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Sportsmail’s guide to 2026 tournament in US, Canada and Mexico

Sportsmail's guide to 2026 tournament in US, Canada and Mexico

Less than three months after the drama and controversy of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, fans and players alike are looking forward to the 2026 edition. It’s destined to be big – in more ways than one.

FIFA has announced a huge expansion and revamp of the famous global tournament, with 48 teams (up from 32) – three host nations and 45 qualifiers – playing 104 matches (up from 64), a significant increase of around 50 percent.

That growth means a longer tournament and more and earlier/later games each day in the US, Canada and Mexico, where the competition will be held in 2026.

It will be a very different World Cup compared to the last edition in America in 1994, with major changes to the group stage and qualification process.

Who will qualify? What will it look like? How will it work? below, Sportsmail details all the changes, the brand new format and everything you need to know about the next tournament in a comprehensive guide.

Less than three months after the World Cup in Qatar, attention turns to the 2026 edition
2026 World Cup to be bigger than Qatar 2022, where Lionel Messi lifted the trophy

The biggest expansion in the history of the World Cup

This is an unprecedented expansion, with exactly 50 percent more teams included.

Between 13 and 16 countries participated in the first four tournaments in 1930, 1934, 1938 and 1950, rising to 16 from 1954, 24 for Spain in 1982 and 32 for France in 1998, where it has remained ever since. . Until now.

There has only been one previous tournament with co-hosting countries – Japan and South Korea in 2002 – but given the amount of teams now involved and the resulting stadiums and infrastructure needed to support them, it seems more likely that more neighboring nations will host. tournament from now on.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, elected on a promise to create a 40-team World Cup, insisted the extra £825m in revenue and £530m extra profit the move would generate would trickle down to grassroots football, instead to accumulate pockets. cats at the very top.

Hmm. Readers can decide for themselves how likely that is. Infantino said: ‘Increasing the size of the teams that can participate will increase the investment in the development of football, to ensure that teams qualify.’

Diego Maradona won the World Cup in Mexico
While Roberto Baggio missed a penalty in the final in the USA

More games and a longer tournament

We’ll get into the intricacies of the group stage format later, but basically there will be 12 groups of four teams. This requires a huge number of additional games (104), instead of the 80 that would be the case with 16 groups of three.

The European Club Association did not support this move due to fear of the effect that a significantly larger and longer tournament would have on squeezing domestic matches for clubs.

CONCACAF president and 2026 World Cup chairman Victor Montagliani said: ‘The tournament will be six or seven days longer, but the actual footprint between the announcement and the final will be the same as in 2014 and 2018.’

FIFA claims the tournament’s ‘footprint’ – how long it forces domestic calendars to ‘pause’ to accommodate the tournament – will be 56 days, the same as the 2010, 2014 and 2018 editions.

But the 2026 tournament will continue for 39 days, a week longer than in 2010, 2014 and 2018 and 10 days longer than in Qatar. In 2018, countries had 25 days between the end of the domestic season to prepare for the start of the tournament.

For the year 2026, that’s only 16 days. There isn’t much turnaround time for exhausted players at the end of a long season. Player welfare and muscle injuries could be a hot potato in three years’ time.

Canadian fans support their side
American kids will be rooting for the USMNT in three years
The 2026 tournament will see an unprecedented expansion from 32 teams to a whopping 48

Group stage format

It is actually more than six years since FIFA’s vote marked the move that would see the 48 teams divided into 16 groups of three. In this scenario, the top two teams in each group will advance to the round of 16.

However, this was controversial as it raised the prospect of the two teams ‘settle’ for a certain result that would send them both at the expense of the other team in the final group game.

West Germany and Austria infamously passed the ball around in a 1-0 win that saw them both advance and Algeria were knocked out. After that, FIFA introduced the last group matches to be played at the same time.

Even this addition, as well as FIFA’s suggestion that similar collusion could be avoided by deciding the group stage draw on penalties, would not preclude the possibility of – for example – a 1-0 result that would allow both teams to progress.

This, along with the high drama in the four-team groups in Qatar, led FIFA to change its mind and adjust to 12 groups of four teams, with the eight third-placed teams in the groups going into the knockout stages. This happened at the last two European championships. However, this means that there is no danger for the teams.

