Fifa president Gianni Infantino insists the decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams is motivated not by a projected $1bn revenue boost but by a desire to make the competition more inclusive.
The football governing body’s council on Tuesday unanimously voted to approve controversial but highly lucrative proposals to increase the number of nations involved by 50 per cent from 2026.
Fifa has estimated that the change in format will help it generate income of $6.5bn (£5.3bn) at the 2026 World Cup – a sizeable rise on the $5.5bn (£4.5bn) anticipated at next year’s tournament in Russia.
But Infantino, who successfully campaigned for the Fifa presidency last year on an expansion ticket, said the primary reason was to develop the game beyond football’s traditional heartlands.
“We are in the 21st century and we have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” the Swiss-Italian said.
“It isn’t any more the 20th century. It is the future. Football is more than just Europe and South America, football is global. The council felt this was positive and it will help football development.
“The football fever in a country that qualifies for the World Cup is the biggest promotional tool for football you can have. This promotion, in many parts of the world where today they have no chance to play, was at the top of our thoughts.”
What they said: ECA, Uefa, FA, SFA
The move was criticised by the European Club Association, umbrella body for more than 200 leading teams, which said the decision had been made “based on political reasons rather than sporting ones”.
New Fifa Now, a campaign group targeting reform following a swathe of corruption scandals at the governing body, called the move “a money and power grab”. It added that it would “dilute the competitiveness of the tournament and, therefore, the enjoyment of fans”.
Infantino said a decision on how the extra 16 spaces were allocated would be made “speedily” and insisted that “no guarantees have been made” to confederations.
European chiefs Uefa said it was “satisfied” to have postponed a decision on that contentious issue, with England’s Football Association warning that it expected to take part in “a proper consultation process”.
Scottish Football Association chief executive Stewart Regan called it “a positive step, particularly for the smaller nations”.