World Cup organisers consider ditching three-team group format for 2026

<span>Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Reuters

World Cup organisers are increasingly open to discarding the new three-team group format for the 2026 tournament in the US, Mexico and Canada. It comes after concerns that too many dead rubbers in the last round of matches could dilute the expanded, 48-team event.

Although Fifa’s official position remains unaltered, multiple sources say there have been “informal talks” and “corridor chats” in Doha about the benefits of going with 12 groups of four teams rather than 16 groups of three.

That could lead to a 104-game World Cup if the top two in each group, plus the best eight third-placed sides, go through to a 32-team knockout stage – which is 40 more than will be played at Qatar 2022.

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Nothing has been decided and stakeholders are expected to talk more formally about a potential switch in the coming months. Any decision would have to be taken next year.

One well-placed observer said that if the tournament were extended by a few days to fit in more matches then neither Fifa nor the major sponsors would likely object. They pointed to the vast extra revenue that would be generatedthrough ticket sales and concessions.

However, such a move would risk a conflict with clubs and players’ unions given the sensitivities around the increasingly busy calendar and the likelihood of the best teams having to play eight matches and not seven.

There is acknowledgment in the game that three-team groups have severe flaws. One is that it may lead to unofficial deals being struck in the last match if, say, both teams needed a high-scoring draw to go through on goal difference. Similarly, if one team lose the first two matches, the final match of the group would only decide where the other two countries ended up in the knockout stage.

If Fifa needed any reminder of how a four-team group format can generate extraordinary tension and chaos it was illustrated in Group D on Wednesday as the Poland v Argentina and Saudi Arabia v Mexico matches went to the wire.

Whatever happens, the number of World Cup games will rise. The tournament has consisted of 64 matches since the switch to 32 teams in 1998. Increasing it to 48 teams for 2026 will lead to a minimum of 80 games, the figure under a three-group format.