PHILADELPHIA — His presidency ending in large part because of the blowback that followed the failure to advance to this summer’s World Cup, Sunil Gulati said Thursday that he’s now spending 90% of his “waking hours” on ensuring the USA qualifies as host in 2026.
Gulati’s 12-year-run as the head of the U.S. Soccer Federation will end Feb. 10. But he remains on the FIFA Council, and for the next five months, he’ll be chairing the bid committee trying to bring the 2026 tournament to the USA, Canada and Mexico. FIFA members will decide between the “United Bid” and Morocco on June 13, and the result of that vote will have a significant impact on Gulati’s legacy (among other things).
The North American partners appear to be heavy favorites thanks to their stadiums, infrastructure, size and economic potential (especially considering FIFA’s current financial and sponsorship concerns). But there are always other factors in play. On its own, the USA lost out to Qatar for the right to host in 2022 for reasons that appeared to have little to do with infrastructure, and Gulati acknowledged here Thursday that he’s once again wary of the intangibles.
“This will be a tough battle,” he said during a Q&A at the United Soccer Coaches convention. “This is not only about our stadiums and our hotels and all that. It’s about perceptions of America and it’s a difficult time in the world. So, there’s only certain things we control. We can’t control what happens with the 38th parallel in Korea. We can’t control what happens with embassies in Tel Aviv. We can’t control what happens with climate change accords. We do the best we can. We have the support of Washington … we’ll now have to go out and convince what will eventually be 104 [FIFA members] to vote for us.
“This won’t be easy.”
The partnership with Canada and Mexico—which would see the USA host 60 games in the expanded 48-team competition while its neighbors each host 10—seems to be a savvy hedge against potential concerns about Donald Trump's administration. But, as Gulati said, politics and the USA’s global image remain issues. The World Cup host will be decided with an election, after all.
Gulati has been keeping an eye on this potential pitfall since before Trump took office.
“I think the world’s perception is affected by who’s in the White House, yes, and so it has some bearing,” Gulati said in June 2016 when discussing the World Cup bid. “I think having somebody in the White House that gives a the country an outward-looking view and a personality that’s more easily accepted around the world is positive for the United States, and then more specifically for hosting events here and our general image from a sports perspective. But it’s far beyond sports.”
In December, Gulati said, "An important part of what we're doing has got very little to do with the sport, frankly. It's a lot to do with the [three] countries. … So the message that hopefully this sends about relationships and international relationships is extraordinarily important."
The final bid books and proposals are due to FIFA on March 16. There are 32 cities currently under consideration to host matches, comprising 25 in the USA, four in Canada and three in Mexico. If the United Bid is successful, decisions on host cities likely won’t be made until 2021.