World Cup 2026 format expands again with four-team groups and 104 matches – The Athletic

By Matt Slater and David OrnsteinMar 14, 2024

FIFA is set to confirm a new format for the 2026 World Cup, extending the tournament to 104 games over likely 39 days.

The decision will be approved at a meeting of the FIFA Council later on Tuesday in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, where world football’s bosses have gathered for their annual congress on Thursday.

Hosted by Canada, Mexico and the United States, the 2026 edition was already going to be the biggest World Cup, with 48 teams, and will now be the longest, too.

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The original idea was to have 16 groups of three, with the top two processing to a 32-team knockout competition. That format would have involved 80 games, up from the 64-game format FIFA has used since 1998.

But groups of three have two significant drawbacks: you lose the excitement of the final round of simultaneous group-stage games, and you increase the chance of the two teams in the last game colluding to engineer the result they need.

The most memorable example of the latter, the so-called “Disgrace of Gijon”, took place at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when West Germany and Austria effectively agreed on a 1-0 win for the Germans, as that was good enough for both to advance at Algeria’s expense.

Memories of this and other similar scandals had clearly faded at FIFA, though, as it approved the 16×3 format when it agreed to expand the World Cup in 2017.

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The wisdom of that decision was called into question by some academics but it was not until the last World Cup in Qatar that the calls to reconsider the format grew too loud to ignore, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino confirming the rethink on the eve of the final.

The new format is for 12 groups of four, with the eight best third-placed teams joining the top two in the knockout rounds. This restores the jeopardy of the final round of group-stage games and reduces the chance of collusion.

The extra week will be found by cutting the pre-tournament release period by a week from 23 days — slightly less than previous summer tournaments but twice as long as players were given to prepare for the World Cup in Qatar. Although the official date for the opening match has not yet been announced, FIFA is on course to maintain the tournament’s “footprint” to 57 days, with 39 days of competition.

What this change means for the allocation of games between the three host nations remains to be seen, as the US was staging 60 games in the original format, with Canada and Mexico getting 10 each.

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FIFA could seek another host city or stadium but that would have financial implications. CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani said on Tuesday when asked about expanded venues: “I think you first try to put the footprint (of games) on what you have.” Montagliani said it was possible that the tournament could feature six group-stages games on a single day.”

Maheta Molango, the CEO of the Professional Football Association, raised concerns about the increased amount of games players will be forced to play as a result of the new World Cup format.

He said: “Fundamentally, the football calendar needs a complete reset.

“The expanded World Cup format being announced for 2026 means that, yet again, more games are being forced into an already overcrowded schedule.

“It is right that FIFA have listened to players’ concerns and announced a working group to address the critical issues surrounding fixture congestion and player welfare.

“It is also encouraging to see that key concerns raised with FIFA by the PFA, such as the need for a minimum of 72 hours between games, a mandatory day off each week, and an annual rest period, are being prioritised.

“We know that the current workload players face is having an ongoing impact on their well-being, both on and off the pitch. We can’t simply push them until they break.”

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(Photo: Getty Images)

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