The 2026 World Cup: 48 teams, more groups, more venues, more games
It hasn’t even been three months since the last World Cup ended, with Argentina beating France 4-2 on penalties after a 3-3 draw in the final in Qatar, but FIFA is already looking forward to a refreshed 2026 World Cup when it hits to the United States. USA, Mexico and Canada. The format, group sizes and duration of the tournament have already been confirmed and it will be very different from what we are used to.
The old format, in which 32 teams were divided into eight groups from four countries participating in the playoffs, was first introduced at France ’98. This is everything a generation of football fans has known in 24 years and seven issues.
In 2026, 48 teams will take part in the World Cup – 45 countries that have qualified, plus three host countries. It was confirmed that the United States, Mexico and Canada as hosts would not have to qualify for the North, Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF) qualifiers.
This means the natural format of 32 teams in eight groups with the top two teams advancing through a perfect 16-team playoff bracket is over.
There will be more teams, more games, more start times and a longer tournament. The World Cup usually lasted around 32 days, although in Qatar the games were reduced to 29.
So how will the 2026 World Cup play out, who will qualify and what could it look like?
Why are there more countries at the 2026 World Cup?
This is the biggest expansion the World Cup has seen. It started with 13-16 countries in 1930, 1934, 1938 and 1950. Beginning in 1954, 16 teams entered the tournament until it was increased to 24 for Spain ’82 and then to 32 for France ’98.
The move from 32 teams to 48 is a 50% increase, which will make it difficult for any one country to host the event due to the required venues and infrastructure.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who was originally elected to head FIFA over a proposal to expand to 40 teams, strongly defended the decision when it was announced in 2017 which FIFA projects would generate $1 billion in additional revenue and $640 million in additional profits. dollars.
Infantino says the money will be reinvested in football: “Increasing the number of teams that can participate will increase investment in football development to make sure teams can qualify.”
How will the 2026 World Cup group stage play out?
It has been more than six years since the FIFA Council voted to increase the size of the World Cup and approved a format that would see 48 teams divided into 16 groups of three.
The top two teams in each group would advance to the round of 16, which caused controversy as it meant that the teams in the final group match could play for a specific score to both advance at the expense of a third team that would not play. In the 1982 World Cup with four teams in groups but no final matches played at the same time, West Germany and Austria played 1–0, which meant both teams went through at Algeria’s expense and three teams finished four points. It was after this incident that FIFA adopted parallel final group games.
FIFA suggested circumventing such collusion by deciding all draws in group games on penalties, but this still would not eliminate the prospect of a specific outcome such as 1–0 to suit both teams in the third game.
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Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, will be #Soccer World Cup 2026 Host city #HostCity2026 pic.twitter.com/FnJVVrmyHL
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 16, 2022
So there was a rethink, and during the exciting four-team group stage in Qatar, FIFA admitted that it could drop the agreed-upon three-team group stage format. And now it’s official.
“The revised format reduces the risk of collusion and ensures that all teams play at least three matches while ensuring balanced rest times between competing teams.” FIFA said.
According to the approved format, 48 teams are divided into 12 groups of four teams. However, 32 teams need to qualify from the groups to create a balanced playoff bracket. This means that the top two teams from each group, plus the top eight third-placed teams, will advance to form Round of 32. UEFA used a similar system when the third-placed teams qualified for the play-offs at the last two European Championships.
This creates a regular group stage with double title final games that can create a lot of drama, as we saw in the 2022 release. There would be fewer dangers with third-placed teams, but it seems like a more natural system for a World Cup. And all teams will get these three games.
More teams, more games?
The problem with 12 groups of four is the sheer number of side games. There were 64 games in the 2022 World Cup, and in a three-team group stage format there would have been 80, but with four-team groups and a 32nd round there would be 104 matches, a 47% increase over the tournament.
The European Club Association, which exists to protect and promote European club football, was against increasing the number of games to 48 due to the impact on the national calendar. Fears dissipated when FIFA said the tournament could still be played for 32 days, but a move to 104 matches could only lead to a bigger, longer World Cup.
