Football leaders in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are in talks about joining forces to stage the biggest-ever edition of the World Cup in 2026, when the field of sport's most-watched event will be increased to 48 teams.
The U.S. would be the tournament's main host with the most games, including the final. Should the plan be approved, the 2026 World Cup would be the first time three countries have staged the same event.
"I think any one of the countries could probably put on a good show on their own," Victor Montagliani, the head of Concacaf, the regional body responsible for football in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, told reporters. "But I think there seems to be a prevailing thought that a confederation-type bid with multiple hosts is probably good for football."
The bid has a strong chance of success as Europe and Asia are excluded following the selection of Russia and Qatar as hosts of the next two editions, in 2018 and 2022, respectively. Those tournaments will feature 32 teams. The U.S. hosted the tournament in 1994, while Mexico held the event in 1970 and 1986. FIFA will announce the 2026 tournament's hosts in 2020.
Montagliani huddled with leaders of the U.S. and Mexican football bodies at Zurich's Hyatt hotel late into the night on Monday, hours before FIFA confirmed its board had unanimously agreed to increase the number of participants in the World Cup for the first time since 1998. The decision follows a 2015 election pledge by FIFA's new president, Gianni Infantino, to grant more nations access to the tournament.
A formal proposal is likely to be formulated and presented to Concacaf's other members around the time of the next FIFA Congress set for May in Bahrain, Montagliani said.
Qatar, a tiny, gas-rich emirate, secured hosting rights after winning a controversial bidding competition in 2010 ahead of an offer from the U.S. Allegations of wrongdoing by voters -- including some who were later charged in a separate corruption case by the U.S. -- led FIFA to change the way World Cup hosts are selected. The 2026 winner will be picked via a poll of the organization's entire 211-nation membership, rather than just its executive board.
Infantino has headed FIFA since February, following 2015's U.S. corruption indictments that led to the departure of the organization's previous leadership. His expansion plan was unanimously approved Tuesday by an enlarged 36-person ruling council after FIFA supplied them with a 64-page document outlining different scenarios.
"The decision was made on the facts and figures and not on a wink and a nod, maybe the time has come when we don't do things on winks and nods anymore," Montagliani said.
A consensus has built for Concacaf to get a minimum of six places at the 48-team tournament, with another spot available via a playoff with a nation from another region. Mexico and Canada would seek automatic slots to the 2026 World Cup should they partner with the U.S.
Europe, which currently fields 13 teams at the tournament, has made a pitch to increase that to 16. Africa is looking to increase its five slots to as many as nine. Asia is seeking eight guaranteed places and one play off slot, while Oceania, the smallest of FIFA's six regions, will receive a guaranteed berth for the first time. A final decision should be made by May.
"No guarantees have been made," Infantino said. "The only sure thing is that obviously with 48 teams everyone will have a bit more than they have today."
With 80 matches instead of 64, FIFA forecasts the equivalent of $1 billion in extra revenue from broadcast, sponsorship and ticket sales. That compares with a $5.5 billion projection for next year's tournament in Russia. The lucrative U.S. market may mean the figures could be even higher.