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  • FIFA president Gianni Infantino discusses the 2026 World Cup and its format, the goals for the USA as a soccer country, if promotion and relegation belong here and the future of the Confederations Cup after a visit to Washington, D.C.
By Brian Straus
August 28, 2018

WASHINGTON — As the most powerful figure in the world’s most popular sport, FIFA president Gianni Infantino can book a spot on just about any politician’s schedule and can get access to all the halls of power. Tuesday, however, marked his first trip to the Oval Office. And the Swiss executive was moved.

“It’s quite an emotion to be in the White House,” Infantino said here in the nation’s capital. “It’s quite something. It’s quite impressive.”

The power in that room is palpable, no matter who sits behind the desk. And Infantino sees the same potential for soccer in the U.S., which he said eventually should be considered one of the world’s top three soccer countries. Along with U.S. Soccer Federation president Carlos Cordeiro, Infantino visited President Donald Trump on Tuesday to celebrate the awarding of the 2026 World Cup hosting rights to the USA, Canada and Mexico, and to begin setting the political groundwork for staging the mammoth, 48-team event.

For Cordeiro, who was elected in February, the eight-year buildup to the 23rd World Cup represents a massive opportunity to increase exposure, participation, support and sponsorship. The time has come, Cordeiro said, for soccer to begin to take its place as the country’s “preeminent” sport. Speaking to SI.com and The Washington Post following his White House visit, Infantino said that he, too, believes American soccer has no ceiling. But unlike the last time the World Cup was played here (1994), when the award came with the requirement that the U.S. launch a fully-professional, first-division league, FIFA has set no conditions. American soccer’s rise will have to be sparked from within.

“I would definitely like to see that soccer in the U.S. is becoming one of the top sports, not the No. 5,” Infantino said. “You have to transform this country into a soccer country. … What I want to see is the U.S. league, the U.S. national team, the U.S. youth development structures, boys and girls, being part of the top three in the world.”

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Soccer’s relatively recent relevance in the U.S., along with a culture dominated by several massive, closed leagues and university sports, has resulted in an idiosyncratic structure, to say the least. It works in some ways and not in others, and Infantino said he saw both positives and negatives in a U.S. system spread across so many millions of people and square miles. Cordeiro already is working on bringing representatives of the fractured youth landscape together, while the growing pains and evolution in the pro leagues and player development systems are evident.

“I wouldn’t say it’s holding American soccer back, because some good progress has been made. We should not forget that. Maybe this is the right way to do things in this country,” Infantino said of U.S. soccer exceptionalism. “But personally, coming from a different background, I believe in something like promotion and relegation. I believe in the competition. I believe in a [club] president or owner who can just say, ‘O.K., I want to win the league this year, and I want to invest.’

“We have the economic power in the U.S. We have the sports DNA and culture in the country, the competitive effect, the competitiveness of the people. I think all the ingredients are there. There is a lot of great work that has been done in the last years, including with the MLS. Maybe it's time to analyze them. If those who are responsible, they come to the conclusion: ‘No it’s fine as it is,’ O.K. As it is, it’s in the world, maybe No. 20-30, the league, the football movement in general. … It should be one, two, or three.”

Asked if FIFA would or could force U.S. Soccer’s corporate hand on any issue, Infantino said, “I’m empowered to talk to people and to push, but then, of course, this gentleman here [Cordeiro] and his colleagues, they are free to decide whatever they want. But I can be pretty painful when I have something in my mind.”

Here’s what else was on Infantino’s mind during Tuesday’s conversation:

Xinhua/Xu Zijian/Getty Images

Setting the World Cup stage

The 2026 tournament will be one of unprecedented scale: three host nations, 48 teams, 80 games and 16 venues. So work has to start early, and although Tuesday’s Oval Office event was mostly one of celebration, commemoration and gratitude (Trump’s promises regarding access and visas were key during the buildup to the June vote), there was a bit of logistical and political talk.

“There are quite a few challenges that we need to look into, and we need to start now to see how we can coordinate that, because that’s not something that's done easily. We’ll have at least between 2 and 3 million people coming only for the matches, besides those who will come for the Fan Fest and so on from abroad, from around 5 million tickets that will be on sale,” Infantino said.

