- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The U.S. may not have qualified for this year’s soccer World Cup, but it is poises to score a major victory off the pitch — providing that a backlash against President Trump and a North American political feud do not undermine America’s hopes.

Member-states of FIFA, the global soccer organization, vote Wednesday in Moscow on bids to host the 2026 World Cup, the massively lucrative monthlong tournament that rivals the Olympics for global appeal.

On paper, a joint U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid should be a near lock to win, offering better facilities, deeper infrastructure and nearly twice the revenues of the only other bidder, Morocco. But in the highly politicized world of global soccer, the best bids don’t always win, especially when the countries of the lead bidder are at each other’s throats over trade, immigration and whether, in the words of a top Trump adviser, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just stabbed the American president in the back.

U.S. soccer officials insist that the political tensions — and Mr. Trump’s polarizing image and rhetoric in many parts of the globe — will not undermine the “United Bid” and prevent the return to the tournament to the U.S. for the first time since 1994. U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro told reporters over the weekend that “we have a path to victory” in Wednesday’s vote and that logistical and financial factors were proving far more important to FIFA voters than geopolitical ones.

Harrison Crow, founder of the American Soccer Analysis blog, said that despite political tensions between the U.S. and its neighbors, the joint nature of the North American bid bolsters its chances.

“There’s no one else really competing against the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and that’s why having a joint bid really helps those odds,” he said. Mr. Crow added the United 2026 bid has a clear advantage over Morocco, a nation with major infrastructure hurdles and a GDP roughly 1/200th the size of that of the U.S.

The joint bid from North America offers a choice from 23 stadiums including three each in Canada and Mexico, which are each scheduled to host 10 games.

The United States would stage 60 games, and MetLife Stadium in suburban New York City is proposed for the final.

While FIFA vice president Sandor Csanyi said Tuesday he saw “no anti-United feeling,” part of the reason why a United 2026 victory is not certain stems from tensions between the member nations.

The North American bid is expected to receive heavy support from Western Hemisphere nations — with some exceptions — while Morocco is banking on heavy backing from fellow African nations — with some exceptions. Morocco is playing up its soccer-mad domestic market, its location in the same time zone as Europe, and its underdog status challenging a superpower whose president once proposed a temporary halt in immigration from Muslim countries recently reportedly disparaged what he called “s–hole countries.”

United 2026, in an effort to dispel the notion that is largely a U.S. campaign, replaced chairman Sunil Gulati, former president of the United States Soccer Federation, with co-chairs from each of the three nations. The bid book submitted by the United Bid organizers discreetly notes that Mr. Trump himself will be out of office by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around.

Mr. Trump’s own lobbying via Twitter for the U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid has proven similarly double-edged, with some saying its tone and implied threats violated FIFA’s bidding rules of conduct.

“The U.S. has put together a STRONG bid w/ Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?” Mr. Trump tweeted in April.

Mr. Cordeiro told reporters in London last week that Mr. Trump’s name hadn’t come up during meetings with FIFA association members.

“They want to know about visas for their players, staff and fans, but they haven’t mentioned Trump,” said Mr. Cordeiro.

Mr. Cordeiro also said that political tension is something that cannot be managed in a World Cup bid.

“We don’t control a lot of things, including what’s happening in Singapore,” Mr. Cordeiro said to ESPN, referring to Mr. Trump’s meeting Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. “Geopolitics is outside our terrain. And there’s always risk.”

The joint North American bid predicts an $11 billion profit if they are to host the 2026 World Cup, which is twice as large than ever recorded in history.

FIFA remains in dire economic straits after prolonged corruption scandals and sponsorship exodus, and a World Cup hosted between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico would immensely benefit the members of the organization.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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