The 2022 World Cup draws to a close this weekend, marking the end of an era for the tournament before it rolls into the United States, Mexico and Canada in four years’ time.
The current format, which sees 32 teams drawn into eight groups of four nations feeding into the knockout rounds, first featured at France ’98. It’s all a generation of football fans has known, spanning 24 years and seven editions.
In 2026, 48 teams take part in the World Cup — 45 qualifying nations plus the three host countries. (FIFA president Gianni Infantino has indicated none of the hosts will not have to go through qualifying.)
It means the natural format of 32 teams in eight groups with the top two teams going through to create the perfect, 16-team knockout bracket is over.
There are going to be more teams, more games, more kickoff times and a longer tournament. The World Cup has lasted around 32 days throughout the current format (though it was condensed into 29 in Qatar), but it will have to be at least 35 days if FIFA expands to a mammoth 104-game tournament from the 64 it is now.
So will the 2026 World Cup work, who will qualify and what could it look like?
Why are there more nations at the 2026 World Cup?
This is the largest expansion the World Cup has seen. It started out with between 13 and 16 nations in 1930, 1934, 1938 and 1950. From 1954 onwards, the tournament featured 16 teams until it was increased to 24 for Mexico ’86, and then 32 for France ’98.
The move from 32 to 48 teams is a 50% increase, and will make it difficult for any one country to host the event because of the venues and infrastructure required.
Infantino, who was originally elected to run FIFA on a proposal to expand to 40 teams, robustly defended the decision when it was announced in 2017, which FIFA projects will generate $1 billion more income and $640 million additional profit.
Infantino says the money will be reinvested in football: “Increasing the size of teams which can participate will increase the investment in football development, to make sure that the teams can qualify.”
Who gets the extra places at the 2026 World Cup?
There are 16 additional slots at the 2026 World Cup, and this is where the 46 automatic places will go (increase from 2022 in brackets):
United States, Mexico and Canada will be included within the six places allocated to North, Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF.)
There will still be two places up for grabs through intercontinental playoffs to complete the 48. A total of six teams — one from each of the five confederations apart from Europe, plus an additional one from CONCACAF as host confederation — will take part.
Who would qualify for a 48-team World Cup?
Let’s take the 2022 World Cup and expand it to 48 teams (which at one point was being strongly considered by FIFA.)
For the purposes of this illustration, additional qualification places have been handed to the next-best nations in the qualifying competition for each confederation. (As Italy failed to even make the UEFA playoff finals, they still miss out.)
The teams in bold are the additional 16.
Africa: Algeria, Cameroon, DR Congo, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Tunisia
Asia: Australia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, UAE
North, Central America and Caribbean: Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, United States
Europe: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Ukraine, Wales
Oceania: New Zealand
South America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay
The two best FIFA-ranked teams eligible for the intercontinental playoffs (Chile and DR Congo) are given the last places. (The other countries in the playoffs would have been El Salvador, Honduras, Solomon Islands, Syria.)
There would have been World Cup debuts for Mali, North Macedonia (and Qatar as hosts).
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— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 16, 2022
How will the 2026 World Cup group stage work?
This is where it gets somewhat uncertain, but if we take the teams who would have qualified for the 2022 edition in a 48-team format we can get a picture of 2026.
Option 1: 16 groups of 3
It’s been almost six years since the FIFA council voted to increase the size of the World Cup and approved a format that would see the 48 teams divided into 16 groups of three teams — with the top two going through to a round of 32. But Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s chief of global football, has said this could yet be changed with a final decision due in 2023.
The total number of games would rise from 64 to 80 and FIFA believes the tournament can be played within usual 32 days. (The Qatar World Cup was squeezed into just 29 days as it took place during the European domestic club season.)
Each group would have no more than one team from each confederation, so it seems logical there would be one pot with the 16 European teams, one for each group, while the remaining pots would be split on ranking.
That makes the draw pots, based on the latest FIFA World Ranking:
Pot 1 (UEFA): Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Ukraine, Wales
Pot 2: Mexico, USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Senegal, Iran, Morocco, Peru, Japan, South Korea, Chile, Tunisia, Costa Rica
Pot 3: Nigeria, Algeria, Australia, Egypt, Cameroon, Ecuador, Mali, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Ghana, Jamaica, Iraq, UAE, DR Congo, New Zealand
Canada would naturally be in Pot 3, but have been placed alongside the US and Mexico in Pot 2 as they would be pre-allocated a group as a host to play in their own country.
A test draw produces the following groups:
Group A: Canada, Wales, Algeria
Group B: France, South Korea, Nigeria
Group C: USA, Serbia, DR Congo
Group D: Portugal, Japan, Egypt
Group E: Switzerland, Senegal, UAE
Group F: Belgium, Iran, Ecuador
Group G: Poland, Uruguay, Australia
Group H: North Macedonia, Peru, Cameroon
Group I: England, Colombia, Jamaica
Group J: Croatia, Tunisia, Iraq
Group K: Ukraine, Morocco, Saudi Arabia
Group L: Netherlands, Argentina, Panama
Group M: Denmark, Chile, Ghana
Group N: Sweden, Brazil, New Zealand
Group O: Germany, Costa Rica, Qatar
Group P: Mexico, Spain, Mali
The top two teams in each group would go through to a round of 32, which has caused controversy as it means the teams in the final group match could play out a specific result to ensure both go through at the expense of the third team, would would not be playing. At the 1982 World Cup, with four-team groups but final matches not played at the same time, West Germany and Austria played out a 1-0 game which meant both teams went through at the expense of Algeria, with the three teams finishing on four points. It’s after this incident that FIFA adopted concurrent final group games.
