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FIFA plans to kill the drama of the World Cup group stage. Here’s how to save it

DOHA, Qatar — Exhilarating chaos consumed the 2022 World Cup as midnight approached on Wednesday. For almost an hour at two bouncing stadiums on either side of downtown Doha, the group stage of this glorious tournament reached peak excitement. Argentina fended off pressure, while Mexico roared to life, and left Polish players frantically trying to hold on to second place in Group C. All the while, Polish fans and staffers frantically tracked Mexico’s game against Saudi Arabia, hoping, perhaps praying to the soccer gods, that a third Mexican goal wouldn’t come.

It was heart-pounding stuff. It ended in a stunning Saudi goal that sent Polish players, having just finished their game, leaping into the air. A minute later, they huddled around a phone, and erupted again when they saw the Mexico-Saudi Arabia game go final.

It was, in a nutshell, everything that makes the World Cup group stage so splendid. And it might never happen again.

For seven decades, ever since FIFA could find 16 willing World Cup participants, the most successful single-sport tournament on the planet has begun with groups of four. In 2026, barring a FIFA re-think, that will change. The World Cup is expanding from 32 to 48 teams. The current plan is to move from eight groups of four to 16 groups of three.

It would be the end of simultaneous games, and the likely end of soccer giants staring down early elimination. It would encourage fishiness and defensive soccer. It would be an unmitigated abomination, a needless detonation of two of the most thrilling weeks in all of sport.

The only hope is that, with three years still separating the present from the 2026 World Cup draw, and the 2026 match calendar still under construction, the FIFA Council will reconsider.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group C - Poland v Argentina - Stadium 974, Doha, Qatar - November 30, 2022 Poland's Grzegorz Krychowiak celebrates after the match as Poland qualify for the knockout stages REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak celebrates after the match as Poland qualify for the knockout stages. (REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

2026 World Cup format explained

The previously agreed-upon format for 2026 would feature three-team groups, with two of three from each advancing to a 32-team knockout stage.

The glaring flaws, of course, are the necessarily imbalanced rhythm of games and the likelihood that teams could advance without winning a game or even scoring a goal. Two points would be enough for second place in a three-team group, unless the third game of the group is also a draw, which would leave all three teams tied on two points and separated by tiebreakers. (Yuck.)

The rhythm of games, meanwhile — Team A versus B on Day 1, Team B versus C on Day 5, Team A versus C on Day 9 — would create frequent scenarios where Teams A and C are both perfectly happy with a draw on the final day.

There have been suggestions that penalty shootouts could precede or follow each group-stage game, essentially as a tiebreaker. But they’d more likely create problems than solve problems. The only real fix would be a different format.

A World Cup wild-card round?

The ideal 48-team format would stick with groups of four. There’d be 12 of them, which leads to two pressing questions:

  1. How do you get from 12 groups of four to a knockout round whose size is a multiple of 16? (If the top two teams advance from each, the tournament would go from 48 to 24 to 12, 6, and … 3. That doesn’t work.)
  2. How do you keep the length of the tournament manageable?

The answer to the first question, and part of the answer to the second, is a “wild-card round.” The eight best group winners — the eight of 12 with the highest point totals (and, if tied, best goal differentials) — would get a bye into the Round of 16. The other four and the 12 runners-up would go into a 16-team round of elimination games, with the winners advancing to a standard Round of 16 to face the top eight group winners.

And boom, the typical thrill of the World Cup would be restored.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group D - Australia v Denmark - Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah, Qatar - November 30, 2022 Australia players celebrate qualifying for the knockout stages REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Australia players celebrate qualifying for the knockout stages. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

As for the second question, the original proposal from North American bid chiefs for 2026 was for a 34-day tournament, slightly longer than the traditional 32 days and the compressed 29-day calendar in Qatar. The two ways to accommodate four-team groups and a “wild-card round” would be to increase the length of the tournament from 34 to roughly 39 days, or to stay at 34 by increasing the number of group stage games per day from four to six.

Six games per day would sound overwhelming, but could actually make it easier for FIFA to accommodate time differences between the Americas and Europe, Africa and Asia.

Games could stay in unique windows at 11 a.m. ET (which is 7 p.m. Arabian Standard Time), 1:30 p.m. (which is 7:30 p.m. Central European Time), 4 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 9 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. ET (which is 8:30 p.m. PT, and 1:30 p.m. in Tokyo).

Or they could overlap on a staggered cadence, NCAA basketball tournament-style.

And for the players? The day-to-day cadence would actually be the same as it is here in Qatar. The co-hosts — the U.S., Canada and Mexico — could each play on opening day. The other three games from their group would be Day 2. And from there, each team would play every fourth day.

The main counterargument here is that it seems unfair to throw four group winners into the wild-card round. But, on the contrary, there’s a benefit: All the big teams, even if they’ve won two games and clinched a spot atop their group — like France in 2022 — would have something to play for on Matchday 3.

What a 48-team World Cup could, and should, look like

It’s difficult to fully conceptualize what a 48-team World Cup will look like. Qualifying always springs surprises, and FIFA’s rankings can weirdly fluctuate. But in 2022, 16 groups of three would have looked something like this:

Group A: Qatar, Wales, Ecuador
Group B: England, Colombia, Algeria
Group C: Argentina, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Group D: France, Chile, Australia
Group E: Spain, Japan, Tunisia
Group F: Belgium, Morocco, Canada
Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Cameroon
Group H: Portugal, Iran, Mali
Group I: Italy, Peru, Jamaica
Group J: Mexico, Croatia, UAE
Group K: Netherlands, Senegal, Iraq
Group L: Denmark, South Korea, New Zealand
Group M: Germany, Nigeria, Panama
Group N: Uruguay, Ukraine, Ghana
Group O: Switzerland, Costa Rica, Egypt
Group P: United States, Sweden, Oman

Whereas 12 groups of four would look something like this:

Group A: Qatar, Wales, Ecuador, Ghana
Group B: England, Colombia, Ukraine, Algeria
Group C: Argentina, United States, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Group D: France, Sweden, Chile, Australia
Group E: Spain, Japan, Tunisia, Panama
Group F: Belgium, Croatia, Morocco, Canada
Group G: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon
Group H: Portugal, Iran, Mali, Jamaica
Group I: Italy, Peru, Costa Rica, Oman
Group J: Mexico, Germany, Nigeria, UAE
Group K: Netherlands, Senegal, South Korea, New Zealand
Group L: Denmark, Uruguay, Egypt, Iraq

The makeup of the hypothetical groups, though, are unimportant. The incentives and stakes within each of them are what depend on the format. And it feels like the drama of the group stage, which has just gripped us for two weeks, depends on the redrawing up of what a 48-team World Cup will look like.

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