Why did FIFA stage another revolution in football?
Almost three months have passed since the 2022 World Cup final, and it is time to move on and look to 2026. Time will fly quickly, so the host countries are about to enter an active preparation phase. FIFA, for its part, has already done the main thing: the International Federation at the Congress held in the capital of Rwanda approved a new format for the next World Cup.
In 2026, 48 teams will compete in the tournament - 45 countries that have qualified, plus three host countries (USA, Canada, and Mexico). This is the most significant expansion that has ever been carried out: since 1930, 13 teams have participated in the World Cup; in 1954, it became 16; in 1982 - 24; in 1998, they adopted the usual format for us with 32 teams. The expansion to 48 participants is an increase of 50% at once, which will complicate the tournament's organization and potentially affect interest. But FIFA President Gianni Infantino strongly supported this decision because elementary mathematics works in this matter: more matches = more money for FIFA, which matters most to the football body.
How will the group stage go now?
It was initially planned that there would be 16 groups of three teams, of which two would advance to the next stage. With this format, there would be 80 matches (since 1998, 64 have been played).
This alignment had two significant drawbacks: first - with three teams in the group, the intrigue of the last round is lost; second - the likelihood of entering into some cooperation between the two teams to achieve the best alignment for them increases because the matches would not be held in parallel. This happened in 1982 when Germany and Austria agreed on a 1-0 victory for the Germans to go further and "throw out" Algeria (after that, they decided that all the decisive matches in each group would take place at the same time).
But until the World Cup final in Qatar, FIFA officials stuck to the three-team option, despite criticism from the football community. FIFA proposed to solve the problem of potential collaboration with a penalty shoot-out after each draw. Still, the possibility of match-fixing would remain even under this condition.
Only after the 2022 World Cup did Infantino admit that the format with three teams in groups could be better; as a result, FIFA at the Congress approved a variant with 12 groups of four teams. "The revised format reduces the risk of collision and ensures that all teams play at least three matches while ensuring balanced rest times between competing teams," FIFA said.
As a result, 48 teams will be divided into 12 groups of four each. The first and second places will advance directly from the groups, while the third-place finishers will be ranked based on points, goal differences, and other metrics as appropriate. Only eight teams will advance further - a total of 32 units. After that, a playoff bracket will be formed - the format is very similar to the one where the Euro is now held.
More teams - more games - more extended tournaments?
With four-team groups and an additional playoff round, there will be 104 matches, up 62.5% from before. There was a scheduling problem, with so many battles needing more matchdays. The Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) said it was concerned about "physical fatigue and mental burnout" due to the overloaded schedule. PFA CEO Maeta Molango has said the football calendar needs a "total reset."
"The expanded World Cup format announced for 2026 means more games are once again being sewn into an already busy schedule," he said. "It is encouraging that FIFA is prioritizing issues such as the need to rest at least 72 hours between games, a mandatory day off every week, and vacation. However, it is tough to see how this is consistent with the constant expansion of the domestic and international calendar. We know that the current workload players face has an ongoing impact on their health… We can't just pressure them until they break."
FIFA says the tournament will last as long as 2010, 2014, and 2018 World Cups - 56 days. But this takes into account the preparation period, which is currently 14 days. The 2026 World Cup will last 39 days - a week longer than the 2010, 2014, and 2018 World Cups and 10 days longer than the tournament in Qatar.
The mandatory national team training period will start on May 25, 2026, so the last club matches must be played by May 24. Exceptions will only apply to the finals of the Champions League and Europa League - in this case, players involved in the finalist clubs and teams participating in the World Cup will have to arrive at the training camp by May 30.
At the same time, there is no exact date for the start of the tournament, but the day of the final is known - July 19.
It is clear that with such a dense calendar, games will start early and continue until late to cover the maximum number of time zones, among other things. We are likely waiting for matchdays with six matches.
Who will get additional places at the World Cup?
Forty-six teams will earn spots through the qualifiers (including three guaranteed areas for World Cup host nations), while the last two places will be allocated through the Intercontinental Playoffs.
Compared to the 2022 World Cup, there are 17 qualifying places: 16 slots plus one place previously reserved for the hosts. Now this will not happen - three areas will reduce the CONCACAF slot due to the automatic qualification of the USA, Mexico, and Canada. It turns out like this:
- AFK: 8 (+4)
- CAF: 9 (+4)
- CONCACAF: 6 (+3)
- UEFA: 16 (+3)
- CONMEBOL: 6 (+2)
- OFC: 1 (+1).
The Intercontinental Playoffs will feature six teams - one from each of the five confederations except Europe, plus one from CONCACAF as the host confederation.
How will the qualification take place?
UEFA: Qualification will start in 2025. There will be 12 groups of four or five teams, and the winners of each group will go directly to the World Cup. The playoff format for the final four places has yet to be confirmed.
CONMEBOL: South America will retain its usual 10-team format. Qualification should start in September 2023, with the top six qualifying for the World Cup.
AFC: Qualification will start in October 2023 with games from the lowest-ranked Asian countries. Automatic qualifiers will be known after the third round, beginning in September 2024 and running until June 2025.
CONCACAF: Selection will begin in March 2024. The final round, which will determine three automatic qualifiers and an Intercontinental Playoff team, will take place from September to November 2025. Twelve teams will take part in it.
Africa and Oceania have not yet approved the format.
How will the draw take place?
The distribution of countries for the draw will consider the usual format, according to which the hosts fall into the first pot with the best teams in the FIFA rankings. The remaining baskets are also formed according to the rating.
Each group will have up to one team from each confederation, except Europe, from which four groups with two teams are allowed.