Bookmakers appear tepid on the prospect of an enlarged 48-team FIFA World Cup for 2026. Last week, the FIFA Council voted unanimously in favour of President Gianni Infantino’s expanded 48 team format, which drew criticism from multiple football stakeholders.
At present, the expanded 48 team tournament will see an opening stage of 16 groups of three teams, with the top two teams progressing to an enlarged 32-team knockout round, adding an additional round of ‘knockouts’ to the existing World Cup format.
Stating his case for expansion, Infantino detailed that a 50% enlarged World Cup would generate new audiences and expected higher revenues for FIFA members. At a game level, Infantino and expansion supporters detailed that the ‘extra round of knockouts’ would generate ‘more exciting football’ for spectators.
Nevertheless, critics have pointed that Infantino’s expansion will simply ‘water down’ the level of competition for World Cup 2026. Furthermore, there are concerns that spectators may lose interest in a low-quality World Cup.
At an early stage of assessment, Alan Alger Betway’s Head of Communications noted caution when discussing an expanded format: “It’s hard to know which innovations and developments in the betting industry will be in place by 2026, so it’s difficult to make an accurate prediction about how the tournament will play out.”
The additional round of knockout stages may look attractive to bookmakers, however Alger notes the importance of tournament quality for punter engagement.
“The extra knockout matches from the round of 32 onwards will certainly produce a good tournament in terms of competitive betting, with four games a day likely to increase multiples. However, the increase in the number of teams qualifying for the tournament is undoubtedly going to lead to match-ups in the group stage that not many people are going to be interested in, and the betting may mirror that.”
From a trading and market perspective Unibet’s Head of Sportsbook Anthony Cousins believes that a peculiar format with smaller teams in stature may well play to a bookmaker’s advantage.
“Of course, there will be lesser interest in some of the “minnow” matches,” he said. “However, these teams usually play international friendlies in the pre-tournament build up where many other matches also take place and cannibalise turnover, we would much rather see an important standalone match where the outcome means everything.”
Cousins further added that critics of the 48-team format may have been too quick to dismiss teams as low-quality minnows: “We also shouldn’t presume that the teams will be minnows – the format means that teams such as England are far more likely to qualify and based on current FIFA rankings would include teams such as South Korea, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Greece and Australia – teams with big tournament pedigrees.
“Ultimately in international football, the “lesser” teams have become more competitive and the top teams less dominant which for bookmakers and football bettors makes the 48 team World Cup great news… just not so much for the football purist and non-bettors where the tournament is likely to drag on.”