World Cup: Canada, curses and title tilts – how the 2026 hosts are shaping up four years out

A November World Cup is a new concept the sporting world is adjusting to in 2022, but it will be all change again four years from now.

The tournament is expanding for the first time since 1998, meaning 48 teams will enter the 2026 finals.

And that will also see multiple host nations for only the second time in World Cup history, with Canada, Mexico and the United States sharing duties.

Unlike Qatar, who were largely starting from scratch, the three countries at least have a past record in the World Cup, with all three qualifying for this year's competition.

Far more established in the world game, the scale of the task before the hosts off the pitch is a little more straightforward, given the vast array of finals-ready stadia.

On the pitch, however, Canada, Mexico and the USA each have work to do to ensure their teams can leave a lasting impression – although they will hope Qatar 2022 is a crucial step along the way.

Herdman the key to Canada's upturn

There is understandable excitement around this Canada side heading into just their second World Cup in Qatar, with their squad headlined by two star attackers in Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David who still may not have reached their peaks by the time they head home in 2026.

But perhaps more important than any one player is the man who picks them – that is certainly the belief of goalkeeper Milan Borjan.

Asked to explain Canada's astonishing performance in 2022 qualifying, Borjan replied: "I can just say two words: John Herdman. That's it."

Coach Herdman's Canada squad may be new to World Cups, but he is not. Before his appointment in charge of the men's team in 2018, the one-time Sunderland youth coach led Canada's women's side to the 2015 quarter-finals. Herdman previously went to two tournaments with New Zealand Women, too.

In Qatar, he will become the first coach to go to both the men's and women's World Cups, and Canada will certainly hope he is still in place next time around.

Although Herdman is under contract through to 2026, that is no given, for his outstanding achievements during his four-year tenure have unsurprisingly prompted links to club jobs in England.

Herdman was not shy in targeting qualification for Qatar when he took this role in 2018, but his stated aim in CONCACAF was merely to "get ahead of Costa Rica", believing he needed "eight to 12 years" just to "get on par with" Mexico and the USA.

Those relatively modest ambitions were understandable, given Canada had not qualified for the World Cup since 1986 – when they failed to earn a point or even score a goal – and had not appeared in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying since 1998, when they finished in last place.

World Cup 1986
World Cup 1986

However, Herdman's side surpassed all expectations ahead of Qatar, topping the table above Mexico and the United States while scoring the most goals in the region and conceding the fewest.

"Success in CONCACAF doesn't translate to success at the World Cup," the coach told FIFA+, though, as he recognises Canada are "a genuine underdog in every single game" this year. The "qualitative gap" Herdman identifies will potentially be very evident in their opener against Belgium, but he is determined to inspire "another level of performance".

That may be easier in 2026 matches in Vancouver, given Canada's progress to this stage relied so heavily on their home form. Their final six home qualifiers were each won and by an aggregate scoreline of 16-2.

Still, for all his realism in public, Herdman has revealed his private target – disclosed in discussions with the team back in 2018 – was always to "get a result and progress out of a World Cup group stage". And now, "they [the players] believe".

Should Canada deliver on that belief – despite a difficult year in which a dispute with the federation robbed them of their June window – a patient nation's optimism will soar to new heights ahead of a home tournament.

El Tri have curse to conquer in Qatar

Mexico are everything Canada are not, regulars both at the finals – this will be their 17th World Cup and eighth in a row – and in the knockout rounds.

Yet El Tri have only a single win to their name beyond the group stage, with that coming at home in 1986. In the past seven tournaments, they have repeatedly butted their heads against the glass ceiling of the last 16, frustrated by the curse of 'el quinto partido' – the elusive fifth game.

It might be expected then that Mexico's sole focus would be on reaching the quarter-finals, but past misfortunes have rarely quelled pre-tournament optimism in a football-mad country.

Ahead of Russia 2018 – where Mexico beat defending champions Germany in the first round but lost to Brazil in the second – Javier Hernandez and Rafael Marquez each outlined ambitions to take the trophy home.

Brazil 2-0 Mexico
Brazil 2-0 Mexico

As 2022 coach Tata Martino attempts to encourage calm, there will undoubtedly be millions more Mexicans dreaming of a December 18 party.

After Russia and Qatar, a World Cup in Mexico – the third, a new record – may be more akin to Brazil 2014, with an almost unbearable weight of home-nation expectation. For that reason, Martino's men badly need to break their curse next month, at the very least.

That long-awaited achievement might not represent everything the country craves but would mean a giant stride towards FMF president Yon De Luisa's goal, as he told The Athletic, to "be one of the top eight teams in the world" in four years' time.

They could well have a very different team by then, even if players like Hirving Lozano and Edson Alvarez are still likely to have key roles.

The average age of Mexico's starting XIs in qualifying was 28 years and 152 days – standing in stark contrast to the future-proof United States (23y 302d) – while Martino will be gone this December barring a remarkable turn of events.

Yet Mexican fans have never been overly concerned by the identity of their personnel or any perceived talent deficit, believing they have instead been denied to this point by bad luck and bad decisions.

Should that turn, they hope, there will be no stopping El Tri.

Russia zeroes hoping to be home heroes

The United States travel to Qatar with neither the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Canada nor the all-consuming expectation of Mexico. That can wait another four years; for now, they're just relieved to be back.

After six straight finals appearances – among them a 2002 run that included their famous second-round defeat of El Tri – a shock loss to Trinidad and Tobago in 2018 qualifying saw the American side join their Canadian counterparts as mere spectators when the world converged on Russia.

"It was obviously a step back," now coach Gregg Berhalter told the Guardian, "but it wasn't crippling. What I think it provided was motivation for this next generation of players."

And according to Berhalter, this generation – with Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie already at elite European clubs – will "be in its prime in 2026".

Gregg Berhalter
Gregg Berhalter

Although qualification for Qatar was only clinched in unconvincing fashion in March, the confidence that was rocked in Couva five years ago is slowly being recovered, ready for a full-blown assault on a home tournament.

First, Berhalter says, the team must "perform well at the 2022 World Cup"; only then, "the next step would be to contend in 2026".

"There's a lot of work to be done to actually get there," he added. "It's a lot easier to say than to actually do it."

Bruce Arena, the coach against Trinidad, dismissed discussion of 2026 title aspirations as "stupid talk", but the Guardian's 2021 feature surveyed several of Berhalter's squad members, with each of them excitedly talking up the chances of a team who have not scored a goal beyond the last 16 since their semi-final at the inaugural 1930 tournament.

Still, the players, like their coach, are realistic about what's required this year to tee up a challenge further down the line.

Tyler Adams described the "huge" importance of first experiencing a World Cup in Qatar, for each of the title winners of the 21st century have reached at least the last 16 in the prior tournament, setting an obvious target for the USA.

Of course, though, the last champions to come in cold, without playing a knockout game four years prior, were France in 1998... playing as hosts.