Updated: Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 11:06 PM
NEW YORK — The 2018 World Cup was in the spotlight Tuesday, as Telemundo and Fox commemorated the 100-day mark until the tournament begins in Russia. But that wasn’t the only World Cup on people’s minds.
Last week, ESPN blew the lid off what had become an increasingly open secret among international soccer observers: the North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico has sailed into rough water.
This has happened for a number of reasons, with the current U.S. political climate ranking near the top of the list.
“The North American bid has had to counter an anti-American sentiment that stems largely from actions taken by President Donald Trump’s administration,” ESPN’s Sam Borden reported. “Those actions include a travel ban affecting mostly Arab countries, public comments that perpetuate stereotypes and the reported use of profanity in describing poorer countries. When North American bid officials visit with federation officials in a foreign country, they rarely get questions about stadiums or hotels, according to sources; rather, they have been quizzed about whether the United States can be considered a friendly place for foreigners.”
As a result, Morocco’s bid to host what will be a 48-team, 80-game event has gained favor with many countries in Africa, Asia and South America — including countries which President Trump disparaged with those expletives.
Until recently, the North American offering seemed like a slam dunk. While the U.S., Canada and Mexico could host a World Cup of any size at a moment’s notice, Morocco’s bid includes building seven new stadiums from scratch, and renovating others.
A tournament in North America would generate billions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales and broadcast rights to spread across FIFA’s 211 member nations, all of which will participate in the vote on the host nation on June 13. Morocco wouldn’t reach the same level.
On top of that, according to England’s Daily Mail, FIFA will get a bonus rights fee of over $300 million from Telemundo and Fox if the North American bid wins. It may be tied to the fact that the two networks originally got the 2026 rights at a discount and without a competitive bidding process, so that they wouldn’t sue FIFA over moving the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from summer to November and December, the heart of the NFL season.
The North American bid is not a slam dunk anymore. If ESPN’s reporting wasn’t enough proof, some tangible evidence came Tuesday afternoon, when the bid changed its leadership structure.
Suntil Gulati, the recently-departed U.S. Soccer Federation president, gave up the chairmanship of the board. The bid is now co-chaired by U.S. Soccer’s new boss, Carlos Cordeiro; Canadian Soccer Association president Steven Reed; and Mexican federation president Decio de Maria.
Gulati remains on the bid’s board and keeps his influential role on the powerful FIFA Council. CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, Reed’s predecessor at the CSA, is also on the council.
They will surely use their influence, but Gulati is no longer the public face of the bid. Canada and Mexico’s roles will be given greater prominence. That will be noticed in FIFA’s corridors of power, whether in on-the-record conversations or behind closed doors.
“We are determined to show that in challenging times when forces around the globe too often pull people apart, football can remind us of the common values and ideals — humanity, friendship and mutual respect — that unite us as fellow human beings,” the bid’s press release on the changes said.
A few hours before that news was announced (and without knowing it was coming), the Inquirer and Daily News asked Telemundo Deportes president Ray Warren for his opinion on the state of the bidding race. He agreed that the bid has hit some trouble.
“There’s a lot of other issues at the forefront of these decisions that as a sports guy, I don’t really want to talk about, that might be causing people to think about where they want to play the 2026 World Cup — if they have to make a decision in the next two years, which they do,” Warren said.
He also noted a change in the rules that has FIFA’s entire membership voting on the World Cup host for the first time. In the past, the now-defunct FIFA Executive Committee made the decision. It had 23 members.
FIFA changed the rules in part because of how many of those 23 members were bribed, or allegedly bribed, in the bidding cycle that gave the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (and this year’s World Cup to Russia). It’s harder to bribe 211 national associations worldwide than 23 individuals.
That was initially expected to help cleaner bids, such as North America’s, prevail. Now it might backfire.
Warren remains optimistic.
“The one thing [FIFA president] Gianni Infantino wants is [to] grow the game” in the host country or countries, he said. “You’re going to have to do that with a great infrastructure. … It’s a pretty strong argument to say, ‘If you really want to grow the game, having the World Cup in the U.S. will probably help you.'”
Andrés Cantor, Telemundo’s lead soccer play-by-play voice, has seen almost everything in his nearly 30 years broadcasting World Cups and other tournaments. He expressed some skepticism that the North American bid is really in that much trouble, but didn’t shy away from the factors at play.
“I would be surprised if the U.S. is not awarded the World Cup in 2026 — and obviously if it’s not, it will be a clear non-sporting message,” he said. “It will be more of a political statement from the FIFA federations that they are not in agreement with what’s going on politically. But this is the country that has all the infrastructure, with Canada and Mexico, to host a World Cup with 48 teams.”
Cantor did not shy away from tackling the political question.
“People from Nigeria, from El Salvador, from all the ‘shithole’ countries are going to think twice about voting for the country that has a president that believes their citizens are a piece of crap,” he said, referring to one of Trump’s most infamous alleged remarks. “The world of sports is sometimes intertwined with politics, and everything that’s going on here doesn’t help. But at the end of the day, it’s 2026. We don’t know who’s going to be the president of the U.S. then.”
If the bid can convince FIFA voters to think long-term, Cantor believes the North American effort will triumph.
“I think people have to see realistically in the long term which is the best country to host a World Cup of the magnitude of 2026, with 48 teams,” he said. “Now it’s hard to host a World Cup with 32. Can you imagine with 48? And between Morocco right now, that doesn’t have any stadiums, and us — I mean, talk about an no-brainer.”
But as he concluded, “Stuff happens as well. So we’ll see.”
That might as well be the official slogan of FIFA observers. Leave it to a man whose one-word goal call is famous worldwide to be just as concise when judging the rest of the sport.