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'Strange' 2026 World Cup: What you should know

Kylian Mbappe of France won the Golden Boot at the 2022 FIFA World Cup after scoring eight goals in the tournament. France were the first runner-up. [Courtesy of AP]

The 2022 FIFA World Cup held in Qatar between November 20 and December 18 will go down in history as one of the most memorable football tournaments ever.

With a total of 172 goals scored in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and two rival players – Lionel Messi and Kylian Mpappe – scoring at least a brace each, the tournament produced many firsts.

A six-goal thriller, with nail-biting moments, the final between France and Argentina had fans world-over sitting on the edge.

At the end of 120-plus minutes, the two teams tied at 3-3, occasioning post-match penalties, where Argentina triumphed 4-2 to lift the coveted trophy for the third time in their history after victories in 1978 and 1986.

Had France beaten Argentina, they too would have lifted the World Cup trophy for the third time in their history, after wins in 1998 and 2018.

The 64 matches played in Doha, Qatar were memorable, with the champions Argentina losing their opening match by 2 goals to 1 against Saudi Arabia, prompting wild celebrations and a public holiday in Riyadh.

The loss-to-victory pattern was similar to that of Spain in 2010, when the Spanish side was beaten 1-0 by Switzerland in their opening match, but went on to lift their maiden World Cup trophy in extra-time by beating fellow finalists Netherlands 1-0.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is said to have cemented Lionel Messi’s status as possibly one of the greatest footballers of all time, is now water under the bridge.

The next one, is the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Where will it be played? Which dates will it be played? How many teams will feature? How different will it be?

Details

USA, Canada and Mexico won a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup scheduled for June 8, 2026 to July 3, 2026.

The United States will host 60 of the total 80 matches; Canada (10) and Mexico (10).

It has been proposed that seven group matches, two Round of 32 matches and one Round of 16 match will take place in both Canada and Mexico.

This results in 34 group matches, 12 Round of 32 matches, six Round of 16 matches, all the four quarter-finals, both semi-finals, the third-place playoff, and the final match being played in the US.

The final of the 2026 World Cup in North America will be played in New York/New Jersey at the MetLife Stadium, though this is subject to change. The opening match will be in Los Angeles (Rose Bowl).

The 2026 World Cup match schedule begins with a record number of teams – 48.

The participants will be divided into 16 groups in the group stage. Each group will, therefore, have three countries.

The 16 groups are designated A to P. In each group, the countries that take the Top Two positions will qualify for the knockout stage.

This follow-up stage will, therefore, have 32 teams – two teams from each of the 16 groups.

The Round of 32, a first one in World Cup history, will be a knockout stage, similar to the Round of 16 in the previous tournaments.

The 2026 World Cup will have three teams in each group, which is different from four teams in previous World Cup editions.

The new format has it that if two teams draw during a football match in 90 minutes, then the stalemate is settled by penalty shootouts immediately thereafter. There won’t be extra-time in group stage. However, in the knockout stages, such as the Round of 32, Round of 16 and subsequent stages, there will be extra-time.

Another consequence of having 48 participants in the tournament is that there will be nine days between the dates on which the first and last countries enter the pitch for the first time.

Unlike previous World Cup matches that totaled 64, the 2026 edition will have a total of 80 matches. This is due to the increase in the number of teams taking part in the tournament.

The FIFA countries in six continental zones will distribute the 48 World Cup slots by playing qualification matches between 2023 and 2025.

World Cup defending champions no longer get automatic qualification to the next tournament. Automatic qualification for defending champions was the rule until its abolishment in 2001.

France, the winner of the 1998 World Cup, was the last team to benefit from this rule, getting automatic qualification for the 2002 tournament. The rule had been in existence between 1938 and 2002.

The winners of the 2002 World Cup contest, Brazil, had to go through the regular qualification process for the 2006 World Cup, and so did Italy for 2010, Spain for 2014, Germany for 2018 and France for 2022.

2022 World Cup winners Argentina too will now have to go through the regular qualification process.

The host country or countries, however, get automatic qualification. The last time two countries jointly hosted the World Cup – South Korea and Japan in 2002 – both nations secured automatic qualification.