Football tournaments hosted in multiple countries versus single countries: The end of sporting fairness?

Multi-country hosting - like what is planned for the 2026 FIFA World Cup - is understandable for economic and sustainability reasons, but it may impact sporting fairness.

A switch from single- to multi-country hosting seems to be the future model of major football competitions. However, an observational analysis of the 2020 UEFA European Championship reveals some issues that may impact the sporting fairness of such a multi-hosting model.

Towards a new competition model?

The FIFA 2022 World Cup, hosted by Qatar, has already started. Since the weeks leading up to the tournament, widespread criticism about the cost of hosting, cultural rules, and environmental impacts on players have been mounting.

With the next edition of the World Cup expanding from 32 to 48 participating teams, a multi-country bid makes sense. It would allow for a more effective allocation of resources and minimise residual unused infrastructure post-tournament. This was exemplified by the well-known “white elephants” – i.e. purpose-built infrastructure like stadiums that become obsolete post-tournament – observed in Brazil, South Africa, and other countries that have hosted the World Cup.

The 2002 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, and the recent 2020 UEFA European Championship are the most recent global and continental football tournaments that were not hosted by a single country. With the forthcoming 2026 FIFA World Cup already awarded to the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and the FIFA 2030 bid registering several multi-country host candidates, the multi-hosting model seems to be the future of major football competitions. 

Although this is understandable for economic and sustainability-related reasons, is it ethical from a sporting perspective?

Not without sporting inequalities

The 2020 UEFA European Championship served as a case for answering this specific question. With 11 hosting countries, this competition format resulted in increased short-haul air travel and train/bus transfers for the group and knockout stages. 

Such an agenda is dependent on the optimal positioning of basecamps in locations that minimise any negative impacts on match results. In addition, it remains unknown whether such multi-hosting competitions affect the recognised “home advantage”.

An observational analysis of the 2020 multi-hosted UEFA European Championship revealed that the “home advantage” was evident. This advantage was particularly enjoyed by hosting participants, where four of them — Denmark, England, Spain, and Italy — reached the semi-finals. However, no noticeable effect was observed on match outcomes in relation to the cumulative fatigue arising from repetitive travel and/or disruption of routines in the case of short-haul travel. 

Players moving from basecamp to stadium
Players moving from basecamp to stadium
Credit: Bex Walton, via Wikimedia Commons

This begs the question of what the consequence of such a multi-hosting competition would be, especially if it requires long-haul travel and jet lag due to travel across different time zones. 

Will the 2026 FIFA World Cup be fair for participating squads if travel, regardless of the mode of transportation, is generally associated with acute or cumulative fatigue? This is a critical consideration when long-haul travel is likely to impede performance and increase the risk of injury.

Another interesting observation from UEFA 2020 was the number of matches played in different weather conditions. Twelve matches were played at ambient temperatures over 30°C or at relatively high humidity of over 80%, which required extreme caution from players. 

These considerations are relevant for the players’ health and safety, as well as match equality. This is because, by definition, multi-country hosting competitions are inevitably subject to variable climates. In fact, the effect of weather variables must not be underestimated: for every 1°C increase in ambient temperature, heat-acclimated national teams like Qatar and Middle-East countries tend to increase their chance of winning against similarly ranked non-acclimatised squads by 3%. A higher FIFA-ranked opponent reduces the probability of this favourable outcome in such cases, but it does not eliminate it. 

Given the significance of heat acclimatisation on the home advantage when football competitions are hosted in hotter climates, playing matches in various environmental conditions during a multi-country hosted competition could be seen as an issue of fairness.

water bottle on soccer field
The heat, another adversary to beat
Credit: Tanasan Sungkaew via Shutterstock.com

Stakeholders, the ball is in your court

In a competitive context, where minuscule details can determine the success or failure of competing teams, considerations related to travel and weather conditions are essential. Stakeholders must consider these specific factors to avoid biasing organisational implications and maintaining sporting equality. 

On one hand, multi-hosting helps better optimise financial and infrastructure considerations. On the other, stakeholders must not forget that they owe all teams equal opportunity on and off the field. As such, multi-hosting models may not always be a fair form of football competition.

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Reference

Brocherie, F., De Larochelambert, Q., & Millet, G. P. (2022). Multi-hosting UEFA European Football Championship: Fair enough between participating teams? Science and Medicine in Football, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/24733938.2022.2072944

Franck Brocherie is a senior researcher and the Acting Lead of Sports Science Support Services to Athletes at the French Institute of Sport (INSEP). He has lectured at professional sports teams and the Olympic/Paralympic federations on innovative environmental training and acclimatisation to challenging environmental conditions. He is also a fellow of the European College of Sport Science, a member of the European Network in Sports Science, a member of the French Anti-Doping Agency, and an editorial board member for the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Frontiers in Physiology, and Frontiers in Sport and Active Living.