Associated Press
Friday October 14th, 2016

ZURICH (AP) — North America became a stronger favorite to host an expanded World Cup in 2026 after FIFA essentially barred European countries from bidding on Friday.

The FIFA Council agreed that UEFA and Asian confederation members should not bid again so soon after Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup and Qatar has the 2022 tournament.

"That has changed the landscape (of the 2026 contest) a little bit," said U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, a FIFA Council member.

FIFA said Europe would be put on standby only if "none of the received bids fulfill the strict technical and financial requirements."

That's unlikely if the United States bids as expected, either alone or with Canada and Mexico.

FIFA favors co-hosting among regional neighbors, and a three-way bid could be more popular if the tournament grows to 40 or 48 teams.

A decision will be made on whether to expand the tournament on Jan. 9-10 when the FIFA Council next meets in Zurich.

FIFA has targeted 2020 for its member federations to choose the 2026 host.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who was elected this year after promising voters a 40-team World Cup, would not declare North America as the most likely host region.

"It is still too early to say that," Infantino said. "We hope we have many bidders and we can choose ... who the best bidder is."

Still, the North American regional body CONCACAF has long been seen as the natural host for 2026 and its claim got stronger Friday. The United States was the last country in the region to stage the tournament in 1994.

"The answer is 'Sure,' it would be silly to say anything but that," Gulati said of a contest that could also include bids from Africa and South America.

CONCACAF lost out when a hosting rotation system approved during Sepp Blatter's presidency was abandoned before its scheduled turn in 2018 came around.

Back then, FIFA preferred to block continents from two World Cup bidding contests after hosting, but when statutes were updated in recent reforms the rule said only one tournament had to be skipped.

Gulati said the new clarity in bidding would encourage an entry from the United States.

"We now know some of the rules," said Gulati, FIFA's top American official. "We will look at it. We have great relationships with Canada and Mexico. We also have a country with 320 million people that has hosted a World Cup and with a lot of terrific stadiums and great infrastructure."

A U.S.-hosted World Cup would likely set attendance records—in 1994 there were 3.59 million total fans and an average of 69,000 per match.

Infantino said Friday that a bigger World Cup—potentially of 48 teams and 80 matches with an opening playoff round—would be for sporting reasons, "not a financial or political decision."

Still, he foresaw more revenue from FIFA's current $5 billion per tournament, which could help increase the funding he promised to FIFA members.

"Whatever additional costs there will be, will be largely outweighed by additional revenues, obviously. Which means we are in a comfortable position," Infantino said.

Other decisions Friday:

— FIFA's 2017 congress will be held in Manama, Bahrain—the home city of FIFA vice president Sheik Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain—on May 11. The original venue of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, pulled out citing problems with issuing visas to delegates.

— The rebranded FIFA annual awards ceremony, formerly known as the Ballon d'Or, will still be held in Zurich on Jan. 9. FIFA had explored a move to London.

— The dates of CONCACAF's Gold Cup tournament in 2017 have been modified. It will kick off two days earlier, end four days earlier and be played July 7-26.

Associated Press
Thursday October 13th, 2016

ZURICH (AP) — FIFA wants to decide in January if the 2026 World Cup will expand from its 32-team format, with 40 or 48 teams the favored options.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino said on Thursday he expects a decision when the ruling council meets for the first time next year. The January session is likely to be in Zurich.

"The general feeling is rather positive," toward expansion, Infantino said at a briefing after FIFA's ruling council met. "The level of quality of football is increasing all over the world."

The 2026 World Cup—which many expect to be hosted across North America—could also be run centrally by FIFA from Zurich instead of by the hosts' own local organizing committee.

Planet Futbol
Roundtable: What's the best format for an expanded World Cup?

Infantino outlined plans for FIFA to take "full control of all money flows," and how it spends hundreds of millions of dollars on each tournament, before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

It follows FIFA paying $453 million to Brazil's 2014 World Cup committee, and budgeting to spend $700 million on Russian operations running the 2018 tournament.

The World Cup is FIFA's prize asset earning around 85% of its revenue, and shapes as a defining issue for Infantino before his term ends in less than three years.

