Soccer’s 2026 World Cup in North America, already the largest and the longest in the tournament’s history because of an expansion of the field, is set to grow even more as FIFA leaders were poised to agree to a change in format that will add 24 more games.
The change will result in a marathon men’s soccer championship — 48 teams playing 104 games over as many as 40 days in three countries — and see the champion and the runner-up each play eight games instead of the current seven.
The format is expected to be approved on Tuesday after a meeting of the governing council of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body and the organizer of the World Cup. It was confirmed by multiple people familiar with the most recent discussions, none of whom would be quoted by name because the change has not been confirmed or announced.
The total of 104 World Cup matches would be a significant increase from previous plans that had called for 80 games, and 40 more than last year’s tournament in Qatar.
The change also will force organizers to clear more dates in the 16 cities they have chosen to host the World Cup, a potentially difficult scheduling dance for stadium officials already juggling a summer of sports, events and concerts in their giant arenas.
The 2026 tournament — co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada — will be the first World Cup with 48 teams, expanded from the current 32-nation competition that has been in place since 1998.
Early discussions had centered around splitting the teams into 16 groups of three. But after the nail-biting finish to the group stage in Qatar last year, and with officials concerned about a situation in which three-team groups could be manipulated and teams would be eliminated after only two games, FIFA revisited the issue.
The heads of soccer’s six confederations met with FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, on Monday night, and none raised any objection to the proposed format, according to the people familiar with the meeting. A formal confirmation is expected later on Tuesday, after a meeting where FIFA’s 36-member governing council is expected to similarly green-light the changes.
Adding extra games also will add extra days. Such a duration is likely to anger players’ unions and clubs already concerned about the heavy workload imposed on the game’s top stars.
The North American World Cup is the first version of the men’s tournament to have been awarded since Infantino became FIFA president in 2016. While the expansion has been celebrated by many of the governing body’s smaller member nations because of the expanded opportunities to qualify it will provide and the billions of dollars in added revenue it will produce, many fans and commentators have expressed concerns the move will diminish the quality of the event.
Infantino has predicted the 2026 World Cup will generate a record-breaking payday; FIFA has budgeted for revenues of $11 billion in the four-year cycle to 2026, almost $4 billion more than it earned during the same period through to the Qatar World Cup.
A spokesman for FIFA did not comment on the proposed format for 2026.
Victor Montagliani, the head of the confederation for North America, recently suggested that changes were in store, telling a conference hosted by The Financial Times earlier this month that the issue was up for debate.
Montagliani questioned if it is “right that you qualify for a World Cup and a third of teams go home after two games?”
But he also conceded that the changes would not be without repercussions on soccer’s already tight global calendar.
“We do have to be responsible,” he said. “There was a footprint of days for 2014 and 2018 and we can’t go over that. We can’t have a three-month World Cup.”
One way of mitigating the impact of a longer tournament would be to reduce the preparation window for it. In previous years, it had been three weeks for qualified teams. (That window was shortened to a single week before the event in Qatar, the first to be played in November and December, placing it in the heart of the season for many domestic leagues.)
Montagliani also questioned whether the impact on player health would be as severe as players unions have warned.
“Too many games only applies to the top 1 percent of players,” he said. “That is where the issue is. Actually the average professional does not play that much. The idea that they are all overplaying is not the reality.”
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