FIFA scraps ill-fated 2026 World Cup format, but new plan presents other pros and cons

Futbol

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DOHA, QATAR - FEBRUARY 26: Fans of Al Hilal SFC leave the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha after the 0-7 victory walking past a giant commemorative sculpture of the FIFA World Cup Trophy in the AFC Champions League - Western Region - Semi Final Match between Al-Duhail v Al-Hilal SFC at Al Thumama Stadium on February 26, 2023 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
The men’s World Cup will move from 32 teams in Qatar to 48 teams in North America in 2026. (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Six years after initially agreeing to overhaul the format of the men’s World Cup, FIFA has scrapped its ill-fated plan for three-team groups and approved a new format for the 2026 tournament — a 48-team bonanza hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The new format will be more akin to the traditional one: four-team groups and an additional 32-team knockout stage.

But it will be unwieldy in its own ways: Eight third-place teams will qualify for the round of 32; the entire tournament will feature 104 matches, up from 64, a weighty expansion that will increase burdens on both host cities and players; and it will last an entire week longer than ever before.

[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Men’s | Women’s]

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, confirmed the changes Tuesday after months of discussion, and after final approval from its Council, a collection of dozens of the most powerful officials in the sport.

The announcement marks the end of a years-long clash between FIFA’s initial proposal and common sense. And it is the first of several eagerly awaited decisions on how, exactly, the 2026 World Cup in North America will work.

What is the new World Cup format?

The new format is very similar to the one previously used at 24-team tournaments like the Women’s World Cup and men’s Euros — with the size doubled.

The 48 teams will be drawn into 12 groups of four. They’ll each play a three-game round robin. The top two in each group will advance.

The third-place teams will then be ranked based on points, goal differential and other tiebreakers if necessary, and the top eight of 12 will round out the knockout stage — which will begin with a round of 32 before proceeding just like the old format.

How long will all of that take?

Ever since 1998, 32-team men’s World Cups have featured 64 games over roughly 32 days.

FIFA’s initial expansion plan, for 16 groups of three, would have added 16 games but squeezed them into the same time window.

The new-look tournament will instead last 38-40 days.

To fit it on an already-overflowing soccer calendar, FIFA will reportedly shorten the pre-World Cup period during which players must be released by clubs to their national teams from 23 days to 16 days — meaning the tournament’s “footprint” will hold firm at roughly two months, but training camps will be significantly shorter.

What does this mean for North American host cities?

The news is significant for the 16 North American cities already preparing to host games.

When FIFA members chose the U.S., Canada and Mexico to jointly host the 2026 World Cup, the tentative agreement between North American neighbors was for 60 games stateside and 10 each in Canada and Mexico. The 11 U.S. cities chosen last June had been operating on the assumption that they’d each get five or six games.

That estimate has now been revised to six or seven — and perhaps, for a few U.S. cities, eight. It’s unclear how the matches will now be divvied up among the three host countries.

Local organizers have also been told, as expected, that the tournament will take place in June and July (despite potentially dangerous heat).

FIFA’s impending format announcement now clears the way for the crafting of a schedule shell and the assignment of specific games — for example, the opener and the final — to specific cities. Those decisions are expected over the next 12 months.

Several sources have told Yahoo Sports that New York (MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey), Dallas (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) and Los Angeles (SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California) are the three candidates to host the final.

What is the financial impact of the new format?

The biggest beneficiary of the new format will be FIFA’s bank accounts. The 2026 World Cup, even as an 80-game competition, would have smashed all sorts of attendance and revenue records. The extra 24 games will push FIFA even closer to, and probably beyond, the $11 billion in revenue that it has budgeted for the next four years. (That’s up from a record $7.5 billion last cycle.)

Whereas FIFA used to delegate many World Cup hosting responsibilities — and, by extension, some expenses and revenues — to local organizing committees, in 2023 and 2026, for the first time, it will run the women’s and men’s World Cups itself. FIFA, therefore, will glean the vast majority of World Cup-related profits — and has said it will funnel most of that money back into soccer, to its 211 member associations.

What are the downsides?

The new format will ask more of players, but not significantly more — the final four teams will play eight games, just one more than the previous seven.

Perhaps the biggest downside is the stakes — or lack thereof — in the group stage.

When third-place teams advance, early stumbles won’t be nearly as consequential as they once were. Take the 2022 World Cup as a counterexample. After Argentina’s stunning loss to Saudi Arabia, every subsequent Albiceleste game felt like a do-or-die final; every time Lionel Messi waltzed onto a field, including against Mexico and Poland in the group stage, there was a visceral fear that this time could be his last.

The 2026 World Cup, on the other hand, will provide significantly less early drama. Many contenders will already be secure in the round of 32 after two group matches — and in some cases, after one. The tournament will spend 72 games over almost three weeks to eliminate only 16 teams.

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