The 2026 World Cup, hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada, expanded to 48 participating countries, will have a first phase with 12 groups of four teams each, tournament organizer FIFA announced Thursday, increasing the number of matches from 64 to 104.
This decision, “which limits the risk of arrangements and guarantees that all teams will play at least three matches,” will increase the number of matches in the tournament from the 64 of the last editions to 104.
The direct knockout rounds will begin in the round of 32, with the top two teams in each round and “the eight best third-placed teams”, said FIFA, whose council is meeting in Kigali (Rwanda).
This format also means that the finalists and semifinalists will play a total of eight matches, compared to seven until Qatar 2022.
Launched in 2017, the passage of the men’s World Cup from 32 to 48 participating countries made it necessary to revise the format in force since France-1998, with a first phase of eight groups of four teams, the first two qualifying for the round of 16.
FIFA had initially considered a format with 16 groups of three teams each, with the top two teams qualifying for the Round of 16, which would have increased the number of matches to 80.
But this formula, which is unusual in soccer, where groups of four teams are usually played in major tournaments (the European Championship and the Champions League, for example), had an added difficulty: the risk of pacts between the teams before the third match, which led FIFA to consider extra time and even penalty shootouts to avoid a draw as a result.
Soccer’s highest body changed its mind definitively after the experience of the World Cup-2022 in Qatar, where the last day of the first phase was full of excitement and suspense, particularly in Group E, where each of the teams (Germany, Spain, Japan and Costa Rica) was virtually qualified for the round of 16 throughout the 90 minutes.
On Tuesday, FIFA argued that it had taken into account “sporting integrity, player health, team travel, commercial and sporting appeal, as well as the experience of teams and spectators” in abandoning the three-team group formula.
The number of venues for the 2026 World Cup will be doubled compared to Qatar-2022. From eight stadiums, there will be 16 spread across the United States (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and New York), three in Mexico (Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey) and two in Canada (Toronto and Vancouver).
Aware that the wear and tear of footballers is a hot topic, FIFA kept at 56 days the mandatory period that players have to be available for their national teams, “as in 2010, 2014 and 2018”, while the World Cup in Qatar was reduced by a few days due to the fact that it was played in the middle of the European season.
The duration of the North American World Cup has not been confirmed, but the participants will be concentrating with their teams on May 25 to prepare for a tournament whose final will be played on July 19, 2026.
The next World Cup will break all commercial records for the Zurich-based organization, which then redistributes its revenues among its 211 federations. In mid-February, FIFA set at $11 billion (€10.25 billion) its revenue for the 2023-2026 cycle, up 44.7% from 2019-2022.
Its president Gianni Infantino will be re-elected on Thursday during this 73rd FIFA congress due to the fact that he has no rival in the vote.