The World Cup bidding contests became a lot clearer on Friday after the United States withdrew from the 2018 race to focus on earning hosting rights for 2022.
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Europe became guaranteed to host the 2018 finals, with England, Russia or the combined bids of Netherlands-Belgium and Spain-Portugal in the running.
The U.S. will compete with four Asian confederation candidates – Australia, Japan, Qatar and South Korea – to stage football’s showpiece tournament four years later.
FIFA’s 24-man ruling executive will choose both hosts in Zurich on Dec. 2.
FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke described the U.S. decision as "a welcome gesture which is much appreciated."
"We have had an open and constructive dialogue with the USA bid for some time now, after it became apparent that there was a growing movement to stage the 2018 World Cup in Europe," Valcke said in a statement.
U.S. bid leader Sunil Gulati said his team was "confident this is in the best interests" of the American campaign.
Within minutes of the joint FIFA-U.S. announcement, England said it was pulling out of the 2022 contest.
The move was a formality as FIFA rules stipulate that successive World Cups cannot be played on the same continent.
Europe was long expected to host in 2018 because the 2010 tournament was in South Africa and the 2014 finals are in Brazil.
Football’s strongest and wealthiest continent last staged the finals in Germany in 2006 and has never previously had to wait more than eight years between editions since the first tournament in 1930.
Gulati said focusing on 2022 would make the U.S. bid’s intentions clear in the last phase of campaigning.
"This also enables FIFA to finalize the selection procedures during its upcoming scheduled executive committee meeting," Gulati said.
FIFA’s executive will gather from Oct. 28-29 in Zurich where it will decide on voting rules.
Eight of the nine bidders have their own representative on the ruling panel, while the other – Australia – has been pledged the vote of Oceania confederation chairman Reynald Temarii.
Australia withdrew its 2018 bid during the World Cup in June, while Japan pulled out earlier this year. Qatar and South Korea have never been in the earlier contest, focusing only on 2022 since FIFA sought official candidates in January 2009.
Among the European bidders, England (1966) and Spain (1982) have previously hosted the finals.
Russia has never hosted a major football championship, while the Dutch and Belgians teamed up to host the 2000 European Championships. Portugal staged Euro 2004.
The U.S hosted the 1994 World Cup, while Japan and South Korea combined forces in 2002 when the tournament came to Asia for the only time.
FIFA’s continental rule could yet influence the 2022 outcome, should voters have an eye on football’s largest untapped market.
China’s federation said in July it wants to host in 2026 – a potential campaign which would require FIFA to keep Asia in the game by going to the U.S. four years earlier.