The promise of extra World Cup slots is likely to appeal to the 211 member federations who vote, and FIFA would expect more matches to drive up the price of broadcasting and sponsor deals to fund Infantino's campaign promises of increased grants to members.

Planet Futbol
From Brazil to China, 10 key developments in October's World Cup qualifiers

Infantino was elected in February having pledged during his campaign to add eight teams to the tournament.

In a recent speech in Colombia, Infantino suggested a 48-team tournament with an opening playoff round of 16 matches. The 16 winners would advance to join 16 seeded teams in a balanced 32-team group stage before the knockout rounds.

The 40-team format is problematic. The typical format of four-team groups would likely mean four of the 10 runners-up do not advance to a round of 16.

Groups of five teams would unbalance the fixture schedule and create integrity issues, by leaving some teams idle for the final round of games. It would also add an extra fixture to create an eight-game program for the finalists, which would be unpopular with clubs releasing their players to national team duty.

Planet Futbol
Sarai Bareman to be named FIFA's first Chief Women's Soccer Officer

Expanding the World Cup also revives a difficult debate on how to spread the extra places by continent.

UEFA, where Infantino was the CEO-like general secretary for six years until February, has long been under pressure from other regions to relax its quota of 13 of the 31 qualifying slots.

Infantino said discussion on allocating the extra places must take place between FIFA's six continental confederations.

SI Staff
Friday October 7th, 2016

World Cup expansion appears to be inevitable. As part of FIFA president Gianni Infantino's platform when running for office, he pitched a 40-team World Cup. Since then, his plan has evolved to a 48-team event for the world's greatest spectacle, which would conceivably go into effect for the 2026 competition. 

Ahead of FIFA's meetings in Zurich next week, when the future of the sport's spotlight event is discussed by the FIFA Council, we took it upon ourselves to ponder World Cup expansion. While our expert panel is in agreement that the 32-team format needs no tweaking, we're embracing the change that appears to be on the way.  

Here are our grand ideas:

Alexander Abnos - Don't just expand it: Double the field!

It’s high time we embrace reality. The World Cup is going to keep expanding and expanding, regardless of what anyone other than those with a whole lot of money think about it. If 42 teams doesn’t work, FIFA will expand to 48. If 48 doesn’t work, FIFA will expand to 52. It’s next to impossible to imagine FIFA ever voluntarily downsizing the size of its flagship event, so long as it remains the cash cow that it is. 

Given that, I feel the best that can be done at this point is to steadfastly maintain a primary positive aspect of the World Cup: The perfect balance of its structure. That’s why, if I had to expand the tournament, I’d take the (admittedly crazy) step of doubling the number of teams to 64. 

Planet Futbol
Young USMNT goalkeeping trio gets shot as Klinsmann seeks a worthy successor

Part of the beauty of the 32-team World Cup is how symmetrical and easy to understand it is. There’s no need for awkward one-off pre-group stage knockout games (as proposed by Infantino), no use for ranking third-place teams (a tournament feature I strongly dislike)—the top two in each group advance to the knockout round. No fuss, no muss. A 64-team World Cup keeps that exactly the same, it just doubles the number of groups, and adds a Round of 32 to the knockout stage. After axing the pointless third-place game, every four years we’d be blessed with a 127-game overdose of soccer. 

No doubt, organizing a tournament this large would be a gigantic logistical challenge. That, taken the right way, could actually be an advantage. So many matches might encourage more joint bids for hosting, potentially lessening the burden on any one country to serve as host. It’ll also ensure that all stadiums, especially those built specifically for the tournament, see plenty of action (Arena das Dunas in Natal, for example, cost well over $100 million to build, and it only hosted four matches). 

• WATCH WORLD CUP QUALIFYING: Stream matches live on FuboTV

Will more of those matches be “unsexy” games between, say, Lithuania and Guatemala? Sure…but that will be the case in almost any expansion format. The competition will be heavily diluted with 64 teams, especially at first. But over time, as more and more smaller nations get the experience, recognition, and money from going to a World Cup, I believe the gap will close. In the meantime, there will be more opportunity than ever before for Iceland-at-Euro-2016 types of stories to happen, and that’s no bad thing.

