16 teams added to World Cup in ’26

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTING GREEN - ASSOCIATED PRESS

ZURICH — FIFA will ex­pand the World Cup to 48 teams, adding 16 na­tions to the 2026 tour­na­ment that is likely to be held in North Amer­ica.

Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino’s fa­vored plan — for 16 three­team groups with the top two ad­vanc­ing to a round of 32 — was unan­i­mously ap­proved Tues­day by the FIFA Coun­cil.

It meets In­fantino’s elec­tion pledge of a big­ger and more in­clu­sive World Cup go­ing be­yond Euro­pean and South Amer­i­can teams, which have won all 20 ti­tles.

“We have to shape the foot­ball World Cup of the 21st cen­tury,” said In­fantino, who also promised fund­ing in­creases for FIFA’s 211 mem­ber fed­er­a­tions at his elec­tion in Fe­bru­ary.

With 80 matches in­stead of 64, FIFA fore­casts the equiv­a­lent of $1 bil­lion ex­tra in­come at cur­rent rates from broad­cast­ing and spon­sor deals, plus ticket sales, com­pared with $5.5 bil­lion rev­enue forecast for the 2018 World Cup in Rus­sia.

FIFA projects an in­creased profit of $640 mil­lion de­spite some ex­tra op­er­at­ing costs and prize money for teams.

FIFA’s six con­ti­nents should find out by May how many ex­tra places they each will get.

“No guar­an­tees have been made,” In­fantino said. “The only sure thing is that ob­vi­ously with 48 teams, ev­ery­one will have a bit more than they have to­day.”

UEFA wants 16 Euro­pean teams at the tour­na­ment, which is strongly fa­vored to be played in North Amer­ica. The CONCACAF re­gion has not hosted the World Cup since the 1994 tour­na­ment in the United States.

Amer­i­can, Cana­dian and Mex­i­can soc­cer lead­ers have

had in­for­mal talks about a co-host­ing bid.

FIFA mem­bers are sched­uled to pick the host in May 2020, though there could be lit­tle com­pe­ti­tion in a process In­fantino said must be “bul­let­proof ” to meet all in­tegrity rules.

Africa and Asia could be win­ners in a big­ger World Cup with up to nine places each. They had only five and four teams, re­spec­tively, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Still, FIFA said it ex­pects the stan­dard of soc­cer to drop com­pared with the 32-team for­mat set for the next two World Cups in Rus­sia and Qatar.

The “ab­so­lute qual­ity” of play, de­fined by high-ranked teams fac­ing each other most of­ten, is achieved by 32 teams, FIFA ac­knowl­edged in a re­search doc­u­ment sent to mem­bers last month. It made 10,000 tour­na­ment sim­u­la­tions to reach that con­clu­sion.

In­stead, In­fantino wants to cre­ate fer­vor and months of an­tic­i­pa­tion back home in the 16 ex­tra na­tions that would qual­ify, some prob­a­bly mak­ing their World Cup de­but. FIFA has pointed to Costa Rica, Wales and Ice­land as ex­am­ples of teams that over­achieved at re­cent tour­na­ments.

FIFA must break with soc­cer tra­di­tion to make its new for­mat work af­ter an orig­i­nal 48-team plan — with an open­ing play­off round send­ing 16 “one-and-done” teams home early — was un­pop­u­lar.

In­stead, three-team groups will re­place the usual groups of four to cre­ate sim­ple progress to a knock­out bracket. How­ever, it leaves one team idle for fi­nal group games and could risk col­lu­sion be­tween the other two teams.

FIFA said it could guard against re­sult-rig­ging by in­tro­duc­ing penalty shootouts af­ter group games that end in draws.

In­fantino said a de­ci­sion could wait un­til 2024 to agree on com­pe­ti­tion rules.

De­spite the 16 ex­tra games, FIFA be­lieves the cur­rent max­i­mum of sta­di­ums needed will stay at the 12 used by Brazil and Rus­sia. How­ever, the de­mand for more train­ing bases and ho­tels means de­vel­oped coun­tries would be bet­ter equipped to win fu­ture host­ing con­tests.

North Amer­ica is the strong fa­vorite for 2026 be­cause Euro­pean and Asian coun­tries are blocked by a FIFA rule ex­clud­ing con­ti­nents that hosted ei­ther of the two pre­vi­ous tour­na­ments. Rus­sia will host the World Cup next year and Qatar in 2022.

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