The 2026 World Cup: 48 teams, more groups, more venues, more games
6: 17 AM ET
Dale JohnsonGeneral Editor, ESPN FC
It’s not even three months since the last World Cup ended, with Argentina beating France 4-2 on penalties after a 3-3 draw in the final in Qatar, but already FIFA is looking ahead to the revamped 2026 edition when it rolls into the United States, Mexico and Canada. The format, group sizes and length of the tournament have all now been confirmed — and it’s going to be a lot different to what we’re used to.
The old format, which saw 32 teams drawn into eight groups of four nations feeding into the knockout rounds, first featured at France ’98. It’s all a generation of football fans has known, spanning 24 years and seven editions.
In 2026, 48 teams take part in the World Cup — 45 qualifying nations plus the three host countries. It’s been confirmed that, as hosts, United States, Mexico and Canada won’t have to go through the North, Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF) qualifying competition.
It means the natural format of 32 teams in eight groups with the top two teams going through to create the perfect, 16-team knockout bracket is over.
There are going to be more teams, more games, more kickoff times and a longer tournament. The World Cup has usually lasted around 32 days, though the games were condensed into 29 in Qatar.
So how will the 2026 World Cup work, who will qualify and what could it look like?
Why are there more nations at the 2026 World Cup?
This is the largest expansion the World Cup has seen. It started out with between 13 and 16 nations in 1930, 1934, 1938 and 1950. From 1954 onwards, the tournament featured 16 teams until it was increased to 24 for Spain ’82, and then 32 for France ’98.
The move from 32 to 48 teams is a 50% increase, and will make it difficult for any one country to host the event because of the venues and infrastructure required.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who was originally elected to run FIFA on a proposal to expand to 40 teams, robustly defended the decision when it was announced in 2017, which FIFA projects will generate $1 billion more income and $640 million additional profit.
Infantino says the money will be reinvested in football: “Increasing the size of teams which can participate will increase the investment in football development, to make sure that the teams can qualify.”
How will the 2026 World Cup group stage work?
It’s been over six years since the FIFA council voted to increase the size of the World Cup and approved a format that would see the 48 teams divided into 16 groups of three teams.
The top two teams in each group would have gone through to a round of 32, which caused controversy, as it meant the teams in the final group match could play out a specific result to ensure both go through at the expense of the third team, which would not be playing. At the 1982 World Cup, with four-team groups but final matches not played at the same time, West Germany and Austria played out a 1-0 game, which meant both teams went through at the expense of Algeria, with the three teams finishing on four points. It’s after this incident that FIFA adopted concurrent final group games.
FIFA had suggested it could get around such collusion by deciding all group-game draws by penalty shootouts, but this still wouldn’t have eliminated the prospect of a specific result like 1-0 suiting both teams in the third game.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 16, 2022
So there was a rethink, and during the exciting, four-team group stage in Qatar, it was admitted by FIFA it could ditch the agreed three-team group stage format. And it’s now official.
“The revised format mitigates the risk of collusion and ensures that all the teams play a minimum of three matches, while providing balanced rest time between competing teams,” FIFA said.
The confirmed format sees the 48 teams drawn into 12 groups of four teams. However, 32 teams must come out of the groups to create a balanced knockout bracket. That means the top two teams from each group plus the eight best third-placed teams will advance, creating a round of 32. UEFA has used a similar system with third-placed teams advancing to the knockout rounds for the last two European Championships.
This creates a regular group stage with doubleheader final games, which can produce great drama, as we saw in the 2022 edition. There would be less jeopardy with third-placed teams to go through, but it feels a more natural system for the World Cup. And all teams would get those three games.
More teams means more games?
The issue with 12 groups of four is the huge number of additional games. The 2022 World Cup had 64 games, and the three-team group stage format would have produced 80, but with four-team groups and a round of 32 there will be 104 matches — a 47% increase tournament to tournament.
The European Club Association, which exists to protect and promote European club football, was against the increase the 48 games because of the impact on the domestic calendar. Fears were allayed when FIFA said the tournament could still be played within 32 days, but a switch to 104 fixtures can only result in a bigger and longer World Cup.
