Even if it’s more than two and a half years away, the 2026 FIFA World Cup countdown has already started. Long before the tournament begins, American sportsbooks are already taking wagers on what team will win. With the field expanding from 32 to 48 teams, this will be the largest World Cup ever.
This will also be the first time three countries serve as co-hosts, with the U.S., Canada, and Mexico sharing hosting duties. With an expanded field and three co-hosts, it’s safe to say the 2026 World Cup will be unlike any previous tournament.
But outside of a format that will have 12 groups of four teams and 32 teams reaching the Knockout Stage, what differences can we expect from past World Cups?
While we don’t have a crystal ball and can’t know for sure until this 48-team tournament takes place, let’s try to predict some of the ways that the 2026 World Cup will be different.
How Will 2026 World Cup be Different From Prior World Cups?
This isn’t necessarily indicative of an expanded field, but it will be a result of three different nations co-hosting. Not only are there three different countries hosting games, but all three are huge geographically.
FIFA will do its best to reduce travel for teams, although that won’t always be possible. Granted, traveling long distances was unavoidable in Brazil in 2014 and in Russia in 2018.
However, going from a tiny country like Qatar in 2022 to the entire North American continent in 2026 will mean players will have to adjust to traveling far distances between games.
With an expanded field, more countries will have a chance to play at a World Cup, with many getting a chance to play in one for the first time. In 2022, host nation Qatar was the only country making its World Cup debut.
But with 16 extra spots, a realistic opportunity exists for countries that have yet to qualify for a World Cup to earn one of the 48 spots. That will bring some new blood to the tournament rather than the same countries battling it.
Fewer Powerhouses Left Out
The expanded field also means that fewer countries that we’re accustomed to seeing on the big stage will fail to qualify and be left out entirely. In 2022, major soccer countries like Italy, Colombia, and Chile missed out.
Four years earlier, the likes of Italy, the Netherlands, the U.S., and Ghana all failed to qualify. Nobody outside the three co-hosts is guaranteed a spot in the field of 48. However, with more teams participating, all of the traditional soccer powerhouses should be able to qualify in 2026.
More Star Power
With more teams qualifying and fewer powerhouses being left out, more of the top stars in the world will be able to participate in 2026. In 2022, players like Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, Austria’s David Alaba, and Norway’s Erling Haaland were absent because their countries didn’t qualify.
It’s always best for players of that caliber to participate in major tournaments, and it’s the fans who suffer when they can’t see those types of players compete on the biggest stage. With any luck, more of the world’s biggest superstars will be able to participate in the 2026 World Cup thanks to the expanded field.
Less at Stake During Group Stage
One of the downsides of the 48-team field is that matches during the Group Stage won’t mean as much. Rather than the Knockout Stage being limited to the top two teams in each group, which has been the format since 1998, eight of the 12 third-place teams in each group will advance.
The heavily favored teams won’t have as much pressure on them during the Group Stage, knowing that one bad result doesn’t hurt them as much as it did in previous tournaments. That could potentially drain the 2026 World Cup of the passion and intensity that makes it the greatest sporting event on the planet.
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They say that variety is the spice of life, and we’ll learn in 2026 if that applies to the World Cup. It’s not just that there are 16 extra spots in the World Cup, but FIFA has dedicated more spots to federations that often get overlooked. Europe’s allotment is only increasing from 13 to 16.
Meanwhile, Africa’s allotment is moving from five teams to nine teams, while Asia has eight guaranteed spots, up from six. Likewise, CONCACAF will send at least three teams to the tournament on top of the three co-hosts.
Plus, every federation but Europe will send at least one team to an intercontinental playoff. When all is said and done, Europe will make up a smaller percentage of the participants than any previous World Cup, which will be a significant change.