There are changes in store for the 2026 World Cup. It’s coming to North America. It is therefore the first World Cup with three joint hosts.
However, a brief word on the World Cup has recently passed. Fifa has won. FIFA faced numerous controversies over the Qatar tournament and the policies and history involved. Those problems multiplied as the tournament approached. Same-sex relationships, alcohol consumption and the numerous reports of migrant worker deaths marred the tournament.
In the end, the quality of the game wiped out that smear of FIFA. End-to-end drama and Lionel Messi’s crowning moment are the points in history for the 2022 World Cup.
Unfortunately, the human rights violations are relegated to a footnote in the match’s lore.
At least one of two things needs to change for protests against this World Cup to pay off. Firstly, the FIFA host selection process needs to be strengthened in the future. It should emphasize human rights. Two, hosts, like Qatar, change after hosting the event.
It is unlikely that either of these will occur. The tournament itself was incredible. The guilt of enjoying the competition on the field knowing what happened outside takes over.
Changes ahead at the 2026 World Cup
The biggest change in 2026 is an increase in the number of participants. Instead of the 32 teams competing from 1998 to 2022, there are There were 48 teams lined up for 2026.
UEFA’s participation goes from 13 teams to 16. AFC (Asia) doubles the number of teams with a guaranteed spot from 4 to 8, as does CONCACAF, which goes from 3 to 6. CAF (Africa) takes it a step further by going from 4 to 6. 9. CONMEBOL (South America) goes from 4 guaranteed places to 6. But the biggest winner is New Zealand. Oceania gets a guaranteed spot. It’s hard to see a team from Oceania get rid of New Zealand in their qualifying.
In addition to the guaranteed seats, the Intercontinental Playoffs will continue. They get two last places.
Quantity over quality?
The jump to 32 in 1998 came after four tournaments with 24 teams. You could certainly argue that increasing the number of teams to 48 could hurt the quality. However, keep in mind that for the 1982 World Cup, when the number rose to 24, 109 countries tried to qualify. For the most recent World Cup in Qatar, 211 countries competed in the qualifications. The number of football federations on the planet has almost doubled. This clearly justifies doubling the number of teams in the final tournament between 1982 and 2026.
Of course, the number of participants has little to do with the number of countries. Rather, it is FIFA’s desire to “spread the wealth”. Or, for those who don’t mind being honest, FIFA’s desire to make more money.
In reality, it’s hard to see a negative point in the expansion. The days of a 9-0 score in World Cups are a thing of the past. May I remind you that Saudi Arabia defeated eventual winner Argentina at the start of the 2022 World Cup. And certainly, Morocco’s play, which finished fourth, proves even more that participants outside of UEFA & CONCACAF can no longer be taken for granted considered.
Participation in future World Cups gives smaller football nations the necessary experience to perform better over time.
How does the tournament work?
At the moment, FIFA has not yet confirmed the format of the 48-team tournament. Initially, FIFA set the group stage to 16 groups of 3 teams. The top two teams from each group will advance to a 32-team knockout round.
This is a bad idea. The tournament itself sees only a marginal increase in the number of matches given the increase in the number of teams. This format brings the total number of games from 64 to 80. In addition, the number of games a team plays to reach the final, seven, does not change.
Still, the main concerns of a three-team group stage go beyond this. The order of play gives selected teams a big advantage over others. For example, a team may have rest days before a knockout phase. Another team knows what result it needs in the second group stage match while another team watches helplessly.
In general, two matches to determine progression are difficult to justify. Fortunately, the third matchday of the 2022 World Cup has dissuaded FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Drama prevailed as South Korea advanced over Uruguay, and Germany succumbed to a group stage despite victory. In both cases, the eliminated team won, but did not do enough due to results in simultaneous matches.
If the 4 team per group is to be kept, that would mean 12 groups of 4 teams. In turn, the tournament needs eight of the 12 third-place teams to advance. The EK uses this format. This results in a total of 104 matches for the 2026 World Cup. That is a huge increase compared to the 64 currently. As a result, the tournament will last significantly longer than its current status of one month.
FIFA will make a decision in its congress in 2023.
The new era
Apart from the number of participants, the 2026 World Cup will be the first World Cup to be held by 3 countries. A big change from Qatar where all but one of the stadiums were within a 15 minute drive. The World Cup venues in 2026 spread across four time zones and where a national team ends up in the final group stage can make a big difference.
This tournament returns to the traditional summer timeline. I was the first to protest against playing the 2022 Qatar Games in November/December. It went against everything I hold sacred about club football. But I must admit I was wrong. We need to see players at the peak of their fitness. And I believe it showed very well in the final product. And when we return to league football in a few days, no one will complain about the month-long break. Things just pick up where they left off, only slightly extending the seasons into the month of June.
In 2026, the vast geographic area covered by the World Cup, coupled with the inevitable summer fatigue for players, will probably only make us look back nostalgically at 2022 as one of the greatest World Cups in modern history – footnotes and all.
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