There may also be a split into ‘two halves’, with teams qualifying for the knockouts split into two sections, increasing the chances that teams can avoid a team in the second ‘half’ to the final. Likewise, there can only be one knockout group.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino introduced the new format, with 12 groups of four nations
This avoids the possibility of two teams ‘settling’ on a certain score to see them both sent off, such as when West Germany and Austria infamously passed the ball around in a 1-0 win in which they both advanced and Algeria responded by knocking them out. in 1982

An example of a group stage

Group A: Argentina, Switzerland, Sweden, Iraq.

group B: Belgium, Peru, Costa Rica, Ghana.

group C: Canada, Iran, Chile, North Macedonia.

Group D: Netherlands, Morocco, South Korea, Jamaica.

Group E: Mexico, Serbia, Egypt, Qatar.

Group F: Denmark, Uruguay, Cameroon, United Arab Emirates.

Group G: England, Croatia, Nigeria, Ecuador.

Group H: United States of America, Colombia, Poland, DR Congo.

Group I: Portugal, Senegal, Australia, Panama.

Group J: Brazil, Japan, Ukraine, Mali.

Mrroops K: Spain, Wales, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia.

group L: France, Germany, Algeria, New Zealand.

An example of a group stage

If the 2026 set-up for the 48-team group stage were repeated in 2022, we would see the following teams added – with Mali and North Macedonia bowing out at the World Cup.

In this hypothetical scenario, places are awarded to the next highest ranked teams in each confederation.

Italy did not qualify for the play-off final, losing to North Macedonia, so they do not qualify in this case.

From Africa, Algeria, DR Congo, Egypt, Mali and Nigeria would join Cameroon, Morocco, Senegal, Ghana and Tunisia – with New Zealand as the only representative from Oceania.

Iraq and the UAE would qualify alongside Australia, Iran, Japan, hosts Qatar, Saudi Arabia and South Korea from Asia, while America, Jamaica and Panama would join Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and the USA.

Mind you, three of CONCACAF’s six qualification spots are occupied by the three hosts for 2026.

From South America, Chile, Colombia and Peru would join Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay, and North Macedonia, Sweden and Ukraine would join the European ranks.

Chile and DR Congo, the two top-ranked teams in the world eligible for the intercontinental playoffs, would take the final two spots (El Salvador, Honduras, Solomon Islands, and Syria would be the other four in the playoffs).

For the intercontinental play-offs, the six teams will be one from each confederation except Europe, with another from the host CONCACAF confederation.

If we use the typical system of putting the host in Pot 1 with the other top-ranked teams, we can create an example from ESPN (above, right) of what a 48-team group stage might look like – for illustrative purposes only.

Albiceleste’s Lionel Scaloni (right) will be looking to retain his country’s title in the summer of 2026.
While England coach Gareth Southgate (centre) will aim to end 60 years of injury

Additional qualifying places – and who gets them

A total of 46 teams will automatically qualify, with two more entering through the intercontinental playoffs. Below we state how the confederations have announced that the qualifications will work in their zones.

CONCACAF will see three nations going to the tournament. The first round will take place in March 2024, and the 12 teams in the intercontinental play-off from September to November 2025 decide the three automatic qualifiers.

UEFA will start 12 groups of four or five in March 2025. The winners of each group will qualify, while the play-off situation has not yet been confirmed.

In Asia, smaller countries must start qualifying from October, and the third round (September 2024 – June 2025) reveals automatic qualification.

In South America’s CONMEBOL, they will hold a simple 10-team league, with the top six in the tournament. Qualification will start in September. While in Africa and Oceania, the format is still undecided.

Later start times

The 1994 FIFA World Cup in America started mainly for European viewers, with the last matches starting at 4.30pm Pacific time (half past midnight in the UK).

With FIFA not playing two matches at once until the final group matches, they are likely to be stretched out by days to accommodate the extra matches.

Montagliani admitted that this “could” mean six matches a day, with matches starting at 1pm ET (6pm UK) and continuing every two hours until 10pm PT (6: 00 per UK).

How is it different from the last World Cup in the USA?

Well, there are more teams and more games, compared to the 1994 edition, with twice as many 24 teams since then and twice as many 52 matches.

Unlike in 1994, where most places were on the East Coast of America and used Eastern Time (Chicago and Dallas used Central Time, West Coast Stanford and Pasadena used Pacific Time), Canada, Mexico and the US will be 16 places, which spread more evenly across all three time zones.

Whatever happens, the 2026 tournament promises to be a record-breaking one.

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