The dust has well and truly settled on a successful World Cup in Qatar, attention slowly turns to the 2026 tournament in North America. 

With preparations well and truly underway, InsiderSport spoke to the CEO of the Harris County Houston Sports Authority, Janis Burke, as she discussed findings from the FIFA Observer Programme and the unique opportunity it provided for learning. 

InsiderSport: Can you tell us more about the FIFA Observer Programme in Qatar and how important it is to the World Cup future? 

Janis Burke: Like most all events that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority bids for and hosts, we like to attend as many of them that we can beforehand to ensure that we learn best practices, observe the actual flow of the event, hear about public safety measures, and simply learn as much as possible before we are required to put the event on. 

So, we felt the trip was very important. We were grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Observer Programme in Qatar since that is the one and only time we’ll get a chance to see the processes in action before we host in 2026.

InsiderSport: What are some of the key lessons that can be learnt from the Qatar World Cup?

It was a unique opportunity to see more than one venue because of the close proximity and the tight footprint of the region, which of course will be very different when hosted in 2026 with three countries involved. 

I was able to go to all eight stadiums and watch five matches. One key observation for me as a first time world cup attendee was the unique platform that Host Cities are given to reach so many diverse groups of people and provide positive lifetime memories for those travelling to attend matches that might not have otherwise ever come to that destination. 

The atmosphere is electrifying with a melting pot of various cultures. This bodes very well for Houston, as one of the most diverse cities in America. We have a chance to showcase our region like never before.

InsiderSport: The 2022 World Cup elevated the tournament’s engagement to a whole new audience, how can the 2026 World Cup build on this?

I’m hoping the momentum continues, and that we engage with many more Americans than ever before. As the sport continually gains popularity in the US, this gives us another chance to win over new fans in our country for the world’s most popular sport.

InsiderSport: Are you able to tell us some of the plans for the upcoming World Cup in North America and the role of Houston? 

We know this will be the largest event in World Cup history with the expanded number of teams participating and the first time having three countries involved in hosting. We believe that the close proximity of Houston to Mexico and Dallas will work in our favour. 

InsiderSport: How can you bring the character of Houston to the role of World Cup hosting? 

We always look for ways to put the Houston fingerprint on every event we host. We are currently looking for special opportunities to enhance the fan experience, involve thousands of volunteers, and leave a lasting impact for the youth of our region that would love to participate in football but don’t currently have access to the sport. 

InsiderSport: What steps will you bring to elevate the fan experience for the North American World Cup?

The US is known for putting on sporting events that engage fans like no one else in the world. Houston is also a city known for its fandom. Just look at the World Series Victory parade that took place last year as an example, where over 1.2 million people came downtown for a safe, peaceful, and fun celebration. 

We hope to bring some of our experience with hosting mega events to ensure all attendees have a very memorable time. Whether incorporating our unique Tex Mex cuisine, southern hospitality, or western themed history…Houston will provide a one-of-a-kind special adventure for all those who choose to attend matches in our city.

InsiderSport: The North America World Cup will be spread across three countries. Can you tell us about some of the challenges this brings and how you plan to combat this? 

One of the challenges will be ease of access getting back and forth between country borders, but I believe that FIFA has plans to address this area and make it easier on travellers. One thing is for sure, there will be plenty of hotel choices for every size, budget or desired experience…from economy lodging options to luxury hotel properties. The three countries that are hosting provide a vast array of options. 

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