Groups of three from 2026: Qatar? The last high-class sporting World Cup

The list of reasons why one does not feel the greatest anticipation for the soccer World Cup in Qatar is long.

Groups of three from 2026: Qatar? The last high-class sporting World Cup

The list of reasons why one does not feel the greatest anticipation for the soccer World Cup in Qatar is long. But there is also something that football fans should enjoy for the last time at this World Cup: The uncomplicated mode and the number of participants promise a high-class sporting tournament.

Only the national team of the host is new on the world football stage: Qatar is the only debutant at the 2022 World Cup, all other 31 teams already have World Cup experience. It's certainly debatable whether the qualifiers actually produced the best teams in the world, but even without European champions Italy and teams like Sweden, Chile or Egypt, the field of participants promises a largely balanced tournament. Hardly a favorite will be able to lean back completely in the preliminary round. The biggest outsiders in the tournament, apart from hosts Qatar, are nations such as Saudi Arabia, Australia, Tunisia, Ghana, Cameroon and Costa Rica. But even they can make life difficult for the nominally best teams. Costa Rica was in the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals, Germany also classified South Korea as a clear outsider in the 2018 finals.

Exciting games in the preliminary round, sensations at the start, explosive developments in the last group games played at the same time: all of this makes for a good World Cup. And at least in terms of sport, the desert world championship could be the last halfway balanced final round. After all, the World Cup will be held for the last time with only 32 teams.

Since the tournament in France in 1998, the 32-man concept has proven itself. Since then, the nations have been divided into eight groups of four teams each. The top two teams in each group qualify for the knockout stages. A mode couldn't be more uncomplicated. Previously, the World Cup was held with 24 teams. In addition to the first and second in the groups, the four best third-placed teams also qualified for the round of 16. This is the mode that Uefa has been using since the 2016 European Football Championship. The mode that ensures that you can become European champion without having won a single game in the preliminary round (Portugal 2016). The mode that prompted Uefa to consider playing EM finals with 32 teams in the future.

The good news is that World Championships still do not require third-in-group rankings. And yet we will never see the World Cup again, as we have come to appreciate it. At the final tournament in 2026 in the USA, Canada and Mexico, 48 (!) instead of 32 teams will play for the first time. Fifa decided that in 2017 in order to earn even more money with the World Cup.

The calculation is simple: 64 games will be played in a 32-man World Cup, from 2026 there will be 80 games. The preliminary round is inflated from 8 groups of four to 16 groups of three. The group winners and runners-up qualify for the newly introduced semi-finals. The knockout phase will be extended by one round, and the group phase will be shortened by one game per team.

There have long been fears that the strangest constellations could occur in the preliminary round. Equal points and goals between two or even three teams in a group of three is anything but improbable. The consequence would be a possible penalty shoot-out in the preliminary round, the growing importance of fair play rating or the drawing of lots to decide on progress or elimination. Unambitious ball transfers like in the legendary "Shame of Gijon" are also more likely in the new mode if two teams have a certain result at the end of the preliminary round to advance.

Fifa briefly considered allowing 48 teams to compete for the first time in 2022. However, the idea was quickly dropped again because of the general criticism of the Qatar World Cup.

A look at the starting place allocation shows which national teams could benefit from the 48 World Championships in the future. Europe benefits the least from the increase. Instead of the previous 13 teams, 16 Uefa nations will qualify for the finals in the future. In the future, South America will have six instead of four direct starting places. The Concacaf association, responsible for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, increases from three to six. Africa will have nine starting places instead of five, and Asia will double from four to eight.

And if there's one country that's practically unable to qualify in the future, it's New Zealand. For the first time in the almost 100-year history of the World Cup, the Oceanian Football Association has a permanent starting place.

We want to use this year's tournament to show how the field of participants in 2026 can look like. The three additional starting places for Europe would have gone to the losers of the playoff finals, so Sweden, Ukraine and for the first time North Macedonia (after the sensational win against Italy in the playoff semifinals) would have qualified.

From South America, Peru and Colombia would also be happy to take part in the World Cup, while Panama and Jamaica from the north would have qualified. In addition to the permanent participants Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and Australia (playing the World Cup qualifier in Asia), Asia could also send the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Germany's youngest friendly opponent Oman. To simulate the other World Cup starters from Africa, we take the four best-placed African teams in the Fifa world rankings that are not in Qatar: Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Mali.

What is also new in 2026 is that the "international playoffs" in their previous form will be replaced by a playoff tournament. One team from each continental association except Europe qualify for this. The continent hosting the finals will receive an additional slot. In the playoff tournament, the last two open starting places for the final round will be played.

If we now come to the overview of the participants, FIFA would have implemented a 48 World Cup for 2022. The teams will be sorted into three draw pots according to their world ranking position at the time of the draw on March 31st:

A possible "hammer group" would bring the German team together with Poland and Ecuador or with Serbia and Algeria. A group with Tunisia and Jamaica or with Nigeria and Oman would not cause any alarm. Curiously, European champions Italy would not have qualified for a 48 World Cup this year.

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