Brian Straus - One obvious solution, one radical one

This will be fun. And also sad. But it’s inevitable, and it’s also an assignment. So let’s wreck the greatest month in sports. Let’s ruin the World Cup.

At the moment, with 64 games and 32 teams, it’s all perfectly balanced. Qualifying still means something in most places, but the World Cup remains pretty inclusive and representative. We’re guaranteed at least a few riveting, instantly memorable games. The competition is hard to win, but it doesn’t drain the participants or drag on our patience too much. The format is fair and easy to follow. It’s pretty close to ideal. So naturally, FIFA wants to mess with it.

Planet Futbol
Mailbag: After Bradley, who's the next American coach to make it big overseas?

The World Cup is going to grow. There’s too much interest and too much money to be made. So how do we do it without destroying every last vestige of that balance? By keeping these key principles in mind: the games either must matter or pit elite countries against each other. And there must be reward for victory and consequences for defeat. Motivated teams make for entertaining soccer. Euro 2016 featured great stories in Iceland and Wales, but the tournament itself was a snoozer because the stakes weren’t high enough during the group stage. By the time the knockout rounds rolled around, most survivors weren’t able to find a higher gear. When Pepe is the key to the title, it’s probably safe to skip the highlight video.

Infantino’s 48-team proposal is ridiculous. Countries aren’t going to spend tons of time and money selecting, training and marketing a World Cup team only to see them fly home after a couple of days and 90 minutes of action. So let’s hope there’s enough restraint at FIFA headquarters to expand only to 40.

Here are two potential formats—one relatively obvious and one a bit more radical.

The obvious one is to divide the field into 10 groups of four teams each. The group winners and six runners-up with the best records move on to the round of 16, and the World Cup unfolds as normal from there. For the four second-place finishers who don’t advance, there’s a little sympathy—but not much. Win your group. Yes, some quartets are more difficult than others, but that’s the case now and always has been. The added incentive to get results and score goals in order to secure one of those wild card spots will have the opposite affect of allowing third-place teams to advance. The group stage games will matter—a lot.

Planet Futbol
The Cuba Cinco: Fans skirt travel ban to witness USA's 2008 World Cup qualifier

Now for the radical idea. It’s crazy, but so is a 40-team World Cup. Identify the top 12 qualifiers. Each of the five confederations except Oceania is guaranteed one team among that dozen. The remaining seven sides will be selected at large, NCAA tournament style. We can debate later how the 12 are chosen (playoff, ranking, etc), but the race for those spots should spice up qualifying around the world. Draw those elite 12 teams into three groups of four. Then place the remaining 28 teams into seven additional groups.

The first three quartets will feature a host of must-see games. Here, finishing third is enough to advance. Perhaps the depth of quality in those groups and the knowledge that three very good teams will head home early will be enough to raise the stakes in the first round. In the other seven groups, there is no leeway. Only the winners move on.

That produces your 16 knockout-stage teams. It may not work. It’s fun to imagine. It’s too bad we have to.

GALLERY: USMNT, USWNT results in 2016

Grant Wahl - 40 teams, 10 groups of four, 24-team knockout stage

If I had my choice, I’d leave the World Cup at 32 teams, which is a perfect number. But since the assignment is we have to expand the field and figure out the best way to do it, I would go with 40 teams in 10 groups of four. Keeping the groups at four teams each allows for the final group-stage games to still take place at the same time, which is key.

• WAHL: Concerns linger over Infantino's proposed expansion format

The group stage would feed into a 24-team knockout stage. The eight group winners with the best group-stage record would get byes. Two group winners, all 10 second-place group teams and the four best third-place teams would comprise the 16 teams that play to make the round of 16. Once you have your round of 16, the knockout rounds proceed from there.

It’s not perfect like 32 teams, but it does allow final group-stage games to take place simultaneously, and it prevents the situation in Gianni Infantino’s 48-team plan in which 16 teams end up playing only one game at the World Cup.

Monday October 10th, 2016

WASHINGTON—The U.S. national team didn’t intend to close out this inconvenient international window against New Zealand, which currently is ranked 88th in the world.

