The World Cup field will grow to 48 teams when the tournament lands in North America in 2026, opening the door to more countries and more players. But based on the results thus far in Russia, an expanded field probably will dilute the level of play, leading to more unwatchable blowouts.
Through Monday’s game 11 teams are winless in Russia and four haven’t scored. Three have given up at least five goals in a game and six matches have been decided by three goals or more.
And the confederations that have been the least successful will be rewarded come 2026. Africa, which has won only two of 12 games in Russia, will send nine teams to the World Cup in eight years. CONCACAF, the confederation that comprises North and Central America and the Caribbean, will have its entrants double to six.
CONCACAF teams have fared poorly in Russia with Panama and former Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo getting outscored 9-1 in two losses while Costa Rica, which lost only once in Brazil (on penalty kicks) is winless and goalless after two games in Russia.
Both teams will go home after their final group-play games this week. Mexico, the region’s third entrant, won its first two games — taking down reigning champion Germany in the process — and stands a good chance of advancing. Four years ago CONCACAF sent three teams to the knockout rounds; in this World Cup it will send only one, for the first time since 2006.
Major League Soccer also has had a poor World Cup. The league sent 19 players to Russia and all but four are certain to come back this week. And the 15 who are coming back — six each with Costa Rica and Panama, two with Peru and LAFC’s Omar Gaber with Egypt — have yet to see their teams earn a point.
The four remaining MLS players will square off Wednesday when Mexico, with LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the Galaxy duo of Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos, plays Sweden and Seattle Sounders midfielder Gustav Svensson.
Records and regression in TV ratings
There have been bright spots, though.
Telemundo drew an average of 6.6 million viewers for Saturday’s Mexico-South Korea match, making it the second-most-watched sporting event in the network’s history behind only last week’s Germany-Mexico match. The Mexico-South Korea audience peaked at 7.6 million.
But Telemundo‘s average TV audience of 2 million through the first 10 match days is down from Univison’s 3.5 million for the entire tournament in Brazil.
Saturday’s three matches on Fox, meanwhile, averaged nearly 3.9 million viewers, topped by an audience of 5.4 million for Germany’s stoppage-time win over Sweden. Viewership for that match peaked at more than 6.7 million, making it the most-watched World Cup group-stage match not involving a U.S. team since at least 1990.
Mexico’s win over South Korea pulled in nearly 4.7 million viewers on Fox, which drew an average audience of more than 2.1 million viewers through the first 10 days of play.
ESPN’s World Cup coverage averaged 4.6 million viewers four years ago, although that included a record 26.5 million for the tournament final.
Swiss trio fined
Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri received warnings and fines of 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,100) for unsporting behavior in a judgment Monday by FIFA’s disciplinary panel. Switzerland captain Stephan Lichtsteiner was warned and fined 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,050).
Xhaka and Shaqiri have ethnic Albanian heritage linked to Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize that independence.
Egypt keeper oldest to play in World Cup
Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary took the field for his team’s final group match Monday to become, at 45, the oldest player to appear in a World Cup. And though he saved one penalty shot, he couldn’t stop Saudi Arabia from winning 2-1 in a game matching teams that had already been eliminated.
“I want to thank my teammates.” El Hadary said. “It was a great honor for me to play.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.