Monday, April 23, 2018
Sports

U.S. hopes for hosting soccer's World Cup in 2026 get a boost from FIFA

The governing council of soccer's world governing body, FIFA, voted Friday to bar countries in Europe and Asia, which will host the next two World Cups, from bidding to host the tournament in 2026. The decision significantly increases the chances that the event will take place in the United States, either as the sole bidder or in partnership with neighbors Mexico or Canada.

The United States has hosted one World Cup, in 1994, a 24-team tournament that, despite the event's expansion to include more teams and more games in later years, still holds the World Cup attendance record. Games were played in nine cities across the country, including Orlando at the stadium then known as the Citrus Bowl.

The change to FIFA's bidding process — a proposal to make the host confederations of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups ineligible to bid for the 2026 event — was among several approved Friday in a meeting of the FIFA council in Zurich.

Russia will host the next tournament in Europe in two years, and Qatar will carry Asia's flag in 2022, so their confederations, UEFA and the Asian Football Confederation, are already out of the bidding for 2026. That is bad news for England, which last hosted in 1966 and was bitterly disappointed to lose out to Russia for 2018, and for China, which is eager to host its first World Cup.

But it was great news for CONCACAF, which governs the game in North and Central America and the Caribbean. In an interview after the FIFA council's session, the president of U.S. Soccer, Sunil Gulati, feigned surprise when he was asked whether the decision was good news for his confederation.

"Oh, I hadn't noticed that," he said with a devilish grin. "Perhaps."

The World Cup could look very different in 2026. Led by its new president, Gianni Infantino, FIFA is considering expanding the tournament to 40 teams, or even 48, for 2026, up from the current 32. Infantino has pressed the expansion plan as a way to allow more countries to take part in soccer's biggest event, but the plan has drawn criticism inside the game. FIFA said this week that a vote on expansion would take place in January.

The infrastructure required for an expanded event — stadiums, hotels, transportation systems — would limit the field of host countries considerably. Brazil was stretched to its financial and organizational limit by hosting the 2014 World Cup, and a 48-team tournament would be an enormous challenge for any country in FIFA's two other confederations, Africa and Oceania.

Still, FIFA left open a door for multiple-country bids, voting to consider co-hosting proposals "on a case-by-case basis." UEFA has had co-hosts for its continental championship several times, and it will host the 2020 European Championship under an even wider format, with 13 cities in 13 countries taking part.

But a joint bid among any or all three CONCACAF countries would have to overcome significant logistical and security concerns that did not exist the last time the event was held in North America. Mexico has hosted the World Cup twice, in 1970 and 1986. Canada hosted last year's Women's World Cup, a far smaller tournament than the men's version.

The vote on the 2026 World Cup host had been scheduled for May 2017, but the corruption scandal that rocked FIFA last year forced a recalculation. In May of this year, FIFA announced that a new four-phase plan for the process would culminate in a decision in 2020.

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