FIFA is scrapping the ill-fated 2026 World Cup format, but the new plan offers other pros and cons
Six years after initially agreeing to overhaul the Men’s World Cup format, FIFA has scrapped its ill-fated plan for three-team groups and approved a new format for the 2026 tournament – a 48-team bonanza hosted by USA, Canada and Canada is aligned with Mexico.
The new format is more similar to the traditional one: groups of four teams and an additional KO round of 32 teams.
But it gets unwieldy in its own way: eight third-place teams qualify for the round of 32; The entire tournament will feature 104 games instead of 64, a weighty addition that will increase the strain on both host cities and players. and it will last a whole week longer than ever.
[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 discussions and final approval by its council, a collection of dozens of the sport’s most powerful officials.
The announcement marks the end of a years-long conflict between FIFA’s original proposal and common sense. And it’s the first of several much-anticipated decisions on how exactly the 2026 World Cup will play out in North America.
What is the new WM format?
The new format is very similar to that previously used in 24-team tournaments such as the Women’s World Cup and Men’s European Championship – double the size.
The 48 teams will be drawn into 12 groups of four. They each play a round robin of three games. The top two in each group advance.
The third-placed teams are then ranked based on points, goal difference and other tiebreakers if necessary, and the top eight out of 12 round out the knockout stage – which begins with a round of 32 before continuing as in the old format is continued.
How long will this all take?
Since 1998, 32 men’s World Cups have played 64 games in around 32 days.
FIFA’s original 16-triple expansion plan would have added 16 games but squeezed them into the same time slot.
The redesigned tournament will last 38-40 days instead.
To fit it into an already-crowded football calendar, FIFA will reportedly cut the pre-World Cup period when players must be released by clubs for their national teams from 23 to 16 days – meaning the ‘footprint’ of the Tournament will remain unchanged for about two months, but training camps will be significantly shorter.
What does this mean for North American host cities?
The news is momentous for the 16 North American cities already preparing to host games.
When FIFA members selected the United States, Canada and Mexico to co-host the 2026 World Cup, the tentative agreement between the North American neighbors called for 60 matches in the United States and 10 each in Canada and Mexico. The 11 US cities selected last June expected they would get five or six games each.
That estimate has now been revised down to six or seven — and maybe eight for some US cities. How the games will now be distributed among the three host countries is unclear.
Local organizers have also been told that the tournament will take place in June and July as expected (despite potentially dangerous heat).
FIFA’s forthcoming format announcement now paves the way for the creation of a schedule and the assignment of specific matches – such as the opening and finals – to specific cities. These decisions are expected within the next 12 months.
Multiple sources have told Emox News that New York (MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey), Dallas (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) and Los Angeles (SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California) are the three candidates to host the finals .
What are the financial implications of the new format?
The biggest beneficiaries of the new format will be FIFA’s bank accounts. Even as an 80-game competition, the 2026 World Cup would have broken all possible attendance and revenue records. The additional 24 games will bring FIFA even closer to the $11 billion in revenue it has projected over the next four years, and likely beyond. (That’s up from a record $7.5 billion last cycle.)
While FIFA previously delegated many of the responsibilities for hosting World Cups – and with them some of the expenses and income – to local organizing committees, in 2023 and 2026 FIFA will host the women’s and men’s World Cups for the first time. FIFA will therefore generate the vast majority of World Cup-related profits – and has said it will funnel most of that money back into football and to its 211 member associations.
What are the disadvantages?
The new format will require more from players, but not significantly more – 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 third-place teams progress, early stumbles won’t be nearly as consequential as they used to be. Take the 2022 World Cup as a counterexample. After Argentina’s stunning defeat by Saudi Arabia, every subsequent one Albiceleste the game felt like a do-or-die finale; Every time Lionel Messi rushed onto a field, even against Mexico and Poland in the group stage, there was a deep fear of it this time could be his last.
The 2026 World Cup, on the other hand, will cause significantly less early drama. Many rivals are already in the round of 16 after two group games – and in some cases after one. The tournament lasts 72 games over nearly three weeks to eliminate just 16 teams.