The format of the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America may be subject to revision. FIFA President Gianni Infantino said this at a press conference during the World Cup on Friday, December 16, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. The scoop of the number of countries of 48 will be maintained at the final round of 2026, but the group structure may change compared to the original plan. The 2026 World Cup schedule might not start with sixteen groups of three countries, but with twelve groups of four.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino indicated that the success of the group finals at the 2022 World Cup is partly the reason for this. The unprecedented dynamics and tension, literally up to and including the dying seconds, forces to think about possibly revising the 2026 structure of the group stage. Infantino: “During this final tournament, the groups of four and its denouements went incredibly. Until the last minute of the last game, you didn’t know what would eventually happen. That is why we should definitely discuss the format again. We will put it on the agenda for the next meeting.”
The next FIFA meeting will take place in 2023. The exact date is not yet known.
World Cup 2026: from 16 groups of 3 possible to 12 groups of 4
The schedule for the upcoming FIFA World Cup was originally largely based on the BID United. That’s the winning bid from the 2026 World Cup hosts; the United States, Canada and Mexico. In any case, there will be a record number of participating countries in 2026: 48. Since the 1998 World Cup in France and up to and including the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, there has always been a presence of 32 teams at the final round. What is still subject to a closer look, is the composition of each group. Since BID United, FIFA assumed sixteen groups of three countries. However, a schedule with groups of four countries is still a serious possibility. In this case, with 48 countries, in such a format there would be twelve groups.
FIFA World Cup Qualification Zones AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC and UEFA
The possible change of the 2026 World Cup schedule, in 2023, could in theory also affect the qualifying schedule in one or more FIFA Zones. For up-to-date information on this, please refer to the FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualification main page. There you will also find the information and schedules of the corresponding qualifiers in each of the FIFA Zones: AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC and UEFA.
World Cup 2026 hosts automatically qualified
For the hosts of the World Cup in North America, the above has been slightly less relevant since August 31, 2022. On that date, FIFA President Gianni Infantino confirmed, during a visit to Guatemala, that the host countries are already automatically participating in the World Cup. The United States, Canada and Mexico therefore do not have to play qualifying matches. This news has yet to be formally confirmed at the next FIFA meeting.
Spectacular denouement in group stage World Cup football
As mentioned, the course of the group matches at the 2022 World Cup was one of the reasons for reconsidering the number of groups and the number of countries per group in 2026. After all, in Qatar there were spectacular denouements in several groups in the third and therefore last group round. This resulted in top-level football entertainment, exactly what FIFA and the World Cup soccer aim for all fans.
Football thrillers deciding on knockout stage
In that very last round of group play, in 2022, the last two matches per group were scheduled simultaneously. Up to and including the final minutes, even in injury time, multiple scenarios persisted as to which countries would advance to the knockout stage. Like in Group E, for example. Japan, Spain, Germany and Costa Rica turned it into a thriller up to the very last whistle. For each of these countries, the signal for a place in the eighth finals, until just before the end, was green for at least a while…
Schedule with four countries per group maximizes excitement
However, in a schedule with groups consisting of only three countries, such denouements are unlikely. After all, with three countries per group, there is always one country that does not play. This means that the risk is (too) high of seeing results that are desirable for the two teams that face each other last. In addition, a World Cup schedule with three teams per group increases the chance that decisions will be made via the FairPlay ranking. Namely, the chance of an equal final score, equal goal difference and equal mutual results also increases with that format. In that respect, a group schedule with four countries per group is, in short, more likely to choose for.
Difference between FIFA World Cup 2022 and FIFA World Cup 2026 schedule
In a format with groups of four countries, the two countries that finish highest in each group will advance. At the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with 32 national teams, that was ‘it’. There were eight groups times two countries, which is sixteen countries that went to the eighth finals. However, at the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, there are 48 teams that will compete from the group stage. In order to start the knockout phase with the sixteenth finals, 32 teams would have to remain in the tournament after the group phase.
In that case, having twelve groups of four countries, not only the numbers one and two would advance, but also the eight best numbers three. Until the decision of FIFA and the organizing committee in 2023, however, this is still only theory. Because even in a format with 48 countries and a group stage with four countries per group, there are still several options.
The number of matches at the 2026 World Cup (with 48 participants)
An important aspect when formatting the World Cup schedule is the total number of matches that this will result in. It is a serious concern for both FIFA and clubs and players. In addition to the income from TV rights, there is also the discussion of the busy playing calendar. The latter is an important argument for limiting the total number of matches per team in a World Cup with 48 countries, such as in 2026. This mainly concerns the finalists, as they cover the longest route in the tournament.
To compensate, there was the original idea to start the ‘XXL’ World Cup 2026 with groups of three. This means that there is immediately one less match on the program for each country compared to the group stages of previous World Cups. The eventual finalists of the 2026 FIFA World Cup will then still play ‘only’ seven matches, and not eight.
The total number of matches at the entire World Cup would then amount to 80. Namely, 48 group matches, 16 times the sixteenth final, 8 times the eighth finals, 4 times the quarter finals, 2 semifinals, the final and the match for third place. At the World Cup in Qatar with 32 participants, the total number of matches was still 64. That is already an increase of 16 matches. Will there, however, be a schedule with twelve groups of four at the 2026 World Cup in North America? In theory, the total number of matches can then reach 104. To prevent this high number, FIFA will study several schematic solutions.
Group stage World Cup 2026 with twelve groups of four has been an option for some time
Earlier, Arsène Wenger, FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, already said that FIFA may reconsider the structure with sixteen groups of three countries. His remarks also came after the dynamic and exciting finals in the group stage in Qatar. “We are still considering sixteen groups of three, but also twelve groups of four, and even six groups of four twice, so it would be like organizing two World Cups of 24 teams.” In the latter, the two ‘winners’ will of course still have to secure the final victory in the final. “That decision is not for me, but for the FIFA Council, probably in 2023.” Before Arsène Wenger, CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani also hinted, back in April 2022, that the organization is still considering twelve groups of four.