The 2026 World Cup will include the most teams ever and will be the longest World Cup ever played. However, the format of the World Cup, and player safety, could be affected by its expansion.
How Will The Expansion To 48 Teams Affect The 2026 World Cup?
The 2022 World Cup ended on December 18 with one of the best World Cup Finals in the tournament’s history. Argentina won the game, and while current attention is focused on their win and Lionel Messi’s legacy within the sport, excitement, especially in America, is already growing for the next World Cup.
Multiple changes will be made to the tournament format in 2026, most importantly, an expansion from 32 to 48 teams. The expansion will have a dramatic impact on the tournament format and qualifying process.
The 2026 World Cup Format
The most recent expansion of the World Cup was in 1998 when the tournament expanded from 24 to 32 teams. The 1998 World Cup, held in France, then became the longest World Cup ever held due to the expanded number of teams.
2026’s expansion to 48 teams will be dramatic, with a further 16 teams joining the competition. As a result, it is unclear what format FIFA will choose for the group stage of the tournament.
One option for the tournament format, which was originally approved alongside the expansion, is to have 16 groups of three teams. The top two teams in each group would advance to the Round of 32.
However, there is a major problem with this format. Due to the odd number of teams, the final group stage games within each group would take place at different times. This creates scenarios where teams could agree to finish a game with a certain result to ensure they both advanced.
This has happened in the past, most famously at the 1982 World Cup, where the “Disgrace of Gijon” occurred. West Germany and Austria entered their final match of the group stage in third and first in their group respectively. Algeria, who had completed their group stage games the day before, was in second place behind Austria.
As a result, both West Germany and Austria knew that a 1-0 win for West Germany would result in both teams advancing from the group, and Algeria would be eliminated. Less than 10 minutes into the game West Germany scored to take the lead, and both teams, who knew they would advance, passed around the field for the rest of the game without attempting to score.
The match caused massive controversy around the sport. Algeria filed a formal complaint with FIFA, and West Germany’s and Austria’s fans were both publicly upset with how their teams had played. The game directly led to a rule change requiring the final games of the group stage to be played at the same time.
Three team groups, however, would make that impossible. It could lead to a similar series of events, and while FIFA could try to create rules to prevent this from occurring, even if the final games weren’t played at the same time, they would likely be hard to enforce.
The alternative formatting option is to keep four-team groups, with 12 groups in total. The top two teams within each group would advance, along with eight third-placed teams, for a total of 32.
This format would allow the final group stage games to take place at the same time, but 32 teams would still advance to the knockout stages. It is possible FIFA could explore other options to allow group winners to advance directly to the Round of 16 if this group-stage format is selected.
A Longer World Cup
When FIFA last expanded the World Cup, it became the longest in the sport’s history. After expansion to 48 teams, the 2026 World Cup will likely become the longest edition of the tournament.
If 16 groups of three teams in the group stage format FIFA selects, finalists would play the same amount of games as they did at the 2022 World Cup, despite the expansion of the tournament. If FIFA decides to select a format with four-team groups, teams that reached the finals would play one more game than they did when there were 32 teams in the tournament.
Additionally, a format with four teams in each group would also dramatically increase the total number of games played at the World Cup. This would make it more difficult for stadiums to keep their fields in good condition and increase the overall length of the tournament.
Player safety has become an increasing area of concern within the sport over the past several years. The number of matches each player participates in is one of the primary focuses within the sport currently, in addition to the number of competitions they participate in and the length of those competitions.
The 2026 World Cup would likely see only one more game added to each player’s schedule but could require players to be with their national teams for an increased amount of time, preventing them from recovering and resting during the summer months in preparation for when their seasons begin in the fall. As a result, player safety will have an important impact on the decision FIFA makes regarding the format of the 2026 World Cup.