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FIFA’s 5 options for a 2026 World Cup of 48, 40 or 32 teams

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GENEVA (AP) FIFA has detailed how it could expand the World Cup in a 64-page analysis of five options for the future of its signature tournament.

[ MORE: Sam Allardyce appointed manager at Crystal Palace ]

The document, seen by the Associated Press, was sent this week to FIFA Council members who on Jan. 10 should decide the shape of the 2026 World Cup.

[ MORE: Mourinho accuses PL of holiday fixture conspiracy ]

Though retaining the 32-team format is on the table, FIFA and president Gianni Infantino are clearly committed to change.

Infantino believes a 48- or 40-team tournament would increase World Cup fervor in relatively new markets – many of whom voted for him February.

“The FIFA World Cup as a pull factor for development, offering a reward to increased investment and focus on football development locally, is significant,” the research document says.

More teams and more matches also mean higher commercial sales to help FIFA fund itself and its 211 member federations.

Here are some of FIFA’s arguments for and against the five options:

48 TEAMS – 16 GROUPS OF 3

The preferred option, announced by Infantino just this month.

The 16×3 format “offers the certainty of at least two matches per team, avoids any post-play-off let-down periods and, importantly, achieves all of this while retaining the authenticity of the current 32-team format by staying true to the traditional, purist football knockout format,” the document said.

Each of the 80 matches in 32 days has an exclusive time slot – a rise on the current 56 live slots, where the last round of games in each group kicks off at the same time to guard against collusion.

Purists, however, are unlikely to enjoy the idea of penalty shootouts to decide drawn group-stage games. That is to protect against teams colluding on a favorable result that would let both advance to the new Round of 32.

So, fewer “dead rubber” group-stage matches and extra knockout games.

“Direct elimination of the last 32 teams would create drama and this `life-or-death’ format should therefore have a positive impact on audiences,” FIFA suggests.

Audiences also get four daily matches in an intense first 16 days. The first rest day arrives only when the quarterfinals lineup is set.

Compared to $5.5 billion for the next World Cup in Russia, FIFA projects this format would earn the equivalent of $6.5 billion – the most lucrative option.

Organizing costs would also rise, from $2 billion to $2.3 billion, though at least $128 million of that is basic prize money to the 16 extra teams.

Hosts would still be required to provide a maximum of 12 stadiums, as Russia has chosen.

FIFA projects more revenue, happier commercial partners and more engaged fan bases worldwide.

“The most tangible and intangible value,” FIFA’s document said.

48 TEAMS – OPENING 32-TEAM PLAYOFF ROUND

Infantino’s big idea of three months ago to get to 48 teams has probably found too much opposition to succeed.

It also has 80 matches, plus a round of 32 of undoubted high drama- just not where teams, fans and broadcasters want it.

The opening playoff round – of 32 teams playing a “one-and-done” match to join 16 seeded teams – has been viewed as not part of the real World Cup.

FIFA points to “post playoff let-down” and seems against taking that risk.

“The 48-team (16×3) format with a 2-match guarantee per team makes it the most attractive option,” FIFA suggested.

The 4-day playoff round, plus three rest days ahead of a typical 32-teamm group stage would mean a 39-day tournament.

Teams and fans of some teams would either be making travel and ticket plans at short notice or leaving as others arrive for the main event

There is also uncertainty about how many teams from each continent would survive to the groups.

Even the promise of $6.32 billion revenue is likely not enough.

40 TEAMS – 10 GROUPS OF 4

The numbers don’t add up.

Fewer matches, at 76, and a lop-sided bracket where only six of the 10 group runners-up would advance to a Round of 32.

“Any expanded format would present some issues which need to be addressed regarding sporting balance,” FIFA said, with this flawed format in mind.

Unbeaten second-place teams in tough groups could be going home through no fault of their own, if their goal difference was inferior to runner-up from a weaker group.

Also, FIFA projects an increased profit of less than $200 million relative to the 2018 budget. The favored 16×3 format cashes in at $640 million increased profit.

40 TEAMS – 8 GROUPS OF FIVE

The flabbiest option.

The most matches, 88, but too few of them are meaningful.

In the 10,000 tournament simulations FIFA performed, it scored worst in terms of the pure quality of well-matched good teams playing each other.

“Both 48-team formats outperform the 40-team formats, with the 40-team (8×5) clearly the weakest format in this respect,” FIFA said.

Also, the eight-match program required to win, or even reach the semifinals, is a nonstarter.

It is unacceptable to European clubs to release their salaried players for a longer stint of national-team duty.

32 TEAMS

If not perfect, certainly a proven and popular success since it was introduced at the 1998 World Cup in France.

The 64-match bracket is perfect: Two teams advance from each group into a Round of 16.

“The format with the highest absolute quality (of play) would be achieved under the current format,” FIFA acknowledged.

But change has been promised to FIFA members in two separate votes last Feb. 26 in Zurich.

