The expanded World Cup in North America got even bigger on Tuesday.
Football’s governing body increased the size of the 2026 tournament for the second time – six years after the first – by approving a larger group stage for the inaugural 48-team event.
By keeping four-team groups instead of moving to three, FIFA has created a 104-match schedule that will span nearly six weeks in June-July across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The 16 host cities – 11 in the United States, three in Mexico and two in Canada (Vancouver and Toronto) – now have 24 extra games to play on top of the 80 they already had for the inaugural 48-team tournament.
The addition of around 1.5 million extra tickets will further fuel FIFA’s expected record revenue of at least US$11 billion by 2026 from a tournament based on the use of high-grossing NFL stadiums.
FIFA said the decision followed “a thorough review that took into account sporting integrity, player welfare, team travel, commercial and sporting appeal, and the team and fan experience”.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s latest push for more games and bigger events in a packed calendar is likely to cause more concern among stakeholders such as domestic leagues and players’ union FIFPRO. They have long felt isolated from discussions about the future of football.
The six-week World Cup will begin a year after FIFA launched a 32-team Club World Cup, which could also be held in North America to test tournament logistics. The Champions League in Europe also has a new format with more teams and games in the 2024-25 season.
Teams guaranteed 3 games
The new World Cup format will have 12 groups of four teams instead of 16 groups of three, the design chosen in 2017. Both options were to go to a 32-team knockout round. The final will take place on July 19.
The format guarantees that each World Cup team will play at least three times instead of two, adding up to a stacked 72-match group stage before reaching the knockout rounds. The four semi-finals will feature eight matches, one more than last year in Qatar.
The entire 2022 World Cup in Qatar amounted to 64 games in the seventh and final edition of the 32-team format. The 1998 World Cup in France was the first with 32 teams.
Increasing the World Cup squad was first mooted in 2015. It was then proposed as a way to sweeten FIFA’s 200-plus member associations into accepting much-needed governance reforms in the wake of US and Swiss corruption investigations.
After Infantino was elected FIFA president to succeed Sepp Blatter, one of his first major strategic victories was the addition of 16 teams to the World Cup. Infantino convinced FIFA colleagues that a 48-team tournament – with Africa and Asia getting most of the extra places from Europe – would fuel interest and promote development in countries that rarely or never qualified to play on the biggest stage.
This was despite FIFA’s own research in 2016 suggesting that the highest quality football was achieved in the 32-team format.
In Qatar, the split-screen drama created by crucial group games being played simultaneously helped convince FIFA that the four-team squads are better.
The price of sponsorship deals is likely to increase
There was also concern that the three-team schedule could lead to match-fixing in a final between two teams that could both advance to the round of 32.
FIFA has now found an option it said “mitigates the risk of collusion” and also gives itself more games to sell.
The extra 24 games will increase the price of sponsorship deals and broadcast deals not yet signed. However, some key broadcast markets have already been signed, including the United States, Brazil and the Middle East.
The 2026 World Cup was already set to generate up to $3 billion in ticket and hospitality sales for FIFA and massively increase record tournament attendance. This record was set in the United States in 1994, when 3.6 million spectators watched 52 games in a 24-team competition.
One downside of the 48-team format is the unbalanced nature of the 32 teams that will qualify.
Eight of the 12 third-placed teams will advance, creating uncertainty for some third-placed teams in a group, not knowing whether they will qualify until the matches are completed days later.
FIFA also explained how teams will enter the 2025 Club World Cup, including the continental champions in each season from 2021-24. That means Chelsea, Real Madrid, Palmeiras, Flamengo and Seattle Sounders have already secured their places.
Europe’s 12 entries can also be determined by a ranking system based on the same quadrennial, with a maximum of two teams per country qualifying with exceptions for the continental champions.
FIFA also plans to create another new competition starting annually in 2024 for continental champions. The winner of the Champions League in Europe will play the winner of the play-offs with the other continental champions.