mix of footballing cultures at the Fifa World Cup will create a bigger and better atmosphere than ever before.”
The English FA took a more circumspect view, releasing a statement in which they asked for time to digest the potential ramifications and gather more information on how the tournament would 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,” said an FA statement.
The 2022 World Cup, already