The 2026 World Cup format is utterly dreadful, but it’s slightly less utterly dreadful than original plan

Lionel Messi celebrates with the World Cup trophy Credit: Alamy
Lionel Messi celebrates with the World Cup trophy Credit: Alamy

FIFA are set to confirm the format for the 48-team 2026 World Cup, and the good news is that of the two utterly dreadful options available, they’ve picked the very slightly less utterly dreadful option.

There was no good option available because of those 48 teams. Once FIFA’s top brass, dollar signs spinning round their eyes as usual and also as usual with absolutely no regard for the wellbeing or quality of the sport they occasionally profess to love (whenever such remarks are deemed sufficiently financially lucrative) had decided to expand the tournament, it was already doomed.

Gianni Infantino has already started with the inevitable and disingenuous guff about this being designed to grow the global game rather than cheap, grubby coin but he’s fooling nobody. This is a disaster, and the fact we knew it was coming and is only the second most disastrous possible outcome doesn’t really help that much.

Criticism from Europe that the expansion is based on political and financial rather than sporting considerations is irrefutably correct, but Infantino and his ilk will continue to profess otherwise.

“We are in the 21st century, and we should shape the World Cup for the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America; football is global.”

It’s just absolute bollocks, frankly. Intelligence-insulting bollocks at that. Nothing about the existing World Cup format failed to deliver on that front. The 32-team format that’s been in use since 1998 was essentially unimprovable.

The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on earth and the 32-team tournaments of the last 25 years have been the very best of them.

The 32-team set-up hits every sweet spot you could ask for. Inclusive enough to be a truly global event without diminishing the achievement of qualification or diluting the overall quality, long enough to give everyone a fair go without becoming arduous or dull. There are almost no dead rubbers, and simultaneous group games in the final round minimises the risk of any funny business and collusion between teams.

Qatar, for everything else wrong with it, showcased the format superbly: only three teams were through after the first two games and only two teams were definitely out.

The format produces an equal number of qualifiers from each first-round group and sets up a straightforward, easily understood last-16 bracket where you are (at least theoretically) rewarded for winning your group by getting a runner-up in the first knockout round. It’s simple, it’s intuitive, it’s elegant and it’s fair.

And it was already perfectly pitched for ‘the 21st century’. It was already global. It wasn’t just ‘Europe and South America’; 15 of the 32 teams in Qatar last year came from outside the two traditional footballing heartlands and many of those 15 elevated the tournament with their performances just as some of the 17 did not. Because that’s what happens in tournaments.

The qualification system already very correctly prioritised a wide geographical spread of teams over merely the ‘best’ 32, but did so artfully enough that the tournament still looks like what it’s supposed to be: the pinnacle.

Being a truly elite and truly global event are the two great criteria for a World Cup, and football is the only sport that can – and did – convincingly pull that off. That’s been tossed aside, and we absolutely must not let FIFA or its apologists pretend this is being done in the name of progress. Or allow the bizarre implication that if you think the World Cups from, er, 1998 to 2022 were good then you need to get in the 21st century, grandad.

What they had was perfect and what we’ve got now is a mess. A long, dull mess.

The 2026 World Cup will, in formatting terms, look like an XL Euros or – for those sods old enough to remember – the World Cups from 1986, 1990 and 1994.

At those tournaments, 24 teams were split into six groups where the top two qualified along with the four best third-place teams to make a last 16. It’s not ideal because the third-place thing is a fudge, you can’t have a neatly organised knockout bracket beforehand, and you need a large number of games to eliminate relatively few teams.

A 48-team double whopper version takes all those problems and turns them up to 11.

The 2022 World Cup had 64 matches. The 2026 World Cup will take 72 matches just to reduce the remaining competitors to the same number that started in Qatar. Seventy-two matches! To eliminate one third of the teams! From a cup competition! You cannot with a straight face insist this represents progress or a decision based on sporting ideals.

Yes, the smaller federations and national associations on whom Infantino relies will welcome the increased chance to reach a World Cup. Their reasons may be marginally less overtly nefarious than FIFA’s but are still fuelled entirely by naked self-interest, a better chance of qualifying for a diminished and cheapened World Cup.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino attends a World Cup match. Credit: Alamy
FIFA president Gianni Infantino attends a World Cup match. Credit: Alamy

Any pretence, flimsy enough already, that sporting considerations might be in any way involved in the decision-making are entirely torpedoed by the fact the total time allotted in the football calendar for the 2026 jaunt around North America is 56 days – exactly the same as for the World Cups from 2010 to 2018.

The 40 extra matches in total, and the increase from seven to eight matches for a team going all the way, necessitate a longer tournament even if more matches are played per day or concurrently than is currently the case. So how can the total period for the tournament be the same as in those previous summers? By reducing the official build-up time from 23 days to 16, meaning that players can play club football far closer to an even more exhausting global showpiece than they could before (Qatar, of course, had already obliterated the idea that we should be doing anything so silly as try and make sure the very best players are in the very best condition for what is supposed to be the very best tournament).

Doesn’t sound like something that you’d do for sporting reasons, does it? Does sound like something you might do for a projected extra $1bn in TV and sponsorship cash, though.

Maybe that justifies it. Maybe FIFA will, as they claim, plough all that money back into the game. Stop laughing; they might.

It would at least be an argument that could legitimately be made: “This won’t be quite as good a football tournament, but the extra money and increased exposure will allow us to do x, y and z and that’s a worthwhile trade-off.” You could disagree, you could challenge FIFA’s record of delivering on such promises, but it would at least be a reasonable starting point for debate.

But that’s not going to happen. You will continue to have your intelligence insulted by being told this is about the “global game” and “progress” and “moving forward”.

It’s rubbish. But it is at least slightly less rubbish than the original version of a 48-team World Cup FIFA had cooked up.

In that, 16 groups of three would produce two qualifiers each for a last-32 knockout stage. It would be neater and require 24 fewer games.

But those would have been the only benefits, and the potential drawbacks obvious and utterly enormous. Most simply, three-team groups rule out the possibility of concurrent final games and thus massively increase the risk of collusion and mutually beneficial results.

There would have been all manner of ways for teams to benefit or suffer that were outside their own control.

A third of teams, for instance, would have played no part in the opening round of fixtures and thus their first game would come against a team who’d already played and would know precisely what they needed to qualify.

One team per group would play in the first and third round of games and get a lovely little break between games in the middle. And one team would play in the first two games, and better make damn sure they did enough to qualify without having to rely on a particular result in the final round of games between teams who at best know precisely what result they need and almost inevitably in some cases precisely what result sends both skipping merrily through.

With 16 separate groups all vulnerable to all these separate types of nonsense, the group stage of such a tournament would have descended rapidly into high farce.

But we’re starting to think we might have preferred that and all its boiled piss to the long, dull trudge that the admittedly fairer but interminable 12-group format promises.

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