By Matthew Gourlie
It had been a poorly kept secret and Monday the soccer federations of Canada, Mexico and the United States unveiled details about their three-headed monster of a World Cup bid.
While presented as a three-nation in New York City, the reality is that after their failed 2022 bid, the United States Soccer Federation is taking another swing at hosting. This time around they are hoping a partnership will make it more palatable to the FIFA membership.
The 2026 World Cup will be the first 48-team tournament and that size and scope seriously trims the list of nations that could host on their own. It certainly kills any dream of Canada hosting the World Cup alone. There is no reason why the U.S. needs to partner with anyone, let alone two other federations, to stage a successful tournament.
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said the bid proposes that 60 of the tournament’s 80 matches will be played in the U.S. Canada and Mexico would each host 10 matches and all of the knockout round matches from the quarter-finals through to the final would be staged in the United States.
The 2026 tournament cannot be played in Europe or Asia following the Russia and Qatar cups, so the CONCACAF joint bid was expected to be the front-runner before any details were announced.
So why create a joint bid at all? A joint bid will calm fears about the political climate in the United States. That landscape could be drastically different in nine years time, but in a time of border walls and travel bans, optics matter a great deal to get this bid off of the ground.
“We think it makes our bid stronger in terms of the 209 members that eventually decide. So there’s a pragmatic part to it,” Gulati said. “The other part of it is, that we think it’s terrific for futbol in the region and soccer in the region — for Canada, Mexico and the U.S. — given the close relationships we have already. Third, in this interesting world in which we live… from a social perspective it’s a positive. We don’t believe that sport can solve all of the issues of the world, but especially with all that is going on in the world today we feel this is a hugely positive signal and symbol of what we can do together in unifying people, especially in our three countries.”
Gulati was sure to mention that he, out-going Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani and Mexican federation president Decio de Maria were all the sons of immigrants. He also gestured to the Statue of Liberty visible from the observatory at One World Trade Center.
Pitch and spin aside, this is a positive for Canadian soccer even if it falls well short of the vision supporters had when they dreamed of possibly hosting a World Cup.
In terms of growing the game in Canada, the Women’s World Cup and even the 2007 Under-20 World Cup will likely have had more of an impact.
However, assuming Canada gets an automatic bid, that get’s the men’s program back on the world stage for possibly the first time in 40 years. It will also allow three or four cities the chance to share in the World Cup while it takes place next door.
Montagliani was adamant that as the incoming CONCACAF president he believes all three nations deserve an automatic bid.
“Those are decisions that should be made in consultation with FIFA and the FIFA council, but obviously (CONCACAF) would have a loud voice in that discussion,” Montagliani said. “Ultimately, the regulations are clear when it comes to that, it’s the decision of the FIFA council, but those are discussions we will certainly have down the road.”
CONCACAF is slated to get six spots at the 2026 World Cup and two countries will enter into the six-team pre-tournament playoff. Having three hosts would halve the once abundant qualification places.
“I think we would all agree to that, but I think FIFA and the rest of CONCACAF might have something to say about it,” Gulati said. “There has never been a World Cup where the host country and countries have not automatically qualified.”
The 48-team World Cups will feature 16 groups of three teams with two advancing to a knockout stage. Gulati said they are hoping to spread the matches around as best as possible and still have it be cost-effective.
“I think it’s safe to say that generally given the infrastructure that exists in our countries and the lack of a need to build new stadiums or hotels or anything else, we would generally be in favour of more venues than less,” Gulati said. “We are still trying to grow the game in Canada and the U.S. in a way that is different from Mexico.”
That has long been CONCACAF’s approach to the Gold Cup. This summer’s tournament will use 14 different stadiums to play the 25 matches in the tournament.
It is quite possible Canada’s 10 matches would be spread between four host cities which would leave two cities only hosting two matches. Vancouver’s BC Place seems like an obvious choice after hosting the Women’s World Cup final. Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium and Montréal’s Olympic Stadium also hosted matches and have ample capacity.
With the temporary seating at BMO Field in Toronto for the Grey Cup, the venue was larger than two of the Russian stadiums for 2018 and larger than two of the proposed stadiums in Qatar.
Of course, the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada made headlines for hosting matches on artificial turf. While that isn’t unusual in men’s youth tournaments, no matches at the men’s World Cup have ever been played on an artificial surface.
“After we got the bid FIFA made the decision that they wanted to go with artificial turf or two-star turf as they call it. We then changed a couple of fields and invested to meet that. The decision was made by FIFA,” Montagliani said. “We haven’t discussed any of that here, but I’m sure that’s FIFA’s decision. Whatever the surface is going to be each country will respond to that part of the bid accordingly. Every men’s World Cup has been on grass and I would assume this one would be the same. If that’s the decision of FIFA we will respond accordingly.”
Financially the bid should have little risk for the CSA. Given their level of involvement, there is no reason to build new stadiums for two or three matches. It could be an opportunity to expand BMO Field further or add capacity to Stade Saputo in Montréal, but nothing approaching the billions in new facilities a solo bid for a 32-team tournament would have required.
Gulati said that the vast amount of quality stadiums and existing infrastructure made their big cost-effective and hopefully successful.
“The three federations have extraordinary capacities within the federations to do a number of the things an external bid committee would normally have to do,” said Gulati who took a dig at the winning Qatar bid for 2022. “Because of the infrastructure that already exists within the three countries we don’t have to do any designs of new stadiums. We don’t have to show how we’re going to build a new city. We don’t have to show how we’re going to have a new hotel complex. All of those things are done and that’s part of the reasons why our bid last time cost less than most.”
Gulati did add that the division of expenses between the three nations and with FIFA “is a model that has not been developed yet.”
Mexico has four ideal stadiums ready to go. The iconic Azteca, plus Estadio Chivas in Guadalajara and Estadio BBVA Bancomer in Monterrey, which were both built this decade and Estadio Cuauhtémoc in Puebla was completely renovated and expanded in 2015.
It may take more work to get the public behind the bid. After hosting two of the best World Cups in history in 1970 and 1986, Mexico would set a record if awarded the tournament for a third time.
It’s easy to understand the disdain from many Mexicans who want no part of getting a token 10 matches in exchange for helping to put a positive face on the United States.
Gulati said, without prompting, that US Soccer had spoken to American president Donald Trump.
“We very specifically have addressed this with the president, Gulati said. “He is fully supportive of the joint bid, encouraged the joint bid, and is especially pleased with the fact that Mexico is participating in this joint bid with us.”