Having just delivered the most exciting group stage ever at a World Cup, with a time-tested format captivating hundreds of millions of fans, FIFA now faces the prospect of tearing it all up.
Instead, they risk two weeks of dull matches and dead rubbers, plus the possibility of unwanted controversy, as they attempt to face 48 teams at the 2026 edition in North America. It means world football’s governing body is reconsidering the format for the next World Cup, as their original plans to have 16 pools of three teams in the first stage, with two of each through to the next stage, also now look dangerously dull. incite unsportsmanlike conduct as possible.
As things stand for 2026, when Canada, Mexico and the US jointly host the FIFA World Cup, there is a risk of many ‘dead’ matches – for example, if the last group match was between two teams that had already won one and were thus already qualified – or contrived results.
FIFA admitted earlier this year that they were concerned about the possibility of contrived results where two teams could get a positive result for both, resulting in the third group team not playing. “It’s an issue that has been raised,” FIFA vice-president Victor Montagliani said in March.
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In the 2026 format, the 48 teams will be reduced to 32 after the group stage and the tournament will be a knockout affair. Alternative formats are now on the table, with the FIFA Council, the organisation’s almighty cabinet, to decide next year.
According to FIFA’s head of global football development Arsene Wenger, it will be 12 groups of four teams, with the best teams in third place moving on to the top two, or another option of splitting the World Cup into two separate halves of 24, each with six groups of four teams. The winner of each half would meet in the final.
Given how dramatically and excitingly some of the four-team groups ended in Qatar, that seems like a more viable proposition.
But that does mean a significant increase in the number of games. The 32-team World Cup in Qatar has a total of 64 teams, completed in 29 days, and for now, the 2026 finals will consist of 80 matches in 32 days. With four team groups, there would be 104 games, requiring at least an extra week.
There, FIFA risks the delicate balance of all-consuming excitement that the World Cup in Qatar has proven to tip into a long-running affair that loses its luster as the quality of the entertainment dilutes.
However, more matches would mean more money for television rights and with the World Cup taking in around 90% of FIFA’s revenues, the leaders will be tempted. The World Cup in Qatar has brought in $7.5 billion in rights and sponsorship revenue, a billion more than the 2018 finals in Russia, FIFA said last month.