Remember the 2014 World Cup in Brazil? That mad cap tournament of high octane football and numerous moments of exaltation and despair: the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben fooling ‘El Tri’ and breaking Mexican hearts in Fortaleza (#NoEraPenal?); Romelu Lukaku dispatching the ‘Stars and Stripes’ in Salvador, and Germany trumping the Maracanazo with the Mineirazo on that apocalyptic 7-1 afternoon in Belo Horizonte. Brazil 2014 was gloriously refreshing after the drab 2010 World Cup in South Africa. So will the World Cup return to soccer’s spiritual home anytime soon? It may well.
First, a flash back: on a snowy Swiss day last January, FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, symbolically killed the World Cup with the ultimate money chase: a 48-team tournament, to debut at the 2026 finals. The biggest change in the biggest was announced via a simple FIFA tweet. It was the aggrandizement of another sporting event, and a self-aggrandizement by FIFA and its many administrators, who have neglected any endeavors for substantial reform or much-needed introspection for years.
The FIFA Council unanimously decided on a 48-team #WorldCup as of 2026:
16 groups of 3 teams. Details to follow after the meeting.
— FIFA Media (@fifamedia) January 10, 2017
FIFA expanded the World Cup, claiming that world soccer needs more inclusiveness. That line of argument has been consistently at the heart of FIFA politics. The first mega-sized World Cup may well take place in North America, with Mexico, the USA and Canada bidding to host the tournament. That tournament would doubly serve as repayment for CONCACAF’s support of FIFA president Gianni Infantino in his election against Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, and a big boost for Fox Sports, who hold the 2026 World Cup broadcasting rights on American soil.
A tri-hosted tournament will be a novelty in the global game. Back in 2002, South Korea and Japan were the first (and still only) co-hosts of a World Cup, which was won by Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil and the brilliance of a resurgent Ronaldo–the original one. Behind the scenes, the tournament was a tangled web of political intrigue and diplomatic trade-offs, a balancing for FIFA and all the stakeholders involved.
The sheer scale and magnitude of the new World Cup format has demanded a rethink of how to stage the tournament; even medium-sized countries have been excluded from hosting the 48 teams, millions of fans, and the entire media circus that goes with the World Cup. The USA, Mexico and Canada were the first to join forces and, if reports are to be believed, South America may follow in 2030. Three hosts could become four.
First, Uruguay wanted to stage the event to commemorate a century of World Cup soccer; the first edition was held in 1930 and was won by the celeste hosts. Argentina soon teamed up with their baby blue neighbors. After all, a World Cup is not simply about providing the stadia, the airports, the hotels, the transport infrastructure, broadcast facilities, and other demands. It is also about political clout and economic grounding. Still, where is the marketplace in Uruguay and Argentina? That’s where the rest of the America Platina region comes in.
The idea of a 2030 World Cup is mushrooming, and Brazil is looking to join the bidding party. Paraguay already has an understanding with the River Plate countries to ensure they can match the gigantic requirements to host an oversized World Cup; Asunción might soon host a World Cup match. Within CONMEBOL, the south of Brazil has been put forward as a route to cement and enhance the bid, giving it a recent tournament to build off of and the veritable clout of the CBF. Porte Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, houses the Beira-Rio Stadium and the Arena Gremio, two state-of-the-art venues, while Curitiba’s Arena da Baixada also meets FIFA’s requirements.
There is however a major flaw in the plan: China desperately want the 2030 World Cup. Chinese president Xi Jinping listed three ambitions related to soccer: to qualify for the World Cup, to host international football’s biggest jamboree and, ultimately, to win it. Sporting success may be somewhat utopian, but staging the World Cup is not. Xi’s dreams are part of a larger narrative of Chinese nation-building.
To this end, FIFA may also loosen its rotation policy for the 2030 World Cup, allowing China to aggressively pursue its ambition of landing the coveted tournament. FIFA’s accommodating stance towards China has a simple reason: Chinese companies have been backing up FIFA’s finances as Western sponsors shunned the governing body over corruption scandals. Smartphone maker Vivo, real estate and leisure conglomerate Wanda, and consumer electronics brand Hisense make up the Chinese lobby in Zurich. In turn, South America will have little chance against the financial might of the Celestial Empire. Then again, the allure of a regional tournament in the birthplace of the World Cup could pull at the marketing heartstrings just strongly enough to award it to the quartet.