Fifa has switched the format for the expanded 2026 World Cup back to four-team groups.
The competition in the United States, Mexico and Canada was due to feature 16 groups of three because the number of teams is increasing from 32 to 48.
But the success of the four-team format at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar caused the governing body to reconsider.
The move expands the competition from its projected 80 matches to 104, including a new round-of-32 stage.
Fifa said the top two and eight best third-placed teams would progress to the last 32.
“The revised format mitigates the risk of collusion and ensures that all the teams play a minimum of three matches, while providing balanced rest time between competing teams,” said world football’s governing body.
The move was approved at Fifa’s council meeting in Rwanda.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino said in December that the governing body was considering a format change after the group stages in Qatar included some exciting final games.
The four-team group format, with the top two going through to the knockout stages, has been used since the men’s World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998.
The new round-of-32 stage means teams will have to play eight matches to win the tournament, compared to seven at the 2022 World Cup.
Fifa approved a men’s international match calendar from 2025-2030 and said that “based on the new calendar, the Fifa World Cup 2026 final will be played on Sunday, 19 July 2026”.
It added that the “mandatory” date for which clubs must release players for the tournament will start “on 25 May 2026, following the last official club match on 24 May 2026” and that “exemptions may apply to the final matches of confederation club competitions until 30 May 2026 subject to Fifa approval”.
The women’s international match calendar keeps its six international windows per year and includes the women’s Olympic football tournament, which will take place from 25 July to 10 August 2024.
A 32-team Club World Cup set for 2025
Fifa also approved the access list for the 32-team Fifa Club World Cup, which will take place every four years from June 2025.
Teams who win their confederation’s top tournament in “the four-year period of the seasons ending in 2021 and 2024” will qualify where they have enough places.
Europe has 12 places in the new tournament and Chelsea and Real Madrid, who won the Champions League in 2021 and 2022 respectively, have already secured their spots.
The other qualifying teams from each continent will be determined “by a club ranking based on the same four-year period”.
There will be a cap of two clubs per country with the exception being if more than two teams from the same country win their confederation’s premier tournament over the qualification period.
Fifa also wants to keep a yearly club competition and this will be “between the winner of the Uefa Champions League and the winner of intercontinental play-offs between the other confederations”.
What about the players?
Player organisations and club managers have regularly voiced concerns about the demands on players, and Fifa is to set up a task force to look at player welfare and “principles such as mandatory rest periods”.
“Our fundamental objective is to have clarity on this topic, and to have meaningful football matches while protecting the wellbeing of the players and recognising that many regions need more competitive football,” said Infantino.
However, the general secretary of players’ union Fifpro Jonas Baer-Hoffmann reiterated that “ongoing research provides new evidence of the excessive demands on elite players”.
“We are now observing a growing awareness among players about the harmful effects these pressures have on their performance, careers, and personal lives,” he added.
“They realise that their match calendar is not sustainable, affects their mental and physical health, and leaves them exposed, and without any protection, to an accelerated cycle of poorly coordinated competitions.”
Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief executive Maheta Molango said: “Fundamentally, the football calendar needs a complete reset.
“The expanded World Cup format being announced for 2026 means that, yet again, more games are being forced into an already overcrowded schedule.
“It is right that Fifa have listened to players’ concerns and announced a working group to address the critical issues surrounding fixture congestion and player welfare.
“It is also encouraging to see that key concerns raised with Fifa by the PFA, such as the need for a minimum of 72 hours between games, a mandatory day off each week, and an annual rest period, are being prioritised.
“When Gianni Infantino came to Manchester to meet with us last year, these were the changes that our Premier League and Women’s Super League members said they wanted to see.
“However, it’s very difficult to see how that aligns with the constant expansion of the domestic and international calendar.
“We know that the current workload players face is having an ongoing impact on their wellbeing, both on and off the pitch. We can’t simply push them until they break.”