FIFA scraps ill-fated 2026 World Cup format, but new plan presents other pros and cons
Six years after initially agreeing to revise the FIFA Men’s World Cup format, FIFA has abandoned its ill-fated three-team pool plan and approved a new tournament format for 2026, a 48-team bonanza hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico.
The new format will be more similar to the traditional one, with groups of four teams and an additional playoff of 32 teams.
But it will be cumbersome in its own way: the eight teams that take third places will advance to the 1/8 finals; the entire tournament will consist of 104 matches instead of 64, a major expansion that will increase the workload for both host cities and players; and it will last a whole week longer than ever before.
[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Men’s | Women’s]
FIFA, football’s global governing body, confirmed the changes on Tuesday after months of deliberations and after the final approval of his Council, a gathering of dozens of the most powerful officials in the sport.
This announcement marks the end of a years-long conflict between FIFA’s original proposal and common sense. And this is the first of several long-awaited decisions on exactly how the 2026 World Cup will be played in North America.
What is the new World Cup format?
The new format is very similar to that previously used in 24-team tournaments such as the Women’s World Cup and the UEFA European Football Championship for Men, with double the size.
48 teams will be divided into 12 groups of four. Each of them will play in a round robin system of three games. The top two in each group will advance.
The third-place teams will then be ranked based on points, goal difference and other tie-breaks if needed, with the top eight out of 12 completing the play-off stage, which will start from round 32 and then continue the same way. like the old format.
How long will all this take?
Since 1998, the 32-team men’s world championships have included 64 games in about 32 days.
FIFA’s original expansion plan for 16 groups of three was to add 16 games but squeeze them into the same time window.
Instead, the new tournament will last 38-40 days.
To fit him into the already crowded football calendar, FIFA reportedly reduce the period before the World Cup during which players must be released by clubs to their national teams from 23 to 16 days – this means that the “trail” of the tournament will last for about two months, but the training camp will be much shorter.
What does this mean for host cities in North America?
This news is important for 16 cities in North America, which are already preparing to host the games.
When FIFA members chose the United States, Canada and Mexico to co-host the 2026 World Cup, a tentative agreement between the North American neighbors called for 60 games in the United States and 10 games each in Canada and Mexico. The 11 U.S. cities selected last June assumed they would each receive five or six games.
That estimate has now been revised down to six or seven, and for some US cities, possibly eight. It is unclear how matches will now be distributed between the three host nations.
Local organizers have also been told that the tournament will take place in June and July as expected (despite the potentially dangerous heat).
The upcoming announcement of the FIFA format now paves the way for creating a schedule wrapper and assigning specific games – such as the opening and final – to specific cities. These decisions are expected within the next 12 months.
Multiple sources told Sportzshala Sports that New York (MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ), Dallas (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) and Los Angeles (SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California) are the three candidates for hosting the final.
What is the financial impact of the new format?
FIFA’s bank accounts will be the biggest beneficiary of the new format. The 2026 World Cup, even as an 80-game competition, would break all attendance and revenue records. The extra 24 games will push FIFA even closer to the $11 billion in revenue it has budgeted over the next four years, and possibly even more. (This is up from a record $7.5 billion last cycle.)
While FIFA has previously delegated many World Cup responsibilities – and therefore some costs and revenues – to local organizing committees, in 2023 and 2026 it will host the Women’s and Men’s World Cups for the first time. In this way, FIFA will receive the vast majority of the profits associated with the World Cup, and has said that it will send most of this money back to football, to its 211 member associations.
What are the disadvantages?
The new format will require more from the players, but not much – the final four teams will play eight games, just one more than the previous seven.
Perhaps the biggest downside is the stakes – or lack thereof – in the group stage.
As the third-place teams move forward, early misses won’t be as bad as they used to be. Let’s take the 2022 FIFA World Cup as a counterexample. After the stunning defeat of Argentina by Saudi Arabia, each successive Albicelesta the game was like a do-or-die ending; Every time Lionel Messi took the field, including against Mexico and Poland in the group stage, there was an inner fear that this time may be his last.
On the other hand, the 2026 World Cup will bring significantly less drama early on. Many contenders will already be safe in the Round of 16 after two group matches, and in some cases even after one. The tournament will play 72 games over nearly three weeks to eliminate only 16 teams.