Why FIFA changed the format for the 2026 World Cup

Argentina players celebrate after winning the World Cup. [AP]

The World Cup group stage format for 2026 was changed to 12 groups of four teams from 16 groups of three teams by FIFA's Council on Tuesday, increasing the total to 104 matches from 64 in the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

NEW FORMAT

To win a World Cup, a nation will have to play eight games, up from the seven in place since 1974.

The top two teams in each group and the top eight third-place teams will advance to a new round of 32 that starts the knockout phase. Advancement for third-place teams was eliminated for 1998, when the tournament expanded from 24 teams to 32.

MORE GAMES

The change means there will be 104 matches, double the 52 at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., up from the 64 at each tournament from 1998 through 2022 and an increase from the 80 under the original 2026 format. That means more content for television broadcasters and more tickets to sell, increasing revenue for FIFA.

WHY CHANGE?

The original format for the 2026 tournament in the U.S., Mexico and Canada was adopted by the Council in January 2017 when the World Cup was expanded from 32 nations to 48 starting in 2026. That format would have meant two teams playing on the final day of the group with one team off, which could lead to corruption. The current schedule of having all teams in a group kick off simultaneously on the final day was adopted after the Disgrace of Gijon at the 1982 World Cup in Spain when West Germany and Austria knew that a one- or two-goal win by the Germans would advance both nations at the expense of Algeria, which played a day earlier. Horst Hrubesch scored in the 10th minute and neither team threatened after that as West Germany won 1-0.

LENGTH

FIFA announced the final will be on July 19. The site has not yet been announced, with East Rutherford, New Jersey; Arlington, Texas; and Inglewood, California, the three leading contenders.

No length has been specified for the tournament, which is likely to be between 38 and 42 days. That is up from 29 for last year's tournament in Qatar and 32 for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The 1994 tournament was held from June 17 to July 17.

IMPACT ON PLAYERS AND CLUBS

FIFA announced the mandatory release date for players to be made available to national teams by their clubs will be May 25, a day after leagues must play their final pre-World Cup matches. However, continental finals such as the Champions League may take place through May 30, subject to FIFA approval. The release date is followed by a rest period - which means training allowed but national team friendlies prohibited. FIFA said the 56 days of rest, release and tournament remain identical to the 2010, 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cups.

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