How long will the 2026 World Cup last?
“The tournament will be six or seven days longer, but the actual footprint between release and final will be the same footprint as 2014 and 2018,” said Victor Montagliani, the chairman of the 2026 World Cup and president of CONCACAF.
FIFA says the tournament will be the same length as the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups at a total of 56 days, though this doesn’t really tell the whole story.
The 56 days relates to the footprint of the competition, when top-flight football is effectively paused, as FIFA says all clubs have to release players to their national teams. The tournament itself is usually little more than half that, but it will have to be longer to fit all the games in.
The 2026 World Cup itself is set to last 39 days — a week longer than the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups and 10 days more than the Qatar edition.
The mandatory release period will begin on May 25, 2026, so the last official club matches must be played on May 24. Exemptions may apply to the final matches of confederation club competitions, like the UEFA Champions League, to May 30.
The World Cup final will be played on Sunday, July 19 — and while FIFA has yet to officially announce the exact start date and the length of the tournament it will begin around Wednesday, June 10.
For the 2018 World Cup, domestic club football ended on May 20 and the World Cup began on June 14 — a preparation period of 25 days for qualified nations. For 2026, that is cut to 16 days to enable an expanded tournament.
Who gets the extra places at the 2026 World Cup?
Forty-six teams will qualify automatically, with the final two slots allocated through intercontinental playoffs.
There are 17 additional qualifying places compared to 2022 — 16 added slots plus the previous 1 place for the hosts which is no longer reserved separately and goes into the qualifying pot. For instance, for the 2022 World Cup, Asia received five places: four automatic qualifying places PLUS Qatar as hosts — there is now no additional allocation.
This is how the 46 automatic slots are allocated, with the increase in places shown in brackets.
Asia: 8 ( 4)
Africa: 9 ( 4)
North, Central America and Caribbean: 6 ( 3)
Europe: 16 ( 3)
South America: 6 ( 2)
Oceania: 1 ( 1)
While CONCACAF is due to receive six automatic qualifying places, only three will be up for grabs for the 2026 edition. This is because United States, Mexico and Canada’s automatic spots will be deducted from the six places allocated to CONCACAF. Thus, CONCACAF’s number of qualifying route places is reduced to three.
For the intercontinental playoffs, a total of six teams — one from each of the five confederations apart from Europe, plus an additional one from CONCACAF as host confederation — will take part.
Who would qualify for a 48-team World Cup?
Let’s take the 2022 World Cup and expand it to 48 teams (which at one point was being strongly considered by FIFA).
For the purposes of this illustration, additional qualification places have been handed to the next-best nations in the qualifying competition for each confederation. (As Italy failed to even make the UEFA playoff finals, they still miss out in this illustration.)
The teams in bold are the additional 16.
Africa: Algeria, Cameroon, DR Congo, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Tunisia
Asia: Australia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, UAE
North, Central America and Caribbean: Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, United States
Europe: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Ukraine, Wales
Oceania: New Zealand
South America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay
The two best FIFA-ranked teams eligible for the intercontinental playoffs (Chile and DR Congo) are given the last places. (The other countries in the playoffs would have been El Salvador, Honduras, Solomon Islands, Syria.)
There would have been World Cup debuts for Mali, North Macedonia and Qatar as hosts.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 16, 2022
What could the 2026 World Cup group stage look like?
FIFA is considering two methods:
1) 12 groups of 4 feeding through to one knockout bracket.
2) Two halves of 24 teams, creating 6 groups of 4 in each. The halves would come together for the final.
They are very similar, though with option 2 you wouldn’t be able to play a team from the other half until the final. Also, the overall best eight third-placed teams might not go through, as each half would need four third-placed teams to advance.
The draw pots would likely see the usual system of hosts in Pot 1 along with the top teams by FIFA World Ranking, with Pots 2-4 the rest in order of FIFA World Ranking.