The Americans originally had hoped to play Ghana on Tuesday here at RFK Stadium. But when the Black Stars were prevented from coming by a FIFA rule prohibiting excess exhibition travel, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff were left scrambling. Most decent teams are involved in World Cup qualifying this week, and there wasn’t much interest in scheduling another CONCACAF opponent a month before the Hexagonal kicks off. So the All Whites filled in, leaving the Americans to prepare for November’s showdowns with Mexico and Costa Rica with friendlies against overmatched semi-pros from Cuba and a Kiwi squad no one would place among the sport’s elite.

“CONMEBOL is fully scheduled and UEFA is fully scheduled,” Klinsmann said Monday. “We go [through] the list up and down, believe me. We’re trying to get the best opponents as possible, but it’s going to be a very tricky path going forward.”

Planet Futbol
Jurgen Klinsmann makes USA roster moves ahead of New Zealand friendly

Since his first day on the job, Klinsmann has stressed the need to play better teams. He’s taken the U.S. on the road for difficult friendlies and was an enthusiastic supporter of this summer’s Copa América Centenario. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then that Klinsmann is not a fan of CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani’s wish to overhaul the region’s World Cup qualifying format to ensure smaller countries are involved for longer. 

“For us, it would be the opposite direction [we should go],” Klinsmann said.

Montagliani recently told the Associated Press that the current CONCACAF format, which ends in the upcoming Hex, is “archaic” and unfair to developing nations.

“Something needs to change because you can't have 85% of your members who are on the outside looking in two years before the World Cup. It doesn't make sense,” Montagliani said. “[The Hex] is great for those six teams over the next year and a bit but how about the other ones It's hard.”

Planet Futbol
Roadmap to Russia: The USA's 2018 World Cup qualifying Hexagonal task

Klinsmann made the point Monday that it’s hard for the U.S. to schedule the games it needs as well, which is why the last thing he wants to see is a format that requires more matches against smaller foes.

“What is our lesson from Copa América? Our lesson from Copa América is if we want to get our program better we have to play with the best,” he said. “In youth soccer terms, you need to play up. [If] you have an 11-year-old super talent, don’t play him with the 11-year-olds, Play him with the 12-year-olds. For us, if we want to get better, we need to play with the best teams out there from South America or from Europe.”

The U.S. faced the No. 1 (Argentina) and No. 3 (Colombia) ranked teams in the world during the Copa and went 0-3-0. That was frustrating at the time, but Klinsmann would argue that it's necessary for the long term.

"We need to challenge ourselves in order to break into the top 15, top 10 in the world,” Klinsmann said. "We need to play them, and the more often we play Argentina, the better our results will get because the less fear we have, or respect we have. If you play them every five years one time, and you see [for] the first time in five years Messi right out there, 'ooh, usually you see him on TV.'"

Planet Futbol
Insider Notes: Why it's harming USA, Mexico to play October friendlies at all

Rather than make World Cup qualifying more inclusive, Klinsmann said, the regional governing bodies should focus on making the combined Copa América a regular occurrence.

“I’m not saying we need to join UEFA or we need to join CONMEBOL, but for us the eternal topic is the need to get the best games in order to improve our players,” the coach said. “So if we can have every two years a Copa América, we need to let a [biennial] Gold Cup go.”

For a look at the potential consequences of softening the schedule, one need only to take a peek inside the visitors locker room on Tuesday. Australia’s 2006 move to the Asian Football Confederation has been a boon to that country—it won the regional championship two years ago—but has left New Zealand increasingly isolated.

“Ask New Zealand how do they want to get [better],” Klinsmann said. “There in Oceania, [they’re] now the only team really.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino came out last week with a new proposal to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams for 2026. In Infantino’s plan, there would be a one-game playoff for 32 of the 48 teams that before the group stage would start with the traditional 32 countries.

As a result, there would be 80 total games instead of the current 64. The final decision will be made in January.

A FIFA Council source says the biggest concern is that 16 teams would only get to play one game at the World Cup and wonders if fans from those countries will risk traveling around the world for just one game. There are also concerns about how European clubs might react and how host countries might logistically handle 48 teams.

CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani came out in support of an expanded World Cup this week, telling the AP: "There are traditionalists in the game who I think, if it was up to them, would still have a 16-team World Cup. The reality is that the World Cup is not just an economic beast, but a product that inspires hope for countries. So if we can improve it, make it bigger without losing its romanticism, why not?"

