World Cup 2026 to revert back to four team format after success in Qatar

FIFA have reverted back to the four team Group Stage format for the World Cup 2026 which will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico
The World Cup 2026 will feature four teams in each group
The World Cup 2026 will feature four teams in each group

(Football news) The World Cup 2026 will now feature four teams in each group instead of the originally planned 16 groups of three teams with the number of teams increasing from 32 to 48. FIFA reverted back to the old format after seeing the success of the four team group stage at the 2022 World Cup which included a number of upsets and thrilling moments. The change in format means that World Cup 2026 will now feature 104 matches instead of 80 with a new Round of 32 stage. This means that the top two teams from each group will progress into the Round of 32 along with eight teams that finish third.

A statement released by FIFA read “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 decision to revert back to four teams per group was decided in a FIFA meeting at Rwanda with the governing body’s president Gianni Infantino saying in December 2022 that the success of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar forced them to rethink the original format. The four team group stage format has been used since the 1998 World Cup when the tournament was first expanded to 32 teams.

FIFA has also approved the men’s international football calendar from 2025 to 2030 and said that “based on the new calendar, the Fifa World Cup 2026 final will be played on Sunday, 19 July 2026”. According to the calendar, football clubs must release their players for the 2026 World Cup by 25 May 2026 and “exemptions may apply to the final matches of confederation club competitions until 30 May 2026 subject to Fifa approval”. The women’s international match calendar will keep its six international windows per year which includes the women’s Olympic football tournament, which will take place from 25 July to 10 August 2024.

In an interview, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said “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.” General secretary of players’ union Fifpro Jonas Baer-Hoffmann reiterated that “ongoing research provides new evidence of the excessive demands on elite players. We are now observing a growing awareness among players about the harmful effects these pressures have on their performance, careers, and personal lives.”

Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) 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. 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.

“It is also encouraging to see that key concerns raised with Fifa by the PFA, such as the need for a minimum of 72 hours between games, a mandatory day off each week, and an annual rest period, are being prioritised. When Gianni Infantino came to Manchester to meet with us last year, these were the changes that our Premier League and Women’s Super League members said they wanted to see.

“However, it’s very difficult to see how that aligns with the constant expansion of the domestic and international calendar. 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 push them until they break.”

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