They elected a president who campaigned on offering more invitations to the World Cup party, and they approved anti-corruption FIFA reforms sweetened by the promise of more, and lucrative, World Cup places.

That reform panel which suggested that included Infantino and the now-FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani of Canada – a potential co-host in 2026 with the United States and Mexico.

“Three trophies and CL”: Mourinho relieved after “most difficult season”

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Don’t try to tell Jose Mourinho that his first season at Manchester United wasn’t a raging success, because all you’d get in return is a simple shake of the head before he walks away.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

Following Wednesday’s Europa League final victory over Ajax, one which put Man United into next season’s UEFA Champions League, Mourinho was adamant that the club’s 2016-17 season was a success, despite the fact the Red Devils finished sixth in the Premier League.

“Three trophies in one season and the Champions League,” as Mourinho put it, in his “most difficult season as a manager” — quotes from the BBC:

“We totally deserved the win. I am so happy to see the boys with the crutches with the trophy and now I am on holiday. I don’t want to see any international friendlies, I am selfish. I can’t do it.

“For me, enough is enough. It has been a very hard last few months, we were short of numbers.

“Three trophies in one season and the Champions League. I am very happy in my most difficult season as a manager.”

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

As for his summer shopping list and Wayne Rooney‘s future at the club, well… Mourinho was much clearer about one than the other — quotes from the BBC:

“Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners. But I don’t care about football for now.

“Wayne Rooney was ready to play, he was a big option. But I didn’t need to attack at 2-0. I told him yesterday that he could be the key man but he can perfectly be here next season. He is a very important player for us. If he stays next season I’d be very happy.”

USMNT’s Gedion Zelalem out 6-9 months with knee injury

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Following much fanfare as he rose through the ranks of Arsenal’s youth academy system, and even more after officially pledging his international allegiance to the U.S., Gedion Zelalem‘s progress stalled a fair bit this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | U-20 World Cup ]

After failing to force his way onto the fringes of Arsenal’s first team, the 20-year-old was sent out on loan to VVV Venlo, where he made just nine league appearances (one start) in the Dutch second division. Now, with the U.S. U-20 national team at the U-20 World Cup in South Korea, his tournament is over after just 34 minutes.

Zelalen suffered ligament damage to his left knee during the first half of the Americans’ tournament-opening draw with Ecuador. The Washington Post received confirmation on Wednesday, from Zelalem’s family, confirming that he’ll be sidelined for at least six months. An earlier report, from Football.London, pinned the recovery time at up to nine months.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

“For Gedion, this was his second U-20 World Cup, so his experience was invaluable for us,” said U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos. “His passing ability is second to none in this tournament, and we’ll miss that. He was running the team from his position.

Europa League final: Man United too tough for Ajax, qualify for UCL

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Though it may have required a minor detour in the journey to the intended destination, Jose Mourinho’s first season as Manchester United manager ultimately reached the promised land: qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Once it became clear that Man United’s season was unlikely to result in a top-four finish in the Premier League (they eventually wound up sixth), Mourinho put every Mancunian egg into the Europa League basket, and it paid off on Wednesday, as United topped Ajax, 2-0, in the Europa League final inside the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paul Pogba put United 1-0 ahead after just 18 minutes (WATCH HERE), benefitting from a wicked deflection off a defender’s shin, and Mourinho’s famously rigid, organized midfield and defensive structure frustrated a young Ajax side (a starting lineup with an average age of just under 23 years old) that reached the final on the back of a free-flowing, attacking tidal wave.

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

Down just a goal, Ajax needed little more than a moment of brilliance from any number of rising stars sure to fetch massive transfer fees and land big-money contracts elsewhere in Europe, in the not-so-distant future.

That hope lasted less than 180 seconds into the second half, though, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled the lead, thanks to some unbelievably quick reflexes and a tidy overhead kick from three yards out. Ajax would manage just two shots on goal all night (four for United).

Not only did Mourinho deliver Champions League qualification, alongside a European trophy, United also claimed the EFL Cup back in February. With the allure of UCL football next season, expect another busy (and expensive) summer of spending at Old Trafford.

AT THE HALF: Man Utd lead Ajax in UEL final, thanks to Pogba (video)

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After 45 minutes of Wednesday’s Europa League final, between Manchester United and Ajax, in Stockholm, Sweden, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have one foot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

After a cagey opening 15 minutes that saw neither side create anything of consequence, Man United pulled ahead on a fair bit of luck in the 18th minute. Paul Pogba received the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch toward goal and fired a low shot toward goal. Davinson Sanchez did everything he could to get his body in front of the strike, but the ball glanced off his shin, sending it one direction and goalkeeper Andre Onana the other.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Europa League final ] 

Having conceded just eight goals in 14.5 Europa League games thus far this season, would you bet on United conceding an equalizer in the final 45 minutes? Hit the link above to follow along, live.