The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is inching closer, and the first item of business is the group stage.
There will be four teams each in eight groups that will be going at it for a spot in the knockout stage, where they will be one step closer to reaching the final.
So, how does the World Cup group stage work? Here’s everything you need to know about the group competitions:
What is the group stage in the World Cup?
The group stage is the initial slate of games that qualified teams compete in to start the World Cup schedule. How the group stage plays out determines the bracket for the knockout stage, which comes right after.
How many teams are in a group?
Four teams compete in a group, and there are eight groups total in a men’s World Cup. This format has been in place since 1998, which was the year that tournament expanded from 24 teams to 32. These groups are labeled by letters A through H.
In the 2026 World Cup, there will be an expansion to 48 teams. In the 2023 Women’s World Cup, there will also be an expansion to 32 teams.
How does a team make it out of its group?
With four teams in one group, the games are played round-robin style. Every team plays each other once, and the top two teams with the most points accumulated after three games advance to the knockout stage.
What if the second and third place teams are tied in points?
Since there are six total matches in one group, that means there are 729 different win-loss-draw outcomes that could happen within those four teams. Out of that amount, 207 combinations result in a direct tie of points between the teams that finish second and third in the group.
When that happens, here’s how FIFA determines which of those teams would advance to the knockout stage:
- Greatest combined goal difference in all group matches
- Greatest combined number of goals scored in all group matches
- If two or more teams remain level after applying the above criteria, their ranking will be determined as follows:
- Greatest number of points in head-to-head matches among those teams
- Greatest goal difference in head-to-head matches among those teams
- Greatest number of goals scored in head-to-head matches among those teams
- Fair play points, defined by the number of yellow and red cards received in the group stage:
- Yellow card: minus 1 point
- Indirect red card (as a result of a second yellow card): minus 3 points
- Direct red card: minus 4 points
- Yellow card and direct red card: minus 5 points
- If any of the teams above remain level after applying the above criteria, their ranking will be determined by the drawing of lots
What is the knockout stage?
The knockout stage comes after the group stage and is played in a single-game elimination format that includes four rounds: round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final. There is also a third-place match for the losers of the semifinals. These games are determined based on which nations finished first and second in their respective groups.
For example, a first-place team in Group A would be rewarded for coming out on top by playing the second-place team from Group B, and so on. Here’s how the round of 16 scheduling looks like in Qatar:
- First-place Group A vs. Second-place Group B
- First-place Group B vs. Second-place Group A
- First-place Group C vs. Second-place Group D
- First-place Group D vs. Second-place Group C
- First-place Group E vs. Second-place Group F
- First-place Group F vs. Second-place Group E
- First-place Group G vs. Second-place Group H
- First-place Group H vs. Second-place Group G
What is the ‘Group of Death’?
The “Group of Death” is a popular tournament term used to describe the toughest four-team group. For example, if Brazil, Argentina, Netherlands and Senegal were drawn together, that would constitute a “Group of Death” since all are heavyweights in their respective confederations. But because FIFA now draws nations based on world ranking and not continental confederations, a ridiculously strong group is not easy to come by.
If there was such a group in Qatar, it would probably be Group E, which includes Spain (No. 6-ranked nation as of August 25), Germany (No. 11), Japan (No. 24) and Costa Rica (No. 34). The first two are recent World Cup winners from the past decade, while Japan made a dark-horse run in 2010 (finished ninth among all 32 teams) and Costa Rica finished eighth in 2014 after topping the “Group of Death” alongside Uruguay, Italy and England.
What will the group stage look like in the 2026 World Cup?
The group stage in 2026 will look much different compared to the past seven World Cups. That’s because the tournament will be expanded from 32 teams to 48. FIFA considered four options for expansion:
- Expand to 40 teams (8 groups of 5 teams) – 88 matches
- Expand to 40 teams (10 groups of 4 teams) – 76 matches
- Expand to 48 teams (opening 32-team playoff round) – 80 matches
- Expand to 48 teams (16 groups of 3 teams) – 80 matches
On Jan. 10, 2017, FIFA voted to adopt the fourth option. So, because the number of groups are doubling, the first knockout round will also be doubled. Here’s how that will all play out:
- The top two teams advance to the knockout stage after the first group stage. If there’s a draw, Marco van Basten, FIFA’s chief officer for technical development, said there could be penalty shootouts if the game is tied at the end of regulation to ensure a winner, though that hasn’t been confirmed (h/t World Soccer).
- The knockout stage starts with the round of 32, which will replace the third game of the current three-game group stage format in the 32-team tournament.
- Every knockout stage game is still single-elimination and will wrap up in 32 days, similar to the length of the 32-team format.