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Sunil Gulati discusses concerns that politics will derail 2026 World Cup bid

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Another reminder that the strongest bid may not win

Soccer- MLS Championship Match Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

The 2026 World Cup selection will take place on June 13, 2018 with the final bids due by March 16 of this year. The United States, Canada, and Mexico are submitting a joint bid in what would be a historic tournament being the first held in three nations. It seems fairly obvious that the bid would be selected. The three countries have hosted World Cups successfully before and the 1994 tournament in the U.S. was arguably the most successful ever.

With only Morocco submitting a competing bid, the joint bid seems assured to win. The country does not have the infrastructure or stadiums needed to host an expanded tournament. Furthermore, a country from North America has not hosted the men’s tournament since the U.S. last did in 1994 while South Africa hosted in 2010.

Despite preparing to step down from the U.S. Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati will still be in the picture for the bid process as chairman of the 2026 United Bid committee. Even with all of the advantages that hosting a World Cup would have, Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus reported that Gulati has concerns that U.S. foreign policy and politics in the country will derail the bid. As Gulati told reporters while answering questions during the United Soccer Coaches convention recently:

This will be a tough battle. This is not only about our stadiums and our hotels and all that. It’s about perceptions of America and it’s a difficult time in the world. So, there’s only certain things we control. We can’t control what happens with the 38th parallel in Korea. We can’t control what happens with embassies in Tel Aviv. We can’t control what happens with climate change accords. We do the best we can. We have the support of Washington … we’ll now have to go out and convince what will eventually be 104 [FIFA members] to vote for us. This won’t be easy.

Those 104 votes may be more difficult to come by after it was reported that President Donald Trump called El Salvador, Haiti, and the continent of Africa “shithole countries” on January 11th. In the wake of the comments, all 54 African nations co-signed a letter demanding an apology for what the ambassador to the UN from Ghana called, “outrageous, racist and xenophobic remarks attributed to the U.S. president as widely reported by the media.”

The insult reportedly made by the President of the United States of America is another example of how politics could block the U.S. hosting another World Cup. Gulati’s statement comes a month after Steven Goff of the Washington Post reported that concerns are growing among the bid members that politics could prevent the bid from being successful. He reported:

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 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 current USSF President didn’t make an attempt to re-buff the U.S. President, CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani responded to the comments after they were made, saying on Twitter:

Gulati’s neutrality when it comes to U.S. politics is consistent with how he has responded to political controversy in the past, however this may end up working against the United Bid. It has been a year since Kevin McCauley of SB Nation wrote, “Gulati has repeatedly said that political issues are more important than a World Cup bid, but refuses to take a stance on controversial issues that might alter the Trump administration’s support of that bid.” In the article for Sports Illustrated, Brain Straus noted that Gulati stuck to that in comments he made from December, saying then ”An important part of what we’re doing has got very little to do with the sport, frankly. It’s a lot to do with the [three] countries. … So the message that hopefully this sends about relationships and international relationships is extraordinarily important.”

The current USSF President’s recent comments point to the tension that the bid creates among the federation and other FIFA members. On the one hand, the World Cup is a massive event that will require resources from federal, state, and local governments. By not rebutting Trump’s reported comments it’s clear that Gulati has prioritized getting the support of Washington in order to show FIFA that the event will have those resources and be successful rather than assuring FIFA voters that he does not agree with them. On the other hand, President Trump’s comments risk losing votes needed to host the World Cup in the first place and Gulati failing to stand up for them may hurt the success of the bid.