This Sunday, Argentina and France will meet in the World Cup final, a match that will be watched by billions across the globe. It brings the curtain down on what has been a fantastic (on the pitch) tournament, and it won’t be until 2026 that the FIFA World Cup returns. One fact remains true going forward, no matter what the result is on Sunday, the World Cup in a number of ways will never be the same.
A winter World Cup can work – and could be here to stay;
Putting all the off field controversies aside, this World Cup has set a precedent that albeit massively inconvenient for the majority of the worlds football calendar, the World Cup can be hosted in the (northern hemisphere) winter. While a summer World Cup is more ideal, countries who perhaps never seriously considered hosting a World Cup now have proof that it can be done, and extreme summer temperatures are no longer a deal breaker.
Already, there are murmurs of Saudi Arabia and Egypt considering a joint for the World Cup, Saudi Arabia has an average July temperature high of over forty degrees Celsius – on par with Qatar who moved their World Cup to November-December due to the summer temperature being considered unsafe. So while in years before, this bid would’ve been dead in the water, there is a logistical precedent for FIFA to consider this bid. Also…elephant in the room here…the world is getting hotter! It is very common in North American summers for there to be Forrest fires, droughts, and temperatures getting as high on average as forty degrees, that’s today – by 2026 the North American summer could easily be a bigger problem. Countries in the running to host the World Cup in 2030 like Spain-Portugal, have experienced catastrophically hot summers recently, and as depressing as it might be to talk about, perhaps more and more countries will be more suited to a winter World Cup than we’d like to admit.
A bloated tournament;
Some say expanded, some say diluted. This is the last World Cup to have thirty-two teams, come 2026 they’ll be forty-eight participants at the FIFA World Cup, a figure that is welcomed by some, but has had a lot of pushback. Strictly speaking from a format point of view, thirty-two is perfect. Eight groups of four with two teams advancing and straight forward knockout system afterwards going from sixteen – to eight – to four – to two – to one. For forty-eight to work, the format had to be ripped up a rewrote from scratch. Tentatively it was agreed that there would be sixteen groups of three, resulting in teams having completed their group stage fixtures whilst other teams in their group still had to play, leading to the high possibility of collusion, but also significantly reducing what makes the group stages of the World Cup so great!
FIFA are now looking at alternative formats for 2026, but what is known for sure is that sixteen countries that weren’t deemed good enough for 2022 will now have a spot at 2026. Even at thirty-two there can be significant quality gaps, England defeated Panama 6-1 in 2018 and Iran 6-2 this year. Spain defeated Costa Rica 7-0 in 2022, and Russia defeated Saudi Arabia 5-0 in 2018. Im not pointing this out to say that Iran, Costa Rica, Panama or Saudi Arabia don’t deserve to be at the World Cup, the point is that even with just thirty-two teams, there can be significant gaps in quality between teams and when you add in sixteen more teams, you’re only increasing the gap further and potentially leading to even more one sided, low quality, boring games. FIFA will tell you that increasing to forty-eight teams is a sporting decision, but put it this way…Gianni Infantino’s next yacht won’t pay for itself. Thirty-two was the perfect number, all we can is hope that FIFA get the format for 2026 correct.
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Expanded tournament means a change of hosting logistics;
When Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup in 2002, it was considered to be a one off as the tense relationship between the two countries put a strain on the tournament build up. Since then we have had five consecutive tournaments with single hosts, and there’s a good chance that Qatar will be the last single host.
Forty-eight teams mean that at a minimum (depending on format) they’ll be sixteen more games played, meaning more stadiums and infrastructure will be needed. Suddenly it seems less appealing for singular countries to host the World Cup. The 2026 World Cup which is spread between three countries has sixteen stadiums of at least 45,000 being used, setting a precedent which seems very unrealistic for just one country. Spain, who hosted the World Cup on their own in 1982 is now part of the three nation bid with Portugal and Ukraine in order to try and win the 2030 bid. Other bids include; Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Greece and Argentina-Uruguay-Chile-Paraguay. Seeing World Cups spread out over such landmasses put a lot of demand of fans who want to follow their country, suddenly you’re looking at air travel almost being essential for fans to get to some fixtures, rather than taking public transport from one city to the next. It’s something we’ll need to get used to, as the it seems likely that the age of one country hosts is over, with the exception of a handful of countries – bids on a continental scale will be required going forward to host the World Cup.
The gap on UEFA and COMNEBOL is closing;
While an expanded World Cup will dilute the quality, what seems undeniable from 2022 is that the top teams from Africa and Asia are not as far behind the top European and South American as we once thought. The obvious flag bearer is Morocco, The Atlas Lions became the first ever African side to reach the last four of the World Cup, and have done it in style beating quality European opposition in Belgium, Spain and Portugal. They’re not the only African team to impress; for the first time ever, five African teams at the World Cup won at least one game. Senegal joined Morocco in the last sixteen after beating South American opposition Ecuador in the decisive game, meanwhile Tunisia and Cameron both recorded four points and famous wins over France and Brazil respectively. Both France and Brazil played weakened reams, but it’s still a testament to their talent as France and Brazil are both considered two of the best teams in the world.
Meanwhile, Asia was also highly impressive and made history. For the first time ever, three teams representing the Asian football confederation qualified for the last sixteen – Japan, South Korea and Australia. All three teams had very difficult groups. Japan defeated Germany and Spain on way to topping Group F, Australia took six points off Denmark and Tunisia, and four points against Uruguay and Portugal was enough for South Korea to finish second in Group H. None of those three teams were expected to get out of their group, and it’s a testament to their quality that they overcame European and South American opposition to achieve their success. Another Asian team to qualify for the World Cup, Saudi Arabia produced arguably the greatest World Cup upset of the twenty-first century, beating Argentina 2-1 in the group stage. It’s been a long time coming, countries from all around the world have invested heavily into their domestic football development and with more and more African and Asian players playing in elite European leagues with each passing year, it’s inevitable that they will continue to catch up. Throw in that 2026 will be hosted in North America, and that the U.S.A and Canada have also shown dramatic improvement in recent years, and it’s looking very likely that teams from outside UEFA and COMNEBOL will once thrive at the next World Cup, and the World Cups in the foreseeable future.
Messi and Ronaldo pass on the torch;
For roughly a decade and a half, the two biggest, greatest and recognisable players in the world have been Lionel Messi of Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. At thirty-five and thirty-seven, this (most likely) will be their last World Cup which is hard to imagine for many, both men have been ever presents in the competition ever since 2006. Both men have dominated the sport, combining for over 1600 goals, two continental titles (2021 Copa América and 2016 European Championship), nine UEFA Champions League titles, eighteen domestic league titles, twelve Ballon d’Or titles and a list of individual honours the length of both of your arms.
Come 2026, neither will be at the World Cup barring somewhat a minor miracle, and we’ll have to get used to not having them around. It’ll be strange for sure, but other stars are waiting in the wings. Kylian Mbappé of France and Erling Haaland of Norway look set to domaine goal scoring charts and personal accolades for years to come and come 2026 (assuming no one dramatically breaks through), they’ll be the undisputed new poster child’s of the sport.
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