FIFA and the False Dawn of the 'NAFTA World Cup' Bid Proposal

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FIFA and the False Dawn of the 'NAFTA World Cup' Bid Proposal

When critics warned that FIFA had sold what little was left of its blackened soul by awarding the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, it’s likely they had the 2026 World Cup bidding process in mind. Having awarded the event to regimes in competition for the worst human rights, labor rights, and democracy track records, soccer’s governing body would be hard pressed not to find a less problematic host.

How, then, to judge the latest entrants into the World Cup bidding wars?

The United States, which announced its candidacy to host the 2026 World Cup along with Canada and Mexico on Monday, is not Qatar. And despite what certain conspiracy theorists believe, it is also not Russia. However, that alone does not a great World Cup host make.

To wit, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl first reported that the USA is partaking in a joint bid because FIFA demands assurances that fans and players from around the world can actually enter the country. A few hours later, Wahl clarified that US Soccer would have to guarantee access for all countries even if it partook in a joint bid. This, at a minimum, would require a temporary rollback of Donald Trump’s current travel policy, which would otherwise preclude players and fans from nations such as Iran from attending events in the United States.

“We have very specifically addressed this with the president,” US Soccer president Sunil Gulati said at Monday’s launch event. “He is fully supportive of the joint bid, encouraged the joint bid, and is especially pleased with the fact Mexico is participating in the joint bid.” Make of that whatever you will. It seems plausible that Donald Trump might say such a thing in the name of “closing” a deal, but it would be hard to blame FIFA voters for having doubts. Trump’s travel policy may no longer be in place by 2026, but voting on this bid will happen before the next presidential election takes place. For its part, Mexico would be equally hard-pressed to guarantee the equitable treatment of LGBTQ fans in its stadia. FIFA’s voters cannot be asked to blindly trust that such problems will be magically solved in the intervening years.

The sort of compromise US Soccer might reach, as hinted in Wahl’s update, is similar to what’s on the table for the next two World Cups. Russia and Qatar have promised to moderate their policies for the duration of the tournament—even if it’s just lip service. Seeing as FIFA’s operating principle might best be described as the bigotry of low expectations, US Soccer’s greatest advantage in this bid is that it follows two riotously unqualified hosts.

So instead, here’s a simple proposition for assessing future World Cup bids: Hosts must be able to guarantee access to all teams and their fans. For FIFA’s signature event to be considered truly global, fans and teams from around the world must be allowed to participate. As the number of World Cup teams expands, moreover, it’s more important than ever to make the tournament more accessible. A temporary reprieve to bigoted laws hardly constitutes an ideal standard for accessibility. One cannot expect the effects of what may be a decade-long policy by 2026 to magically disappear for a month.

Moreover all of this presupposes that US Soccer has enough sway over government policy to secure such a promise in the first place. Even with the temporary compromise on offer, the best case is a reprieve of the charade being offered by Russia and Qatar. Much as the next two hosts’ promises to be better on matters like gay rights ring hollow, a US Soccer promise that Muslim participants and fans will be treated fairly doesn’t pass the smell test.

And, unlike recent and future World Cup hosts, the NAFTA World Cup proposal does not deserve to be graded on the curve for bringing soccer’s crowning glory to heretofore ignored regions. In recent decades, FIFA’s tolerance for logistical and ideological problems was broadened in the name of bringing the World Cup to continents it had previously skipped over, in Japan, South Korea and South Africa. When it came to Russia and Qatar, FIFA may have used this justification to drown out legitimate concerns.

None of the NAFTA World Cup hosts, however, merit this form of historical redress. Mexico last hosted in 1986, the United States in 1994, and Canada hosted the last Women’s World Cup. Insofar as it’s these three nations’ turn, their claim is limited to rote regional rotation, which does not justify the continued lowering of standards.

The use of a joint bid to attenuate America’s problems as a potential host is also at odds with FIFA’s stated policy on the matter. After the debacle of South Korea and Japan’s co-hosting of the World Cup, FIFA has made a practice of frowning on joint bids. When Tunisia and Libya bid to co-host the 2010 World Cup, FIFA said it statutes did not allow for a “co-hosting arrangement.” Their bid subsequently fell apart and South Africa went on to host Africa’s first World Cup.

Since then, bids like the BeNeLux region’s joint campaign for the 2018 World Cup have argued that they were effectively single entities and would not reproduce the in-fighting of South Korea and Japan, something that no one in their right mind could say about Canada, the USA and Mexico. Yet in light of the World Cup’s ballooning field, it is entirely possible that FIFA will have to revisit its view on co-hosting arrangements as logistical imperatives.

However the configuration on offer, wherein the United States hosts three quarters of the matches including everything from the quarterfinals onwards, suggests that spreading the financial and logistical burden is not the primary reason for this joint bid. It’s a symbolic gesture. The United States is nevertheless asking FIFA to change its policy so that three countries—two of which may soon have a wall between them and one of which will need a reprieve from the laws of the land host certain teams—can share hosting duties. This is hardly the most compelling argument for a change in philosophy.

These problems may sound preferable to another host like Russia or Qatar. Those, however, are arguments that would have been useful ahead of the bid vote on December 2, 2010, more than they are arguments for the NAFTA World Cup. FIFA, if we are lucky, will spend the coming decades trying to undo the ethical race to the bottom that characterized the late Blatter era. There is much work to be done in that regard. A good start would involve some minimal standards for prospective hosts or co-hosts. If a prospective host cannot guarantee meaningful access to fans and teams from all FIFA member nations, it is simply not deserving of votes to host the World Cup.