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Decoding the 2026 World Cup format: What has FIFA changed?

FIFA's 2026 World Cup will be the first edition of the iconic global football tournament to be hosted across three countries, with the North American trio of the USA, Canada and Mexico sharing. And that's not the only dramatic change.

The World Cup will undergo the biggest change to its format in many a year. So, what does it involve?

2026 World Cup format – in short

  • The number of teams has increased from 32 to 48
  • The 48 teams will be made up of 45 nations through the qualifiers, plus the three host countries: Canada, Mexico and the USA
  • This is a 50% increase in the number of teams, the largest increase in the World Cup format ever
  • There will be 12 groups of four teams, even though FIFA originally announced a three-team group stage format
  • There will be a total of 104 matches at the 2026 FIFA World Cup, a 47% increase on the 2022 edition's 64 games

What was the old World Cup format?

Prior to the 2026 edition, 32 teams competed in eight groups – of four nations each – to reach the knockout rounds. This format had been used seven times after its introduction at the 1998 World Cup, hosted and won by France.

2026 World Cup group stages format explained

2026 World Cup format explained
Photo by Jessica Alcheh-USA TODAY Sports/Sipa USA/Icon Sport

The old group stage format involve eight groups with a total of 32 teams. The top two teams from each group would progress to enter the 16-team knockout stages.

Forty-eight teams proposes a problem. The original proposition was to have three-team groups, with the top two teams going through. The key problem here was that there would be one final group game in which two teams faced off with the other having played all their games. In certain scenarios, this could mean two teams deliberately creating a specific result which would see both go through at the expense of the third team.

FIFA's solution for this was to add penalty shoot-outs to any group games drawn, as is the case in some competitions in England such as the women's Continental Cup and men's EFL Trophy. This still wouldn't have solved the problem.

After the thrilling group stages at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where there were eight groups of four teams, FIFA realised their mistake. The three-team group stage format was abandoned.

So, what now?

There will be 12 groups of four teams. But, unlike before, it is not only the top two teams going through because that would create an imbalanced knockout stages. Instead, 32 teams must go through. This means some third-placed teams will have to progress.

FIFA will emulate the method used by UEFA in recent European Championships. The eight best third-placed teams – based on points and goals scored and conceded – will progress. This might not produce quite as an exciting group stage as in Qatar, but it could because almost every team will have something to play for on the final day of their group fixture schedule.

2026 World Cup knockout stages format explained

Afcon host 2025 Morocco reached the 2022 World Cup semi-final | 2026 World Cup format has changed
Morocco were one of the stand-out stories of the 2022 World Cup knockout stages, reaching the semi-final (Photo by Cao Can/Xinhua/ABACAPRESS.COM/Icon Sport)

More teams means more games, again. So instead of beginning with a round of 16, the 2026 World Cup will have a Round of 32 as well. This means a total of five matches beyond the group stages for the two finalists and a total of eight for any team to win the tournament.

How many games will there be at the 2026 World Cup?

With the increase in teams to 48, there will be more games, with a total of 104 matches. This is an increase of 47% on the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, where there were 64 games.

How long will the 2026 World Cup be?

It looks like the 2026 World Cup will last a total of 39 days from the opening game to the final. This is ten days longer than the 2022 World Cup and seven days longer than the 2010, 2014 and 2018 editions.

How has the World Cup changed over the years?

The first official FIFA World Cup was hosted by Uruguay in 1930. Italy followed in 1934, and then France in 1938 and Uruguay in 1950. At all of these World Cups, between 13 and 16 nations competed. It was organised, but not strictly, with teams sometimes dropping out late on for a variety of reasons from resources and infrastructure to civil wars or world wars.

Estadio Azteca | Host of the 1986 World Cup Final and host city for the 2026 World Cup
The Estadio Azteca in Mexico will host a World Cup for the third time in 2026 (after 1970 and 1986), but this time, instead of 16 teams or 24 teams, there will be 48 | Photo by Michel Barrault/Onze/Icon Sport

From the 1954 World Cup onwards – hosted in Switzerland – 16 teams featured until this was changed to 24 teams for Spain's 1982 edition. Another eight teams were added in 1998 for the France-hosted tournament.

In 2026, there will be an increase of 16 teams – the number who originally competed in the competition – and a 50% increase from 32. This is by far the largest increase ever.

Why have FIFA changed the World Cup format?

Money, really – what else do you expect? This is football.

“Increasing the size of teams which can participate will increase the investment in football development, to make sure that the teams can qualify,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said.

Viktor Orban is behind the building of the Pancho Arena
Infantino, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán | Photo by Joel Marklund/BILDBYRÅN/Icon Sport

Increasing the number of teams competing in the World Cup was a key aim of Infantino's and a key part of his election campaign.

FIFA expect to generate a huge $1 billion in additional income and $640 million in additional profit by increasing the number of teams competing from 32 to 48.


Harry Robinson

A freelance writer and broadcaster, Harry has worked for or featured in/on Manchester United, FourFourTwo, The Independent, The Manchester Mill, UEFA, United We Stand and many others. He's the author of The Men Who Made Manchester United and hosts the Manchester United Weekly Podcast and United Through Time. A Stretford End season ticket holder, Harry travels around Europe to watch his team.

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