(Kigali) The group stage of the 2026 World Cup, the first to 48 teams, will be played in twelve groups of four selections, the FIFA Council announced on Tuesday, renouncing the pools of three initially envisaged.
This decision, which “limits the risk of collusion and guarantees that all teams play at least three games”, will increase the number of meetings of the most popular tournament in the world from 64 to 104, from the edition shared between the States. United, Mexico and Canada.
The first two of each group as well as “the eight best thirds” will advance to the round of 16, details FIFA in a press release, thus extending the knockout stage by one stage: the future champions and vice-world champions will play eight meetings, against seven today.
Approved in 2017, the passage of the Men’s Football World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026 requires a review of the format, which since 1998 provided for a group stage with eight groups of four teams, the first two winning their ticket for the quarter-finals.
How do you keep the show going without blowing the tournament’s overall size beyond its current 64 matches? FIFA initially considered 16 groups of three teams, with the top two from each group advancing to the round of 32, giving 80 fixtures in total.
But this formula, unusual in football where groups of four are the rule at the Euro or in the Champions League, posed a difficulty: the risks of an arrangement between teams before the third match, which had led FIFA to consider the holding extra time or even a penalty shootout at the end of regulation time to avoid draws.
The thinking of the football body changed with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the breathtaking outcome of its group stage, in particular in Group E (Germany-Spain-Japan-Costa Rica), where each team was virtually qualified in the last 90 minutes.