Three hosts, 48 teams: how the 2026 World Cup will work

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Three hosts, 48 teams:

The 48-team tournament that will be held in 2026 thanks to Fifas choice to award the united bid from the USA, Canada, and Mexico the right to host the World Cup will be unprecedented. And how will it operate?

How does having three hosts nations work?

A total of 23 cities from the three nations are competing to become one of the 16 final host cities. The US will host the remaining 60 games across 10 stadiums, with Mexico, Canada, and each of them hosting 10 games across three venues.

After jointly winning the bid to host the 2026 World Cup, representatives from Canada, Mexico, and the United States rejoice.
In the vote to host the 2026 World Cup, the US, Canada, and Mexico defeated Morocco.
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Seven group matches, two round of 32 matches, and one round of 16 match would all be held in Mexico and Canada, respectively. From the quarterfinal round on, every match would take place in the US, with the championship match likely to be held in the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

According to the bid proposal, the first day of the competition may feature three matches, one of which would be played in each country’s respective host nation.

Every city that wants to participate has stadiums that are already completed and operational, with an average capacity larger than 68,000, and with assured continuous use after the competition. This is one advantage of the joint bid. Comparatively, Morocco’s unsuccessful bid included the hazardous plan to construct nine new stadiums.

The 48-team tournament format

In 16 groups of three teams each, the 48 teams will be split up. The top two teams in each group advance to a new round of the tournament that features 32 teams. Critics have suggested that a system with groups of three teams is likely to be severely uneven because 16 teams will be eliminated after only playing two matches.

Some claim that being the side that is left out of the first group game has a substantial disadvantage. A team that has already played will be the opponent for sixteen nations’ inaugural matches. Since they won their first game, the squad will know they only need a point to advance. If they dropped it, they’d be aware that they’d need a victory to have any hope of surviving elimination. Both propose significantly different strategies for a game in which both teams start with 0 points.

According to proponents of expansion, the format’s strength lies in the fact that, despite adding 16 new teams, just 16 additional games are played, minimally altering the tournament’s playing time. The two teams who make the final, as they do now, will have played six matches to get there. In practice, 32 clubs are still assured of playing at least three games in the competition, as is the case with the 32-team system used today.

New qualification system including a World Cup play-off tournament

One of Gianni Infantino’s main tenets of Fifa policy has been the growth to 48 teams. It increases the number of finals spots open to teams from every confederation, including ensuring that an Oceania team will always be selected. The new space allocation is as follows:

AFC (Asia) – eight places (up from 4.5)
Caf (Africa) – nine places (up from 5)
Concacaf (North and Central America) – six places, of which three go to hosts (up from 3.5)
Conmebol (South America) – six places (up from 4.5)
OFC (Oceania) – one place (up from 0.5)
Uefa (Europe) – 16 places (up from 13)

In addition there will be two final spots available from a new World Cup play-off mini-tournament.

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David Conn
David Conn
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The proposal is that a nation from every confederation, except Uefa, will play-off in a knockout tournament that doubles up as a test event for the host nation. The five teams will be joined by an additional country from the host nations’ confederation – Concacaf. Two seeded teams will each meet the winners of a match between two unseeded teams to determine the final places.

It is currently unclear where this leaves the Confederations Cup tournament – normally held the summer before a World Cup as the test event for the host nation. The 2021 Confederations Cup is yet to have been assigned a host, as it is not practical to play it in Qatar’s climate in the summer of 2021.

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