The United States has gotten its first good World Cup news in four years. On Wednesday morning, the United 2026 bid, a joint effort to share the tournament three ways between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, defeated a proposal from Morocco to win the right to host FIFA’s international soccer showcase eight years hence.
This victory comes with its share of bad news. Security at airports and stadiums and fan festivals across the country will be smothering. We’ll also be enabling FIFA’s corruption and graft. There will be scammers and swindlers and potential match-fixers and petty crooks and under-the-table deals and briefcases filled with cash left in designated drop-off locations.
But there are positives to hosting the World Cup in North America as well, especially after two straight tournaments in more autocratic countries. People will find it easier to speak out and print stories about and protest poor labor conditions and other injustices here. Despite Mexican fans’ abhorrent chanting of an anti-gay slur, LGBTQ fans will find a more welcoming atmosphere in North America than they will in Russia or in Qatar in 2022. With the bad element will come the good, and if we don’t believe the benefit of welcoming high-level human achievement and the traveling fans who come to see it outweighs the negative, then we shouldn’t bid for a World Cup or an Olympics or a Formula 1 race or a Super Bowl ever again. The time is now to start thinking about how to host a better, more humane World Cup. It will certainly be the best opportunity the world has had in a while.
Only in an organization with internal politics as predatory and marauding as FIFA’s could the outcome have been in doubt leading up to a vote that finished 134–65. The federation’s own evaluators reported on a number of major risks with the Moroccan bid. Six of 14 planned stadiums would’ve had to be built for the tournament, and uncertainty about hotel accommodations and transportation capacity led to speculation that significant portions of the country’s infrastructure would have to be overhauled. All told, the president of Morocco’s organizing committee estimated the country would’ve had to spend close to $16 billion—more than a quarter of the country’s 2016 GDP. The possibility that some of their countries’ companies might be in a position to benefit from that outlay is thought to have driven several European nations to vote for Morocco.
Compared with Morocco’s logistical challenges, there were two main worries for the United 2026 effort, neither of them related to the bid itself. The first was the possibility that lingering resentment for the United States’ role in bringing a corruption case against FIFA, which saw more than 20 of the federation’s officials and a number of its business partners indicted in 2015, would torpedo the bid regardless of its merits. It wouldn’t have been the first time FIFA executives made a major decision based mostly on spite; Argentina’s former FIFA vice president Julio Grondona once reportedly told an England bid committee that he’d vote for them “If you give back the Falkland Islands.” Fortunately for the United 2026 bid, FIFA has a much longer history of making decisions based on revenue maximization. A Moroccan tournament was projected to generate $5 billion in revenue for FIFA, compared with $11 billion for the United bid. In the end, that massive difference in dollars won the day.
The second concern was Donald J. Trump. The president’s stances on immigration, and possibly his tweeted threats of retaliation in the United Nations should FIFA fail to award the tournament to North America, gave the United bid a higher risk than Morocco in the evaluators’ government support category. That the voting members of FIFA—a money-obsessed organization with a dubious grasp of ethics and a history of underwhelming responses to accusations of racism, sexism, LGBTQ discrimination, and poor labor conditions—might be able to find some common ground with Trump is perhaps not the biggest surprise of this process.
Both Trump and FIFA will appreciate the opportunity to brag that 2026 will be the biggest World Cup in history, with 48 teams in the field for the first time. The proposed structure for the tournament calls for 16 three-team groups to winnow the field down to a 32-team knockout round. Teams will still have to play seven games to win the tournament—or to win third place, because that’s still happening—but with one of the group stage matches replaced by an elimination game, there will be less margin for error on the way to the finals. There will also be less of a likelihood of error, since one of the two other teams in each group will likely be a team that wouldn’t have qualified for a 32-team World Cup. If a 1 vs. 48 matchup of Germany and Norway doesn’t sound that exciting, know that the reality will actually be a lot worse: Due to the allotment of slots to different continental federations, the reality will probably be more like Germany v. No. 120 New Zealand.
The plan calls for 10 of the 80 total games to be played in each of Mexico and Canada and the remaining 60 in the United States, though considering that FIFA let Qatar move the entire tournament from summer to late fall four years after winning its bid to host, it’s probably best to consider the specifics pending.
However the numbers shake out, hosting the tournament should be a boon for the national teams of North America, who will likely get a free pass through qualifying and into the tournament. Six host countries have won the World Cup—including England and France, which won their only titles when hosting the event—and countless others have overachieved with the help of home-field advantage, from Sweden reaching the finals in 1958 to the U.S. escaping its group in 1994, to South Korea making a semifinal run at home in 2002.
Will the U.S. be ready to compete for the World Cup title by 2026? Probably not, but few teams are. The youthful starters of the team’s three summer friendlies, players like Christian Pulisic (19), Weston McKennie (19), Tyler Adams (19), Matt Miazga (22), Timothy Weah (18), and Josh Sargent (18) will all still be in or close to their primes in 2026. If these guys fulfill most of their potential—and that’s an if the size of FIFA’s 2026 tournament windfall—they’ll be in a good position to ride home cooking further into the tournament than the U.S. has ever gone.
Mexico, too, has a promising generation of youngsters waiting in the wings, from dual-national defensive midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez (19), who the federation swooped up when the U.S. dawdled after its World Cup disaster, to Los Angeles Galaxy prospect Efrain Alvarez, who at age 15 has scored six goals in seven appearances in the minor-league USL. Even Canada, which has only qualified for one World Cup in its history, has reason to hope; Alphonso Davies (17) is one of the most dangerous dribblers in MLS and had a goal and three assists last Saturday for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
If the short-term benefits for each country’s national teams are obvious, the picture further out gets hazy. The impact of the 1994 World Cup is clear in hindsight: As both a catalyst for the creation of MLS and an introduction to the game for millions of Americans, it was a seismic moment in the history of soccer in the United States. If the 2026 World Cup spurs MLS owners to raise the salary cap in anticipation of new attention and encourages U.S. Soccer to spend more money on player development in the hopes of putting a better American product on the field, then it will already be a success. (One imagines U.S. Soccer will also give the ax to an underwhelming coach more quickly with World Cup disappointment at home on the line, and that too will be a big help.)
But this tournament is going to have to work harder to find new fans. Soccer’s saturation into the sporting landscape is far deeper than it was in 1994. The mildly curious can find enough games to watch all day every day without too much effort. If the 2026 World Cup is going to grow the game as its predecessor did, it will need to persuade people who have already taken a look and decided to take a pass on the game. U.S. Soccer will be counting on the live experience—and the peer pressure of media attention and over-commercialized hoopla—to change people’s minds, or at least drag them out of apathy. And it will work, to some extent. The country will not lose soccer fans in the summer of 2026. It just might not leave it with legions of new ones either, at least not on the level it did in 1994.
That’s OK. Occasional qualifying armageddons aside, the U.S. is still adding new soccer fans at a rate much faster than it’s losing them. The country’s dormant fandom doesn’t need the kickstart it required in 1994. For all the people who’ve found the sport between 1994 and today, hosting the World Cup will have the same meaning it would in any soccer-mad country: an opportunity to indulge in and share your passion on the biggest stage. If that’s all 2026 proves to be, that will be enough. And that’s good news.
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