The FIFA World Cup 2026 format seems to be yet finalized as FIFA is currently considering some changes, particularly to the group stage and qualifying round.
World Cup 2026 is still four years away. Its competition format will absolutely be modified due to its expansion. 48 contestants will be seeded in 16 groups consisting of three teams instead of four. The draw result would be abolished too with a penalty shootout as a solution for all tie games in the preliminary round. Consequently, the new point is going to be introduced as well. It is said that two points would be given to a team beating their opposition on penalties.
Then, for the knockout stage, instead of beginning with the round of 16, as it currently does, another round, the round of 32, is added. It means that the top two teams in each group will advance to the next round.
However, FIFA does not seem to yet settle with the initial format. They are currently pondering another option for it at the group stage, plus the qualifiers in certain confederations.
World Cup 2026 Format is Likely to be Modified Again
Fewer Groups in the Preliminary Round
The world football governing body appears to be concerned about the initial format, which included 16 groups of three teams. One thing they think about is a possible deal between the teams in the last game so that they can both go through. The solution of a penalty shootout to end the ties does not satisfy them either, as the teams could push to penalties with a goalless draw. Such could reduce the number of goals scored in the 2026 World Cup.
As a result, FIFA comes up with a more classic plan with fewer groups. There will be 12 groups consisting of four teams. The use of penalty shootout in the group stage will no longer be considered.
However, the knockout stage is not likely to be adjusted, which means the teams going through to round of 32 will be the top two sides from each group plus the best eight teams sitting on the third on the final standings. The idea of including teams in third place is not entirely new. UEFA has adopted such after expanding EURO with 24 teams. Even FIFA themselves did use it in World Cup 1986 to 1994.
Unfortunately, this adjustment would lead to a bigger issue. The more congested fixtures could be inevitable since the number of games will be a lot more compared to Qatar 2022. 104 games are set to be staged in World Cup 2026 or 40 games more than the current one. A team would have to play eight times to reach the final and the tournament will definitely last longer too, with at least 35 days to complete. The players’ wellness is once again at risk.
An Overhaul in CONMEBOL Qualifiers
Another anticipated change will be the new format for the CONMEBOL qualifying round. The South Americans are bound to have two extra spots for United 2026. Thus, the current round robin format for the entire 10 members of the confederation might no longer be suitable.
The proposed new format is likely to be quite the same as the one used in Copa America 2021 and World Cup 1994 qualifiers. Ten nations will be divided in two groups of five with a round robin format. The group leader and its runners up can secure the tickets automatically while the teams on the third and fourth places will go to the second round. At this stage, the one finishing third in group 1 and the sitting fourth in group 2 will be squaring off and vice versa. The two winners will qualify whereas the losers are set to fight for the spot in the intercontinental playoff round with the other five teams from all confederations but UEFA.
This reformed qualifier is definitely more competitive than the current one for 6.5 berths. FIFA will have no direct role in this overhaul, except only approving it, which is probably the first of the few.