Looking forward to 2026: how to decide the top 48 of the US-Canada-Mexico World Cup and how to play in the group stage?

The most eye-catching football feast of the winter has finally come to an end with Marziniak blowing the final whistle of the Qatari World Cup final at Russell Stadium.
This winter, we bid farewell to many post-80s stars who left us precious memories, and also witnessed Messi’s glory at the end of his national career when he finally realized his dream in Qatar and lifted the World Cup for Argentina.
But perhaps most people do not realize that this is also the “dusk” of the World Cup in our memory, because the World Cup in Qatar will be the last World Cup for 32 teams to compete for the championship.
Starting from the 1998 World Cup in France, the World Cup has gone through seven iterations in 24 years, and by the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, this version has finally stopped updating and will take four years to usher in a new moment.
Where will the 2026 World Cup be held?
On June 17, 2022, FIFA officially announced the election results of the cities bidding for the 2026 World Cup. New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City and other 16 cities were successfully shortlisted. It also means that the 2026 World Cup will be co-hosted by the three countries for the first time in history.
Of the 16 host cities for the 2026 World Cup, 11 are from the United States, 2 from Canada and 3 from Mexico.
United States: new York, Philadelphia, Miami, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco (San Francisco)
Canada: Toronto, Vancouver
Mexico: Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey
According to FIFA’s original plan (48 teams are divided into 16 groups for group matches, see later), the United States will host 80 World Cup matches, including 1/4 finals, semi-finals and finals. Canada and Mexico will host 10 matches each.
How to allocate the quota for military expansion
As there will be 48 teams participating in the finals of the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and since the World Cup is co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, including three hosts (occupying seats in their continental football federations), a total of 46 places will go straight to the World Cup finals. The qualifiers from each continent to the World Cup finals are as follows:
Asia: 8 seats (4 new seats)
Africa: 9 seats (4 new seats)
Central, North America and the Caribbean: 6 seats (3 new seats)
Europe: 16 seats (3 new seats)
South America: 6 seats (2 new seats)
Oceania: 1 seat (1 new seat)
The other two places to qualify for the World Cup finals will be created through the intercontinental play-offs. The European qualifier team does not participate in the intercontinental play-off, but the host’s qualifying area can have one more team to participate in the intercontinental play-off. In the intercontinental play-off, six teams determine two seeded teams according to the world rankings. Unseeded teams will fight each other, and the winners will compete with Chinese teams for places in the World Cup finals.
When does the 2026 World Cup qualifier start?
The football federations of all continents can independently determine the mode and time of the qualifying match. So far, only the South American Football Federation has announced the starting date of the 2026 World Cup qualifier: March 2023.
When does the 2026 World Cup finals start?
Although FIFA has not yet given a clear message, it is certain that the US-Canada-Mexico World Cup will be held in the summer in four years’ time.
How long is the cycle of the 2026 World Cup finals?
The 2026 World Cup will be the first World Cup after the expansion, when 48 teams will take part in the finals (45 qualifying teams and three host teams). It also means that there will be more games and longer cycles. Under the top 32 championship system, the duration of the World Cup is about 32 days (although it has been reduced to 30 days in Qatar), but after the expansion, the cycle may be extended to more than 35 days.
How to play in the group stage of the 2026 World Cup
On December 4, Wenger, FIFA’s global football director, said at a press conference of FIFA’s technical research group that FIFA had not made a final decision on the group stage of the World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Option 1: 16 groups with three teams each
Almost six years ago, when the FIFA Council voted to expand the World Cup, they actually made an arrangement for the group stage after the expansion: 48 teams were divided into 16 groups, each with three teams. The top two in the group are in the top 32. But at a previous press conference, Wenger said the arrangement could change when a final decision is made in 2023.
In this mode, the top two in the group advanced to the top 32, which also means that the problem of “tacit understanding ball” may occur more frequently in the last group match: when the points are equal, the two sides advance hand in hand at the expense of another team in the group.
Although FIFA believes that the group stage draw can be “eliminated” by penalty shootout, so as to solve the problem of “tacit understanding ball” to a certain extent, it can only solve the problem to a certain extent. In addition, the brilliance of the group stage will also depend more on the result of the draw-after all 16 groups, the teams are particularly divided.
For these reasons, FIFA has been thinking carefully. And it looks like they should give up this option.
Option 2: 12 groups, each with four teams
Although this grouping mode is similar to the current World Cup group stage model, there must be 16 or 32 teams to advance to the group in order to play in the knockout stage. This means that in addition to the top two in the group, there is also a need to choose the third place in the eight best groups-Uefa has adopted a similar promotion model in the previous two European Cups.
On the positive side, the fans will enjoy a more exciting group stage-as we saw at the World Cup in Qatar. And some of the third teams in the group will also have the opportunity to show themselves further.
However, this means that the group stage will add a lot of extra games, and it also means that the World Cup tournament cycle will be longer.
Option 3: 48 teams divided into two halves
Twenty-four teams in each half are divided into six groups, and then the “champions” of the two halves meet in the World Cup final. This pattern is similar to option 2, but there is no chance that the two half-district teams will meet before the World Cup final. In addition, each semi-division needs the third place of the four best groups to qualify for the knockout stage, but they are not the third place of the best group of all semi-regions.