Despite being shoved into the middle of the season and in a country that was in no way up to the standards of hosting such a thing, the last World Cup ended up being a hit for what went on on the field. Exciting conclusion to the group stages, classic games in the knockout stages, and a memorable winner cementing the legacy of the greatest player ever, Lionel Messi (pictured). So what FIFA wants to ask you is…if you liked it so much, how’d you like to drown in it? FIFA thinks you’ll look like this when the tournament comes to these shores in just over three years.
Changes coming to the World Cup
FIFA officially announced that the 2026 World Cup will not use the three-team group format that had been originally put forward, but will keep the four-team groups that you’ve come to know and love. The three-team idea was cockamamie from the start for a host of reasons. The biggest was that it would open the door for some serious shenanigans at the end of the group stage, with two teams playing knowing exactly what they needed to go through over a third team that wasn’t playing at all. Secondly, going home after two games just seemed cheap and quick (my nickname in high school), which would have been the fate for 16 teams finishing third in the group.
That doesn’t mean having 12 groups of four teams doesn’t have its own issues, the biggest being…well, the bigness of it. That’s 72 group-stage games alone. The entire 2022 tournament, and the previous six, had 64 games total (that includes the third-place match that no one gives a flying fornication about). In total, with the now expanded knockout stage that will have a Round of 32, the 2026 tournament will have 104 games! Cue the dog again!
To accommodate this, it will now soak up some six weeks instead of four, and it will start earlier instead of ending later, with only a 16-day lead-up from when players must be released from their club teams to the start of the tourney instead of 23. Which means that players are basically going to end their club seasons and walk right onto their international teams with basically no rest. Which will make for a pretty shoddy tournament, especially as the winners will now have to play eight games instead of seven, but who cares about that when there are bags and bags of money to be made? We saw something like this in 2002, when the tournament had to be bumped up on the calendar to avoid monsoon season in the Far East, with the World Cup kicking off just 10 days after the Champions League final. You may remember that tournament having some truly silly results, with France and Argentina biting in the group stages and South Korea and Turkey getting to the semis.
And how is FIFA going to lay this out? Four games a day? Five? The four games a day in this past tournament was a lot for any fan, but only lasted a little over a week until the simultaneous kickoffs of the last group-stage games kicked in that everyone was used to anyway. But with 12 groups, playing four games a day means that even the first two rounds of group-stage games would take nearly two weeks. Then another six days to complete the group stages with the simultaneous kickoffs? That means the group stage will take two and a half weeks? That sounds like something that will get awfully stale to fans.
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And then you get to the knockouts, which will basically have four or five days added to it with the addition of the Round of 32. Five days added to the two weeks it already took (the last World Cup’s knockouts started on Dec. 3 and ended on the 18th)? Again, this feels like a structure that will have a lot of fans burned out by the time the tournament ends.
The fit is wrong
Other than the sheer size, the fit is just wrong. However evil and goofy the 32-team tournament could be and has been, the actual format is perfect. Finish top two in your group and you move on. It was all contained. Win your group and you get something of a “reward” by playing a second-placed team, though it doesn’t always work that way. The three games had meaning, because half the field would be culled.
But with this misshapen monster, the group stage will be 72 games to send merely a third of the field home. And eight third-place teams will move on, which means teams will have to be weeded out against other teams that have played completely different slates, with coefficients and goal differences and all other kinds of mishegas determining who moves on and who doesn’t while having nothing to do with two teams playing each other.
It also gums up the knockouts, because some group winners will play a third-place team and some will play a second-place team, which isn’t fair at all. The 32-team format was clean. This is very much not.
But 48 teams opens up more spots for smaller countries, whose support is what FIFA president Gianni Infantino has built his power on, just like Sepp Blatter before him. And the TV rights swell because there are more games to sell. And there are more tickets to gouge fans for. And more fans traveling using FIFA sponsors to fly and stay at. So everyone who does that kind of accounting wins, while the rest of us are left to deal with this unwieldy hellbeast of a tournament. But we’re going to watch anyway, which FIFA also knows.
For more of Sam’s soccer thoughts, or just to watch him bang his head against his coffee table while watching Liverpool, follow him on Twitter @FelsGate.