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48 into 32 doesn't go

FIFA threatens to wreck a really good format

Whatever you think of the politics surrounding the Qatar World Cup, the format of the tournament itself has been a great success.  Eight groups of four, with the top two teams going through to the round of 16, meant that almost every match had significance. The best teams (eg Argentina) had a chance to overcome an early glitch, and only Qatar and Canada entered their last game with no prospect of getting through.

One of the best features has been the simultaneous start times of the final two matches in each group.  Through the course of 90 minutes on 1st December, the prospects of Spain, Germany, Costa Rica and Japan swung regularly between qualifying and elimination.

But instead of sticking with a winning formula, the 2026 World Cup in the Americas looks set to spoil it.

The number of teams participating will increase from 32 to 48.  The plan is that these 48 will be split into 16 groups of 3 teams playing in round robins, with the top two teams from each group going through to the knockout phase of 32.

The number of matches in the tournament will increase from 64 in 2022 to 80 in 2026, which could make it all a bit of a drag.*  

But it's the group stage of the tournament that will be the biggest disappointment. 

With only three teams in a group, simultaneous games won't be possible.  The final match in the group will have no jeopardy if both teams won their first match.  Goal difference will play a bigger role than ever, especially since well-matched groups could easily end with all three teams on 3 points, or  all on 1 point.

Meanwhile, imagine a group comprising, say, Argentina, Tunisia and New Zealand. Argentina beat Tunisia 2-0 and New Zealand 3-0, and the defeated teams draw 0-0.  Despite zero goals and only one point, Tunisia would go through to the last 32.  

All in all, the group stage will be something of a lottery.

So why is FIFA messing with the format like this?  Well, why does FIFA do anything?  It's about money and politics.  Countries will vote for a President who gives them a higher chance of qualifying for the biggest tournament.  And more countries means more money too.  It's sport that will be the loser. 


*As an aside, the number of matches a team will need to play to reach the 2026 final will still be 6: two in the group stage, and four in the knockout.  In the 2022 World Cup it's three group matches and three knockout games before the final.