FIFA leaves the 3-man group for a gigantic format

Despite being in the middle of the season and in a country that was by no means up to the standards for such an event, the last World Cup turned out to be a hit for what was going on on the field. Exciting conclusion to the group stage, classic knockout rounds and a memorable victory cementing the legacy of the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi (pictured). So what FIFA wants to ask you is…if you liked it that much, how would you like to drown in it? FIFA thinks you will look like this when the tournament comes to this shore in a little over three years.

Changes come at the World Cup

FIFA has officially announced that the 2026 World Cup will not use the originally proposed group of three format, but will retain the group of four you have come to know and love. The three-team idea was crazy from the start for a number of reasons. The biggest thing was that it would open the door for some serious shenanigans at the end of the group stage when two teams are playing and knowing exactly what they’re going through against a third team not playing at all. Second, going home after two games (my nickname in high school) just seemed cheap and quick, which would have been the fate of 16 teams that finished third in the group.

That’s not to say that having 12 groups of four teams doesn’t have its own issues, the biggest is… well, the big part. That’s 72 group games alone. The entire 2022 tournament and the previous six had a total of 64 games (including the third-place game, which nobody cares about). In total, the 2026 tournament will have 104 games with the now expanded knockout round, which will have a round of 32! Cue the dog once again!

To accommodate this, it will now take around six weeks instead of four, and will start earlier rather than end later, with just 16 days left from players being released from their club sides to the start of the tournament rather than 23. Which means players basically finish their club season and go straight to their international teams without a break. Which is going to make for a pretty shabby tournament, especially since the winners now have to play eight games instead of seven, but who cares when there’s plenty of money at stake? We saw something like this in 2002, when the tournament had to be moved forward in the calendar to avoid the monsoon season in the Far East and the World Cup started just 10 days after the Champions League final. You may remember this tournament had some really silly results as France and Argentina bite in the group stage and South Korea and Turkey reach the semifinals.

And how will FIFA do that? Four games a day? Five? The four games a day in this past tournament was plenty for any fan, but it only lasted a little over a week before the simultaneous kick-offs of the final group stage games, to which everyone was already accustomed, began. But with 12 groups, playing four games a day means even the first two rounds of group games would last almost two weeks. Then another six days to complete the group stage with the simultaneous kick-offs? Does that mean the group stage lasts two and a half weeks? That sounds like something fans will get terribly bored with.

And then you get to the knockouts, which are basically extended by four or five days when the round of 16 is added. Five days will be added to the two weeks it has already taken (last World Championship knockouts started on December 3rd and ended on the 18th)? Again, this feels like a structure that will have burned out many fans by the end of the tournament.

The fit is wrong

Aside from the sheer size, the fit is just wrong. As evil and goofy as the 32-team tournament is and was, the actual format is perfect. Finish the top 2 in your group and you move on. Everything was included. Win your group and you’ll get something of a “reward” by playing against a second-place team, although it doesn’t always work that way. The three games made sense because half the field would be singled out.

But with this misshapen monster, the group stage will span 72 games to send home just a third of the field. And eight third-placed teams will move on, meaning teams will have to be sorted out against other teams that played completely different slates, with coefficients and goal differences and all other kinds of mishmash dictating who gets through and who doesn’t have anything to do with that two teams play against each other.

It also spoils the knockouts because some group winners play against a third placed team and some against a second placed team which is not fair at all. The 32-team format was clean. This is not very much.

But 48 teams open up more spots for smaller countries, on whose support FIFA President Gianni Infantino built his power, just like Sepp Blatter before him. And TV rights are swelling because there are more games for sale. And there are even more tickets for Gouge fans. And more fans are traveling with FIFA sponsors to fly and stay. So anyone who does this kind of bookkeeping wins, while the rest of us deal with that unwieldy infernal of a tournament. But we watch anyway, and FIFA knows that too.

Follow him on Twitter for more of Sam’s football thoughts or just watch as he bangs his head against his coffee table while watching Liverpool @FelsGate. FIFA leaves the 3-man group for a gigantic format

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