MANAMA, Bahrain — It may not have gone precisely the way the United States, Canada and Mexico wanted, but it still appears more than likely that the World Cup is coming to North America in 2026.
The high-powered FIFA Council — the group of top executives that makes recommendations to the full 211-member FIFA Congress — debated on Tuesday a proposal by the joint North American World Cup bid to streamline the bidding process, and rival bids will be given three more months to present alternatives until Aug. 11.
Some members of the council, according to sources, expressed concern that the exclusivity element of the proposal was unreasonable, particularly given the corruption scandals surrounding bids in the past. A closed-off process, it was argued, was simply poor optics as FIFA tries to repair its image. Other countries should be allowed to bid and the North Americans stepped back.
However, the council agreed to the U.S. bid’s proposed fast-track timetable that would award the bid before the 2018 World Cup in Russia — rather than 2020. And to Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer and a FIFA Council member and the nominal leader of this joint bid, that was more than enough to feel like a win.
“This is a victory for us,” Gulati said afterward. “We got what we wanted most. An open process is a good thing and we’re very confident that our bid will be a high quality one.”
Left unsaid by Gulati — but known by most in the soccer world — is that the North Americans’ confidence is buoyed by their knowledge of the potential competition. Simply put, there aren’t many possible opponents for the U.S.
With the 2018 tournament in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar, FIFA’s rules prohibit those confederations — Europe and Asia — from bidding for the 2026 event. That means only countries from Oceania, Africa and South America could be possible competitors for the North American bid — and Oceania and South America have already endorsed the North American bid.
That leaves Africa. And while there have been rumblings that a country like Morocco could launch a bid (either alone or with neighboring countries), the accelerated timetable would make it very difficult for a country or region that doesn’t have the plethora of FIFA-standard stadiums of the North Americans to get the necessary construction and infrastructure guarantees.
With 2026 set to be the first 48-team World Cup, the requirements for staging 80 games are even more demanding, making the North American bid even more attractive.
That is why Gulati and his colleagues from Canada and Mexico were not altogether upset on Tuesday night. Assuming the full Congress passes the proposal as recommended by the council, the North American bid will proceed as it planned — setting up offices and staff, and securing the commitments to meet the technical specifications by next March.
Whether another bid is doing the same, the United States, Canada and Mexico fully expect to be confirmed as 2026 World Cup hosts next summer — just as they pushed for all along.
The U.S. bid wanted FIFA to give them an exclusive window in which their bid would have time to meet a list of technical specification guarantees — commitments from stadiums, government support for security and hotel availabilities, among many others — before it could be considered.
If the U.S., Canada and Mexico could do that — a task generally seen as a foregone conclusion in such well-developed countries – than the bid would be rubber-stamped before the 2018 World Cup in Russia kicks off.
One other 2026 World Cup item of note that came out of the Council meeting was how FIFA will handle automatic berths in the World Cup when there are multiple bidders.
Instead of guaranteeing that all three countries will receive places in the tournament, the language from FIFA said that automatic spots “would be decided by the FIFA Council” at some point in the future.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.