The Big Problem with the 2026 World Cup Format

You gather that soccer fans aren’t thinking too much about the 2026 World Cup right now. It’s a long way off, after all. Moreover, there’s the matter of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to see through first. But there are structural changes to how the 2026 World Cup will be organized, and not everyone is happy about it.
The 2026 World Cup will have a number of firsts: It is the first tournament to be hosted by three nations – USA, Mexico, Canada – and it’s also the first to have 48 teams (up from 32 currently). The latter is the most significant change to the World Cup format since the last expansion (24 to 32), which was put in place for the 1998 World Cup in France. On the face of it, little will change. There are more teams and more games, but the overall narrative won’t change. Even if 16 new teams come to the tournament, it will be the heavyweights – Brazil, France, Spain, England, Italy, Argentina, and a couple of others – who will dominate the tournament. If you visit a betting site today, those teams are the favorites for the 2022 World Cup – it will be that way in 2026.
Repeat of the Disgrace of Gijon?
But within the detail of the expanded tournament, there is also the fact that the teams will be organized in groups of three instead of the usual four. That has sounded the alarm bells for some observers, with many believing we could see a repeat of the so-called “Disgrace of Gijon”. If you weren’t aware, the Disgrace of Gijon was a match at the 1982 World Cup played between West Germany and Austria. It was the final game of the group stage, and both participants in the match knew that a 1-0 win would be mutually beneficial – allowing both to qualify for the next stage. Any other combination of results and Algeria, who had already played their final game, might have qualified at the expense of either West Germany or Austria. The final result? 1-0 West Germany. It was clear that both sides were happy with the scoreline, and it seems that neither tried to do much more in the game after Germany took the lead. The Algerians – and all other neutrals – were furious. After the 1982 World Cup, FIFA changed its rules, deciding that the final sets of group games would be played simultaneously. This would ensure that no teams could play a game knowing exactly that a certain result was mutually beneficial. So, as the eagle-eyed among you might have picked up – it is impossible to have two games played simultaneously when the groups are made up of only three teams. Thus, it is highly probable that we see a scenario at the 2026 World Cup where the final group match features teams who could – if they so choose – play out a mutually beneficial result. Of course, this touches upon questions of integrity. And while there have been examples of two teams playing out games for certain results at the expense of others before and after World Cup 1982, they have been, thankfully, rare. But even if teams don’t try to achieve a specific scoreline, you can envisage some teams taking their foot off the gas in this scenario. That impacts upon the quality of the spectacle.
Suggestions for dramatic changes in soccer
Suggestions have been made as to how to combat this problem. Marco Van Basten, the legendary Dutch striker who is now FIFA Technical Director, has suggested that penalty shootouts could decide drawn games (this used to happen in North American soccer back in the 1970s). In addition, there has been talk of having time-wasting punishments, such as the awarding of penalties and sin bins. Finally, there is talk of ‘time fines’ replacing yellow cards, meaning extra minutes would be added to the match in lieu of a caution for time-wasting. We mentioned earlier that there is a big upheaval in the format, with extra teams, etc., – most fans will accept that. But the above are revolutionary changes to the structures of a soccer match, and you can be sure that won’t make the fans happy. Soccer fans are usually viewed as being traditionalists. Adding these new rules is sure to create a lot of protest, yet it is not even clear if they will solve the problem of ‘match-fixing’.So, FIFA is playing with fire here and must act quickly to fix this mess. It’s a big problem looming ovethe 2026 World Cup, which has not gained enough attention as of yet. Perhaps no in-game changes will occur, and the matches will be played with the utmost integrity. But fans should be worried that the most popular international sports competition, aside from the Olympics, will be changed dramatically, and it might be worse off for that fact.