Why the three North American countries are bidding together, why it makes sense, and why it doesn’t.
On Monday, the soccer federation presidents of the United States, Mexico, and Canada announced that the three countries are submitting a joint bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. It’s likely that their bid for the tournament comes without significant opposition.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said that the three countries signed a memorandum of understanding stating that the three countries would bid together. He also stated that in their bid, three-quarters of the matches would be hosted in the United States while the rest would be split between Mexico and Canada.
As the hosts of the next two World Cups, European and Asian countries will not be allowed to submit bids for the 2026 tournament. The only opposition this bid could potentially face would come from South America or Africa. Given that both continents have hosted the tournament since CONCACAF did last, they’d struggle to convince FIFA voters that they deserve to host the tournament ahead of the North American bid.
It helps that CONCACAF as a whole is behind the bid. Commenting on rumors of the bid last week, CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani said that his federation has “nothing but positive remarks about it and it is a very strong sign of what football can do to bring countries together.”
There are some good reasons for the United States to enter a joint-World Cup bid with two of their footballing rivals, and plenty of bad ones, too. Here’s what you need to know about the bid.
The optimistic reason for a joint bid: Inclusion
Much like his predecessor Sepp Blatter, current FIFA president Gianni Infantino is interested in bringing the sport to as many new people as possible. That’s the justification he’s provided for sticking by the Russia and Qatar World Cup bids despite the FIFA corruption scandal and political controversies in each country. It’s also the reason he supported the World Cup’s expansion to 48 teams.
So with that in mind, there’s no guarantee that the United States would have won the World Cup bidding on their own. If Canada or Mexico decided to go toe-to-toe with the United States in a bid for the tournament, it’s very possible that Infantino and other powerful figures in FIFA would have pushed for a different CONCACAF nation to get the tournament than the one who last hosted.
The pessimistic reason for a joint bid: Politics
On Sunday night, Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl dropped this nugget.
To be clear why USA not bidding alone to host WC26: FIFA wants to know 100% that fans/players of, say, Iran (regular WC team) will be let in
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) April 9, 2017
FIFA officials presumably figured out why this looked bad for them very quickly, then made sure to clarify.
Now understand that US will have to make guarantees to FIFA on countries being allowed into US for WC26 whether a joint bid or solo bid.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) April 10, 2017
But the point still stands that the current political climate in the United States does not help their case for hosting a World Cup. The White House’s ban against travel to and from seven majority-Muslim countries has raised questions about whether the United States is fit to host a World Cup, even though domestic and global politics will have changed considerably by 2026. Iraqi-American Justin Meram just skipped out on World Cup qualifiers because he felt unsafe traveling to Iran.
However, Gulati stated at the press conference that he had “strong encouragement” from President Donald Trump to pursue the bid, and that Trump was “especially excited” that Mexico was involved.
With Mexico and Canada attached to the bid, FIFA and its member nations are going to be less concerned about a World Cup that includes the United States. It’s protection against massive backlash.
How might this work, logistically?
It’s hard to tell, because FIFA hasn’t announced the final format for their proposed 48-team World Cup yet. But it seems likely that teams will be grouped into 16 groups of three teams each.
In that situation, our best guess is that eight of the groups will have their games played entirely in the United States, while four each would play their games in Mexico and Canada. The groups might be arranged so teams play Round of 16 games in those same countries as well. Gulati stated that the MOU between the through countries states that the bid will ask for the tournament to be played entirely in the U.S. from the quarterfinals until the end of the tournament.
This should make travel a bit less hellish for fans. As long as your team doesn’t get to the quarterfinals, you’ll probably just end up traveling between cities in one country, not two or three. But after that? Games after that might be a headache to travel to. Especially if say, Iran, manages to make it to the World Cup quarterfinals.
It’s not good enough for FIFA to get a guarantee from the United States that every team and their staff can get into the country without a problem. They need to get assurances that fans are going to be able to travel between all three countries, too.
Will Canadian stadiums have grass or turf?
Much to the displeasure of the best players in the women’s game, the 2015 World Cup was played on artificial turf. Some players sued FIFA for discrimination, but their suit didn’t get anywhere before the tournament, and the players were forced to play on substandard fields. They said that the men would never be asked to play on turf, and we’re about to find out if they’re right.
We can argue about how much worse turf is than grass until we’re all blue in the face, but there’s no disputing that soccer on turf is worse than soccer on a well-maintained grass pitch. The World Cup shouldn’t be played on anything but excellent grass fields.
When asked about whether or not games in Canada would be played on turf, Montagliani passed the buck to FIFA, saying they made the decision on the 2015 World Cup surfaces and would make the decision again for the 2026 World Cup. He expects the decision to be for Canada’s venues to have grass. “Every men’s World Cup has been on grass,” he said. “I’d assume this will be the same.”
This is a huge PR lose-lose for FIFA and Canada. Either they’re going to play a World Cup on crummy fields or tell on themselves and admit that they have lower standards for women’s soccer.
How is CONCACAF World Cup qualifying going to work?
There’s never been a three-host World Cup or a 48-team World Cup before, so there’s no precedent for auto-bids or setting up a qualifying tournament where three of a confederation’s teams are already in the tournament. Montagliani wants auto-entry for all three co-hosts. Other FIFA executives aren’t so sure about that plan.
It seems like the most likely scenario is all three countries receiving auto-bids, with the rest of CONCACAF competing for three or four spots in the expanded tournament. But it’s not impossible that FIFA makes Mexico and Canada have to qualify anyway.
One good thing about this bid: splitting up costs
It was already a monstrous expense for one country to host a 32-team World Cup. Asking one country to host a 48-team World Cup — even if that country is the United States — seems unreasonable. It would likely lead to a lot of infrastructure projects not getting done on time, a lot of things running over budget, and some white elephants.
With three countries splitting up the tournament, each nation has fewer projects to focus on. It’s more likely that things get done on time and on budget. It’s also more likely that every stadium, road, and transportation project is built in a place where it can be used frequently after the tournament and eventually pay for itself. As Gulati noted at the press conference, it makes no sense to spend “hundreds of millions, if not billions on stadiums that have no use beyond the tournament.”
The countries that hosted the last two World Cups built massive, expensive stadiums in locations where there were no large professional teams to fill them afterwards. They have little reason to exist now. That won’t happen at the 2026 World Cup.