This mammoth of a tournament is set to be so large that even FIFA President Gianni Infantino has no idea how best to organize it.
That’s been the story of World Cup preparations for the past few years. The expansion from 32 nations to 48 competing in the tournament was adopted in January 2017, which proposed a three-team group stage format that would see a total of 80 matches be played from start to finish.
It was an increase from the current 64-game tournament that has been played since France 1998 and was played for the last time in Qatar last year.
For just over six years, this proposed format remained set in stone. It wasn’t until March 2023 when FIFA decided to listen to criticisms regarding possible collusion that may occur in a three teams per group arrangement, modifying it for a second time.
The 2026 World Cup remains a 48-team tournament, but the latest revision sees a return to the typical four-team group format, this time with the top two teams plus the eight best third place teams in each group advancing to a Round of 32. This means there will be 12 groups of four, rather than 16 groups of three.
There’s one downside, though. This sort of structure gives the tournament no choice but to now host a grand total of 104 matches. A nearly 63% increase in the number of games to be played is sure to cause delays when it comes to managing such a prestigious and historic tournament to perfection.
The opening day of the World Cup, which city will host the final, and essentially the entire schedule of the tournament has to be announced, despite FIFA originally planning to reveal the information in September.
In this 24th edition of the Plei newsletter, I take a look at the progress - and lack thereof - being made so far throughout the three host countries. 👇
On June 16, 2022, 16 host cities were officially announced: 11 in the United States, three in Mexico and two in Canada. I listed them below along with their corresponding stadiums.
These cities were selected by FIFA from a pool of 23 different venues that were up for consideration. Here are the cities and/or stadiums that did not get selected:
These cities have known for over a year that they will be hosting World Cup matches, and have since begun preparations in order to be ready when the time comes. The problem is that, because a set schedule has yet to be released by FIFA, local organizers have no idea how many or which games they will be hosting.
Knowing that sort of information is crucial when it comes to preparing a stadium - let alone an entire city - for a major tournament. And the fact that this will be the largest World Cup ever makes it that much more essential that local organizers are provided those details as soon as possible.
FIFA reportedly now has a new self-imposed deadline of no later than year’s end to release the schedule, but many officials overseeing preparations in several cities feel that the information is already months late.
The current pace that FIFA is moving at isn’t the only problem, though. An apparent lack of communication between the governing body and host cities has also been an issue.
Local governments have found it difficult to acquire sponsorships that would ultimately help them generate some of the money that is going towards their World Cup efforts because of an uncertainty of the rules. Keep in mind that host cities are obligated to commit millions of dollars of their own public funds since they were chosen by FIFA, so it’s an absolute necessity for them to raise as much as possible to cover these extensive costs.
Another concern has been FIFA’s decision to take most of the control when it comes to the overall planning and logistics of the event.
In previous World Cups, FIFA has actually given a large amount of planning power to local city governments, with the host country’s football federation at the helm. This changed, though, with the recent Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand; FIFA decided to take back the bulk of responsibilities, leaving the host cities mostly in the dark as they now had to wait on them for everything, without having a say in almost anything.
Flash forward to this upcoming men’s World Cup, and that recent history is repeating itself, which leads me to understand why local cities are growing a bit frustrated with FIFA as of late.
FIFA’s total control over the tournament means that a majority of revenue will fall to them. Here’s a quote from Alan Rothenberg, a former U.S. Soccer president who helped organize the 1994 World Cup that was hosted in the states, that puts this all into perspective.
“[FIFA] decided to bring things in house rather than just licensing third parties to do things. They’re running the show. The host cities are going to have the responsibility to operate the event and provide all the public services, and [FIFA is] providing very limited revenue opportunities for the host cities. So the host cities are scrambling to either find donations or public money or some creative ways to earn revenue.”
Essentially, FIFA’s control over much of the marketing and organization of the event away from local partners means they will reap a large chunk of the profits, while the local organizers get scraps.
This plays a huge role in the overall impact of a World Cup, especially in a country that doesn’t live and breathe the game like the rest of the world does. For context, that 1994 World Cup played a major rule in the growth of the beautiful game in the United States, helping fund the creation of the U.S. Soccer Foundation and grow the sport at the grassroots level. Major League Soccer was also born in the wake of that iconic tournament.
If U.S. Soccer can’t get a large share of what will undoubtedly be quite the pretty penny, it will be detrimental to the continued growth of the game that is arguably currently in its prime with Lionel Messi being in Miami.
Last August, FIFA set up an office in Coral Gables, Florida, which was somewhat of a promising sign that they might actually get a move on now. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much at first, as the office struggled to recruit staff members and enlist partners, tournament ambassadors and influencers who would ultimately help market the World Cup to its full potential.
As a result, just a few weeks ago FIFA announced that they’ll be moving over 100 jobs from its Swiss headquarters to Florida in order to get the office fully operational.
Even though all signs point to FIFA obviously struggling to handle their own weight when it comes to World Cup preparations, they claim that things are running as smoothly as ever.
On September 29, the governing body sent out a media release which includes updates on the progress being made across the 16 host cities. In this formal update, they reassured the football world that preparations “remain firmly on track”, stating that a group of FIFA experts have been visiting each host city and touching base with local organizers.
This traveling group concluded the first leg of these ‘operational visits’ that day, and will apparently be resuming these efforts in late October.
Another bold statement can be found in this press release:
“FIFA has worked hand in hand with the Host City Committees every step of the way, establishing offices in all three host countries to best blend FIFA tournament know-how with local knowledge and flavour.”
It might be a blatant attempt to cover up their procrastination and lack of seamless communication, but at least they’ve made an effort to calm the storm a bit.
Let’s take a moment to ignore all of the confusion and uncertainty regarding World Cup preparations.
Assuming everything goes to plan and all issues are resolved, it’s no doubt that we’re in for a really special treat. Canada will host a World Cup for the first time, the United States will host for a second time, and Mexico will set a new record by hosting the tournament for a third time. It will also be the first time the event is held across three countries.
That all being said, here are all the important numbers that make the 2026 World Cup a true candidate for an unforgettable memory in the minds of football fans around the world.