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World Cup: Format change for 2026

This year's World Cup will be the last to be played under the current format, as from 2026 the tournament will be expanded from 32 teams to 48.

While the current priority is very much this year's final between Argentina, who are 10/11 to lift the Trophy, while France are the same price, it will not be long before the focus switches to the 2026 tournament, which after all is just three-and-a-half years away.

The initial plan

FIFA approved plans for the new 48-team tournament in 2017 as part of the first major shake-up to the World Cup format since it was originally extended from a 24-team competition to 32 ahead of the 1998 finals in France.

The United States, Canada and Mexico were confirmed as the hosts of the 2026 World Cup in 2018 and it will be the first time that three nations have shared the hosting responsibilities.

Initially the plan was for the 48 teams to be split into 16 groups of three, with the top two from each section progressing to the knockout stages, which would begin with a round of 32.

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Under those plans, teams would play a maximum of seven matches, as they do now, but the overall number of games being staged would be extended from 64 to 80.

The proposal also stated that the tournament would be completed within 32 days, just like with previous World Cups, although that would mean we would have to get used to the four-games-a-day policy that was adopted during the early stages of the 2022 finals.

Infantino hints at policy change

The plan for the 16-group format was never officially ratified and it appears FIFA are now considering changing it to 12 groups of four teams, with the top two in each group and the eight-best third-placed sides progressing through to the knockout stages.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino confirmed that the 12-group policy was now under serious consideration given the excitement and drama generated during the 2022 group stage.

Changing to groups of four would also alleviate some of the concerns that three-team groups would heighten the risk of collusion between teams ahead of the final round of group matches.

Expanded tournament benefits all confederations

It is no surprise that all six confederations will be allocated extra spots for the expanded 2026 World Cup, with UEFA still boasting the highest representation, although they will only be receiving three extra spots, taking their total from 13 to 16.

Following on from Morocco's run to the semi-finals of the 2022 World Cup, CAF will be the next most-represented confederation, with nine qualifiers guaranteed to come from Africa, boosting their overall allocation by four.

Asia will also receive four additional spots, taking their guaranteed total from four to eight, while South America - the smallest of the six confederations - will receive six spots, two more than they got in 2022.

CONCACAF will have six guaranteed places at the finals, with three of those reserved for the hosts the United States, Canada and Mexico, while for the first time the OFC will also be handed one automatic qualification spot.

That takes the total to 46, with the remaining two places being decided by a play-off tournament involving one nation apiece from each confederation apart from UEFA, while two teams will compete from CONCACAF.

The two teams that enter the play-off tournament sitting highest in the world rankings will be seeded for the event, with the other four nations having to contest two knockout games to take us down to the final four.

There will then be two play-off finals, each between a seeded and unseeded team, to decide the final two places at the tournament.

How far will FIFA keep expanding?

Only 13 teams entered the first World Cup staged in Uruguay in 1930, but since then the global game has grown exponentially, with FIFA currently boasting 211 members from Brazil at the top of the rankings to San Marino at the bottom.

This year's World Cup will once again be won by a team from either South America or Europe, but Morocco's run to the semi-finals underlines just how rapidly the game is growing all around the globe and why it is justified to not only expand the tournament to 48 teams, but also hand more spots to countries in Africa, Asia and North America.

And there is no reason why FIFA would stop at 48 teams, as it is easy to envisage future World Cups being contested by perhaps even 64 nations, which is arguably the ideal number to avoid the complication and need for the best third-placed sides scraping through to the knockout stages.

The popularity and growth of the World Cup only appears to be heading in one direction and, despite that being a scheduling headache for the powers at be, it should make for entertaining viewing for the rest of us.

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