From 1982 to 1994 the World Cup finals saw 24 teams take part. This expanded to 32 for the France World Cup in 1998 and stayed at this number up to and including Qatar in 2022. However, the next World Cup, to be played in North America (USA, Mexico and Canada will all host games), will see further expansion, and 48 nations make it through to the tournament proper.
32 teams was logically a great number because we had eight groups of four, from which the top two qualified for the last 16. From there a straight knockout format was used. But with 48 teams set to play in 2026, the structure of the World Cup was less obvious. FIFA seemed all set to go with 16 groups of three but recently they announced a new format (and more logical).
Thrilling Qatar Raises Doubts
It was perhaps a little surprising to many, but the tournament in Qatar was a huge success and one of the best aspects of it was the thrilling final round of the group phase. Each quartet saw two games played simultaneously and several groups were wide open on the final day, with three or even four teams in with a chance of progressing.
The proposed format for 2026 would, critics argued, remove this excitement. With two teams from each of the 16 groups set to make it through to the Round of 32, there would be far less jeopardy, not least because there would only be one game in the final matchday for each group. It was also felt that three-team groups increased the likelihood of collusion, with a high chance that we would see the final clash of the group played out as a bore draw that suited both teams.
In April 2022, before the World Cup in Qatar, FIFA announced that it was considering alternatives to the 16-groups-of-three proposal. This was chiefly in relation to the issue of collusion but after the immense excitement of Qatar’s group stage, FIFA began far more seriously to consider a different structure for the next tournament.
Groups of Four Survive
Thankfully and somewhat surprisingly, FIFA listened to fans and pundits and maybe even applied the increasingly uncommon commodity of common sense. Shortly after Lionel Messi cemented his GOAT status yet further, FIFA announced that they would reconsider the group phase for the next tournament. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino said, “Here the groups of four have been absolutely incredible. Until the last minute of the last match you would not know who goes through. We have to revisit or at least re-discuss the format.”
After some delay it was reported on 14 March 2023 that the groups of four would indeed survive! Hurray! But how would they navigate the group stage in order to end up with 16 or 32 teams for the knockout phase of proceedings?
2026 World Cup Format
The 48 nations taking part will now be part of by far the biggest World Cup ever. The tournament will span 39 days (Qatar was just 29, whilst the two World Cups before that were 32) and will see a massive 104 matches. Again, for reference, 2022 saw 64 as did all finals since the expansion to 32 teams in 1998.
Previous options for 2026 would have seen 80 games played, so the decision to stick with groups of four means more than 50% more matches will be played. Club managers and player unions around the globe may well be up in arms about this but for FIFA and the host nations, it has a very clear upside. More games means more money, from ticket sales, sponsorship opportunities and merchandising and if there is one thing FIFA loves, it is money.
So, for 2026 we will see 12 groups of four with the standard format whereby each side plays the other three once. The top two will qualify for the next round, which is business as usual, but they will be joined by the eight highest-ranked third-placed sides. This will give us 32 nations in the new Round of 32 and, thankfully, from there on in we will once more be back on familiar territory, with a straight knockout as per previous World Cup finals.
The usual system of ranking the top two and best third-placed sides will be used, although at this stage the method and ordering of tiebreakers has not been announced. By this we mean that if teams are tied on points, it is currently unclear what metrics – for example goal difference, head-to-head record, goals scored and so on – will be used to separate them, and in what order.
In terms of ranking the best teams to finish third in their group, points will obviously be the number one factor. There will be no head-to-head game so we assume that goal difference will be next. At Euro 2020, which saw 24 nations take part, a similar, smaller group phase saw four third-placed sides join six group winners and six runners-up and the following tiebreakers were used:
- Goal difference
- Goals scored
- Group wins
- Disciplinary points
- Ranking in qualification
This system should favour the three hosts and give them all an excellent chance of making the Round of 32 as they will all be seeded in the highest pot. It will certainly help the other nations in their groups as they will not have to face any of the very best teams in the world. This will mean that not only do nations have a decent chance of making the top two, but also that if they finish third, they should at least be able to collect a reasonable number of points.
In contrast, the nine groups that do not feature any of USA, Mexico or Canada could well see two or three very decent nations feature. Diverging from what we have said above, in these groups, finishing in the top two will be a major challenge, whilst the nations battling for third may find collecting even three points a struggle in the Group of Death – or even Groups of Death.