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How will the 2026 World Cup actually work?

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With the announcement of the host cities for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the next question is: How will all of this work?

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Don’t worry, we have you.

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[ MORE: Which cities will host 2026 World Cup games? ]

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As the tournament expanded to 48 teams for the first time in history for the 2026 World Cup, the current group stage format and playoff stage format will change. With 11 cities in the US, three in Mexico, and two in Canada hosting the games, there’s a lot of logistics to figure out before June 2026 when things kick off.

Below you will find everything you need to know about the World Cup format, qualifications and how it will all work.

2026 World Cup format

Okay, here’s how it all works out when the men’s world championship goes from a 32-team tournament to a 48-team competition.

[ MORE: World Cup 2022 odds: Favorites, underdogs, group stage winners ]

  • The 48 qualified teams will be divided into 16 groups of three.
  • Each team will play two group stage games (one short of three).
  • The participants who took 1st and 2nd places in each group advanced to the 1/8 finals.
  • An additional elimination round, Round of 32, will be created.
  • Then the playoffs will continue from the 1/8 finals, as in previous world championships.

2026 World Cup qualification

As host countries, the US, Canada and Mexico are expected to automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup. But this has not been confirmed.

[ MORE: World Cup 2022 rankings: Who are the favorites? ]

FIFA has confirmed how the new qualification process will work as the following formula was adopted at the 67th FIFA Congress:

UEFA = 16 teams qualify
CAF = 9.5 (0.5 represents one playoff team)
AFK = 8.5
OFC = 1.5

A six-team play-off tournament will be held in the US, Mexico and Canada to determine the last two teams to qualify for the World Cup. The two playoff teams with the highest FIFA world rankings will be seeded, while the remaining four will play in the semi-finals to decide who will advance to the final and play the two seeded teams.

One play-off team from each of the confederations (except UEFA) will be an additional team from the CONCACAF region, which will be six teams.

How will FIFA handle the group stage and playoffs?

This is something that will really intrigue in the coming years as FIFA plans the logistics of where to host group stage games, playoff rounds and where national teams will be based.

One thing is known: FIFA will play 80 games at the tournament, 60 of them in the USA, 10 in Mexico and 10 in Canada. This has already been confirmed.

In all my conversations with those who have been involved in the host city bidding process in recent years, one thing has stood out: FIFA wants to have regional groupings of cities so that games can be played in different cities, but with very few trips for fans and teams.

With that in mind, placing World Cup groups in twin cities would be very good, and then keeping those teams in a specific region of the US, Mexico, and Canada for the first few rounds of the playoffs would also make sense.

For example: Groups A and B will be based on the West Coast for the group stage, plus Round of 16 and Round of 16, while Groups C and D will be based on the East Coast for the group stage, plus Round of 16 and Round of 16 final. Round 16 and so on and so forth.

As for how this will all work out, I tried to predict which cities could be paired up to host games in 2026:

Vancouver + Seattle
San Francisco + Los Angeles
Mexico City + Guadalajara
Monterrey + Houston
Kansas City + Dallas
Atlanta + Miami
Boston + Toronto
Philadelphia + New York

Which city will host the 2026 World Cup final?

Three cities in the US appear to be the leaders: Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York/New Jersey.

The latter seems to be the favorite in the current situation, especially since FIFA has chosen New York to represent the 16 host cities of the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

The Azteca Stadium in Mexico City has hosted two World Cup finals in the past, and despite its iconic status in world football, the final is expected to take place in the US.


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