Associated Press
Wednesday October 5th, 2016

LONDON (AP) — A bigger World Cup in 2026 will boost North America's chances of hosting the tournament, the president of the CONCACAF region told The Associated Press.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino earlier this week raised the prospect of adding another 16 teams to make it a 48-team tournament, a move that would reduce the pool of countries with sufficient infrastructure.

"From a 2026 perspective, pick a number (of finalists) and North America can handle it," Victor Montagliani, president of the North and Central America and Caribbean soccer confederation, said Tuesday in an interview. "A CONCACAF bid would be strong regardless of what number we finally set on."

The World Cup was last staged in the CONCACAF region by the United States in 1994. The Americans are eager to get another shot at hosting in 2026, potentially linking up with neighbors Canada and Mexico.

Planet Futbol
FIFA head Gianni Infantino suggests 48-team World Cup

"Is there an opportunity to combine the three countries? Perhaps. We don't know that yet," said Montagliani, a FIFA vice president. "There have been zero formal discussions. We are not there yet."

After the troubled bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, which sparked years of corruption investigations, FIFA will be hoping for a smoother vote for 2026. Originally earmarked for 2017, the decision by the FIFA membership is now not due until 2020.

With Africa, South America, Europe and Asia hosting the World Cups between 2010 and 2022, it had been widely accepted that it should be North America's turn for the first time since 1994.

FIFA's statues currently prevent consecutive World Cups being staged on the same continent, but China could yet seek to follow 2022 host Qatar. Chinese conglomerate Wanda signed up as a top-tier FIFA sponsor in March saying it wanted to be "better placed" to help decide where future editions of the World Cup are awarded.

Planet Futbol
The Cuba Cinco: Fans skirt travel ban to witness USA's 2008 World Cup qualifier

"There has to be some sort of rotation or else you look what is happening with the Olympics," Montagliani said, referring to Tokyo hosting the 2020 Olympics between the 2018 and 2022 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Beijing.

"I don't think it's a good thing that it keeps on going to one area. It's not a World Cup that belongs in one region. So I think so sort of rotation needs to occur because the World Cup belongs to the world and we need to respect that."

Montagliani applauded Infantino for "thinking outside the box" by floating the idea of a 48-team World Cup.

"There are traditionalists in the game who I think, if it was up to them, would still have a 16-team World Cup," Montagliani said in an interview in London. "The reality is that the World Cup is not just an economic beast, but a product that inspires hope for countries. So if we can improve it, make it bigger without losing its romanticism, why not?"

Before FIFA settles on a new format, Montagliani is sure there will be an "exhaustive process of review and cost benefit analysis." The format and bidding process will begin to be discussed next week when Infantino chairs a FIFA Council meeting in Zurich.

Planet Futbol
World Cup qualifying: Spain aims to exact Euro revenge vs. Italy

In outlining one potential format earlier this week, Infantino said, "you could have a tournament in which the 16 best teams advance to a group stage and the other 16 will came out of a 'playoff' ahead of the group stage, and the World Cup could end up with 48 teams."

The more pressing issues for FIFA center on the 2018 World Cup with the spotlight increasingly on Russia over racism and doping in sport, and the involvement in the war in Syria.

Montagliani sees no need to strip Russia of the World Cup.

"It's a very delicate situation because we are a sport," he said. "You try to as much as possible stay out of the geopolitics of the world because it's a just a dangerous thing (to mix) and so it is a bit of walking a tightrope."

The contentious dual votes on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups sparked years of criminal investigations and FIFA inquiries.

Planet Futbol
Mailbag: After Bradley, who's the next American coach to make it big overseas?

FIFA said there was not sufficient evidence to warrant removing their country's hosting rights. But before being banned and ousted from the FIFA presidency, Sepp Blatter said last year that American authorities would not have indicted more than 40 people in its soccer investigation had it not been for the 2010 vote outcome.

To Montagliani it was the "tipping point," providing an "opportunity to clean the game."

"In some regards maybe the best thing that happened in football was Russia and Qatar," Montagliani said in a speech Wednesday at the Leaders sports business conference in London.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.