On March 14 2023 the FIFA Governing Council decided to change the format of the 48-team World Cup to that of 12 groups of four teams. Initially a format of 16 groups of three teams had been agreed. However, after the success of the 2022 World Cup group stage, FIFA was eager to ensure that the four team format remained.
The initially agreed expansion to 48 teams, playing in groups of three, would have seen the World Cup grow from 64 matches to 80. The latest switch from groups of three to groups of four will expand the tournament even further and comprise an eye-watering 104 matches.
While FIFA has decided on three regions for the different group stage games to be played in, the distances teams and fans will have to travel are enormous.
Frank Huisingh, founder of Fossil Free Football: “In this form, the FIFA World Cup in 2026 is shaping up to be the biggest World Cup ever, in terms of teams, host cities and emissions from travel. FIFA and the organising countries should go back to the drawing table”.
The decision to host a World Cup in such a large area without proper public transport connections between and within host cities, pushing teams and fans to take many polluting flights, was always going to be a climate disaster. Today’s decision makes it even worse.
This World Cup proposal is also not in line with FIFA’s own commitments under the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework. This Framework requires signatories to commit to a 50% reduction of greenhouse gases in 2030 compared to 2019 levels. This can only be achieved by reorganising the international football calendar, including a reduction in the number of games. This step would also very much benefit players’ welfare.
Many of the host cities already experience the impact of the climate crisis through episodes of extreme heat, drought and wildfires. Through the prolongation of the tournament, it will finish in the middle of the summer, making extreme heat on matchdays more likely, impacting players and fans. In the era of an escalating climate crisis, FIFA should organise its World Cups differently.
Fossil Free Football therefore calls upon FIFA and federations to:
- Rethink the 2026 World Cup. Go back to 32 teams, reduce the number of cities the World Cup is played in and choose a few cities that are well connected by train and / or bus.
- Schedule the tournament in such a way that teams and fans travel as little as possible, and they can stay in the same city or region for group games and for most of the knock-out rounds.
- Focus on encouraging locals to assist at matches. This is great for local football culture, and limits emissions from travelling fans.
- Break ties with heavy polluting sponsors such as Qatar Airways, Qatar Energy, Hyundai and Coca-Cola. Players should no longer be asked to advertise for such polluting companies, worsening our shared future.
- For future World Cups, expected emissions should be an important factor when deciding on host nations. This will lead to World Cups in smaller areas, well connected by public transport, with existing infrastructure and lots of local fans keen to attend matches.
As US football fan and Fossil Free Football volunteer Vitas Carosella says: “As a new World Cup cycle begins, excitement amongst US fans is palpable. We are proud to be hosting what could be an amazing tournament. Unfortunately, the expansion of the tournament, the travel distances and lack of quality public transportation make this tournament a climate nightmare. I hope we can enjoy the beautiful game together, but I foresee a tournament where the quality on the field could be overshadowed by the pollution and annoyance caused by long-haul flights, heavy traffic and long car rides to stadiums well outside city centers.”