Pot 1: Mexico, United States, Canada, Brazil, Belgium, Argentina, France, England, Spain, Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark
Pot 2: Germany, Croatia, Uruguay, Switzerland, Colombia, Senegal, Wales, Iran, Serbia, Morocco, Peru, Japan
Pot 3: Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, South Korea, Chile, Tunisia, Costa Rica, Nigeria, Algeria, Australia, Egypt, Cameroon
Pot 4: Ecuador, Mali, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Ghana, Jamaica, North Macedonia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, DR Congo, New Zealand
Each group would have no more than one team from each confederation, apart from Europe, which would need to have four groups with two teams.
A test draw produces the following groups:
Group A: Argentina, Switzerland, Sweden, Iraq
Group B: Belgium, Peru, Costa Rica, Ghana
Group C: Canada, Iran, Chile, North Macedonia
Group D: Netherlands, Morocco, South Korea, Jamaica
Group E: Mexico, Serbia, Egypt, Qatar
Group F: Denmark, Uruguay, Cameroon, United Arab Emirates
Group G: England, Croatia, Nigeria, Ecuador
Group H: United States, Colombia, Poland, DR Congo
Group I: Portugal, Senegal, Australia, Panama
Group J: Brazil, Japan, Ukraine, Mali
Group K: Spain, Wales, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia
Group L: France, Germany, Algeria, New Zealand
How will the 2026 World Cup differ from the last edition in the US?
More teams and more matches
There were only 24 teams at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., playing a total of 52 matches (36 in the group stage.) In 2026, it’s going to be 104 fixtures (72 in the group stage.)
More host cities spread across time zones
USA ’94 was a tournament largely held on the East Coast (Eastern Time, ET); of the nine host cities, only Stanford and Pasadena were on the West Coast (Pacific Time, PT) with just Chicago and Dallas in Central Time (CT).
In 2026, the World Cup will see 16 venues in three countries across the three time zones.
PT (4): Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles
CT (6): Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City
ET (6): Atlanta, Miami, Boston, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Toronto
More games may mean later kickoffs
In 1994, kickoff times were tailored more toward European audiences, with no game kicking off later than 4: 30 p.m. PT (12: 30 a.m. in the UK.)
FIFA won’t schedule any two matches to be played at the same time, other than the final group matches, and with so many more games to be played it’s likely games will be stretched across the day to maximise the timezones.
With only 24 games to schedule for the first two group matches in 1994, it was possible to avoid evening kickoffs in PT — overnight in Europe. But with 48 matches to fit into a similar timescale, it will be difficult to avoid without the tournament getting even longer.
Montagliani says it “could possibly” mean six matches a day, so the first game might kick off at 1 p.m. ET (6 p.m. UK) with another starting every two hours through to the final match ending on the West Coast at 10 p.m. PT (1 a.m. ET, 6 a.m. UK), even though it’s not ideal to have matches taking place late at night ET.
There shouldn’t be a large number of fixtures played so late, but it could be unavoidable to have some in that window in the first two rounds of group stage games.
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Ivory Coast vs. Japan was one match scheduled to be played at 10 p.m. local time (2 a.m. UK) to enable four matches to be played that day (every other day in the first two rounds of group matches had no more than three fixtures.) Qatar had 10 p.m. local as one of its main kickoff times, the first time this has been the case at the World Cup.
What about the qualifying process for the 2026 World Cup?
Confederations are starting to confirm how qualifying will work.
Three nations will qualify, with the first round to take place in March 2024.
The final round, which will decide the three automatic qualifiers and the intercontinental playoff teams, played September to November 2025 and featuring 12 teams.
Starting in March 2025, there will be 12 groups of four or five teams with the winners of each group qualifying directly for the World Cup. The playoff format for the final four places is yet to be confirmed.
South America will keep its usual, 10-team single league format. Qualifying is set to begin in September 2023 with the top six direct to the finals.
Qualifying will begin in October 2023 with the minor Asian nations.
The automatic qualifiers will be known after the third round, which will begin in September 2024 and run through to June 2025.
Yet to be decided.
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