London one day, Bratislava the next, Copenhagen, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg …
“We end up in these Godforsaken airport hotels,” he said of three well-traveled delegations on separate whirlwind tours. “We tease each other about the shirt that wasn’t washed.”
The campaign is almost over. The final step comes Wednesday when, on the eve of the 2018 World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium, 200-plus national federations in the FIFA family will choose North America or Morocco to stage soccer’s quadrennial tournament in eight years.
The World Cup was last held in North America in 1994, a U.S.-hosted competition that smashed attendance records and accelerated the sport’s growth in one of soccer’s last frontiers.
On paper, the United Bid, as the three-pronged effort is known, should breeze to victory with a portfolio of existing stadiums and infrastructure, experience hosting major sporting events and the promise of sellout crowds and billions in revenue.
But FIFA is an unpredictable organization, one that eight years ago rejected a solo U.S. bid and awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the small but wealthy Persian Gulf state. Morocco’s bid seemed to gain momentum early this year, but since embarking on their world tour, United Bid officials are growing in confidence.
Asked whether their chances have improved since late last year, Cordeiro said in an interview Sunday with several U.S. reporters: “One hundred percent. We were maybe behind when I think back to where we were in February, but I think we’ve changed the whole face of the bid.”
With co-chairs Decio de Maria (Mexico) and Steven Reed (Canada) making their own trips around the world, Cordeiro said he believes the group has secured support from a growing number of countries.
“We have a path to victory,” he said. “We know where our support is. We are very confident, but a lot can happen in 48 hours. You saw what happened in 2010.”
What has changed since 2010 is the winner will not be decided by a 22-member executive committee but by all eligible federations. The vote is no longer by secret ballot, either. Soon after the results flash on a video screen at Moscow’s expo center, FIFA plans to release the list of how countries voted.
Even with a democratic process and greater transparency, the United Bid had a lot of work to do.
To help prevent another upset, the first order of business was shoring up support in the Americas. The South American confederation and Central American cluster have said they are on board. Some in the Caribbean have wavered, but Cordeiro said most, if not all, will end up supporting the bid. (As bidding countries, the United States, Mexico and Canada are ineligible to vote.)
The group then targeted Asia, which carries close to 50 votes and doesn’t have strong historical soccer ties to either contender. “An opportunity for us,” Cordeiro said.
Next was Europe. To ease travel, the group established a base of operations in London this spring. Several staff members from the respective federations relocated; Cordeiro has spent little time at his home in Miami.
Although France committed early to Morocco — there are deep cultural and economic ties between the countries — Cordeiro implied this week that Europe is turning in North America’s favor.
“France aside, [Europe has been] open-minded, and for the last six weeks, we’ve seen everyone,” he said. “The European vote will speak for itself.”
Although Morocco has garnered predictably strong African support, the United Bid has aimed to pick off countries on the continent, such as South Africa. It will lobby Oceania countries this week.
Cordeiro and his co-chairs are making the case to voters that a hugely profitable World Cup in North America would benefit everyone because millions of the revenue generated by the tournament is subsequently distributed to all federations. In a perfect world, responsible federations would apply those funds toward grass-roots programs and facilities.
On Wednesday, the competing bids will make 15-minute presentations to the FIFA membership. Voters will also have the option of choosing neither entry, an unlikely scenario that would reopen the race to other countries and extend the process for up to two years.
The North American effort received a major boost two weeks ago when FIFA’s bid evaluation group gave it higher scores and issued warnings about Morocco’s preparedness. The five-man task force said it “considers it its duty to emphasize the significant overall risk” of a country needing to build so many key assets, concluding that the bids are on “almost opposite ends of the spectrum.”
On a scale of 1 to 5, the United Bid received a score of 4.0, while Morocco garnered a 2.7. The results reflect concerns about Morocco hosting the first World Cup with 48 teams, a 50 percent increase that boosts demand for stadiums, transportation and other infrastructure needs.
Morocco’s strengths are the idea of the first World Cup in North Africa, a compact tournament for teams and fans, and the proximity to Europe. This is its fifth bid after falling short in 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010.
Morocco could gain support for geopolitical reasons. With U.S. popularity at an all-time low, federations could use their vote as a weapon against the United States. They are, by FIFA rule, supposed to be independent of their respective country’s government, but in some cases, influence is undoubtedly exerted.
To help combat the perception of this being a U.S. campaign, the United Bid strengthened its multinational credentials this spring by replacing chairman Sunil Gulati, the former USSF president, with a co-chair from each country.
Still, under the bid’s proposal, the United States would host 60 of 80 matches, including all late-stage matches. (Mexico and Canada would get 10 matches apiece.) Eleven of the 16 venues would probably be in U.S. cities. There are 23 finalists: 17 American (including Washington and Baltimore), three Mexican and three Canadian.
Cordeiro said the geopolitical issue “hasn’t come up” with federation presidents. “They want to talk about their issues: How do you grow the grass roots? It’s an issue every federation faces. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the facilities. Every country is different but similar. They like having that conversation.”
Cordeiro praised President Trump for backing the bid and for promising the support of the federal government.
While Trump’s past comments about various countries could damage the bid’s efforts, “no one has said to us they aren’t voting for us because of who we have in the White House,” Cordeiro said. “Nobody.”
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