UEFA to have smaller groups for World Cup, Euros qualifying

GENEVA (AP) — Seeking to make qualifying for the World Cup and European Championship more interesting, UEFA said Wednesday that men’s teams will no longer play in six-team groups after Euro 2024.

UEFA said it expected “less predictable and more dynamic” play when qualifying for the 2026 World Cup begins in March 2025 with 12 groups of four or five teams each.

In qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, England was unbeaten in a six-team group with four wins against Andorra and San Marino by a combined score of 24-0.

A wider revamp of European men’s national-team soccer will see a new knockout round in the Nations League start in 2025 — which shapes as a congested year as UEFA and FIFA schedule potentially rival events.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has targeted a June 2025 launch for a 32-team Club World Cup which will lean heavily on European entries and could be played in North America. His goals detailed in Qatar last month met with pushback from European officials who said they were not consulted.

UEFA’s projected calendar for the European summer in 2025 also includes a double-header of games for national teams in early June.

“FIFA is planning a Club World Cup in the full knowledge of the international calendar,” UEFA director of competitions Giorgio Marchetti told reporters in an online briefing. “This (new UEFA) format does not impact the calendar at all.”

Marchetti suggested an expanded Club World Cup could replace the old FIFA Confederations Cup slot that until 2017 was played in late June in the country hosting the next year’s World Cup. The 2026 World Cup will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

However, the Confederations Cup had eight teams playing over two weeks, while a 32-team Club World Cup would likely last one month.

Europe will have 16 teams at the 2026 World Cup when the tournament expands to a 48-team format and the three extra slots helped prompt UEFA’s review of qualifying.

The 12 qualifying group winners in 2025 will advance to North America and the four remaining entries should be decided in playoffs in March 2026.

“This is not the end of the story,” Marchetti acknowledged about the revised European schedule. “We will need to discuss also with FIFA because the World Cup is their competition.”

Qualifying for Euro 2028 is likely to see 12 group winners and the six best runners-up advance directly. Six more entries for the 24-team tournament should be decided in playoffs that involve some teams based on their Nations League ranking.

The biennial Nations League format currently sees the four winners of top-tier groups advance to a Final Four mini-tournament the following year.

In 2025, the top two from each group will advance to a new quarterfinal round that will be played in March over two legs. Also in March, middle-ranking teams will play in new promotion-relegation playoffs between the top, second and third tiers.

The added competitive games for some mid-ranking nations can compensate any revenue lost from having one fewer home game in World Cup and Euros qualifying.

There has been speculation Brazil and Argentina could join Nations League play as part of UEFA’s close relations with South American soccer body CONMEBOL. However, Marchetti said UEFA’s plan detailed Wednesday envisaged just the 55 European soccer federations.


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Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press