In a surprising move, FIFA has announced that the format for the expanded 2026 World Cup will revert to four-team groups, despite initial plans for 16 groups of three. The competition, which will take place in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, will feature 48 teams instead of the traditional 32.
The decision was made following the success of the four-team format at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. FIFA believes that this format mitigates the risk of collusion and ensures that all teams play a minimum of three matches while providing balanced rest time between competing teams.
The revised format will expand the competition from its projected 80 matches to 104, including a new round-of-32 stage. FIFA stated that the top two and eight best third-placed teams would progress to the last 32. This means that teams will have to play eight matches to win the tournament, compared to seven at the 2022 World Cup.
The decision was approved at FIFA’s council meeting in Rwanda, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino saying that the governing body was considering a format change after the group stages in Qatar included some exciting final games.
FIFA Approves Men’s International Match Calendar and Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. In addition to the World Cup format change, FIFA also approved a men’s international match calendar from 2025-2030. The governing body stated that “based on the new calendar, the FIFA World Cup 2026 final will be played on Sunday, 19 July 2026”.
FIFA also approved the women’s international match calendar, which includes the women’s Olympic football tournament. The tournament will take place from 25 July to 10 August 2024.
32-Team Club FIFA World Cup Set for 2025
FIFA also approved the access list for the 32-team FIFA Club World Cup, which will take place every four years from June 2025. Teams who win their confederation’s top tournament in “the four-year period of the seasons ending in 2021 and 2024” will qualify, where they have enough places.
Europe has 12 places in the new tournament, with Chelsea and Real Madrid have already secured their spots. The other qualifying teams from each continent will be determined “by a club ranking based on the same four-year period”. FIFA has also expressed interest in keeping a yearly club competition.
Player Welfare and Fixture Congestion
Player organisations and club managers have regularly voiced concerns about the demands on players. FIFA is to set up a task force to look at player welfare and “principles such as mandatory rest periods”.
However, the general secretary of the players’ union Fifpro Jonas Baer-Hoffmann reiterated that “ongoing research provides new evidence of the excessive demands on elite players”. He added that “they realise that their match calendar is not sustainable, affects their mental and physical health, and leaves them exposed, and without any protection, to an accelerated cycle of poorly coordinated competitions.”
Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief executive Maheta Molango stated that “the football calendar needs a complete reset”. He added that “the expanded World Cup format being announced for 2026 means that, yet again, more games are being forced into an already overcrowded schedule.”
Despite these concerns, FIFA remains committed to expanding the competition and increase revenue. As the governing body continues to make changes to the football calendar, player welfare and fixture congestion will remain critical issues that need to be addressed.