Officially, North America’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup was launched last April. But it really started over a decade ago.
On Wednesday, we’ll learn if all the work pays off.
In early 2007, the U.S. Soccer Federation set out to bring the world’s biggest sporting event here for the first time since 1994. The U.S. men weren’t good enough to win it on the field, but could win it off the field.
The bid evolved over time. It first aimed at 2014 or 2018, then settled on 2022. It promised record-breaking ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, with games played in the world’s finest stadiums.
It lost to Qatar.
The announcement by then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter was a gut punch to American soccer. It hurt in Philadelphia, which could have hosted the World Cup for the first time ever, and it hurt nationwide. It still hurts today.
The U.S. nursed its wounds for a while. Then it punched back even harder.
A few months after FIFA voted to expand the 2026 field to 48 teams (perhaps knowing what was coming), the U.S. announced a mammoth joint bid with Canada and Mexico, planning to spread 80 games across the continent.
There were no rival bids from Europe or Asia, because Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) were in line to host already. North America’s proposal seemed set for an easy win.
Then, on the last day possible, Morocco jumped in.
It’s a soccer hotbed that has bid to host the World Cup four times before. It has cultural ties to Europe and the Middle East. It would bring the tournament to Africa for just the second time ever (South Africa was first in 2010).
Morocco’s bid admitted the country had to spend $16 billion on stadiums and infrastructure. But it touted romance, a time-zone advantage for European media and a compact 330-mile travel radius. The bid also bashed its rival, noting Morocco doesn’t have gun violence problems like America.
It also left things unsaid. One was a national ban on homosexuality, which the world’s media called them on.
The others were whispered. If you still resented the U.S. government’s exposure of global soccer corruption, here was a chance for revenge. And if you didn’t like President Trump’s denigration of immigrants, here was a chance to strike back.
Meanwhile, North America’s bid staff flew across the globe to make their case. They had to, because Wednesday’s vote will be decided by FIFA’s 200-plus member nations — and public for the first time ever. It’s not up to a small committee of bigshots anymore.
North America’s biggest promise is a whopping $11 billion profit for FIFA. The money is badly needed, as the corruption scandal sent sponsors fleeing. Each FIFA member nation would get $50 million. (Even in world soccer, all politics are local.)
Officials also promise streamlined visa rules for teams and fans.
Bid chiefs insist Trump hasn’t hurt. U.S. Soccer Federation president Carlos Cordeiro has said it often, including in a recent interview with the Inquirer and Daily News. Outsiders have varied views on whether that’s true.
By Wednesday night, history’s course will be set. Either America will host the World Cup at its 250th birthday party — with Philadelphia front and center, plans say — or it will be left at the altar again.
Want a prediction? Sorry. Even many insiders don’t know what will happen.
The New York Times recently counted 128 nations as uncommitted. And there’s another big wild card: nations can vote for neither bid, re-opening the process. If neither wins a majority on the first vote, both bids would be barred from the re-run. That raises the stakes even more.
There won’t be a viewing party in Philadelphia this time. It’s partly pragmatic, because the vote is just one part of FIFA’s day-long Congress in Moscow. (The guess is the vote will happen in Philadelphia between 7 and 8 a.m. TV coverage on Fox Sports 1 will begin at 6:30 a.m.)
There’s also a fear that America is being set up for another gut punch.
And like the bid itself, this one would be even bigger.