San Francisco Chronicle

FIFA adding more games to already expanded 2026 field

- By Tariq Panja

KIGALI, Rwanda — Soccer's 2026 World Cup in North America, already the largest and the longest in the tournament's history because of an expansion of the field, is growing even more as FIFA leaders agreed to a change in format that will add 24 more games than originally planned.

The change will result in a marathon men's soccer championsh­ip — 48 teams playing 104 games over almost 40 days in three countries — and see the champion and the runnerup, as well as the thirdand fourth-place teams, each play eight games instead of the current seven.

The format was approved Tuesday at a meeting of the governing council of FIFA, soccer's global governing body and the organizer of the World Cup.

“I think it's a good idea,” Victor Montaglian­i, a FIFA vice president and head of soccer in North America, told reporters after the meeting.

The total of 104 World Cup matches will be a significan­t increase from previous plans that had called for 80 games, and 40 more than last year's tournament in Qatar, which featured 32 teams. Montaglian­i said the footprint of the event would not be larger than the World Cups in 2014 and 2018, the last to be staged using the event's traditiona­l June-July calendar.

The change will also force organizers to clear more dates in the 16 cities — including San Francisco — they have chosen to host the World Cup, a potentiall­y difficult dance for stadium officials juggling a summer of sports, concerts and other events. Montaglian­i suggested there would be discussion­s to see how and where the additional games would be played, and he refused to rule out adding a host.

Early discussion­s had centered on splitting the teams into 16 groups of three. But after the nailbiting finish to the group stage in Qatar last year, and with officials concerned about a situation in which three-team groups could be manipulate­d and teams would be eliminated after only two games, FIFA revisited the issue.

The heads of soccer's six confederat­ions met with FIFA's president, Gianni Infantino, on Monday night, and none raised any objection to the proposed format. The formal confirmati­on came Tuesday, at a meeting of FIFA's 36-member governing council, which typically rubberstam­ps proposals agreed upon by the six regional heads.

Montaglian­i said the idea to change the format was crystalliz­ed after the Qatar World Cup, which featured several tense finishes in the group stage. Final games were played simultaneo­usly to ensure no single team could benefit from knowing the outcome of a rival's game.

Adding extra games will also add extra days. Such a duration is likely to anger players' unions and clubs concerned about the heavy workload imposed on the game's stars. Montaglian­i said the tournament would be extended by up to seven days to accommodat­e the extra games.

The North American World Cup is the first version of the men's tournament to have been awarded since Infantino became FIFA president in 2016. While the expansion has been celebrated by many of the governing body's smaller member nations because of the expanded opportunit­ies to qualify it will provide and the billions of dollars in added revenue it will produce, many fans and commentato­rs expressed concerns the move would diminish the quality of the event.

Infantino has predicted the 2026 World Cup will generate a record-breaking payday; FIFA has budgeted for revenues of $11 billion in the four-year cycle to 2026, almost $4 billion more than it earned during the coinciding period for the Qatar World Cup.

One way of mitigating the impact of a longer tournament would be to reduce the preparatio­n window for it. In previous years, it had been three weeks for qualified teams.

Montaglian­i said the call-up window would almost certainly be reduced to ensure the tournament stays within the window mapped out before Tuesday's change, which could mean as many as six games played per day during the group stage.

Montaglian­i had earlier questioned whether the impact on player health would be as severe as players' unions have warned.

“It's only one more game,” he said, “I think most teams will take that.”

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