The 2022 World Cup in Qatar had 32 countries playing 64 games.
The 2026 edition, to be hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico, jumped to 48 countries playing 104 games.
The 2030 extravaganza will also have 48 countries playing 104 games but they will be played in six host countries on three continents.
Welcome to the zaniest World Cup yet.
In 2030, Morocco, Spain and Portugal will play hosts, as will Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The opening game will be held in Uruguay, marking the 100th anniversary of the first World Cup which was played in Montevideo in 1930 and won by Uruguay.
The second game will be held in Argentina. The third game is in Paraguay to recognise the country’s position as the birthplace of the South American federation CONMEBOL.
Since the three South American countries will host just one match each, the 101 remaining matches will be in Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
It will be the first time a World Cup is played on more than one continent. It will also be the first time in the 22 World Cups held thus far that one World Cup is held in more than two countries following the 2002 edition that was hosted jointly by South Korea and Japan.
By 2026, the number of host countries and continents will increase from what they were in Qatar but they will not match the surge in land mass of the 2030 World Cup.
President Gianni Infantino of FIFA, football’s world governing body, last week said the decision to expand the 2030 World Cup was led “by a need for the tournament to be more inclusive”.
And so it will be. Ever since he was elected in 2016, Infantino’s football motto has been the bigger the better. The Africa Cup of Nations got bigger, as will the Club World Cup and now, the World Cup. Under Infantino, the name of the game - excluding the profits that come with tournaments with more clubs and national teams - is expanding global participation.
We went through this before when the composition of the expanded 2026 World Cup was announced. We said it was rather ridiculous to let in nearly 25 per cent of the world into a World Cup, and that 48 countries will surely dilute the tournament. Because it’s the most prestigious football championship in the world, with most of the world’s best players and teams, the World Cup should be the most difficult football event to enter and the hardest to win.
While the 2030 version is not increasing its games or teams, a logistics nightmare awaits all the same. The rise in the number of continents and hosts throws up many challenges. The details are not yet in but it is clear there will be significant extra travel required for all involved, most especially the players and the fans following their team. The commute required between continents and countries could prove exceptionally demanding and costly. Spain and Portugal border each other as the Iberian Peninsula, and what separates Spain and Morocco is a 14-kilometre body of water. However, the average flight time between Argentina and Spain is 13 hours.
There will be fans out there who like this wide-ranging World Cup, particularly those in the host countries, but there must be those who don’t like a World Cup in two countries, let alone six.
Time zones could also be problematic. There is, citing one example, a five-hour time difference between Paraguay and Spain.
The extra travel has also raised questions over FIFA’s commitment to sustainability after its claims that Qatar 2022 would be carbon neutral were called “dangerous and misleading” by environmentalists. 2030 could be the most emitting tournament it has ever staged.
Then there is the romanticism of it all. World Cups are synonymous with their hosts, their staging of the event and the opportunity for teams and fans to engage in the wider culture of just one country. With several host nations, it is likely many will have different experiences of the same tournament.
One of the most beautiful things about World Cup football is the culture and atmosphere of the host nation as a whole in producing a great tournament. When they spread it thin across several countries and continents, the tournament loses some of the magic.
There is also the unfair advantage of home field advantage. One host meant that only one country could enjoy that benefit. In 2030, six countries will get to play on their territory.
One thing that this stretched out 2030 World Cup has probably produced is that it paved the way for just one of a handful of countries to host the 2034 edition. Due to FIFA’s rotation policy, the continents of Europe, South America and Africa, plus North America before them, are now removed from the 2034 picture. Only member associations from Asia and Oceania are eligible to host 2034.
As of writing, only Saudi Arabia and Australia have officially announced their intention to bid for the 2034 edition.
Naturally, the staging of a World Cup in six countries along three continents has been a goldmine of sarcasm and witticism from the social media crowd. A few choice selections: “Why don’t they host it all over the world and in 80 days? Rename it the Jules Verne trophy.”
“I’m thinking of hosting a dinner party. The starters will be served in Portsmouth, the main course in Norwich, the dessert in Carlisle, and cheese and biscuits will be served in Riyadh.”
“200 years from now, FIFA will announce that the next World Cup will be played on the moon.”
Puns aside, there will be some bizarre twists come 2030. The change of hemispheres means some teams could find themselves in the curious situation of playing in two different seasons at the same World Cup. Southern hemisphere nations Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay descend into winter in June and July when it is summer in Morocco, Portugal and Spain.
Those who will feature in one of the opening three matches in South America before resuming the rest of their tournament in Europe or North Africa would switch from winter to summer in a matter of days.
The opening ceremony will be held in Spain, Portugal or Morocco despite the fact the first game will take place almost 6,000 miles away in Uruguay.
And since the hosts automatically qualify for World Cups, the three South American countries hosting 2030 are getting straight into the tournament simply by holding one match.
On a saner note, the increased scale of the 2030 tournament means multi-nation bids may become the wave of the future; they could attract more prospective bidders. Six-week World Cups will be increasingly unwieldy and extremely costly for just one country to hold all by itself.
Even if served with a slice of jokes on the side.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly