The voting to determine World Cup hosts is way different now than it was in 2010, but the USA's efforts could still come up short. Why would voters pick Morocco over the USA-Mexico-Canada joint bid? We discuss.

By Grant Wahl and Brian Straus
March 07, 2018

The vote to determine which bid will win the rights to host the 2026 World Cup is a few months away, and with the North American bid changing course and Morocco's bid reportedly gaining steam, we focused on the battle as part of the latest Planet Fútbol Podcast.

The USA-Mexico-Canada joint effort underwent a significant shift on Tuesday, with Sunil Gulati being replaced as chairman by the three current federation presidents in the respective nations. While Gulati will remain on the bid's board of directors, the change comes following a recent ESPN story in which it's reported that Morocco's bid is gaining steam and putting the USA's joint effort in jeopardy. What could be the reasons for Morocco's bid winning the vote, and what might the USA's joint bid need to do to reassure the voting nations ahead of the June 13 decision?

You can listen to the discussion of the 2026 World Cup bid at the 33:04 mark in this week's episode in the podcast console below. To download the episode and subscribe to the podcast to get each episode delivered to you, find us on iTunes here.

WAHL: There was a story that Sam Borden of ESPN wrote this past week about how the World Cup ’26 bid for the North American alliance of the U.S., Canada and Mexico may be in jeopardy—more so than was thought. And that caused all sorts of discussion out there, and concern. But I wanted to bring a couple of things up in terms of this.

One, we should not be surprised if the 53 African countries vote for Morocco, in part because Morocco is an African country. But also because I think it’s pretty natural that a lot of these countries would not want to vote for the U.S. when it has a leader who has called African countries “s**thole” countries. I basically pointed that out on Twitter and had a lot of people responding saying, “Well, FIFA picked Qatar and Russia. So how can you get on them for having an issue with the U.S.?”

I get it. First things first here. I was in Zurich on December 2, 2010, when Qatar and Russia got those World Cups. It was a joke—for Qatar in particular. I don’t know if it was a total joke for Russia to get the World Cup at that time, but especially Qatar. FIFA and its corrupt history and all of that is actually the subject of a very good book that I just finished reading an advanced copy of by Ken Bensinger called Red Card, about the U.S. investigation of FIFA and the FIFA scandal. It's terrific. It's coming out in June. All that said, I think there’s a lack of factual knowledge out there—here in U.S. soccer at least—about how FIFA chooses World Cup hosts at this point. Because there's a huge difference between the voting process that led to Qatar and Russia getting those World Cups. Those were 24 corrupt men on the FIFA Executive Committee—or nearly 24 corrupt men—giving those World Cups to Qatar and Russia.

STRAUS: Selling those World Cups.

GW: Yeah, and the majority of all of those voters, those FIFA ExCo members, are either off the ExCo or have had some sort of wrongdoing happen to them since. They got caught. Nowadays, for this vote, this is going to be a global referendum with more than 200 countries—every nation that’s a member of FIFA voting for who hosts World Cup 2026. Will some of those voters be corrupt? Sure. But not all of them. And because it is a global referendum, it's a much different situation I think than the vote that took place back in 2010.

Brian, you and I are going to be in Russia on June 13, 2018, when we find out if the U.S.-North American bid is going to be able to win that right to host World Cup 2026. Do you think it will at this point?

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BS: Sunil Gulati, I think after 2010 as we were starting to sort of build up toward this 2026 bid, made the point a couple times. The words he used were, “This is an election.” And in elections people vote for all kinds of reasons, right? They vote based on facts and data and empirical evidence—now and then. But they also often vote for reasons of habit, for reasons of the heart, for reasons of influence. All kinds of things and political and personal motivations go into why people vote. And Sunil, at least publicly, understood this and talked about this and acknowledged this.

That goes into, does Morocco have the infrastructure of North America? Of course not. Not even close. I’ve been to Morocco twice. I cannot imagine how they would pull this off. But, lots of times people who vote for things don’t care about things like that. They care about politics, or messaging, and regional pride or regional influence—all that kind of stuff.

I saw some of their bid documents that were released recently. They’re pitching the fact that they’re in a better time zone than the U.S. They’re pitching the fact that you don’t have to get on a plane for six hours and fly from one stadium to the other, and that’s true. Morocco is not as large as the U.S., Mexico and Canada! So they’re throwing these things out there and they’re throwing out there, of course, that, “We live in a tolerant, safe society and Trump’s not our president. Wink wink.” And that’s going to influence some voters, and Sunil and his [team] are going to have to anticipate that and do what they can to acknowledge it and combat it.

GW: I look at the situation here, and I want to be very clear: If you’re voting for who’s going to host this World Cup, there are a lot of reasons to vote for the North American bid. In part, economic, where Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, has promised so much more money going out to each FIFA member nation that just from an economic standpoint, FIFA needs to make as much money as possible off the one event—the World Cup—that it gets its money from. That includes ticket sales. That includes TV rights. That includes sponsorships.

FIFA’s an organization that hasn’t gotten a new sponsor from outside of Russia, Qatar or China since the FIFA scandal. They need new American sponsors to come on. They need the money that comes with that. And obviously, the ’94 World Cup in the U.S. made a ton of money. So Gianni Infantino, my guess, is pushing for the North American bid to get voted on. And even the countries that have an issue with Trump, I think, want the money to come in. FIFA’s lost money the last couple of years.

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BS: There may be countries that have an issue with Trump. There also may be countries that have an issue with the U.S. Department of Justice and Loretta Lynch, right?

GW: I would think South American countries might, since that's where a lot of the stuff has come from, from that investigation. Central American counties even too, potentially. But also just because this is going to be the first 48-team World Cup, and from an infrastructure perspective—stadiums, hotels, transportation, etc.—North America is in such a better position to make sure that 48-team World Cup is a success in how gets pulled off than Morocco is. A 48-team World Cup in Morocco—come on!

BS: It's a beautiful country to visit, but yeah, I can’t conceive of it, having been there. One thing I've thought about: Do you think, because of the U.S.’s political reputation in the world right now being what it was, it seemed like a real masterstroke to include Canada and Mexico in the bid, especially considering how many games there were....

GW: Oh, yeah.

BS: But do the 60-10-10 optics kind of mitigate some of the positive impact that decision might have? If you're running the bid—we’re still really far out—do you at this point say, "You know what? Let’s throw five more games to Mexico and five more games to Canada, so it doesn’t look so unequal." So it seems like more of a partnership than maybe something cynical, where the U.S. is bringing these countries in just to make us look a little better and present this "unified bid" of no borders, that sort of thing. I wonder if the optics on that are actually backfiring a little bit.

GW: Yeah, I certainly think we could see a situation where the 60-10-10 gets changed, potentially. Everything I’m hearing is that the North American bid folks, when they speak to voters, are really pushing that it’s not just a U.S bid. And I get why. Like you said, this is an election. A lot’s going to happen in the next couple of months ahead of this vote, and I do think this is hardly an inevitability that the North American bid is going to get it.

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