New Zealand set to benefit from expanded World Cup finals to include 48 teams
New Zealand's chances of being a regular competitor at future football World Cups has received a massive boost.
The World Cup will expand to 48 teams from its current 32, starting with the 2026 edition of football's showpiece tournament, the game's governing body Fifa decided on Tuesday night (NZ time).
While a decision has yet to be made on how qualifying will work, it's likely Oceania - the federation the All Whites play in - will get one full automatic qualifying spot for World Cup finals from 2026. At present, the Oceania group winners have to beat the fifth-placed Conmebol (South American) team to make the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Fifa's six continents should find out by May how many extra places they will each get.
Fifa's decision-making body, the Fifa Council, also decided that the format would consist of 16 groups of three teams in the group stage - Fifa president Gianni Infantino's favoured plan.
The World Cup, held every four years, last expanded in 1998, from 24 to 32 teams.
The decision 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 last February.
"No guarantees have been made," Infantino said regarding which continents will benefit from the expansion.
"The only sure thing is that obviously with 48 teams everyone will have a bit more than they have today."
New Zealand Football had been expected to support an expanded competition.
Uefa wants 16 European teams at the tournament, which is strongly favoured 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 football leaders have had informal talks about a co-hosting bid.
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.
Infantino, who replaced the disgraced Sepp Blatter in February, had made World Cup expansion one of his promises during his successful electoral campaign, designed to appeal to the bulk of Fifa's 211 member associations that rarely or never qualify for World Cups.
Infantino had initially suggested a 40-team tournament but then added another eight to that total in October.
In making the decision, Fifa brushed aside concerns that the expansion would lower the overall standard of the tournament, and make it too long and unwieldy.
Critics, including the powerful European clubs as well as some leading coaches, have said that Fifa is tampering with a winning formula.
Still, Fifa said it expects the standard of football to drop compared to the 32-team format locked in 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 which would qualify, some probably making their World Cup debut. Fifa has pointed to Costa Rica, Wales and Iceland as examples of teams which overachieved at recent tournaments.
The last World Cup in Brazil was widely regarded as one of the best in the competition's 87-year-old history, featuring shock results, last minute drama and outstanding individual performances.
HOW IT WILL WORK
Fifa must break with football 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.
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.
The 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) editions will be contested by 32 nations in eight groups of four, with the top-two in each group progressing to the 16-team knockout stage.
North America is the strong favorite for 2026 because European and Asian countries are blocked by a Fifa rule excluding continents which hosted either of the two previous tournaments. Russia will host the World Cup next year and Qatar in 2022.
South America has been focused on a centenary tournament including original 1930 host Uruguay, and African nations are seen as lacking existing capacity and unlikely to fund multi-billion dollar infrastructure spending.
With 80 matches instead of 64, Fifa forecasts the equivalent of US$1 billion (NZ$1.43 billion) extra income at current rates from broadcasting and sponsor deals, plus ticket sales, compared to $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.