The format of the 2026 World Cup is up for debate once again, with a decision to switch back to four-team groups potentially being confirmed later this month.
The expanded 48-team competition in the United States, Mexico, and Canada was originally set to feature 16 groups of three, but the success of the recent tournament in Qatar has caused FIFA to reconsider.
There is agreement among all parties that the four-team format should be retained, provided that it does not extend the “footprint” of the competition, which includes preparation time as well as the tournament itself. Moving to groups of four would expand the competition from its projected 80 matches to a possible 104.
While the tournament would have to take place over a longer period, it is felt that cutting preparation time for teams would mean players were not on duty for a greater length of time. This could alleviate concerns about player burnout and fatigue, which have become increasingly important issues in recent years.
However, the move is also bound to raise environmental concerns given that more teams will have to travel. Concacaf president Victor Montagliani says that this issue is being taken seriously, and that the match schedule will be carefully planned to ensure that teams do not have to travel excessively.
Montagliani also pointed out that the groups of three format had some issues. “Is it right that you qualify for a World Cup and a third of teams go home after two games?” he asked. “We do have to be responsible.”
Ultimately, the decision to switch back to four-team groups will come down to a balance between the excitement generated by the tournament and the need to be responsible and environmentally sustainable. If the move is confirmed, we can expect to see a World Cup with more complicated decisions and formats.