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News Navigator: Why will 2026 soccer World Cup expand to 48 teams?

In January this year, soccer's international governing body FIFA voted unanimously to expand the number of teams that will appear at the 2026 World Cup from 32 to 48. The decision follows a pledge by FIFA President Gianni Infantino to increase the number of teams in this way. In the soccer world, the expansion to 48 teams represents a fairly major change -- therefore the Mainichi Shimbun has decided to answer some questions that readers may have about this development.

    Question: Why has the number of teams for the 2026 World Cup been increased?

    Answer: It is thought that FIFA made this decision because it is keen to enhance the general level of soccer ability across the world, and not just in regions that are known historically for soccer proficiency, such as Europe and South America. In addition, it is understood that FIFA wanted to expand its market by having more teams in the tournament.

    It can be argued that Japan's national soccer side benefited from a similar expansion from 24 to 32 teams for the 1998 World Cup in France -- as this was Japan's first ever appearance in the tournament. The World Cup in France provided Japan with a valuable springboard for subsequent progress, and the team managed to appear in all four successive World Cups after 1998.

    Furthermore, the number of matches at the 2026 World Cup will increase from 64 to 80, which is expected to increase FIFA's broadcasting rights revenue.

    Q: What will happen to Japan?

    A: The number of spots available to Asian teams in the 2026 World Cup will almost double to eight, which means that it will be easier for Japan to qualify. Japan Football Association President Kohzo Tashima says, "Unless Asian teams perform strongly at the World Cup, the number of future spots available to Asian teams will decrease. Therefore, we need to think about how we can strengthen the quality of teams in the Asian region as a whole."

    Q: Are there any negative aspects if the number of teams is suddenly increased in this way?

    A: There is a concern that the gap between the performance of the best and worst teams at the tournament will become wider, and that the standard of soccer in the World Cup might decrease. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the four teams representing Asia (Japan, Iran, Australia and South Korea) were all eliminated during the group stages, having all failed to win a single game.

    On the other hand, at the 2016 European Championships in France -- at which the number of teams was expanded from 16 to 24 teams -- underdogs Iceland managed to progress to the quarterfinals, which is something that supports the decision to expand the number of teams at the 2026 World Cup from 32 to 48. (By Shohei Oshima, Sports News Department)

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