World Cup 2026 format explained: FIFA reverts back to four-team groups - how many teams will compete?

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The 2026 North American World Cup will have 12 groups of four in keeping with previous tournaments

The 2026 World Cup, taking place in the United States, Mexico and Canada was due to feature 16 groups of three due to the number of participating nations increasing from 32 to 48. However, this decision has since been reversed and the next competition will instead have 12 groups with four teams in each. This move is after the success of the four-team format at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The move also expands the competition from the previous 80 matches taking place to the tournament now hosting 104, including a new round-of-32 stage. The top two and eight best third-placed teams will progress to this new stage of the tournament. The World Football’s governing body said: “The revised format mitigates the risk of collusion and ensures that all teams play a minimum of three matches, while providing balanced rest time between competing teams.”

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The four-team group format, with the top two going through to the knockout stages has been used since the men’s World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998 but this new format, with the round-of-32, means teams will have to play eight matches in order to win the whole tournament compared to seven at previous events.

What are the other changes?

During the recent conference, Fifa also approved a men’s international match calendar from 2025-2030 and they have said “based on the new calendar, the Fifa World Cup 2026 final will be played on Sunday 19 July 2026.” It also added that the mandatory date by which clubs must release players for the tournament will start on 25 May 2026, following the last official club match on 24 May, and that “exemptions may apply to the final matches of confederation club competitions until 30 May 2026 subject to Fifa approval.”

World Cup 2022 winners ArgentinaWorld Cup 2022 winners Argentina
World Cup 2022 winners Argentina | Getty Images

The governing body also approved the access list for a 32-team Fifa Club World Cup which will take place every four years from June 2025. Teams who win their confederation’s top tournament in “the four-year period of the seasons ending in 2021 and 2024” will qualify where they have enough places.

Europe will have 12, with Chelsea and Real Madrid already securing their spots following their 2021 and 2022 respective Champions League wins and the other qualifying teams from each continent will be determined “by a club ranking based on the same four-year period.”

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Fifa also hopes to keep a yearly club competition “between the winner of the Uefa Champions League and the winner of intercontinental play-offs between the other federations.”

What has been said about players?

Player organisations and club managers have voiced concerns about the demands on players and Fifa is now setting up a task force to look at player welfare and ‘principles such as mandatory rest periods,’

Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino said at the conference in Rwanda, “Our fundamental objective is to have clarity on this topic, and to have meaningful football matches while protecting the wellbeing of the players and recognising that many regions need more competitive football. We are now observing a growing awareness among players about the harmful effects these pressures have on their performance, careers and personal lives.”

The Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Maheta Molango said: “Fundamentally the football calendar needs a complete reset. The expanded World Cup format being announced for 2026 means that, yet again, more games are being forced into an already overcrowded schedule.

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“It is right that Fifa have listened to players’ concerns and announced a working group to address the critical issues surrounding fixture congestion and player welfare. We know that the current workload players face is having an ongoing impact on their wellbeing, both on and off the pitch, We can’t simply pus them until they break.”

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