The world of sports has always been a battleground for champions, where athletes give their all to reach the pinnacle of their performance. However, as we approach the 2026 men’s World Cup, a new opponent has emerged on the field, one that’s not easily defeated: the climate crisis.
In 1994, during the World Cup held in the United States, Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton famously criticized Fifa’s policy of not allowing drinks bottles on the pitch. His concern was reasonable back then, but it pales in comparison to the challenges athletes face today due to the escalating climate crisis.
Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev’s dire warning, “One player is going to die,” serves as a stark reminder of the perilous conditions athletes are encountering. The scorching heat, suffocating humidity, and extreme weather patterns are no longer isolated incidents but are becoming the new norm for sports events worldwide.
The 2026 men’s World Cup, scheduled to take place across Canada, the United States, and Mexico, is gearing up to be a colossal sporting extravaganza. With 48 teams set to compete in 104 matches over six summer weeks, the scale of the tournament is unprecedented. However, the timing of this event might be its Achilles’ heel.
In the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar, the competition was shifted from the scorching summer months of June and July to November and December to protect players and fans from the blistering heat, where temperatures often soared above 40C and occasionally even hit 50C. But as we’ve witnessed, the climate crisis isn’t going away. The summer of 2026 promises to be another scorcher, and Fifa could be facing yet another challenge.
Leading sports scientists are sounding the alarm bells. They point to recent extreme heatwaves as evidence that climate change is already impacting sports. Record temperatures of 48C were recorded in Phoenix, Arizona, and in Texas, temperatures above 38C persisted for 27 consecutive days, leading to the closure of businesses and public facilities. The US government’s Heat Index, which factors in humidity, places readings of 32C at ‘extreme caution’ for sporting activities and 39C at ‘danger.’
Miami, one of the 2026 host cities, has consistently registered Heat Index values of 38C or higher for over a month. Nearly 100 million people experienced very poor air quality this summer due to Canadian wildfires, with smoke spreading across multiple cities, including some World Cup host cities like Vancouver, Seattle, and New York.
Mike Tipton, a professor specializing in extreme temperature impacts on the human body, raises valid concerns. He emphasizes that playing in extreme temperatures would necessitate changes in performance and strategy. “You simply cannot physically achieve what needs to be achieved and play the same game as you would play in Liverpool in the winter as you would under a ‘heat dome’ in America in the summer,” he asserts.
The historical record backs up these concerns. The 1994 World Cup in the United States saw on-field temperatures exceeding 100F during mid-afternoon matches, with dozens of fans treated for heat-related stress and hospitalizations. It’s clear that extreme heat poses significant risks to both players and spectators.
And then there’s the issue of smoke from wildfires. The Canadian wildfire season, fueled by above-average temperatures, has reached unprecedented levels. Fires have consumed nearly 15 million hectares of land, leading to air-quality alerts in 18 US states, cancellations of sports events, and disruptions in World Cup host cities.
Professor Michael Koehle, a respiratory health expert, emphasizes that being exposed to wildfire smoke over consecutive days “will have health consequences.” Managing such disruptions at short notice during the World Cup would be a logistical nightmare.
Critics argue that Fifa must address its own emissions. The 2026 World Cup is projected to be the most emitting tournament ever staged by Fifa. Claims that the 2022 Qatar World Cup would be carbon-neutral were heavily criticized by environmentalists, and Fifa was found to have made “unsubstantiated claims” about the tournament’s reduced climate impact.
As we reflect on these challenges, it’s evident that the climate crisis is knocking on the doors of our sporting arenas. While Fifa has already implemented some measures to mitigate heat-related issues, such as water breaks and climatic controls in stadiums, the fundamental question remains: Is the timing of the 2026 World Cup, in the midst of a climate crisis, ideal?
Fifa vice-president Victor Montagliani suggests that climate-controlled stadiums could be the solution, but questions about energy consumption and the provision of water for the fans still linger. Moving the tournament to a different time of year is also an option but comes with its own set of challenges, including sub-zero temperatures in some host cities.
In the end, the 2026 men’s World Cup will be a test of how the world’s most popular sport confronts the climate crisis. As Gary Lineker, former England player, aptly puts it, “I’d like to see Fifa worry more about climate change generally; it’s something Fifa really need to look at.”
While football alone can’t solve the global climate crisis, it can set an example by taking proactive steps to minimize its environmental impact and ensure the safety and well-being of athletes and fans. The 2026 World Cup could be the stage where this crucial conversation takes center field, demonstrating that even the world of sports must adapt to a changing climate.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about World Cup 2026
What are the concerns surrounding the 2026 men’s World Cup and the climate crisis?
The concerns primarily revolve around extreme heat and poor air quality due to the climate crisis. Rising temperatures, as evidenced by record highs in cities like Phoenix and prolonged heatwaves, could significantly affect the safety and performance of players, officials, and spectators. Additionally, wildfires in Canada have led to widespread smoke, impacting air quality in several host cities.
How did the 2022 World Cup in Qatar address similar concerns?
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar shifted its timing from the scorching summer months of June and July to November and December to protect participants from extreme heat. This move demonstrated the importance of adapting to climate challenges in sports.
What potential solutions are being considered for the 2026 World Cup?
Climate-controlled stadiums and the monitoring of temperatures by officials are among the measures being considered to mitigate heat-related issues. However, the timing of the tournament remains a subject of debate, with some suggesting a different time of year to reduce the risk of extreme heat.
How is FIFA addressing its environmental impact?
FIFA faces criticism for its carbon emissions, with claims of carbon neutrality being challenged. The organization is urged to take more substantial steps to minimize its climate impact, both in terms of tournament operations and messaging.
What role can the 2026 World Cup play in the broader climate change conversation?
The 2026 World Cup can serve as a platform to raise awareness about climate change’s impact on sports and demonstrate proactive measures to minimize its effects. It highlights the importance of environmental responsibility within the sports industry.
More about World Cup 2026
- BBC – Could climate crisis impact the men’s tournament?
- FIFA – World Cup 2026
- The Guardian – How hot is too hot to play a Grand Slam?
- BBC Weather – Climate change
- The British Medical Journal – Heat guidelines for sports
- The New York Times – 1994 World Cup heat
- FIFA – Qatar 2022 World Cup
- FIFA – Climate responsibility
- The Guardian – Climate change and extreme heatwaves