Too early a preview of the 2026 World Cup
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There’s only one thing to do now that the 2022 World Cup is over: start thinking about the next one.
The 2026 men’s tournament is set to bring sweeping changes and the opportunity for even more stories worth listening to. That’s what FIFA wants, you know.
Read on for a preview that’s so early that it is almost ridiculous.
When, where and what else you need to know
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Let’s start with the basics. The 2026 Men’s World Cup will take place in three countries: Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Despite the decision to hold Qatar 2022 in the middle of the club season, making it a winter tournament for European teams, the next iteration will revert to the June-July schedule we are used to. No opening date has yet been confirmed.
Without a doubt, the main modification for 2026 is the addition of 16 more teams, widening the field by 50% to 48 in total. FIFA initially indicated that this would be broken down into 16 groups of three, a format that was proposed to ensure that each country will claim victory in their two confirmed matches.
However, FIFA President Gianni Infantino recently indicated that the success of traditional groups of four in Qatar is likely to prompt an overhaul. Twelve groups of four seem more palatable, but there will likely be quite a bit of back-and-forth as the governing body does what it can to maximize the benefits of television rights for the competition.
More teams, of course, means more opportunities for nations to qualify that otherwise wouldn’t make it. The initial reform provided for 16 places for Europe, nine for Africa, eight for Asia, six for South America and North America plus a guaranteed place for Oceania for the very first time.
When you add the host nations, whose participation is deducted from the respective confederation’s allocation, it still comes down to just 46 teams. FIFA’s opening plan involves a six-team play-off for the final two spots.
The United States will be the main hub for those looking to secure tickets, especially from the quarter-finals. The United States will host 60 games, while Canada and Mexico are expected to host 10 each.
All knockout matches from the quarterfinals will be held in the United States, with MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, New Jersey), SoFi Stadium (Inglewood, California) and AT&T Stadium (Dallas) among the favorites to host the final. Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca is the competition’s most famous football arena – a stadium where Pelé and Diego Maradona lifted the trophy – and will become the first to host matches at three World Cups. A good piece of history, although the classic location is overlooked for the bigger games.
It should be noted that with FIFA yet to confirm the format, it is difficult to dissect exactly how the knockout stages will play out in terms of numbers and whether there will be more than one bracket.
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With or without Lionel Messi, Argentina are more likely to enter the 2026 tournament among the favourites.
Much of their fighting spirit en route to victory in this year’s competition was led by youngsters such as Julián Álvarez and Enzo Fernández, two players who made their mark as substitutes and then became indispensable. Alexis Mac Allister is only 23 and it’s easy to forget that Cristian Romero is only 24. Coach Lionel Scaloni’s managerial career is just beginning at 44 years old.
The French team in Qatar ranked among the youngest with an average age of 26.6 years. Starman Kylian Mbappé will be just 27 when the kick-off arrives in 2026, with youngsters like Aurélien Tchouaméni, Eduardo Camavinga, Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté also entering their prime years at this time.
It’s remarkable to think how close they came to defending their crown after losing key stars Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba, N’golo Kante, Christopher Nkunku and Lucas Hernandez.
While Brazil should still perform well, there will certainly need to be a slight uptick in key areas ahead of 2026. Neymar, Casemiro and Danilo will be in their 30s, while Marquinhos, Fred and others are right behind them.
The dressing room influence of Thiago Silva and Dani Alves will be long gone. Is Richarlison really good enough to lead this front line to trophies? There will be strong opinions on both sides.
It is likely that Spain and England will look to 2026 as their opportunity to strike. Only the United States and Ghana had a lower average age in Qatar than the Spaniards, a team that included baby footballers such as Gavi (18), Alejandro Balde (19), Pedri (20), Nico Williams (20) and Ansu Fati (20). It’s also easy to forget that Ferrán Torres is only 22 and still has many years of improvement ahead of him.
Spain are certainly in a moment of transition, with the last vestiges of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 winning squads adrift in Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. Busquets announced his international retirement a few days after the elimination of Spain by Morocco in Qatar. But as noted above, out-of-the-box replacements are already involved, a factor that will serve them well in the future.
The English crop are further down their development line, with Jude Bellingham (19), Bukayo Saka (21), Phil Foden (22) and Declan Rice (23) all showing they could be major players on the 2026 stage. It’s debatable whether Harry Kane, who will be 33 when the next tournament ends, will need stiffer competition in North America.
At present, there is no obvious candidate to fill that void, although an in-form Marcus Rashford has shown in Qatar he could be capable of it.
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Discuss which teams need to find a perfect segway attacker in the USMNT. Home advantage is certainly a thing in the World Cup (forgetting how awful Qatar’s results were), and the United States showed they had the quality to compete despite obvious flaws with the take. of Gregg Berhalter’s decision during this year’s centerpiece.
Draws with Wales and England, as well as a win over Iran in a high-pressure game, should be seen as a good comeback.
However, Berhalter’s tactics worked in the Netherlands’ favor in the round of 16 defeat, opening space for key players such as Denzel Dumfries to exploit gaping holes. The coach has underused Gio Reyna in all games and retained a team that has shown they can control games while offering a threat if allowed to speak.
Berhalter never really recovered from his plea to leave Ricardo Pepi at home; he’s a striker who would have offered more than Jesus Ferreira in the USMNT’s biggest game in years against the Dutch. Berhalter is unlikely to still be in charge when the country takes on hosting duties, but either way whoever is in the dugout needs to build their squad around the excellent midfield trio of Tyler Adams , Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah.
In 1994, when the United States last hosted the World Cup, they were knocked out in the Round of 16 with a 1-0 loss to Brazil. The objective for 2026 must be to go at least further. With smart coaching, they can achieve this 100%.
The stars of 2022 we expect to see again
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Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images
Wipe away those tears, my friend. Just because we’re unlikely to see two of the greatest players of all time, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and generational talents such as Luka Modrić at another World Cup, doesn’t mean the is the hour of sadness. Many major talents have shone in Qatar and are set to play even bigger roles four years from now.
There is probably no need to mention Mbappé again. Neither the aforementioned French, Spanish and English stars explored just two slides ago. Let’s take a moment to think about what level Cody Gakpo (23), Joško Gvardiol (20) and Azzedine Ounahi (22) could reach after another period of development.
These three should land major transfers in January or this summer from their clubs: PSV, RB Leipzig and Angers. They all performed excellently in Qatar, defining their country’s progress with winning performances in front of millions. The casual World Cup audience will remember it, the same way people recognize Xherdan Shaqiri or Enner Valencia as ‘tournament players’.
Gakpo, Gvardiol and Ounahi can of course do more than that.
It seems fair to end with mentions of Julián Álvarez and Enzo Fernández. The former completely changed Argentina’s style of play, giving them a tough press to deal with and freeing up Messi to do his thing. He scored some great goals that Lautaro Martinez simply wouldn’t have created. Fernández, named the Young Player of the Tournament, had hardly ever played for his country before scoring a brilliant goal off the bench against Mexico and then becoming an instrument in Lionel Scaloni’s fast-developing midfield. You can bet, with some certainty, that they will be vital assets when 2026 arrives.