So here’s a glimpse into the smallest World Cup in living memory – now we can all get ready for the biggest.
Doha’s towering skyscrapers, glittering stadiums and glittering metro stations are a thing of the past for football.
For all the talk of new horizons and “bringing people together”, the truth is that FIFA is very happy to say goodbye to Qatar, controversy and criticism.
Even before the bags were packed, thoughts were running towards the next incarnation of the event that would unite the world in passion.
The World Cup is in three countries, not one city. In 16 places, it’s split across four time zones and thousands of miles – rather than the distance between Selhurst Park and Kenilworth Road.
With 48 teams, as opposed to 32 this has been the norm since 1998. More Africa, Asia and the Americas. Even, for the first time, a guaranteed slot to Oceania.
And almost certainly the record is 104 matches and also 33 days.
12 will be a group of four but the real issues are in the next phase.
The easiest way is for the top two teams in each group, plus the eight best third-placed teams, to make it to the last 32 and eight matches, instead of seven, which is required to win.
However, there is some argument that the top eight group winners should automatically go through to the last 16, with the other four group winners plus the eight runners-up, joining them.
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That means 96 games, not 104 – still the biggest World Cup tournament to date, with only 64 in Qatar – but also causing problems.
Teams drawn in a ‘soft’ opening set who won all three matches easily will be rewarded for their luck in the draw, while also changing the concept that all sides must play the same number of matches to win football’s biggest prize.
Another option is to split the 24 competing teams into two halves, with the “winner” of the two divisions meeting in the final.
That would mean that the two best third-placed teams join in their half – which makes more sense if the tournament is split into ‘East’ and ‘West’ geographical divisions – even if they are not among the top eight third-placed teams overall.
But another factor that will be very different is the number of matches each day in the group stage.
Qatar has been condensed to 29 days, with four matches each day in the opening phase.
But the major European clubs will put great pressure on FIFA to prevent an expanded tournament that lasts more than a maximum of 33 days.
The solution is obvious – up to six matches each day in the opening round although that is more possible in 2026 than anywhere else possible in the future.
East coast cities like New York and Boston are five hours behind the UK, while Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco are another three hours behind.
One scenario would see the first game of the day, perhaps, Toronto kick off around noon local time, which is 5pm in the UK.
Matches could then start every two and a half hours in Atlanta, Houston, Mexico City and Vancouver, with the final game in San Francisco starting at 9:30pm local time – 5:30am at home. But there is still a problem for FIFA.
Broadcasters from major European nations will call for early kick-offs and the first three matches of the day – but you can’t have Spain, Germany, England, France, Portugal and the Netherlands all in the same half of the draw.
Likewise, South American fans would prefer the West Coast games later on.
FIFA attempted to justify the selection of Qatar by pointing to the limited distances teams had to cover and pay green, sustainability and carbon offset credentials.
In 2026, it will no longer be possible to drive between many cities. Everyone will have to cross Canada, Mexico and the states by plane.
Trying to catch a train from New York to Boston, let alone Seattle.
But it is up to Gianni Infantino & Co. to solve this problem. It won’t be easy.
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