14 March 2023

2026 World Cup set to include a new last-32 stage in extended tournament

14 March 2023

The 2026 World Cup finals in the United States, Canada and Mexico are set to feature 104 games, including a new round-of-32 stage, with plans for three-team groups poised to be abandoned.

The finals will be the first to feature 48 teams, with the FIFA Council set to approve the format at a meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, later on Tuesday.

The PA news agency understands qualifiers are set to be split into 12 groups of four rather than 16 groups of three as was initially proposed.

Group winners and runners-up, along with the eight best third-placed teams, would then advance to a last-32 stage.

It is expected that the new format will not mean the tournament has a bigger overall ‘footprint’ than the 2014 and 2018 tournaments when preparation time is included, but the actual tournament is set to get longer, going up to 38 or 39 days for 2026 compared to 32 in 2018 and 2014.

The preparation period for 2026 between a player’s release and his country’s first match will be around two weeks, PA understands, double what was in place for the winter finals in Qatar last year but shorter than the previous two summer tournaments.

The thrilling end to the group phase in Qatar has persuaded FIFA to stick with four-team pools for the 2026 finals, while there had also been integrity concerns raised over three-team groups because teams would be unable to complete the group at the same time, raising the possibility of results being engineered.

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