Sunday’s World Cup final, which ended with Lionel Messi finally lifting the one trophy he never won, was the most dramatic in tournament history. It was great theatre, a bare-fingered brawl that dragged on for 120 minutes and four rounds of penalties before Argentina were declared winners after a 3-3 draw.
Which raises a very annoying question: what to do for an encore?
The next World Cup begins in North America in 3½ years and will be the largest and most complex ever, with a record 48 teams playing 80 games in 16 cities across the US, Canada and Mexico. It’s less of a soccer tournament and more of a full-scale invasion.
US Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone will be one of those trying to ensure it runs smoothly, and she will begin that work by looking at what went right and what went wrong in Qatar over the past month.
“I’m the type of person I can learn from everyone. So I took that approach with Qatar, looked around and seen how they’re doing it and compared it to how I think things could work in the US,” said Cone, who spent two and a half weeks in Qatar during the World Cup. “What could we do better? What things are they doing that we might be able to adopt in the US?
“There were a lot of things we can take note of and hopefully make 2026 the biggest and best World Cup.”
Preparations for the 2026 World Cup began before Messi laid down the World Cup trophy after Sunday’s victory celebration. But it’s the differences rather than the similarities that stand out when comparing the 2022 World Cup to the 2026 tournament. In Qatar, the 64 matches were played in and around Doha, a city of 2.3 million, and all eight stadiums were within a 21-mile radius of the city center. In 2026, the tournament will be spread across four time zones, with stadiums spaced up to 3,500 miles apart, from the high altitude of Mexico City and humid Miami to cosmopolitan Toronto and native Kansas City, Mo.
There are also different laws. Qatar tightly regulates the sale of alcohol, while the US, Canada and Mexico encourage it quite a bit. Qatar had to build seven of the eight stadiums and its metro system from scratch, and spent billions more to modernize its international airport. All stadiums and most of the infrastructure for 2026 are already in place.
“Not everything can be transferred, can it?” said Kegel. “What works in one country may not work in another country.”
There is also the tournament expansion. When the Men’s World Cup was last held in the USA in 1994, there were only 24 teams. This time the field will be twice as big – so big that even FIFA President Gianni Infantino admits he is unsure how best to organize the tournament. Should it start with 12 groups of four or 16 groups of three? Both scenarios have their pros and cons from a competitive perspective, but Infantino quickly brought the conversation back to FIFA’s favorite topic: money.
“Three huge countries, 48 teams. More games, revenue will increase in terms of broadcasting, sponsorship and hospitality,” he said. “We will play in huge stadiums used for American football, with a capacity of 80-90,000. We expect 5.5 million fans to travel to these events.”
Which brings us to the most important issue for both the three-country hosting committee and the 16 World Cup cities. FIFA has stripped its local partners of control of much of the marketing and organization of the event, meaning FIFA will pocket most of the profits while leaving costs to local organisers. As a result, no World Cup will ever again produce such a national surplus as the 1994 US World Cup, said Alan Rothenberg, a former US soccer president who organized what remains the most successful tournament in history.
“Previously, FIFA kept the TV rights and the international marketing rights and gave everything else to us. We were able to secure at least our share of local television and a handful of categories domestically for sponsorship. And then also participate in the ticket income, ”said Rothenberg.
As a result, the 1994 tournament, still the best-attended World Cup of all time, produced an approximately $50 million surplus, more than double the original projections. This funded the creation of the US Soccer Foundation and helped promote the game at grassroots level. Major League Soccer was also born in the wake of this tournament, and Rothenberg also oversaw its formation.
“It’s very different from 1994, that’s for sure,” said Rothenberg, now chairman of sports marketing agency Playfly Premier Partnerships and advisor to six host cities for 2026. “[FIFA] decided to bring things in house instead of just licensing third parties to do things. You make the show. The host cities will have responsibility for running the event and providing all public services, and [FIFA is] Providing very limited revenue opportunities for the host cities. As such, host cities are scrambling to find either donations or public funds or creative ways to generate revenue.”
The new model will likely limit the list of countries that can bid for future World Cups to wealthy nations like the US or authoritarian countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, Rothenberg said. But it also makes it harder for the tournament to leave the kind of impact and legacy that the 1994 tournament had.
Still, Cone believes that if that next World Cup comes and goes and nothing changes, it will be a costly missed opportunity, regardless of the financial constraints. The tournament should at least generate grassroots interest in the sport and participation.
“There’s a lot to do,” she said. “We are considering how we can use the 2026 World Cup to increase participation and grow our fan base. Not just in the host cities, but in every city in every state. Because as I look towards 2026, the tournament itself, my big focus is post-26 when everyone packs their bags and goes home. What is the legacy of this World Cup and how are we changing the game? Did we get people to rethink our game and think about it differently?
“Our job is to really think and strategize and work with our members, work with our stakeholders and our partners to ensure we maximize the impact of World Cup 26 and beyond.”
If they can do that, it would be quite an encore.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/story/2022-12-19/lessons-2026-world-cup-north-america-2022-qatar-argentina-messi What lessons can 2026 World Cup learn from 2022 tournament?