According to reporting from the Athletic, FIFA is set to approve a format change for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, set to be jointly hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Originally planned with a group stage that had 16 groups of 3 teams each, the new format alters this to 12 groups of 4 teams each.
The top two teams from each group will automatically advance to the knockout stage. The teams that finish 3rd will be ranked against each other based on their group performances, and the top 8 will also advance to the knockout stage, forming a first knockout stage of 32 teams. In total, there will be 104 matches at the 2026 World Cup, up from the original 80. Teams that make the World Cup final or 3rd place match will now play 8 games, which is up from the current 7.
The original plan for groups of 3 came as a sort of compromise between expanding the tournament by 16 teams and having so many fixtures for one tournament. Adding teams allows FIFA to include more nations, particularly from the underrepresented Asian and African federation. But adding teams necessarily means also adds matches, making a huge tournament that’s already difficult to host even more bloated. The groups of 3 limited the number of extra games to 80, an increase of just 16 games.
However, the decision to go to 3-team groups came with controversy. With three teams in a group and only one advancing, the number of matches without any stakes was highly likely to increase (ex. if a team wins the first two games in the group, they will have automatically qualified and the last game will be meaningless). There would have also been a heightened risk of match-fixing, as you could not play any games within the same group simultaneously to prevent teams from having that knowledge and fixing games.
But it sounds like what really is behind the change is just how exciting the 4-team group stage at the recent 2022 World Cup proved to be. Very few teams were completely eliminated before their final game, and there were a number of very exciting a memorable moments as the group stage came to a close. For instance, there was a dramatic end to Group D, with Tunisia managing to beat eventual finalists France, only for Australia (initially considered one of the weakest teams in the entire tournament), to beat them to the spot by recording an upset of their own v. Denmark at the same time (France finished top of the group). There were several such exciting moments that caught the world’s attention. And it looks like it was ultimately that excitement that forced FIFA to change their minds.
What do you think of the format change? Are you happy the tournament is going back to 4 games, or are you worried about the increase in the number of matches? Give us your thoughts in the comments down below!