The expanded 2026 men’s soccer world cup in North America will begin with 12 groups of four teams in a change from the originally planned format of 16 groups of three, FIFA announced on Wednesday (AEDT).
The next World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico will be the first with 48 teams, a sharp increase from the 32 teams at last year’s tournament in Qatar.
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“The revised format reduces the risk of collusion and ensures that all teams play a minimum of three matches, while providing a balanced rest time between competing teams,” FIFA said.
It means there will be 104 matches, a huge increase from the 64 matches played in the 2022 tournament and even an increase from the original plan that the 2026 World Cup would have 80 matches.
FIFA’s original plan for 2026 was for 16 groups of three teams, with the top two nations advancing to the last 32.
The new closed format means the top two from each group advance to the knockout round, along with the top eight third-placed teams.
As a result, the finalists and the teams finishing third and fourth will play a total of eight games instead of the current seven.
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The decision comes after a dramatic and entertaining group stage at the tournament in Qatar that convinced FIFA that a reconsideration of the original 2026 blueprint was needed.
“The groups of four were absolutely incredible until the last minute of the last game,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in December.
Tuesday’s decision was announced after a meeting of the FIFA Council in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, where it was confirmed that the next men’s World Cup final will be played on Sunday, July 19, 2026.
FIFA said the total number of days between when clubs must stop playing and release players for international duty and the final would be 56, identical to the previous three tournaments.
Nevertheless, the World Cup itself can be played over a longer period of time, as Qatar 2022 only lasted 29 days.
Infantino is expected to be ushered in for another four-year term as president as he faces unopposed re-election at the FIFA Congress on Thursday.
Expanding the World Cup was a priority for Infantino after his election in 2016, when he took over from the disgraced Sepp Blatter as head of world football.
The last World Cup in North America, in the United States in 1994, featured just 24 teams before expanding to 32 teams in France four years later.
The number of venues for the 2026 finals will double, from eight stadiums in Qatar last year to sixteen.
Eleven locations will be in the US, with three in Mexico and two in Canada. FIFA predicts a huge increase in revenue over the four-year cycle through 2026, to $11 billion from $7.5 billion in the four years through 2022.
The body also hopes that a new, expanded 32-team Club World Cup will boost revenue as well.
FIFA said on Tuesday the competition will begin in June 2025 and will be held every four years, with club rankings determining qualifications.
However, an annual competition will also be held, similar to the existing seven-team Club World Cup which will be discontinued after the 2023 edition.
The annual competition includes the six continental club champions and concludes with a final at a neutral venue between the winner of the UEFA Champions League and the winner of the play-offs between the opposing teams.
The annual tournament was approved “given the expressed need by the confederations for the champions of their major club competitions to play each other annually to boost competitiveness,” FIFA said.