Is Soccer The Way To Bring The Two Sides Together?
Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil
At a time when President Donald Trump wants to ban travel from certain countries, thrash NAFTA, and build a wall across the country’s southern border, America’s soccer federation wants to do the opposite. The United States wants to join together with Mexico and Canada and then invite the world’s best soccer nations and their fans to the continent. Today, the three countries announced a historic agreement to submit a joint bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
Instead of decrying this as a bunch of “globalists” invading America with the sport of soccer, Trump is reportedly “pleased” that these three countries have formed an alliance that could bring the world’s biggest soccer tournament back to North America for the first time since the United States hosted it in 1994.
At the press conference today, the president of U.S. Soccer felt compelled to say in his opening remarks what Trump thought of the bid. “We have the full support of the United States government in this project,” Sunil Gulati said in his opening remarks. “The president of the United States is fully supportive and encouraged us to have this joint bid. He is especially pleased that Mexico was a part of this bid. And that was in the last couple of days that we were given further encouragement on that.”
Gulati felt it was important to address this point because, although Trump won’t be president when this World Cup takes place, he’ll still be in office when FIFA (soccer’s worldwide governing body) votes in May 2020 on where the 2026 tournament will be held. Trump’s politics are important to this bid. Of the six countries on Trump’s current travel ban, Iran has qualified for three of the last five World Cups. With that ban in place, the team and its fans would not be able to travel to the States for the tournament. And that fact hasn’t escaped new FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who was outspoken in the wake of Trump’s travel ban, saying restrictions by potential host countries would cost them any chance of winning a bid.
“It’s obvious when it comes to FIFA competitions, any team, including the supporters and officials of that team, who qualify for a World Cup need to have access to the country, otherwise there is no World Cup,” Infantino said last month. “The requirements will be clear. And then each country can make up their decision, whether they want to bid or not based on the requirements.”
Submitting a joint bid was one way U.S. Soccer could show FIFA’s 209 voting members around the world that it wasn’t as isolationist as its current domestic political climate indicates. At the press conference at One World Trade Center, Gulati acknowledged as much.
“We don’t believe that sport can’t solve all the issues of the world,” Gulati said. “But especially what’s going on in the world today, we think this is an especially positive signal and symbol of what we can do together in unifying people, especially in our three countries.”
There are a couple more strategic reasons the United States has eschewed submitting a solo proposal. Winning a bid is also about coalition building among FIFA members, having additional allies in Mexico and Canada could help swing the vote in this bid’s favor. Additionally, this will be the first World Cup played with the expanded format—going from 32 teams to 48 and going from 64 matches played to 80—so there are more games to share between the three countries.
This alliance makes history by being the first bid submitted by three countries together. And, if successful, it would be just the second World Cup held in multiple countries (2002 in Korea and Japan was the first). Ultimately, this will still predominantly be a U.S.-led effort. Under the agreement signed today, 75 percent of the matches will be played in the United States and the remaining 25 percent split between Mexico and Canada. And the United States will host every match from the quarterfinals on, meaning the final will be held somewhere in America.
Mexico hosted the 1970 and 1986 World Cups, while the 1994 tournament was held in the United States and remains the most highly attended World Cup ever. The United States lost the chance to host the 2022 World Cup, but that bidding process was rife with bribery and corruption (so much so that the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation that helped bring down the most powerful people in soccer’s governing body, including its longtime president Sepp Blatter).
Even with negative feelings toward Trump in the global community, this bid has a very strong chance of succeeding. FIFA has recently voted to bar Europe or Asia from bidding for the 2026 World Cup because their respective confederations will already be hosting the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) tournaments, meaning that this bid’s biggest challengers would come from Africa or South America. However, since they hosted the last two World Cups (South Africa and Brazil, respectively), it’s hard seeing what country from either of those confederations could beat this North American bid. Really, it’s America’s to lose right now. But Trump is certainly capable of losing it.