In the wake of Thursday’s loss to Qatar in maybe the only place U.S. soccer can lose to them (the FIFA boardroom), many American soccer fans tried to rally their spirits by immediately turning their focus to the 2026 World Cup process. An initial glance at the state of play right now for the World Cup suggests 2026 could be an even better opportunity for a United States World Cup than 2022.
CONCACAF would be long overdue to host the event (the last one being 1994) and by FIFA rules Europe and Asia would be ineligible to host. South American would be unlikely because FIFA would probably want the 2030 World Cup in Uruguay/Argentina to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tournament. And out of North America, Oceania, and Africa the U.S. bid would look very promisingly, especially since it would then have been 32 years since the last American World Cup.
But upon further reflection a U.S. 2026 bid is in no way a slam dunk, despite our advantages. Here are the top five reasons to not get your hopes too high about the 2026 bid:
1. China – Yes, FIFA rules prohibit a federation from hosting consecutive World Cups, so China could not follow Qatar. However, FIFA could change them between now and the next bid process if the right situation presents itself. Chinese interest in a World Cup checks many of the boxes for FIFA: guaranteed profit, an infrastructure perfect for hosting such an event, a growing (or by 2026 grown) soccer market, and government assurances for a successful event. Imagine the best of the U.S., Australia and Qatar bids, and you have China. Such a cash cow might be hard to turn down.
2. Canada – Mexico would be a prime place for a World Cup, but they have already hosted twice. Canada, however, would be a compelling location for a World Cup and a perfect foil to a U.S. bid. Again, Canada is a rich nation that has hosted Olympics in the past. Soccer exists and has support, but a World Cup could really push its growth in the country. The women’s team is already good. If the Canadian team makes progress over the next few cycles, then Canada becomes a very attractive first-time bid.
3. A first-time African nation bid – South Africa plus Qatar equals a dream scenario for FIFA. Right now it’s hard to find a stable enough African country that’s not South Africa to be a really strong contender for a World Cup. It is a long time between 2010 and the bid process, however, and there are a bunch of countries that could be viable for the next cycle.
4. Map changes – There are some odd anomalies in the soccer federations. Some, like Israel, are for cultural and geopolitical reasons while some (like Australia) are for competitive reasons. The point is that the federations can be changed for a variety of reasons. Why is this a factor? Say FIFA reconsiders and decides Oceania needs to be beefed up as a federation; they put Australia back in Oceania. Now Australia is eligible for the 2026 World Cup without a rules change. Or what if India or the Middle Eastern nations show vast improvement prior to the 2018 World Cup, in anticipation of Qatar in 2022? Would it make sense to add Japan and Australia to Oceania (since they are both Pacific islands)? Or maybe split Asia and merge half of it with Oceania? All of these are unlikely scenarios, but a map change over the next five to ten years could damage another U.S. bid., especially if FIFA wants to give a World Cup to Australia or Japan.
5. New Zealand or a CONCACAF island – Laugh all you want, but if a nation as small as Qatar can win why not New Zealand? This is the same country that almost advanced from group stage in this year’s World Cup, although they did qualify against weaker competition. Oceania has never had a World Cup and it would be a landmark event, something the Executive Committee obviously likes in a bid. It has beautiful scenery and is economically advanced. What about a more-open Cuba? What a great way to show its reemergence to the international stage with a World Cup, either solo or jointly. Is this reason so hard to believe? Yes, both New Zealand and Cuba are odd choices, but they are both larger in land size and population by far than the 2022 host.