Clear your head and think of how long an Olympics takes. Not in terms of days, but how long it seems to last in your mind.
There is the anticipation that starts about a couple or three days out. There’s the giddy feeling of liftoff as you watch the opening ceremony. There’s a novelty about the first few events you take in. It doesn’t matter whether you like the sports or not. You have this, ‘Life is good because the Olympics are on’ feeling. That’s the best moment.
Then you get into the meat of it. Events and storylines are hitting you hard and fast. You start to lose track of who won what when and why you should care. After that, the home stretch. You’re weary now, getting selective about what you watch, but don’t want to flag at the final turn. You’re a completist.
By the time it’s ending, you’re very ready for it to be done. The closing ceremony is often as dreary as the opening was uplifting. You’ve run the spectrum from ‘I can’t get enough of this’ to ‘When, for the love of God, will it end?’
The next Winter Olympics will last 2 1/2 weeks. It falls over three weekends. As per the usual, it will still manage to feel (in good ways and bad) as if it goes on forever.
On Tuesday, FIFA decided that the next men’s World Cup will go on much longer than that. It will stretch over the best part of the summer of 2026 – early June to mid-late July. Thirty-nine days in all. One-hundred-and-four games over 5 1/2 weeks.
In five weeks, you can train a puppy and learn to drive. Both those things. People have honest-to-God, life-changing love affairs that last a month. If you gave me two weeks and enough financial incentive, I could write you two bad novels or one semi-decent one.
If an Olympics can seem like forever, a World Cup that lasts more than five weeks might as well be forever.
Actually, why bother stopping? Just make the World Cup a permanent state of being. Have the final on a Sunday, take Monday off so that everyone can relax at home and start qualifying for the next one on Tuesday. Forget total football. How about endless football?
FIFA’s original idea for the tournament Canada will share with the U.S. and Mexico was a quickie first round featuring about a hundred groups of three. But some bright bulb realized that in a group of three, it’s not possible to schedule all the final group games at the same time. If it’s not possible to schedule the games at the same time, there is the possibility of a fix. If there is the possibility of a fix anywhere in the vicinity of FIFA, there will 100-per-cent-guaranteed be a fix.
So it had to be 12 groups of four. That’s already too many teams. Just because you call it a World Cup doesn’t mean everyone in the world needs to be in it.
At this rate, World Cup qualification will soon be a roll call of countries who are signed on to the UN charter. Do you believe in global co-operation? Amazing. Welcome to the World Cup. If you didn’t remember to bring jerseys, someone will scare up something for you to wear.
Twelve groups of four should make it simple – two teams from each group advance.
Sadly, not simple. Eight third-place teams will advance as well. That makes it 32 teams in the knockout round.
You know how many teams qualified France 98, the consensus best World Cup ever? Thirty-two. You know how many made the knockout round? Sixteen.
Only FIFA could look at something that is universally acknowledged as close to perfect and say, ‘You know what would be even better? Less excitement. Lower stakes. Minimal tension. Just less in general. But also, much, much more.’
I ask you this sincerely – how much soccer can you enjoy? More importantly, how much time can you take off work? Are you planning to have a job in the summer of 2026? Because if not, you could fill that blank space in your CV with ‘volunteer soccer analyst’. You can stay home and watch Angola-Vatican City so that others may glean your wisdom.
The beauty of an Olympics or a World Cup or an iconic annual tournament such as Wimbledon is its rarity. In a world filled with sports bumpf, here’s the real thing. It demands your attention.
A crucial component of that rarity is brevity. A great entertainment happening should not try your patience. It should know to finish its drink and leave before viewers start stacking the dishwasher.
The 2026 World Cup will test those boundaries like nothing of its stature has done before. It will be an endless deluge of games, too many of them between mediocre teams from countries that have no chance. It’s all filler with just a bit of killer.
By the time you get to the good stuff, people will have burned out. You’ll be begging for them to finish already so that you can get around to the important business of not caring about August baseball. We already had too much bland, flavourless sports. But now we are degrading the high-test stuff as well.
As usual, FIFA had about a bunch of great reasons for the switch – “sporting integrity, player welfare, team travel, commercial and sporting attractiveness … team and fan experience.”
Wouldn’t it just have been easier to say ‘money’? They want more money. Doesn’t everyone?
But everyone doesn’t have a slam-dunk event like the World Cup. Everyone wouldn’t be in a rush to melt down their golden calf to see if there’s even more gold inside. And very few people would agree that the best way to improve a dramatic masterpiece is to add a bunch of superfluous characters, pack in four shows a day and double the runtime.