World Cup 2026 – Format, how many teams and key dates

It is often said that people cannot get too much of a good thing, and FIFA will test that with their expansion plans of the 2026 World Cup.

The tournament will take place in the USA, Canada and Mexico and will feature more teams and more matches than ever before.

It’s not quite the often-suggested plans to make the World Cup every two years, but it is a major expansion which will have ramifications in terms of the tournament’s format and scheduling.

So, what exactly can we expect from the expanded 2026 World Cup in the USA, Canada and Mexico? After months of tweaks and twitching, here are what FIFA have decided.

The 2026 World Cup will be the first edition of the tournament since FIFA approved a major expansion. There were 32 places up for grabs from qualification on Qatar 2022, but a whopping 48 countries will take part in the finals in 2026.

That in itself has caused a great deal of debate. FIFA point out that more nations getting the opportunity to qualify for a World Cup can only be considered a good thing.

Asian and African teams will benefit most from that expansion, with at least seven of the additional spaces going to those Federations. CONCACAF will get at least two more as well, as will the South American nations.

Europe will also benefit as well, although not proportionally. UEFA are by far the most dominant continental football federation and already have 13 representatives at a World Cup. That will be increased to 16 for 2026.

For context, UEFA nations made up 40% of the teams at the 2022 World Cup, but that will drop to 33% for 2026. That has caused some anger with UEFA claiming the expansion is not being done in a proportional way.

Others, of course, point out that 40% of World Cup qualifying positions going to one federation was never proportional in the first place and the new plans make it fairer on the rest.

That argument has merit. There were 55 UEFA teams who attempted to qualify for the 13 positions at the 2022 World Cup. By comparison, 54 African teams battled it out for just five.

Given there are three host nations, that leaves 45 qualification spots up for grabs. They will be divided between the federations in the following way:

Federation

2022 World Cup

2026 World Cup

AFC (Asia)

5 (+ 1 Host)

8

CAF (Africa)

5

9

CONCACAF (North American, Central America, Caribbean)

4

3 (+3 Hosts)

CONMEBOL (South Amaerica)

4

6

OFC (Oceania)

1

UEFA (Europe)

13

16

Play-offs

2

Note: The allocations to federations are provisional and yet to be fully confirmed at the time of writing.

The expansion of the tournament from 32 teams to 48 has caused a bit of a headache for FIFA. Mind, they are projecting it will generate an extra $4bn in revenue for them, so we’re sure the headaches are bearable.

Initially the plan, controversially, was to divide the 48 teams into 16 groups of three. That was never likely to go down well. So, at the 2026 World Cup, the four-team group format will be kept meaning there will be 12. That is four more than the recent editions of the tournament, meaning there will have to be some kind of ‘best runner-up’ criteria to pad out the first knockout stage.

Victor Montagliani, the head of the confederation for North America, recently said: “Groups of three sounded great but there are some issues.”

“Is it right that you qualify for a World Cup and a third of teams go home after two games?”

That question was never likely to sway FIFA on its own, but the 2022 Qatar World Cup did. A highly-competitive group stage saw a lot of drama on the final round of matches. FIFA liked that. In fact they liked it so much they decided to abandon the three-team format as a result.

More teams means more matches. That is just the way maths works.

There will be 104 matches at the 2026 World Cup, which is an increase of 40 on other recent editions. That is a lot of extra football to be played.

That will obviously go down well with the viewer. Live matches televised successively from morning to night is part of what makes the World Cup so special.

In that sense, an extra 24 matches sounds very good, but what will it mean from a practical point of view?

In Qatar, each of the eight groups had six matches so there were 48 in total during that phase of the competition. At the 2026 World Cup, because FIFA are maintaining the four-team format, that number will jump to 72. So, from the viewer’s point of view, that is 24 extra games.

The group stage took place over 13 days in Qatar so generally there were four matches per day in that time. However, to get the group stage done in the same time window in at the 2026 World Cup, they would need to play six games a day for the most part, and there obviously isn’t enough time for that.

FIFA are adamant they do not want to extend the length of the World Cup, so their plan is to upset the players and coaches instead by cutting into their preparation time.

Qatar was an exception as it was an unprecedented mid-season World Cup, but there is usually three weeks put aside for teams to prepare with friendlies and training camps. FIFA plans will see that reduced to two weeks instead.

“We do have to be responsible,” Montagliani said. “There was a footprint of days for 2014 and 2018 and we can’t go over that. We can’t have a three-month World Cup.”

Stage

Number of games

Group Stage

72

Round of 32

16

Round of 16

8

Quarter-finals

4

Semi-finals

2

Third/Fourth place

1

Final

1

There is also the travel issue as well. Unlike Qatar, the 2026 World Cup will be played over three vast countries. To counter the problems associated with travel, specifically relating to fatigue and environmental concerns, teams will play in ‘pods’ instead.

“The match schedule is very important,” Montagliani explained. “You can’t have teams travelling from New York to Los Angeles.

“Teams will play in pods. There will be a group playing out of Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Another one in Vancouver and Seattle and another in LA and San Francisco.

“There are other strategies that have to be applied as well so we adhere to what is put in the bid.”

The expansion of the World Cup will mean some changes to the format of the competition, although they are not as sweeping as they could have been – or first looked like they would be.

As usual, the top two teams from each of the 12 groups would automatically qualify for the knockout stage. Those 24 teams would be joined by eight best third-placed teams.

The first knockout stage will, therefore, contain an extra round so instead of having to play seven games to win a World Cup, you will now need to play eight.

For now the full schedule, including the date of the opening ceremony and first game, is yet to be released.

However, what we do know is the 2026 World Cup final will take place on Sunday July 19.

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