World Cup 2022 has concluded. At the end of it all, Argentina won its third World Cup. The stars shone, the shocking outcomes demonstrated that football is truly a global game, and some new names surfaced (though really, the story is Lionel Messi winning his first at the fifth attempt in a glittering career).
But now that Qatar 2022 is past and there are only 312 years before the next World Cup is held in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, it’s time to look ahead and make some way-too-early predictions for how that tournament will unfold in 2026.
Big Nation show up?
Every World Cup has at least one heavyweight nation that did not make it in, including Italy in 2018 and 2022 and Colombia, Chile, and Egypt in Qatar in 2022. However, with 48 participating nations instead of 32, it will be more difficult for most elite teams to fail to qualify for the 2026 World Cup.
There will be three additional spaces for Europe, two for South America, and four additional spots each for Asia and Africa. There will be three other CONCACAF qualifiers in addition to the hosts USA, Mexico, and Canada, so it would take an abysmal qualification campaign to miss out in 2026.
A larger quality gap between the top nations and those that only qualify due to the additional qualifying spots will be the drawback of an enlarged World Cup.
In Qatar, Japan defeated Germany and Spain, while Morocco shocked Belgium, Spain, and Portugal to go to the first-ever semifinals for Africa. However, would the eighth-best squad in Africa or Asia—Mali or the United Arab Emirates, respectively—really be competitive in 2026? Will New Zealand return from two previous World Cups without a victory—Oceania receives one guaranteed qualifying spot—finally claim a victory?
Larger World Cups provide more opportunities for nations to qualify, but once they do, they may face a challenging learning curve when competing with the best teams.
Prepare yourselves for Haaland v. Mbappe
In 2026, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will not face off, rather Erling Haaland will face off against Kylian Mbappe to determine who the greatest player in football is.
Norway hasn’t made the World Cup since 1998, but with striker Haaland of Manchester City and captain Martin Odegaard of Arsenal now in charge, it’s hard to think they won’t in 2026. The French striker Mbappe has already competed in two spectacular World Cup competitions, in 2018 and 2022, but Haaland is the only player now capable of dethroning him as football’s most thrilling star.
Haaland is necessary for the 2026 World Cup, and with his prodigious goal-scoring ability, Norway ought to be able to secure one of the 16 qualifying slots in Europe to guarantee that he competes on football’s grandest stage.
After losing the title in 2002, Brazil hopes to close the same gap in 2026 after ending a 24-year wait to win it again at USA 94. However, given Neymar’s advancing years and the likelihood that important players like Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, and Casemiro won’t be around in 2026, winning the World Cup looks like a pipe dream for this Selecao generation.
US big expectations?
Going into 2026, there are many reasons for optimism for the US, and this tournament has the potential to be the best for the USMNT in recent memory.
They do have problems to solve. They lack a proven goal scorer, like many other teams, and there are legitimate concerns about coach Gregg Berhalter’s capacity to lead the group to the next level. However, the US team is youthful and skilled, with players that frequently compete in Europe’s premier divisions like the UEFA Champions League.
The future is promising as players like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Timothy Weah, and Gio Reyna will all be at or near the top of their game in 2026. The USA can advance past the quarterfinals in 2026, a level they last reached in 2002, with home support and a favorable draw.
The Three Lions need redemption.
Regardless of whether Harry Kane plays or not, England will experience more World Cup heartbreak in 2026. It would be a major issue for England if the Tottenham attacker is still on the squad when the tournament begins — he will be 33 in July 2026 — since Kane’s goal threat has already begun to wane.
Kane has scored 15 goals for England since England lost to Italy in the Euro 2020 final in July 2021, however, seven of those goals have come from penalties, including two of the four goals he scored in a 10-0 victory against San Marino in November 2021. He is stooping lower to catch the ball and is no longer France’s center of attention as Olivier Giroud is.
However, without Kane, England lacks a consistent goal scorer, and a clear successor isn’t on the horizon. Soccer won’t return to England unless a new striker is found. Again.
Italy and Germany must bounce back.
Even though Germany, Spain, and Italy have won a combined nine World Cups, Qatar 2022 was a disappointment for all three of them. Italy, the champion of Euro 2020, failed to qualify, Germany lost in group play for the second straight tournament, and Spain was eliminated on penalties following a 0-0 draw with Morocco in the round of 16.
The 2014 World Cup champions Germany, driven by the spectacular talent of Jamal Musiala, will be strong and competitive in 2026. Germany coach Hansi Flick has already spoken of significant changes. Even if manager Luis Enrique won’t be there—he resigned after La Roja’s tournament exit—Spain has too much quality to remain down for long. Gavi, Pedri, Nico Williams, and Dani Olmo are all slated to be the core of the new squad.
As for Italy, they won’t make the same mistake again in a row by losing the World Cup. Italy needs to make a comeback, and they will.
The upcoming youngsters?
In Qatar 2022, players like Spain’s Gavi and Pedri, Germany’s Musiala, and England’s Jude Bellingham have already made their mark on the international scene. What about those young talents who weren’t able to participate in this World Cup but may be famous in 2026?
Watch out for Slovenian attacker Benjamin Sesko, a member of FC Salzburg and one of the most exciting young players in Europe. Although Brazilian striker Endrick is just 16 years old, his recent transfer to Real Madrid raises the possibility that he might play a significant role in Brazil’s ambitions for the 2026 World Cup when he will be 19 at that time.
Alejandro Garnacho, at 18 years old and a Manchester United player, will undoubtedly play a significant role in Argentina’s ambitions in 2026, while Florian Wirtz and Youssoufa Moukoko are expected to be well-known players in the German side by the time the next World Cup arrives.
Cole Palmer of Manchester City is another young player who has 2026 with the England national team in mind.
Who could be the one big winner?
France. When in doubt, support France. When the next World Cup rolls around, Kylian Mbappe, who will be only 25 years old, will be supported by what seems like an infinite supply of fresh talent from within the French system. However, 2026 will also see competition from Germany and Italy.