On the eve of this World Cup, soccer in the United States received some good news, despite the humiliation of not qualifying for the tournament for the first time since 1990. In a joint bid with Mexico and Canada, it was awarded the 2026 World Cup, besting Morocco, the only other country that put forth a proposal.
It had a deja vu quality to it: Thirty years ago — on, of all days, July 4, 1988 — the United States edged out Morocco and Brazil to host the 1994 World Cup. Truth be told, Morocco deserved it back then. It had just come off an excellent performance in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, topping a difficult group with 1982 semifinalists Poland; Portugal, who finished in the top four in the European Championships two years earlier; and traditional power England. It was the first time an African nation won a group and progressed to the second round, where it only lost 1-0 on a late goal to eventual finalist West Germany. The United States, meanwhile, hadn’t qualified after being eliminated in spring 1985 by Costa Rica in Torrance, Calif., before just 10,000 fans and an indifferent, if not disdainful, public and media. In fact, the United States hadn’t participated in a World Cup since 1950 (while Morocco had also qualified in 1970, when, with only 16 teams, it was more difficult to do so).
On top of that, the United States didn’t even have a full-fledged professional league after the North American Soccer League folded in 1985. In the 1994 bid, the Americans showed off their many super stadiums. But some had artificial turf, not sanctioned by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, and some, like Giants Stadium just outside New York City — as close to a soccer hotspot as there was in this country then — were too narrow by international standards.
The Zurich-based organization took a risk on the United States, and it ended up being a good move. Those artificial turf fields were converted to grass, celebrities were trotted out (remember Diana Ross!), fans packed stadiums (to this day, it’s still the best-attended World Cup ever with an average attendance of 68,991), and FIFA even made an exception and allowed Giants Stadium, former home of the fabled Cosmos, to be used, including for a quarterfinal and semifinal. (I felt forever grateful to be at both.)
That tournament left an indelible mark. A new professional league, Major League Soccer, soon followed in 1996, and a younger generation searched their cable channels and the burgeoning new Internet to see, and read about, the likes of Romário, Roberto Baggio, Carlos Valderrama, Gabriel Batistuta and Jay-Jay Okocha in the European and South American leagues. Valderrama even found his way to MLS, as did Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov and Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry.
Five years later, the U.S. women’s national team won the World Cup on home soil — via penalty kicks at a packed, 90,000-plus Rose Bowl, just as the Brazilians had in the ’94 final — which set down still more roots for the sport here.
Fine. Though why does the United States deserve to host a second World Cup? Sure, other countries have hosted twice. But Italy had to wait 56 years, France 60, Brazil 64, Germany 32. Those countries have contributed so much to the sport, whether through their great players, visionary coaches, hypercompetitive domestic leagues, and more importantly, their deeply rooted soccer cultures filled with ideas and philosophies. The United States has, at this point, most certainly not. The sport was vilified here, even post-1994, as the something other and un-American. Sometimes they were just jokes; sometimes it got nasty, even threatening. Now, it’s hard to look anywhere and not find insta-authorities spewing cliche after cliche about “the beautiful game” (a phrase I didn’t use once in my 300-page love letter of a book to the sport).
If Mexico only had to wait 16 years between hosting its two World Cups — the mythic 1970 tournament, still widely considered the best ever, and 1986 — it was because FIFA needed to pivot last-minute to a reliable ally in the Western hemisphere after the original elected host, Colombia, had to withdraw for financial reasons.
Still, as beautiful as its two World Cups were, and despite it producing Hugo Sanchez, the best-ever player from the CONCACAF region, should Mexico get to host a third? Shouldn’t the World Cup be, you know, shared around the world? Canada, for its part, hasn’t qualified for the tournament since 1986. And of course, much to the chagrin of Fox Sports, the U.S. men’s team is not participating in this tournament. After a comedy of errors during qualification, mismanagement (by two coaches), and an insecure federation and domestic league that projects both an inferiority complex and smugness (with a fair bit of flag-waving, if only implied), not to mention a haphazard player-development system (that’s geared toward families with money), it couldn’t do the hard work and earn a draw at Trinidad and Tobago in the final game of qualification.
But FIFA picked North America anyway. The reason — gazillions of dollars aside — is that, this time, Morocco was never a viable candidate logistically, especially in 2026. It could have, and should have, been in 1994, when the tournament was still made up of 24 teams. It has since increased to 32 teams, and by 2026 will balloon up to an unwieldy, money-grubbing 48. No matter how much Morocco — smaller geographically than Texas — may cherish the sport, no matter how much Africa deserves a second World Cup, too many of its stadiums were still only maquettes. It was never realistic. At least not at this moment. Sadly, there was no bid from, say, Australia (as there was for 2018 and 2022), India or China. No joint bids from Argentina-Uruguay or Britain (speaking of countries who deserve a second), though those may be forthcoming beyond 2026. None from Colombia-Peru-Ecuador or Nigeria-Cameroon. No pan-Scandinavian proposal, either. The North American bid, with most venues and matches in the United States, could be executed tomorrow. And it will be good, maybe great — if you can afford the projected average ticket of $400.
This 2018 World Cup was difficult for Morocco. Besides its 2026 bid being denied, it opened the tournament — which, by the way, it qualified for on its own merit, unlike, say, the United States — with an excruciating, last-minute own-goal loss in its opening match against Iran, then lost to European champions Portugal, again only by 1-0. But Morocco will be okay. It played its best against the best — mighty Spain — in its last match and drew 2-2. Its domestic-based players won the African Nations Championship earlier this year on home soil, and it has good young players in the most competitive leagues in Europe. And, not to be denied, Morocco has already announced that it plans to bid for the 2030 World Cup.