Football: Fifa approves 2026 World Cup format, with record 104 matches

Argentina's Lionel Messi kisses the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup in 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

ZURICH – The 2026 World Cup Finals will have 104 matches instead of the traditional 64 games due to the expanded format with 48 teams taking part, global football governing body Fifa announced on Tuesday.

The next edition of the quadrennial showpiece, which will be co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, will also stick to drawing four teams in a group after a proposal for 16 groups of three was shot down over fears of collusion in the final group game.

However, the number of groups will increase from eight to 12.

The original plan for the 2026 tournament had a total of 80 matches, but the decision to increase the number of games to 104 was approved by Fifa’s council at a meeting on Tuesday.

Traditionally, the top two teams from each group advance to the last 16 but the 2026 edition will also have the eight best third-placed teams moving into the knockout round of 32.

According to the Fifa website, the final will be held on July 19 – the kick-off date has not been announced.

“The Fifa Council unanimously approved the proposed amendment to the Fifa World Cup 2026 competition format,” Fifa said.

“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.”

The 32-team 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where Argentina beat France to win their third title, had a total of 64 matches completed in 29 days. The last time Mexico (1986) and the United States (1994) hosted a World Cup, there were only 24 teams.

The tournament has had 32 teams since the 1998 edition, with eight groups of four and the finalists playing seven games each.

But teams reaching the summit clash in 2026 will now play eight matches in total.

Fifa also said a 32-team Club World Cup will be played every four years from June 2025, confirming the announcement made by its president, Gianni Infantino, in Qatar.

Confederation champions from 2021-2024 will be eligible to play in the new Club World Cup, which means Chelsea and Real Madrid have already qualified.

Should either club win the Champions League again, a club ranking calculation based on sporting criteria will be used to determine which other team will qualify.

The current version of the Club World Cup – an annual competition with seven teams – will be discontinued after 2023, with a new yearly club competition approved from 2024.

“This competition will feature the champions of the premier club competitions of all confederations and conclude with a final to be played at a neutral venue, between the winner of the Uefa Champions League and the winner of intercontinental play-offs between the other confederations,” Fifa said.

Fifa added that clubs will have to release players for the World Cup from May 25, 2026, unless they are in a major final – such as the Champions League – for which clubs will have until May 30 to allow players to join their national teams.

“With 56 days, the total combined number of rest, release and tournament days remain identical to the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Fifa World Cup editions,” the organisation said.

A newly structured international calendar was also approved with nine-day windows in March and June for two games each, a 16-day window for four matches in September and October followed by another nine-day, two-match window in November.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) said it was worried about “physical fatigue and mental burnout” due to the congested schedule, with its chief executive officer, Maheta Molango, saying 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,” he said.

The PFA said it was encouraged to see Fifa had prioritised concerns such as the need for a “minimum of 72 hours between games, a mandatory day off each week and an annual rest period”.

Said Molango: “We know that the current workload players face is having an ongoing impact on their well-being...

“We can’t simply push them until they break.” REUTERS

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.