FIFA’s Council changed the World Cup group stage format for 2026 from 16 groups of three teams to 12 groups of four teams on Tuesday, increasing the total number of matches to 104 from 64 in the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
New Format – To win a World Cup, a country will have to play eight games, up from seven since 1974. The top two teams from each group, as well as the top eight third-place teams, will advance to a new round of 32, which will kick off the knockout phase. When the tournament expanded from 24 to 32 teams in 1998, third-place teams were no longer eligible for advancement.
More Games – The 104 matches will be double the 52 at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, up from 64 at each tournament from 1998 to 2022, and up from 80 under the original 2026 format. This means more content for television broadcasters and more tickets to sell, which increases FIFA’s revenue.
Why Change? – When the World Cup was expanded from 32 to 48 nations beginning in 2026, the Council adopted the original format for the 2026 tournament in the United States, Mexico, and Canada in January 2017. That format would have resulted in two teams playing on the final day of the group, with one team sitting out, which could have resulted in corruption. The current schedule of having all teams in a group play at the same time on the final day was implemented following the Disgrace of Gijón at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when West Germany and Austria realised 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 tenth minute and neither team threatened after that as West Germany won 1-0.
Length – FIFA has announced that the final will take place on July 19. The location has not yet been announced, but the three leading contenders are East Rutherford, New Jersey, Arlington, Texas, and Inglewood, California. The tournament’s duration has not been specified, but it is expected to last between 38 and 42 days. This is an increase from 29 for the previous year’s tournament in Qatar and 32 for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The tournament was held from June 17 to July 17, 1994.