March 13 – This week in Kigali, Rwanda, in and around its Congress, FIFA will discuss proposals to change the opening group stages of the 2026 World Cup from three to four teams. Mario Guajardo and Alex Krumer, business and economics professors at universities in Norway are specialists in studying formats and schedules for sports competitions. They analyse some of the options available to FIFA.
Since FIFA announced the 2026 World Cup is to feature 48 teams organized in 16 three-team groups, a lot of criticism has been raised by fans, media, and researchers. The most important one perhaps being the possible collusion in the final game of each group.
A notable example of this is known as the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’, the infamous game between West Germany and Austria in 1982, where a win by one or two goals for West Germany would qualify both teams at expense of Algeria. West Germany won 1:0, but both teams were accused of match-fixing because after the first goal was scored, neither of them tried to change the result.
Since 1986, the World Cup has featured groups of four teams, with the last two games of each group taken place simultaneously. Obviously, two simultaneous games within a group are not possible if the group consists of three teams, opening opportunities for a new Disgrace of Gijon.
After much criticism to this three-team group structure and in light of a thrilling group stage in Qatar 2022, FIFA officials have signaled that the 2026 World Cup might feature 12 groups of four instead of 16 groups of three teams.
It has been anticipated that an hypothetical tournament of 12 four-team groups would be organized with a ‘2×24’ format, that is, in two parallel halves where each half would follow the 24-team format of the World Cups held between 1986 and 1994. This would mean 104 games, a considerably larger number than the 64 games played in Qatar 2022 and the 80 games in the originally announced format of 16 three-team groups.
In designing the tournament, important criteria should consider that the event does not prolong much longer than a month (29 days in Qatar 2022 and 32 days in Russia 2018). Also, the players should rest at least three days between consecutive games, and a fairness criterion should ensure that two opponents rest a similar number of days before they face each other. Also, the knockout stage should promote balance, meaning that each section of the bracket should have the same number of group winners and runners-up.
The ‘2×24’ format is, unfortunately, subject to a lot of imbalances, as the round of 32 would pair some group winners with best third-placed teams, other winners with runners-up, and some runners-up with each other. In addition, with two parallel halves, the allocation of teams to groups would automatically dictate that many teams could never play against each other before a potential final, in contrast to the current format, where a priori every team has a chance to meet each other before the final.
Thus, it turns interesting to analyze which other formats should FIFA consider if the next World Cup features 12 four-team groups. Why not groups of four teams, but where every team plays two instead of three games in the group stage? Or why not a knockout stage with a 24-team bracket instead of a 16-team or 32-team bracket?
Two group games, 16-team bracket.
Aiming at shortening the number of games, the games within a group might be organized as a quadrangular instead of a round robin, as it is used in beach volleyball. In this format, every team of the group plays only two instead of three games.
The first round has a pre-determined allocation such that the highest pre-tournament rank in the group plays against the lowest rank, whereas another game features teams that are ranked second and third. In the second round of the group stage, the winners of the first round play against the losers of the first round.
The top two teams from each group qualify to the knockout stage. The best eight winners of the group stage qualify directly to the last 16 stage, while the remaining qualifying teams (four other group winners and 12 runners-up) would play a qualification stage. Then, the eight winners of this qualification stage advance to the last 16 stage, where they join the eight best winners of the group stage. From there, the tournament is the same single-elimination format used currently in the World Cup. Note that a similar approach is used in the NFL playoffs and in the World championship of curling, where the best performing teams play one round less than the other teams in the knockout stage.
This format features 72 games, which can be comfortably scheduled in 31 days, securing a fair number of rest days for the players in between their games. It also eliminates the possibilities of collusion, creating incentives for all teams to win all their matches.
In particular, the entire group stage would have something at stake, so there are no dead rubbers. The format would also secure that no team plays more than seven games during the tournament. On the negative side though, some teams would be eliminated after playing only two games during the group stage, as in the 16 three-team groups format originally announced by FIFA.
Three group games, 24-team bracket.
This format is based on the current design of the World Cup, where each team plays three games in the group stage and the top two teams qualify to the knockout stage of the tournament.
Following the current design, winners and runners-up from different groups would be paired as usual (A1 vs B2, A2 vs B1,…, K2 vs L1), which ensures balance. From there, it resembles the usual single-elimination structure, but as there would be 24 teams in the knockout stage, we need to make some adjustment before selecting two finalist teams. We can make this adjustment right before the final, meaning that there would be stages of 24, 12, and six (instead of 16, eight, and four as it is in the current format).
After the three winners of the round of last six are known, the best winner qualifies directly to the final, whereas the other two play in an “extra semifinal”. The winner of this game qualifies to the final, while the loser is ranked third. Thus, this structure eliminates the need of the third-place game, often regarded as the game nobody wants to play.
This format features 95 games, which can be scheduled in 31 days, while securing a fair number of rest days for the players. Note the number of games is reduced in comparison to the 104 games in the ‘2×24’ format, while still providing all teams with three games during the group stage. One of the finalists though would have to play eight instead of seven games, but the “extra semifinal” is likely to add quite a bit of excitement towards the decisive stages of the competition.
This format also increases incentives for all the teams, because every game becomes important for defining the best team that qualifies to the final without playing the “extra semifinal” (recall Brazil and France played with substitute players in their last group game in the Qatar 2022 World Cup against Cameroon and Tunisia, respectively).
We can think of many variants of the above formats. For example, a hybrid between these two could feature a group stage of two games per team, followed by a 24-team bracket in the knockout stage. Alternatively, instead of an “extra semifinal”, after the round of 24 teams has been played, we could rank the 12 winners and promote the best four winners directly to the quarterfinals, while the remaining eight winners are paired into four qualification games in a pre-quarterfinal round.
While it is clear that 12 four-team groups would help reducing the risk of collusion of the 16 three-team groups originally announced by FIFA, our analysis indicates that there are several alternatives to overcome the disadvantages of the ‘2×24’ format. Thus, the discussion at the FIFA Congress should not only focus on the number of groups and teams per group, but also on what should be the specific format of the competition as to feature a World Cup with 12 groups of four teams.
Mario Guajardo is Professor in the Business and Management Science faculty at NHH Norwegian School of Economics, https://www.nhh.no/en/employees/faculty/mario-guajardo/. Alex Krumer is an Economics Professor at Molde University College, https://www.himolde.no/personer/os/vit/alkr/index.html, with a specialism in the economics of sports.