The World Cup will be expanded to host 48 teams, up from 32, Fifa has decided.
An initial stage of 16 groups of three teams will precede a knockout stage for the remaining 32 when the change is made for the 2026 tournament.
The sport’s world governing body voted unanimously in favour of the change at a meeting in Zurich on Tuesday.
The number of tournament matches will rise to 80, from 64, but the eventual winners will still play only seven games.
The tournament will be completed within 32 days – a measure to appease powerful European clubs, who objected to reform because of a crowded international schedule.
The changes mark the first World Cup expansion since 1998.
‘It will dilute the competitiveness’
The European Club Association (ECA), which represents the interests of clubs at European level, reiterated that it was not in favour of an expansion. It said Fifa had made a “political” rather than sporting decision.
“We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives,” it said in a statement.
“Questionable is also the urgency in reaching such an important decision, with nine years to go until it becomes applicable, without the proper involvement of stakeholders who will be impacted by this change.
“ECA will analyse in detail the impact and the consequences of the new format and will address the matter at the next meeting of its executive board, scheduled for the end of January.”
New Fifa Now, a campaign group that says the governing body needs to reform, labelled the expansion “a money grab and power grab”.
“It will dilute the competitiveness of the tournament and, therefore, the enjoyment of fans,” it said in a statement.
“It will not help development of the game or provide improved competitive opportunities for lower-ranked nations. Instead, it will make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations.”
Fifa president Gianni Infantino has been behind the move, saying the World Cup has to be “more inclusive”.
Speaking at a sports conference in Dubai in December, Infantino said expansion would also benefit “the development of football all over the world”.
He added: “There is nothing bigger in terms of boosting football in a country than participating in a World Cup.”
Despite saying “the decision should not just be financially driven”, Infantino did highlight the possible financial upsides.
According to Fifa’s own research, revenue is predicted to increase to £5.29bn for a 48-team tournament, giving a potential profit rise of £521m.
History of World Cup overhauls
|1930 Uruguay||13||1 group of 4 and 3 groups of 3, with only top team progressing to semi-finals|
|1934 Italy||16||Straight knockout tournament|
|1950 Brazil||15 (13 took part)||3 groups of 4 and 1 group of 3, with top side progressing to final group of four|
|1954 Switzerland||16||4 groups of 4, but only 2 games in each group, with top 2 sides through to quarter-finals|
|1958 Sweden||16||4 groups of 4, this time with 3 games. Top 2 sides through to quarter-finals|
|1974 West Germany||16||4 groups of 4 but now followed with 2 groups of 4, the 2 top sides competing the final|
|1982 Spain||24||6 groups of 4 followed by 4 groups of 3, the winner of each qualifying for the semi-finals|
|1986 Mexico||24||6 groups of 4, top 2 sides and 4 best 3rd-placed teams qualifying for round of 16|
|1998 France||32||8 groups of 4, top 2 sides progressing to knockout rounds|