PHILADELPHIA – The chairman of the North American bid seeking to stage the 2026 World Cup said Thursday that political factors are complicating the campaign ahead of FIFA's vote this summer.
The joint effort of the United States, Mexico and Canada has been heavily favored to defeat Morocco for the hosting rights. But, Sunil Gulati said: "This will be a tough battle. This is not only about our stadiums and our hotels and all of that. It's about the perception of America, and it's a difficult time in the world."
Speaking at the United Soccer Coaches convention, Gulati implied that President Donald Trump's policies are impacting the effort.
"There are only certain things we can control," he said. "We can't control what happens on the 38th parallel in Korea. We can't control what happens with embassies in Tel Aviv, and we can't control what happens with climate-change reports. We do the best we can."
Gulati is the outgoing president of the U.S. Soccer Federation but is expected to remain in charge of the World Cup campaign. The deadline to submit formal bid paperwork is March 16.
FIFA members will choose the host during its 68th Congress on June 13 in Moscow, the day before the 2018 World Cup kicks off in 11 Russian cities. Qatar will stage the 2022 tournament.
Mexico has hosted the World Cup twice (1970 and 1986) and the United States staged the tournament in 1994. The latter event set attendance records and turned enormous profits for both FIFA and the local organizing committee.
Those factors, combined with a three-nation bid featuring dozens of quality stadiums and a rising fervor for the sport in the United States and Canada, seemed to give the North American campaign a giant advantage over a small country. Available infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the first World Cup with a field of 48 teams – a 50 percent increase – furthered strengthened the bid.
The United States would host 60 matches, and Mexico and Canada 10 apiece. At least 15 cities would host games.
But in recent months, people close to the bid have grown increasingly concerned about their chances as public opinion around the world has turned against the U.S. government. Trump's comments last week about "s-hole countries" drew strong condemnation at home and abroad.
Even without political issues, Morocco was sure to secure most, if not all, of the support in Africa, FIFA's largest bloc with 54 votes, which is just over half of what's needed to win hosting rights. The African confederation will meet next month to discuss a unanimous endorsement.
Beyond Africa, U.S. soccer officials fear that Trump's rhetoric could take a toll on support elsewhere as well. Even though Trump would not be in office in 2026, his administration has had to provide assurances to FIFA that the government will support the tournament. And a victory in the FIFA vote would, by extension, be a victory for the current administration.
Robert Kraft, a Trump supporter who owns the NFL's New England Patriots and MLS's New England Revolution, is honorary chairman of the North American bid and helped enlist Trump's help. Gulati and Kraft are close; the USSF president once served in the Revolution's organization.
Gulati and other bid officials will continue their campaign in London and Lausanne, Switzerland, next week and Muscat, Oman, in a few weeks.
"I am spending 90 percent of my waking hours" on the bid, said Gulati, who will step aside as USSF president after the Feb. 10 election in Orlando.