How long will the 2026 World Cup last?
“The tournament will last six or seven days longer, but the actual distance between release and final will be the same as in 2014 and 2018,” said Victor Montagliani, chairman of the 2026 World Cup and president of CONCACAF.
FIFA says the tournament will be the same length as the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups, for a total of 56 days, though that’s actually not all.
The 56 days refer to competition coverage, when top football is effectively suspended as FIFA says all clubs must release players to their national teams. The tournament itself is usually a little over half that, but it needs to be longer to accommodate all the games.
The 2026 World Cup itself will last 39 days – a week longer than the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups, and 10 days more than Qatar.
The mandatory release period will begin on 25 May 2026, so the last official club matches must be played on 24 May. Exceptions may apply to the final matches of confederation club competitions such as the UEFA Champions League until 30 May.
The World Cup final will take place on Sunday, July 19, and although FIFA has not yet officially announced the exact start date and duration of the tournament, it will begin around Wednesday, June 10.
For the 2018 FIFA World Cup, home club football ended on 20 May and the World Cup began on 14 June – a 25-day preparation period for eligible countries. In 2026, this period has been reduced to 16 days to allow for an expanded tournament.
Who will receive additional places at the 2026 World Cup?
Forty-six teams will qualify automatically, with the final two spots distributed through the Intercontinental Playoffs.
There are 17 additional qualifying slots compared to 2022 – 16 slots added plus the previous 1 host slot that is no longer reserved separately and goes into the qualifying basket. For example, in the 2022 World Cup, Asia received five places: four automatic qualifiers PLUS Qatar as the host – now there is no additional allocation.
This is how 46 automatic slots are distributed, the increase to which is indicated in brackets.
Asia: 8 (+4)
Africa: 9 (+4)
North, Central America and the Caribbean: 6 (+3)
Europe: 16 (+3)
South America: 6 (+2)
Oceania: 1 (+1)
While CONCACAF should automatically receive six qualifying spots, only three will be up for grabs in the 2026 season. This is because the US, Mexico and Canada automatic seats will be deducted from the six seats allocated by CONCACAF. This reduces the number of CONCACAF qualifying route places to three.
The Intercontinental Playoffs will feature a total of six teams, one from each of the five confederations except Europe, plus one from CONCACAF as the host confederation.
Who will qualify for the 48-team World Championship?
Let’s take the 2022 World Cup and expand it to 48 teams (which was seriously considered by FIFA at one point).
For the purposes of this illustration, additional qualifying places have been given to the next best nations in the qualifying competition for each confederation. (Because Italy didn’t even manage to reach the UEFA play-off final, they didn’t make it into this illustration anyway.)
Additional 16 commands are in bold type.
Africa: AlgeriaCameroon, DR Congo, Egypt, MaliMorocco, NigeriaSenegal, Ghana, Tunisia
Asia: Australia, Iran, IraqJapan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, UAE
North, Central America and the Caribbean: Canada, Costa Rica, JamaicaMexico, PanamaUnited States
Europe: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, North MacedoniaSerbia, Spain, SwedenSwitzerland, Poland, Portugal, UkraineWales
Oceania: New Zealand
South America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, ColombiaEcuador, PeruUruguay
The top two teams in the FIFA rankings eligible for the Intercontinental Playoffs (Chile and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) are in last place. (Other countries in the playoffs would be El Salvador, Honduras, Solomon Islands, Syria.)
Mali, North Macedonia and Qatar could make their World Cup debuts as hosts.
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Vancouver will become #Soccer World Cup Host city of 2026! 🙌#HostCity2026 pic.twitter.com/8IJhekesYR
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 16, 2022
What could be the group stage of the 2026 World Cup?
FIFA is considering two methods:
1) 12 groups of 4 passes in one knockout bracket.
2) Two halves of 24 teams, forming 6 groups of 4 people each. The halves met in the final.
They are very similar, although with option 2 you won’t be able to play as a team from the other half until the final. Also, in the overall standings, the top eight third-place teams may not qualify, as four third-place teams will be needed in each half to advance.
Trays are likely to see…