The World Cup is getting bigger. And it may be coming back to the U.S. too.
On Tuesday the FIFA Council, the ruling body for world soccer’s governing organization, unanimously approved a plan to expand the quadrennial tournament from 32 to 48 teams by 2026. The field will be divided into 16 three-team groups, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to the next round.
The number of matches played in the tournament will also grow, from 64 to 80 games, as will the tournament’s revenue. FIFA forecasts that an increase in broadcast and sponsorship rights, plus additional ticket sales, will make the 2026 event worth $1 billion more than the 2018 tournament in Russia, which is expected to bring in $5.5 billion.
Tuesday’s council vote also made good on FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s promise to make the most prestigious competition in global sports larger and more inclusive.
“We have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” said Infantino, who was elected last February and charged with cleaning up the scandal-plagued organization.
This is the second expansion to the World Cup since 1994, when the U.S. hosted the event for the only time. Four years after that tournament, the field expanded by eight teams, to 32, by adding qualifiers from Africa, Asia and North America.
No determination has been made regarding which of FIFA’s six continental groups will get additional qualifiers in 2026, although a decision is expected by May.
“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 do today.”
For the 2018 tournament in Russia, Europe will receive 13 automatic berths, as many as the next three largest federations combined. Asia and Africa could be the biggest beneficiaries of tournament expansion, earning as many as nine places each.
The winners of the 20 World Cups have all come from Europe and South America.
Stewart Regan, head of Scotland’s soccer federations, was among those welcoming Tuesday’s vote. “We believe this is a positive step, particularly for the small nations,” Regan told the BBC.
"We believe it will allow more fans across the globe to revel in their country's participation at a World Cup finals,” he continued. “A greater eclectic mix of footballing cultures at the FIFA World Cup will create a bigger and better atmosphere than ever before."
FIFA concedes a larger field will diminish the quality of play, but Infantino believes the expansion will also create additional excitement by giving fans in 16 more countries the hope of watching their teams play in a World Cup. Over time, FIFA said, that will force national federations to improve their operations.
Infantino said FIFA will help that process by increasing funding to all 211 member nations.
FIFA is scheduled to decide on a host for the 2026 tournament in May 2020. And though Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said no decision has been made regarding a bid to stage the event in the United States, informal talks have been held among U.S., Canadian and Mexican officials regarding a joint application.
The U.S., either alone or with its neighbors, seems a likely site for the event, given FIFA rules blocking Europe and Asia from staging the World Cup that year. Russia will play host to the 2018 event and Qatar, a member of the Asian federation, will stage the 2022 tournament, prohibiting both federations from bidding for another World Cup until 2030.
And Africa and South America hosted the 2010 and 2014 events, in South Africa and Brazil.
But North America — and especially the U.S. — probably would be the favored host, even without those restrictions.
An expanded field will require expanded facilities, and the U.S. already has the transportation and housing infrastructure to handle that. The U.S. also has a number of stadiums big enough to host World Cup matches and, as it proved with 2015’s Copa America Centenario, it has the logistical and technical know-how to stage a large event.
The Copa America was the largest and most successful tournament in the event’s history, just as the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. set attendance records that still stand.
Awarding the 2026 event to North America would also allow the U.S. to stage the opening or closing match in Philadelphia on July 4, the country’s 250th birthday, and could be a way for Infantino to reward Gulati for rallying support to his successful presidential bid in last winter’s FIFA election.
But, given charges of bribery and corruption in the vote that resulted in Russia and Qatar getting the next two tournaments, Infantino said the process to award the 2026 event must be “bulletproof” to meet FIFA’s new integrity rules.
10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.
5 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details on how the new World Cup format would work.
This article was originally published at 2 a.m.