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2026 World Cup format changes revealed

FIFA World Cup: All the format changes revealed as 2026 tournament prepares for historic expansion

March 14, 2023 By Ali M.
The number of participants will rise from 32 to 48 while a whole new round will also be introduced in order to accommodate this increase.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar might have been one of the greatest tournaments in history. However, football fans will have to wave farewell to that format very soon.

According to the Athletic, FIFA is set to unveil a number of changes to its prestigious international tournament, the most notable being the number of groups. An increase in participants had already been announced, with Qatar 2022 being the last edition to feature 32 teams. Come the 2026 event in the USA, Canada, and Mexico, 48 countries will take part.

However, the previous plan of having 16 groups of three teams has been scrapped following the exciting conclusion to the 2022 group stage. In the recent edition, for example, all of Japan, Spain, Germany, and Costa Rica entered the final matchday with the hope of qualifying out of Group E, something that would not be achievable should there be only three teams in each group.

Instead, world football's governing body has decided to revert back to four teams per group. As a result, the next FIFA World Cup will have 12 groups, with the top two automatically progressing to the knockout stage. However, unlike before, eight of the best third-placed teams in the group stage will also make it to the next round in a format resembling the Euros.

As a result, FIFA will also introduce a round of 32 prior to the last 16. Additionally, there will be an astronomical rise in matches, with the total number of games being played increasing from the usual 64 to a whopping 104 fixtures.

However, the load on each national team and its players will roughly remain the same. Last year, Argentina and France played a total of seven games en route to that unforgettable final at the Lusail Stadium but from now on, the teams that go all the way will play eight matches.

Likewise, the tournament will now span 39 days instead of 30 due to the increase in matches. Each continent will get an increase in the number of representatives, with UEFA going from 13 to 16 while Africa and South America could have as many as 10 and seven participants respectively.

While everyone isn't in favor of these new changes, pointing to a potential decrease in the quality of games as a downside, there are reasons behind these plans. FIFA is made up of 211 different countries yet only 78 have ever featured in this tournament. This could thus be a tremendous pathway for several national teams to make their debuts and, by extension, develop their game.

As already alluded to, the 2026 FIFA World Cup will be held across North America's three major countries. The tournament is scheduled to take place in roughly three years' time, kicking off on June 8.

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