Even expanded World Cup no sure thing for Canada

Like it or not, a 48-nation World Cup is coming in 2026. Does the expansion give Canada a better chance of qualifying, or is the country's best chance at participating still as a potential co-host of soccer's biggest event?

Country's best chance at participating might be as a co-host of the 2026 event

Ian Hume (7) and the rest of Canada's men's national team exit the field in 2012 after failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. (Esteban Felix/Canadian Press)

The question is not if it's right or wrong. It's happening and all of us need to wrap our soccer heads around the looming onset of a 48-nation World Cup.

We have some time to adjust to the reality. FIFA's new-look showpiece, featuring 16 preliminary groups of three teams each, won't be with us until 2026.

And chances are it will be close to home. Where better than the New World to launch an updated version of an historic event which, by then, will be approaching its 100th birthday?

With 80 games spread over 32 days, there are legitimate grounds to support a multi-national approach to hosting. There's no question the Americans can and might go it alone, but with Canada's Victor Montagliani now in charge of CONCACAF there is reason to suspect Canada and perhaps Mexico might be part of a larger North American bid.

Montagliani's "ONE CONCACAF" mission statement could hardly be better demonstrated than presenting FIFA with a trilateral bid, guaranteeing full stadia, state of the art media and established infrastructure, capable of accommodating 48 national teams and their masses of adoring, travelling fans.

Does bigger mean better?

The correct question is of course: Does bigger mean better?

Why on earth do we need to supersize the World Cup when it has been working perfectly well for close to a century? Why dilute the level of competition and lower the qualification bar for what has always been a stage on which only the best are invited to perform?

I've been doing the math. Even a 48-team format represents fewer than 23 per cent of FIFA's current membership. In other words, more than 75 per cent of the world will remain on the outside looking in when 2026 rolls around. On that basis it will still be tough to qualify and that's just the way it should be.

Let's not be naïve. Is it about the money? Of course it is. FIFA isn't a charity; it's a business. A business, I'll grant you, mired in years of scandal and now under new management, desperately trying to shake off its ugly, self-inflicted reputation.

But it's also a business that gives back to its stakeholders. In some parts of the world entire national associations depend on FIFA handouts for their survival. Much of that revenue is generated by the World Cup, so the bigger the profit, the larger the bonus. Call it a cash grab if you want, but as long as the bulk of the windfall is used for local soccer development, I really don't see a problem.

What does this all mean for Canada? Two thoughts immediately spring to mind. First, a successful multinational bid for 2026 would mean Canada would qualify as a co-host and frankly, after 40 years of futility, every Canadian soccer fan should be jumping for joy.

I love observing the World Cup in Canada. The fan experience here, I contend, is unique. Flags of every nation adorning thousands of vehicles are a testament to Canada's multiculturalism, tolerance and inclusivity. There are plenty of countries where the wrong flag or the wrong t-shirt can lead to big trouble.

Canada's road won't get easier

I also long for the day when the Canadian flag is also a part of the World Cup celebration. In a country where just about everyone is an immigrant, the time to proudly display the Maple Leaf alongside Brazil, Germany, Italy and a host of others is long overdue.

Second, Canada's road to the World Cup won't get any easier. The CONCACAF region may get two extra slots at the expanded tournament, but Team Canada still comes up short in my estimation.

Canada has failed to make The Hex for 20 years, so if it cannot compete in its own region, World Cup qualification will remain out of reach. Only serious amounts of time, money, commitment and professional development will make any tangible difference. It is doable and the prospect of co-hosting in 2026 could be a catalyst for real change.

Like it or loathe it, the World Cup is reinventing itself. It might have shootouts to decide group games. It might have Iceland and Wales and a host of other nations whom, given a chance, can rise to the occasion and make our spirits soar. It might even have Canada.

Now wouldn't that be a thing.


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