It had long been known that the 2026 World Cup would be the biggest in the tournament’s history, but its true scale wasn’t clear until last week when it was announced a record 104 matches would be played. This is an increase of 40 matches from the 2022 World Cup and an increase of 24 matches from the original expansion plans.
Originally, FIFA planned on dividing 48 teams into 16 groups of three. Now, though, the 2026 World Cup will stick with the format of four-team groups to preserve the sort of drama witnessed on Matchday Three of the 2022 tournament in Qatar. This, however, will establish a new round of 32 after the group stage.
Gianni Infantino, who was reelected unopposed as FIFA president last week, claims the changes to the World Cup will improve the tournament as a spectacle. He also shrugged off claims that expanding the number of participating teams to such a large number will result in an overall drop in quality.
“Look who didn’t make it with 32 teams – Italy didn’t, Sweden didn’t, Turkey – who always has a good team – didn’t,” Infantino reasoned, highlighting all the high-calibre teams that failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. “Look at Chile and Colombia who didn’t make it either. There were top players everywhere in the biggest leagues who didn’t make it.”
Infantino has a point in that the quality of international soccer has never been deeper. Italy, as he points out, won Euro 2020 only to miss out on a place in Qatar. Erling Haaland is arguably the best centre forward of his generation, yet he watched the 2022 World Cup from home along with the rest of his Norway teammates.
Despite this, the argument made by Infantino is disingenuous because the expansion of the World Cup isn’t designed to improve the quality of the tournament. Instead, Infantino is using expansion to strengthen his grip as FIFA president and broaden the power-base. The changes are about politics rather than sport.
Cynically, Infantino knows that by opening the door for more countries to qualify for the World Cup he is more likely to stay in power as FIFA president. There are now more places on offer to confederations like CAF and CONCACAF who have historically been underrepresented at the top of the global game. Infantino is counting on being rewarded for this in the form of votes when it matters.
On top of this, Infantino can point to how FIFA’s revenues have dramatically grown since he succeeded Sepp Blatter as president in 2016. While member nations previously received around $300,000 per yer, they are now receiving over $2,000,000. A 48-team World Cup will see those numbers rise once more.
Clubs and leagues aren’t so sure that Infantino’s expansion drive is for the good of the sport. In fact, player unions and league chiefs have publicly expressed concern at how much soccer is now on the schedule with FIFA also set to operate an expanded Club World Cup from 2025 involving 32 teams.
“When I hear there is too much football, yes, maybe in some places, but not everywhere,” said Infantino in response to criticism he has faced. “In fact, in most parts of the world there is not enough football played. We need way more and not less competitions, we want football to develop worldwide.”
FIFA currently finds itself in the midst of a power struggle at the top of soccer. The creation of the UEFA Nations League did more to reshape the international game than people realised at the time, with the bigger European nations no longer playing friendlies against teams from other confederations. Instead, they now play only each other, making the rich even richer.
In a sense, the expansion of the World Cup is an attempt to readdress the balance, but also strengthens FIFA’s hand in its battle against UEFA. UEFA, for their part, are also facing pressure from some of Europe’s biggest clubs who continue to threaten some form of breakaway even after the failure of the European Super League.
Soccer governance has never before been the subject of so much discussion. The expanded 2026 World Cup might not be the perfect format, but FIFA and Infantino don’t need it to be. They aren’t attempting to produce the best possible tournament. Instead, they are doing everything possible to serve themselves first and foremost.