2026 World Cup headed to North America (and likely Atlanta)

The World Cup is coming to North America -- and a key part of it perhaps to Atlanta -- in eight years.

Member nations of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, voted Wednesday in Moscow to play the 2026 men’s World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The three nations combined on a joint bid to host the tournament, one of the world’s largest sporting events, and defeated a competing bid from Morocco, 134 votes to 65 votes.

The North American bid proposed a prominent role for Atlanta, suggesting Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as sites of the semifinal matches. It also suggested that either Atlanta or Dallas could host the tournament’s international broadcast center.

While those proposals are subject to further negotiation and other U.S. cities could emerge as semifinal options -- a FIFA evaluation report also mentioned Boston and Washington as possibilities -- Atlanta’s chances appear strong. The North American bid cited “geographic location, travel distances and stadium capacity” as reasons for pitching Atlanta and Arlington as the semifinals sites.

Atlanta also could host some matches earlier than the semifinals.

FIFA’s vote on the 2026 hosts came on the eve of the start of this year’s World Cup in Russia.

Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council and chairman of the city’s World Cup  committee, said he was “thrilled” about North America winning the bid and what it could mean for Atlanta.

“We have taken one step closer to hosting part of the tournament,” Corso said.

The U.S./Canada/Mexico bid names 23 cities in the three nations as candidates to host World Cup matches and says the number will be whittled to 16 “official host cities” by June 2021, including at least 10 in the U.S.

The North American bid’s recommendation of Atlanta as a semifinals site, although not binding, gives local organizers much cause for optimism.

“I think that (recommendation) makes all the sense in the world, given our infrastructure to host the biggest sporting events in the world, what our community has in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and what we have in Atlanta United and what they have done to raise our soccer profile, not only nationally but globally,” Corso said.

But he added, “I don’t think you can take anything as a lock. There’s still work to be done, not just here in Atlanta but among other cities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. We look forward to jumping in to that as soon as everyone is ready after (this year’s World Cup) concludes.”

Corso said the costs of hosting World Cup games here would be funded in part from a portion of the Atlanta hotel-motel tax that is designated for use in attracting major events. Atlanta’s 2019 Super Bowl and 2020 Final Four will be funded in part from the same tax.

“We’ve been told during the bid process (the World Cup) is on the level of a Super Bowl,” Corso said. “We have not gotten into too much detail on that yet, but we will during this next phase of the process.”

A FIFA committee made a one-day visit to Atlanta in April and gave Mercedes-Benz Stadium high marks. A video shown by the U.S./Canada/Mexico bid group at Wednesday’s FIFA meeting in Moscow prominently included images of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The bid anticipates competition among stadiums for roles in the tournament, stating: “The (joint) bid offers FIFA 23 qualified stadiums – more than the required number -- and all are ready to compete to offer the best possible experience for players and officials, fans, partners, media, and other stakeholders, giving FIFA maximum flexibility and leverage. The (joint) bid will work with FIFA to select the final 16 stadiums for the competition.”

For the 2026 World Cup, the number of participating teams will increase from 32 to 48 and the number of matches from 64 to 80. Ten matches will be played in Canada, 10 in Mexico and 60 in the U.S. The bid proposed MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., as the site of the final match, although a FIFA report also mentioned Los Angeles and Dallas (Arlington) as options for the final.

The 2026 event will mark the second time the U.S. has hosted the men’s World Cup, the other in 1994.

FIFA members’ votes were cast, tabulated and announced just before 7 a.m. EDT Wednesday, whereupon Atlanta United president Darren Eales immediately tweeted the outcome was “brilliant news for the sport in this country.”

U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro concurred, saying on a conference call: “We believe this event ... will become transformational for the sport (in the U.S.).”