North America emerging as leading candidate to host 2026 World Cup

ZURICH -- North America became a stronger candidate to host an expanded World Cup in 2026 after the FIFA Council agreed on Friday that European and Asian nations 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 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 together with Canada and Mexico.

FIFA favours co-hosting among regional neighbours, and a three-way bid could be more popular if the tournament grows to 40 or 48 teams under president Gianni Infantino's plans.

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.

But Infantino, who was elected this year after promising voters a 40-team World Cup, stopped short of declaring 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, CONCACAF, the regional body for North and Central America and the Carribean, has long been seen as the natural host for 2026, and its claim got stronger following Friday's developments. 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, which could be open to co-hosting with a neighbouring country.

"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."