On Wednesday morning, several hundred representatives of FIFA, the supreme body overseeing global soccer, will be presented with what will surely seem a tempting opportunity for a measure of revenge against the United States — and our swaggering president.
Gathering in a Moscow convention center on the eve of the first match of the 2018 World Cup, they will vote on whether to award the 2026 tournament to Morocco or to a combined bid, shared between Mexico, Canada and the United States. By almost any measure, “United 2026” should handily carry the day. FIFA’s own evaluations give that bid vastly superior marks, praising the North American nations’ infrastructure, finances and rule of law, while sharply questioning Morocco’s ability to host a complex event requiring construction of nine new stadiums and rehabilitation of five others, as well as billions of dollars in new airports, hotels and highways. Morocco’s cost estimates are suspect, and its projections of profits even more so, especially when held up against a proposal that would with little doubt produce the most lucrative World Cup in history.
About the only advantage that Morocco — a nation with a GDP slightly smaller than that of the state of Arizona — seems to have is that it’s on the same time zone as Western Europe, where television viewers would be able to watch World Cup matches in lucrative prime time.
That, and the fact that it’s not the United States.
Three years ago, plainclothes Swiss police entered a luxury hotel in central Zurich and arrested a handful of top FIFA officials at the behest of the Justice Department, the culmination of a years-long secret investigation of corruption and money laundering in the world’s most popular sport. The FIFA case, as it immediately became known, proved a smashing public-relations victory. The United States — the nation, ironically, that seemed to care the least about soccer — had swaggered in like some Old West lawman and done something nobody else could: clean up the beautiful game. The international outpouring of gratitude was tremendous.
In the three years since the Zurich takedown, though, America’s standing on the world stage has shifted dramatically, and not for the better. A nation hailed for internationalism has aggressively retreated into isolation, driven by an administration that displays open scorn for the institutions that have been the backbone of global stability. All the considerable goodwill generated by the FIFA case, the Paris accord, the Iran nuclear deal and similar actions has been utterly torched, replaced by festering resentment among those powerless to halt what feels in many quarters like a threat to the future of the entire planet.
As a result, Wednesday’s World Cup vote has taken on dimensions far larger than merely determining the venue of a quadrennial soccer tournament. It has become a de facto global referendum on America, an opportunity for 207 different nations — even the Cook Islands and Liechtenstein get votes in the FIFA Congress — to deliver a thumbs up or down on President Trump and his unorthodox approach to foreign relations.
It was no surprise that Russia’s soccer federation came out in favor of Morocco, but it’s quite notable that several close U.S. allies, including France and Belgium, have also pledged to vote for the North African country in the last several months. In recent days, even Germany — which, unlike those fellow NATO members, cannot point to old colonial ties as an excuse for backing Morocco — has hinted it might not support the North American bid, a stance that can’t be helped by Trump’s blowup after the Group of Seven summit over the weekend. (Other Morocco supporters include Serbia and Luxembourg, another NATO member.)
The North American “United” bid doesn’t look so united anymore, either; Trump’s attack on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday as “dishonest & weak,” following years of haranguing Mexico over immigration issues, doesn’t help. From the perspective of the grandees of soccer — an admittedly stilted lens if ever there was one — that kind of talk comes across as a stunning display of disunity that provides more cover for FIFA delegates looking to use the vote to settle a personal score against the United States.
Soccer’s reckoning at the hands of the Justice Department was profound. Nearly four dozen officials were indicted. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s once-untouchable president, resigned under duress and was subsequently banned from the sport. Numerous other nations, including Switzerland, France, Spain and Germany, were spurred to open their own criminal probes, and to this day, many FIFA officials refuse to travel to certain regions for fear of being arrested. To these officials, the investigation was a direct and menacing assault on a way of life defined by sumptuous luxury, tremendous privilege and, all too often, kickbacks and bribes. But in the wake of the FIFA case, soliciting and receiving such gratuities has become a distinctly more difficult proposition. A “no” vote on the U.S. bid might not save their friends from prison, but it would certainly feel like just deserts.
FIFA needs the World Cup to take place in North America, though. The organization, which once minted money, has plunged deeply into the red in the wake of the criminal case as corporate sponsors have abandoned it and legal bills have exploded. So dire is the financial picture that FIFA’s new president has recently endorsed selling several of its tournaments outright to a shadowy private consortium led by Japanese and Saudi investors. Last month, the organizers of the United bid projected an $11 billion profit for FIFA on a World Cup held in Canada, Mexico and the United States — massively more than any prior tournament on record. Their argument is based, in part, on the phenomenal financial success of the 1994 U.S. tournament and the fact that the three countries already have the required stadiums and other infrastructure in place. There is little question that, from a business point of view, the North American bid should win.
But this is FIFA, an institution that can’t seem to get out of its own way.
The last time the United States tried to win the right to host a World Cup was in December 2010, when it was also hailed as the obvious choice for the 2022 tournament over a slate of rivals that included South Korea, Japan, Australia and Qatar. Yet somehow it was the tiny Gulf petroleum state that will host in four years, a surprise decision so fraught with allegations of vote-buying that FIFA was forced to overhaul its voting procedure, opening the decision to its entire membership rather than the elite 24-member executive committee that previously handled matters. (Russia was chosen to host during the same vote).
It is that reform, ironically, that now places the power to decide the fate of the 2026 tournament in the hands of a roomful of representatives of the kinds of nations that Trump has publicly derided at every turn and in some cases made subjects of entry bans, and who as soccer officials already felt persecuted by the United States to begin with.
FIFA bylaws strictly forbid any governmental interference or influence in its internal decisions, which in theory means that leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel shouldn’t express their pique at Trump by putting pressure on the heads of their countries’ respective soccer associations. Indeed, after Trump tweeted in late April that it would be “a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid” and then followed up several days later with a speech containing a thinly veiled threat against African countries should they vote for Morocco, FIFA sternly warned the White House against inappropriate meddling that would violate its ethics code.
But the reality is that global soccer is a profoundly political institution, inexorably intertwined with the channels of power in countries where devotion to the sport everyone else calls “football” borders on religious fervor.
In an era when the leader of the world’s only superpower seems to delight in publicly mocking and bullying his peers, the opportunity to use the World Cup vote to send a defiant message of resistance to Washington might be too alluring to resist.