ZURICH — The World Cup bidding contests became a lot clearer after the United States withdrew on Friday from the 2018 race to focus on earning hosting rights for 2022.

Europe became guaranteed to host the 2018 finals, either in England, Russia or the combined bids of Netherlands-Belgium and Spain-Portugal.

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.