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North America's bid to host 2026 World Cup jeopardized by falling U.S. popularity

Behind the scenes, those familiar with the tri-nation effort are worried many FIFA member countries - and, by extension, continental voting blocs - are leaning toward Morocco.

The FIFA World Cup trophy.
The FIFA World Cup trophy.Read moreMartin Meissner/AP

The North American bid to stage the 2026 World Cup seems like a sure thing. From stadiums and infrastructure to commercial opportunities and organizational experience, the joint effort by the United States, Mexico and Canada appears to meet all the necessary requirements (and then some) to host soccer's premier competition.

The proposal would mesh almost a half-billion people from three countries that have put on 12 FIFA tournaments (men and women, senior and youth). With European and Asian countries ineligible to bid and South America waiting for 2030, the only challenger is Morocco, a country of similar size and population to California.

No contest, right? Not so fast.

As the sides finalize their bids ahead of the March 16 deadline, there is growing concern in some U.S. circles that a North American victory celebration after the FIFA vote June 13 in Moscow is not as certain as once thought.

Behind the scenes, those familiar with the tri-nation effort are worried many FIFA member countries – and, by extension, continental voting blocs – are leaning toward Morocco.

The reasons have nothing to do with the sterling credentials of the North American bid or the certainty that the tournament would fill both stadiums and coffers. Rather, they stem from a precipitous decline in U.S. popularity around the world and, to a smaller extent, the fact that the American judicial system took the lead in prosecuting FIFA scandals. While the exposure of misconduct has helped cleanse the sport's tarnished international governing body, some in world soccer apparently aren't happy with the U.S. government's aggressive role.

The inclusion of Mexico and Canada should broaden the bid's appeal. Of the 80 matches, 60 would take place in U.S. venues and 10 apiece in the other two countries. The 2026 World Cup will be the first with 48 teams, an increase of 16.

The North American campaign is bracing for a hard fight.

"We expect Morocco to put together a very good bid," said Sunil Gulati, the outgoing U.S. Soccer Federation president who chairs the United Bid Committee on behalf of the North American effort. "This isn't going to be a computer-generated program that spits out an answer about what the best bid is. So we've got to campaign."

FIFA's membership will vote. The four involved countries are ineligible to cast ballots, leaving the bids seeking to secure 104 of the 207 votes. Before FIFA's reforms, the 24-member executive committee decided the winner by secret ballot. New guidelines mandate an open vote.

Morocco presumably would receive backing from most, if not all, of the other 53 African countries. The North American bid would likely claim 32 from CONCACAF and, it hopes, 10 from South America. That leaves Europe (55), Asia (46) and Oceania (11) up for grabs.

One possible, but unlikely, twist: If the 37-member FIFA Council (which replaced the executive committee) doesn't believe either bid is adequate, the process would reopen to countries in all continents.

With lobbying efforts accelerating, Gulati was in the United Arab Emirates this past week for the FIFA Club World Cup. Gulati is a member of the FIFA Council, which, in the wake of the corruption scandal, replaced the organization's executive committee.

The North American bid will feature 32 cities interested in hosting matches or training centers (25 in the United States, four in Canada and three in Mexico). If the bid is successful, the local organizing committee would work with FIFA is selecting between probably 15 and 18 game venues. (Mexico would get three, Canada two or three.)

Morocco is bidding for the fifth time after failed attempts to host the 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010 tournaments. In August, the country suggested nine stadiums. Doubts about Morocco's infrastructure to handle an expanded tournament will loom large ahead of the vote.

The United States lost out on the 2022 rights to Qatar (albeit amid corruption allegations) and could be part of an effort that falls short against a smaller foe again.

At the very least, the North American organizers expect a fair fight.

"FIFA has put a lot more compliance and ethics requirements into this bid than certainly in the last one," United Bid Committee Executive Director John Kristick said. "FIFA knows the spotlight is shining very, very brightly. This something the FIFA president is going to be judged every step of the way, and based on the fact you have an independent compliance agency every step of the way, I feel much better about where we are at for this process going forward than the last one."