After the controversial World Cup in Qatar, in 3.5 years it will be the turn of Mexico, Canada and especially America to play host to the global football festival. In the US, where everything will be bigger than before, looking ahead has already started. Football, or soccer, seems to have finally arrived.
In the North American edition, FIFA will let its belt go greedily: more participants, more host cities, more matches and, above all, more income. It is expected to make a profit of 11 billion dollars, the World Football Association announced on Friday. Everything for the global development of the game, according to FIFA boss Gianni Infantino.
In 2026, no less than 48 countries will participate in the World Cup. Initially, the plan was to divide them into sixteen groups of three, but the success of the exciting group stage in Qatar made FIFA doubt. Twelve groups of four countries are now being considered, which would push the total number of matches from 64 to 104.
Eleven host cities in the US
The gigantic World Cup should last around five weeks and will largely take place on American soil. In June, FIFA selected eleven host cities in the country. Mexico got three, Canada two.
The US locations, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle are spread across three time zones. Everywhere games are played in stadiums built for American football, and in some cases shared with MLS football league clubs.
The artificial grass in a large part of the stadiums will have to make way for natural grass mats before the World Cup. In Atlanta, for example, and in Seattle and Vancouver. The decision sparked outrage in women’s football. In 2015 the world championship in Canada was played on an artificial surface.
The problem may have been solved well before the tournament: the American football league NFL is also increasingly calling for the abolition of artificial turf, after a series of injuries to prominent players.
It is striking that Chicago, the third largest city in the US, and the capital Washington DC are not included in the list of host cities. Chicago did not wish to hand over the keys to the city to demanding FIFA. Washington, which submitted a bid with neighboring Baltimore, was passed. After Bonn (1974) and Tokyo (2002), this is the third time that the capital of the organizing country is missing.
Ready for World Cup
The US is ready for a World Cup football. In the last 25 years, the sport has developed at a record pace. “It will be the biggest in North America,” said Infantino, the FIFA boss who speaks in hyperbole and labeled Qatar’s World Cup as “the best ever.”
The US last hosted the World Cup in 1994. Football was at best a curious maverick in the American sports landscape, but at worst a joke, inferior to real sports like American football, basketball and baseball.
Football was mainly for girls and women, who immediately became the best in the world. In the popular cartoon series The Simpsons the sport was portrayed as a boring, slow-paced venture, with stagnant little men tapping the ball back and forth endlessly. Some moderate football followers still have difficulty with the phenomenon of a draw.
A condition for organizing in 1994 was the start of a national football competition, after the NASL, with attractions such as Pelé, Cruijff and Beckenbauer, had fallen prematurely.
The new league, the Major League Soccer (MLS), was slow to get off the ground, but was given a boost in 2007 by the arrival of David Beckham to the LA Galaxy and has grown particularly strongly in the last decade: the current number of 28 clubs will be expanded next season to thirty.
Investors are shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for a bite out of the MLS. Talents can now go to youth academy. In secondary schools, the number of players is growing rapidly.
Football, once attractive to cross-thinkers with an aversion to American football, basketball or baseball, is slowly but surely moving towards the field of vision of the average American sports enthusiast. But the biggest, as Infantino claimed, won’t be the sport any time soon. The NFL sits firmly on its throne.
However, ice hockey has passed football in popularity. A Gallup poll found that 8 percent of Americans view soccer as their favorite sport, up from a fraction of that before. Among sports enthusiasts under the age of 30, the sport is even more popular than baseball. “It’s finally okay for Americans to like football,” the magazine concluded The New Yorker. “Or take it a step further: it’s not cool to hate it anymore.”