Former Brazilian player Ronaldo (L) and FIFA president Gianni Infantino arrive for the official FIFA World Cup 2026 brand #WeAre26 campaign launch on Thursday.—AFP
Former Brazilian player Ronaldo (L) and FIFA president Gianni Infantino arrive for the official FIFA World Cup 2026 brand #WeAre26 campaign launch on Thursday.—AFP

LOS ANGELES: Teams at the expanded 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico will be based in regional clusters during the early rounds to ease travel, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Wednesday.

Speaking in Los Angeles to unveil the official logo and branding for the tournament, Infantino said the move was prompted by the scale of the 2026 finals.

For the first time the next World Cup will include 48 teams — up from 32 — and will be co-hosted by three countries, another first.

“The challenges will be the whole logistics around it,” Infantino said.

“It’s a continent — three countries and not three small countries either — three big countries.

“The distances, the time zones, the climatic differences too — altitude in Mexico, sea level in other parts.

“So for us it’s important to create the right environment for the teams and the fans to be put in the best possible conditions.

“Meaning not having to travel too much, especially at the beginning. So we will create some clusters where teams will be based depending on the draw and then they will play their games in that particular cluster.”

Infantino said travel, and the move towards basing teams in regions, had been discussed at a meeting in Doha last week of the 32 coaches involved in last year’s World Cup.

“This was one of the advantages of the World Cup in Qatar, where a player, one hour after the game, was in his bed,” he said.

“(In 2026) there will be some travel involved but we will coordinate that and make sure that it will be the best possible conditions for the teams.” Infantino meanwhile hopes the tournament can build on the success of the 1994 finals in the United States, which helped establish Major League Soccer in North America.

Asked what he wanted the legacy of 2026 to be, Infantino told AFP: “That football will be the number one sport in North America.” Infantino’s remarks came as FIFA rolled out a “green carpet” for celebrities and former players at the Griffith Observatory overlooking Los Angeles.

The gala event was held to unveil the official branding for the 2026 tournament.

Among the guests was former US international Alexi Lalas, one of the stars of 1994.

Lalas backed Infantino’s pledge to base teams in regions.

“At the risk of ‘grumpy old-manning it’, it’s not like these guys are sitting in the middle seat in economy on a budget airline or anything,” Lalas told AFP. “They’re on charter aircraft all over the place.

“But having said that, we’re obviously talking about six-hour trips, time-zone changes.

For a lot of players around the world that fundamentally changes the competition, so a regional type of situation makes sense.”

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2023

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