Copa América refs, players and fans are suffering in U.S. heat — with 2026 World Cup looming

KANSAS CITY, KS - JUNE 25: Canada goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau (16) attempts to a collapsed referee during the COPA America group A match between Canada and Peru on Tuesday June 25, 2024 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, KS.  (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The 6 p.m. sun beat down on MetLife Stadium, and the Argentina fans, eager but already exhausted, sought shelter. They milled about the vast concrete expanse that surrounds this 2026 World Cup venue; but while some sang songs on Tuesday, others huddled underneath spindly trees, in slivers of shade, or behind cars, beneath anything that could shield them from the blaze.

Beads of sweat rolled down their necks. A thousand miles away in Kansas City, Peruvian fans also dripped, and vacated their seats at a Copa América game to take cover.

Midway through the first half of that game, an assistant referee collapsed. He is now stable, organizers confirmed, but “suffered from dehydration.”

Two days earlier, Ronald Araújo suffered, too. “I was a bit dizzy,” Araújo said after a Copa América game in Miami Gardens, Florida, which he departed at halftime. He is a robust professional athlete, a defender for FC Barcelona and Uruguay, a physical specimen in sublime shape, but his blood pressure dropped as he struggled with South Florida’s humidity.

It was “a bit of a scare,” Araújo said.

A scare for him, and for CONMEBOL, the South American soccer confederation that runs Copa América.

And for FIFA.

The men’s World Cup is coming to North America two summers from now. Heat is one of several looming threats that could derail it. Of the 11 U.S. cities set to host the tournament in June and July 2026, 10 have experienced temperatures over 90 degrees Farenheit this past week; some have topped 100 degrees.

Canada's Kamal Miller (4) and teammate Jacob Shaffelburg try to cool down from the heat during the second half of a Copa America Group A soccer match in Kansas City, Kan., Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

Heat, of course, is neither a new issue nor an exclusively American issue. It has impacted all sorts of sporting events in the past. But it has become an even more acute issue over the six years since FIFA awarded this World Cup to the U.S., Canada and Mexico. And it will be an especially difficult one for World Cup organizers to navigate in the States.

It is an issue for players, who run and sprint and exert more than ever before in soccer’s multi-century history. Seven of the 11 U.S. stadiums set to host games — and 11 of 16 across the three countries — are open-air, outdoors and susceptible to weather.

It will also be an issue for millions of fans traveling to attend games, even in the U.S. metropolitan areas with closed, climate-controlled NFL stadiums — Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles.

FIFA, of course, has already chosen the stadiums. The biggest variable still up for discussion is kickoff times. They can’t completely neutralize the threat of heat, but, well, a game in Kansas City at 8 p.m. local time is probably safer than one at 5 p.m. — which is when Peru-Canada kicked off.

“We have, of course, to take into account the weather conditions, the stadiums, those who have a roof,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said when asked about extreme heat shortly after unveiling the 2026 World Cup venues back in 2022. He indicated that “closed” stadiums were ones “where you can maybe play earlier in the afternoon,” while outdoor grounds were ones “where you have to play in the evening.”

The challenge, and the tension, is threefold:

  1. Afternoon games are better for television audiences in a priority market: Europe. Say, for example, that Germany and Nigeria get drawn into Group E, and are set to meet at Arrowhead Stadium in KC. An 8 p.m. match would start at 3 a.m. in Berlin and 2 a.m. in Lagos. But a match optimized for primetime in those two countries would have to begin smack dab in the middle of the afternoon on June 20 — when, in 2024, it was over 90 degrees and felt even hotter.

  2. The coolest U.S. summer climates are on the West Coast, where the time difference to most of Europe is nine hours. With the local audience in mind, would FIFA really start a World Cup game at noon or 1 p.m. on a weekday? (The answer is yes, FIFA can and has; it’s not ideal.)

  3. Indoor stadiums are better for afternoon matches. But indoor stadiums, logically, are in some of the hottest host cities, where merely walking to the matches or hanging around outside them could be uncomfortable or even treacherous for fans.

With four games per day for most of the group stage, and with broadcasters preferring each match in its own unique window, some afternoon games are probably inevitable. Figuring out which ones will be when, and where, is a mind-bogglingly complex puzzle that FIFA hasn’t yet figured out, and that won’t come together until after the World Cup draw, likely in December 2025.

Officials, of course, have already discussed it at length. They say they’ve studied temperature and humidity indexes going back more than 20 years to prepare. But, to some extent, they will have to decide between appeasing broadcasters — who collectively pay FIFA billions of dollars — and keeping participants safe.

Which will they choose?

CONMEBOL, it seems, didn’t put enough thought into the latter.

Hopefully, FIFA is paying attention.