FIFA has suggested it could get around such collusion by deciding all group-game draws by penalty shootouts, but this still wouldn’t eliminate the prospect of a specific result like 1-0 suiting both teams in the third game.
There would be very few marquee matches in the group stage, depending on the draw. Mexico vs. Spain and Netherlands vs. Argentina are standouts from this mock draw. Another criticism of this format is that it reduces much of the jeopardy, with two-thirds of the teams advancing. Also, countries would only be guaranteed two games, rather than three.
For these reasons, FIFA is considering a rethink and is almost certain to abandon this option.
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— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 16, 2022
Option 2: 12 groups of 4
This format sees the 48 teams drawn into groups of four teams, just as we have now. However, 16 or 32 teams must come out of the groups to create a balanced knockout bracket. That means it may well be the top two teams from each group plus the eight best third-placed teams, creating a round of 32. UEFA has used a similar system with third-placed teams advancing to the knockout rounds for the last two European Championships.
The positive is it creates a regular group stage with double-header final games, which can produce great drama as we saw in the 2022 edition. There would be less jeopardy with third-placed teams to go through, but it feels a more natural system for the World Cup. And all teams would get three games.
FIFA is considering two methods:
1) 12 groups of 4 feeding through to one knockout bracket.
2) Two halves of 24 teams, creating 6 groups of 4 in each. The halves would come together for the final.
They are very similar, though with option 2 you wouldn’t be able to play a team from the other half until the final. Also, the overall best eight third-placed teams might not go through, as each half would need four third-placed teams to advance.
The draw pots would be slightly different, and would likely revert to the usual system of hosts in Pot 1 along with the top-ranked teams by FIFA ranking.
Pot 1: Mexico, United States, Canada, Brazil, Belgium, Argentina, France, England, Spain, Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark
Pot 2: Germany, Croatia, Uruguay, Switzerland, Colombia, Senegal, Wales, Iran, Serbia, Morocco, Peru, Japan
Pot 3: Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, South Korea, Chile, Tunisia, Costa Rica, Nigeria, Algeria, Australia, Egypt, Cameroon
Pot 4: Ecuador, Mali, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Ghana, Jamaica, North Macedonia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, DR Congo, New Zealand
Each group would have no more than one team from each confederation, apart from Europe, which would need to have four groups with two teams in.
A test draw produces the following groups:
Group A: Argentina, Switzerland, Sweden, Iraq
Group B: Belgium, Peru, Costa Rica, Ghana
Group C: Canada, Iran, Chile, North Macedonia
Group D: Netherlands, Morocco, South Korea, Jamaica
Group E: Mexico, Serbia, Egypt, Qatar
Group F: Denmark, Uruguay, Cameroon, United Arab Emirates
Group G: England, Croatia, Nigeria, Ecuador
Group H: United States, Colombia, Poland, DR Congo
Group I: Portugal, Senegal, Australia, Panama
Group J: Brazil, Japan, Ukraine, Mali
Group K: Spain, Wales, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia
Group L: France, Germany, Algeria, New Zealand
The issue with groups of four is the huge number of additional games. The 2022 World Cup had 64 games, and the three-team group stage format produces 80, but with four-team groups and a round of 32 we’d be looking at 104 matches — a 47% increase tournament to tournament. The World Cup would have to expand beyond 32 days, to at least 35, for this to be possible.
The European Club Association, which exists to protect and promote European club football, was against the increase the 48 games because of the impact on the domestic calendar. Fears were allayed when FIFA said the tournament could still be played within 32 days, but a switch to 104 fixtures can only result in a bigger and longer World Cup.
How will the 2026 World Cup differ from the last edition in the US?
More teams and more matches
There were only 24 teams at the 1994 World Cup in the US, playing a total of 52 matches (36 in the group stage.) In 2026, it is likely to be 104 fixtures (72 in the group stage.)
More host cities spread across time zones
USA ’94 was a tournament largely held on the East Coast (Eastern Time, ET); of the nine host cities, only Stanford and Pasadena were on the West Coast (Pacific Time, PT) with just Dallas in Central Time (CT).
In 2026, the World Cup will see 16 venues in three countries across time zones.
PT (4): Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles
CT (6): Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City
ET (6): Atlanta, Miami, Boston, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Toronto
More games may mean later kickoffs
In 1994, kickoff times were tailored more toward European audiences, with no game kicking off later that 4:30 p.m. PT (12:30 a.m. in the UK.)
FIFA won’t schedule any two matches to be played at the same time, other than the final group matches, and with so many more games to be played it’s likely games will be stretched across the day to maximise the timezones.
With only 24 games to schedule for the first two group matches in 1994, it was possible to avoid evening kickoffs in PT — overnight in Europe. But with 48 matches to fit into a similar timescale and played across time zones, it will be difficult to avoid without the tournament getting even longer.
So, at the men’s World Cup in 2026, we could see the first match of the day kicking off at 1 p.m. ET (6 p.m. UK) and the final match ending on the West Coast at 11 p.m. PT (2 a.m. ET, 7 a.m. UK), even though it’s not ideal to have matches taking place late in the night ET.
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Ivory Coast vs. Japan was one match scheduled to be played at 10 p.m. local time (2 a.m. UK) to enable four matches to be played that day (every other day in the first two rounds of group matches had no more than three matches.) Qatar actually had 10 p.m. local as one of its main kickoff times, the first time this has been the case at the World Cup.