Is the U.S. Led FIFA 2026 World Cup Bid Doomed?

Can the North American bid, and specifically, the U.S. Soccer brand prevail over Morocco?

As a person involved in the sport of soccer on a professional consulting level, as well as a coaching career that spans nearly four decades, I am deeply interested in the state of the game both here and Internationally. With the election of Carlos Codeiro as the new president of USSF behind us, attention of the American soccer community turns to the North American (NA) bid to host the FIFA 2026 World Cup. Canada, Mexico and the U.S. have mounted a joint bid for the tournament rights. The only other current bid is that of Morocco. In 2026, the tournament will expand from 32 to to 48 teams. A decision and announcement will come June 13, of this year.

Winning these tournament rights is especially critical to the U.S. since its team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Interest in soccer in this country is already experiencing a dramatic decline among registered players. The estimates offered by firms that track these statistics in various participation categories confirm that from 6% to 21% of the players in the U.S. dropped out in the last year alone. Participation, attendance and viewership are likely to erode even further with no U.S. team to root for in the 2018 World Cup.

On the surface, given the enormous success of the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., setting all kinds of attendance, viewership, and most importantly, revenue records for the event, a U.S. involved bid should prevail against tiny Morocco. But Morocco has proven very capable of hosting other prestigious international soccer tournaments and was certified as fully capable of hosting the 2026 event. So, hold on. . . 

As a close friend and international soccer luminary often tells me, "Count the votes you know you don't have, not the ones of those who tell you they will vote for you, and begin your calculations from that point to get to the number you need to win." 

For the first time, FIFA will permit each of the 211 member federations (nations) a single vote. A highly unscientific, purely subjective and personal opinion on my part suggests the NA bid will not get the requisite majority on the first ballot. This is problematic since the FIFA rules state that if no bid gets a majority on the first ballot, other bids, not previously considered, can enter the competition and the bid with the lowest votes from the first round is automatically eliminated.

Not withstanding recent comments by the president of the United States, where he referred to nations of Africa and some Caribbean countries as "shit holes", African and Arab voting nations will almost certainly, as some have already done,  throw their full support behind Morocco. Tracking the list of U.S. political partners and foes, you can count on Venezuela, N. Korea, Malaysia, and a host of other unfriendly countries to withhold support of the NA bid. 

European and Asian nations were prohibited from submitting first round bids because FIFA rejects proposals from nations in a confederation that has hosted the last two World Cups. However, if there is no winner in the first round, nations from those confederations are eligible in the second round. 

European nations are likely to favor a NA bid but might rethink their support given the timezone broadcast advantages for their audiences from a host closer to home, over games played across the Atlantic. Furthermore, there are those who suggest if enough European nations abstain in the first round or split evenly, they could open up the bid for England in the second round. Many people feel England was cheated out of the 2018 tournament through rigged bidding that Russia won.

China, while not eligible to bid in the first round, has desires of its own. President Xi Jinping is a huge soccer fan and has committed $30 Billion Dollars to the development of the sport in his country over the next decade or so, including the building of 50,000 soccer fields and declaring that the sport will be compulsory for "every student in China." He has gone on record informing FIFA that China wants to host a future World Cup. Four of the largest commercial/advertising sponsors of FIFA are Chinese companies. A huge push is underway to expand the professional game in China. In 2017, the player transfer market, what clubs and teams pay to one another for the rights to player contracts, was second in size only to that of Great Britain. Why wouldn't China hope for no winner in the first round of bidding?

Will either the Moroccan or NA bid succeed? Will China or England swoop in with second round proposals? There is much at stake, not the least of which is the growth or decline of soccer in America and billions of dollars in worldwide revenue, through ticket and merchandise sales, travel, endorsements, marketing, and broadcast rights. Whatever the outcome, of one thing you can be certain: You need only follow the money.