“Because of this additional complexity, it’s important to start early seeing what is the best way to work together,” he continued. “And there we have really received the full commitment and support of the president and his administration to bring the right people around the table, to maybe appoint one dedicated person who can help coordinate the different agencies from security to transport, to whatever is involved.”

A lot of those logistics and commitments require legislation, Cordeiro said. Although Trump won’t be in office in 2026, Cordeiro added, “It’s the signature of the president of the day, and it outlives any individual. It’s the commitment of the country.”

Infantino said, “President Trump and his administration are certainly interested already from now to start working with the vision of organizing the World Cup, but also what can we do from now until then, not only from the administrative side or the operational side but also on the event [and] promotion side.”

There currently are 17 venues in the USA, three in Canada and three in Mexico in contention to make the final cut. That should be decided by the end of 2020. There will be 60 games in the USA and 10 each in Mexico and Canada. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., is the favorite to host the final.

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World Cup format complications

Remember the tension and insanity of watching the World Cup fates of Spain, Argentina and Germany, among others, decided during simultaneous group-stage finales? That drama will be no more come 2026, when the 48 participants will be divided into 16 groups of three. That means one squad will have finished its first-round games while the other two play, leaving them knowing exactly what they need in order to advance to the knockout stage (32 teams will move on).

Infantino noted that were were instances during this summer’s World Cup—like when both France and Denmark needed only a draw to go through and played a 0-0 snoozer—where groups ended in similar circumstances. Still, he said FIFA is “definitely” looking at the issue.

“We still have a little bit of time to study what is the best way to eliminate, or at least reduce, any risk of collusion, whether it’s to say that the [FIFA] ranking decides in case of equal number of points or whatever, so you have already before you start an additional criterion—for example. It’s not decided. And again, we have time to figure it out,” Infantino said.

Whatever’s missed about the traditional four-team groups will be overshadowed by the lower margin for error in two first-round games and increased number of knockout matches, Infantino argued.

“Every format has its pros and cons,” he said. “I think we need to study it very carefully, test it maybe as well in some youth events, and then I’m sure we can come up with something.”

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World soccer’s competition structure

Infantino’s expedited effort, in partnership with a consortium of external investors, to push through a revamped competition calendar that would scrap the quadrennial Confederations Cup in favor of an expanded Club World Cup and an international nations league, fell flat before this summer’s World Cup in Russia. There were too many unresolved questions and too many constituents with concerns.

But Infantino still believes in the idea, he said Tuesday, and he hasn’t given up on seeing the new competition happen.

For the U.S. national team, the Confederations Cup has represented a valuable opportunity to face quality non-Concacaf opposition in meaningful games. For Infantino, however, the quality isn’t high enough, and he remains committed to putting the tournament out to pasture. There is no Confederations Cup officially scheduled for 2021, meaning next summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup may be played for its own sake.

“My opinion about the Confederations Cup is that it’s not really a competition that is at the standard that FIFA should have,” he said. “It’s kind of a preparation event for the World Cup but it’s not really—Germany came with its second team in Russia [in 2017]. It’s not really followed that much.”

The same is true of the Club World Cup, an annual seven-team tournament featuring six continental champs and the winner of the host country’s domestic league. So far, the CWC has been an anticlimax contested only in Asia or North Africa and dominated by the European entrant.

Infantino still wants to turn it into a quadrennial, 32-team showcase.

“A serious Club World Cup is also positive for the whole club movement,” he said. “Imagine if you know that the winner of the league in the U.S. could have the chance to participate in a big tournament, which would be like a World Cup. So this would also boost owners to invest in clubs, the fans to engage and so on and so forth. And the same players who perform in their clubs, they perform as well in the national teams. So they get all sorts of international experience at the top level, which is what is missing, probably, to reach that level.”

Could it still happen?

“It is now discussed and debated, and we’ll see,” Infantino said. “If people think there is some merit in that, they will say ‘yes’. And if they don’t say think so, then they will say ‘no’. Then I will come up with something else.”

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