World Cup 2026 will be longest in history after Fifa introduces 48-team format and 40 more games

14 March 2023, 15:15

Fifa has also scrapped its three-team group plan
Fifa has also scrapped its three-team group plan. Picture: Getty/Alamy
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

The 2026 World Cup is set to feature 104 games, including a new round-of-32 stage, making it the longest in the tournament's history.

The finals, which are due to take place in the United States, Canada and Mexico, will be the first to feature 48 teams.

The qualifiers will be split into 12 groups of four, rather than 16 groups of three, as was initially proposed.

Group winners and runners-up will progress to the last-32 stage, as usual, alongside the eight best third-placed teams.

It's the first time the number of games played will chance since 1998
It's the first time the number of games played will chance since 1998. Picture: Getty

With 40 more games to be played, the tournament will be extended, going up to around 38 or 39 days, compared with 30 for Qatar 2022 and 32 for the Russian World Cup in 2018.

Players will be given two weeks to prepare for the finals after leaving their club, double the amount of time that was given for the Qatar World Cup.

Fifa had been considering introducing three-team groups, but it would have meant one team sitting out on the final match day, which could have influenced results.

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The new World Cup format is expected to cause anger among football clubs, who say they have not been consulted on the changes being made by Fifa.

The first World Cup in 1930 saw just 18 matches played in 18 days. The next increase came in 1950, with 22 matches played.

Controversial Fifa President Gianni Infantino is likely to face pushback from clubs over the changes
Controversial Fifa President Gianni Infantino is likely to face pushback from clubs over the changes. Picture: Getty

The number of games played at the World Cup increased incrementally throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, eventually reaching 64 in 1998.

The proposed changes for the 2026 World Cup represent the first addition to the number of games played at the World Cup since the late nineties.

How will the extra teams be decided?

Africa will have nine spots instead of five
Africa will have nine spots instead of five. Picture: Getty

Though the symmetry of the World Cup will be lost with the proposed changes, it means Africa, Asia and Concacaf (the North American, Central American and Caribbean association) will have nearly double the number of places.

Africa will now have nine spots, rather than five, while Asia will have eight, compared to four-and-a-half now.

Europe will see the number of spots rise from 13 to 16, while South America will rise from four-and-a-half to six.

Hosts countries the USA, Mexico and Canada will take three of the Concacaf places. The remaining two spots will be decided in a six-nation play-off.

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