BookWatch: How Trump could torpedo U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid for 2026 World Cup

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The most contentious match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup will play out on June 13, one day before Russia meets Saudi Arabia in Moscow to kick off soccer’s biggest tournament. That’s when members of FIFA, international soccer’s controversial governing body, will vote to decide which countries will host the 2026 World Cup.

On one side is a joint bid from the U.S., Canada and Mexico — known as United 2026. Their opponent: Morocco. On the surface, the North American bloc, with its vastly superior infrastructure and numbers of soccer fans, would be a virtual shoo-in to win the bid. But according to journalist Ken Bensinger, who has written extensively about FIFA, the current state of world politics has thrown a yellow card, and perhaps a red card, on North American soccer hopes.

Bensinger is the author of the newly published “Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal” (Simon & Schuster), and an investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News. In an email interview with MarketWatch, Bensinger points out that at least some FIFA voters evidently view their unique position as a way to tweak the U.S., and President Donald Trump in particular.

Notes Bensinger: “This is a chance for FIFA’s membership, a group larger than the United Nations, to make their voice heard on two issues: (1.) their feelings about the U.S. criminal investigation of soccer corruption, which has been extremely popular with fans but despised by the sport’s administrators; and (2.) the general disapproval around the world of the Trump administration.”

The rest of the email exchange with Bensinger follows: 

MarketWatch: Why should Americans care whether or not the U.S. is a World Cup host? It’s just a sporting event, right?

Ken Bensinger: For soccer fans, of course, living in a World Cup host country is an incredible experience. There’s nothing like the collective enthusiasm of this tournament, which is spread out in venues across the nation and generates sustained passions unlike anything in any other international tournament including the Olympics. The same could be said for general sports fans, or people who just love a good party. But even if you don’t care about sports, a World Cup has its appeal. Drawing tourists from all over the world, it can provide a huge tourism boost, and since the U.S. already has most of the infrastructure required to put on such an event, there’s no need to bleed public coffers dry to build new stadiums, airports, public transit, and hotels, as has been the case in host countries like South Africa and Brazil.

The last (and only) time the U.S. hosted a World Cup, in 1994, the tournament set an attendance record that still stands, and made a profit estimated at $1.45 billion. And that was when soccer was in the relative stone age here, with no professional league and limited popular interest. The current bid, called United 2026 because Mexico and Canada would share hosting duties, projects a profit for FIFA of $11 billion, and that’s not counting all the revenue opportunities for businesses that sell food, lodging, and services to spectators who come for the tournament.

MarketWatch: Many FIFA members evidently view the 2026 vote as a referendum on the United States and President Donald Trump. What are the chances that FIFA will decide literally to not play ball with the U.S.?

Bensinger: Curiously, the top brass at FIFA have indicated very clearly that they want the United bid to win. President Gianni Infantino, elected in the wake of the U.S. criminal case [against FIFA officials], has said as much to anyone who will listen. He and others charged with day-to-day running of the institution see the huge economic potential of a World Cup held in the U.S. and are practically slobbering over the thought of such a gold rush.

The problem is that the vote has been given to the 207 eligible members of the FIFA Congress (FIFA has 211 total members, but the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Morocco, as bidding nations, are not eligible to vote), and they seem likely to be motivated by different issues than good financial governance of the Swiss nonprofit organization overseeing world soccer. Some suggest these delegates, many of whom come from tiny nations like Montserrat, with no soccer legacy and zero chance of ever qualifying for the tournament, are ripe for corruption and vote-selling. Others wonder whether they’ll simply use their platform to make a political statement either for or against the United bid and, by extension, the Trump administration. The other potential motivator for voters is simmering resentment over the U.S. soccer corruption case, which was extremely popular among fans but profoundly reviled by FIFA officials.

MarketWatch: If the North American bid succeeds, does the U.S. owe Mexico and Canada a debt of thanks?

Bensinger: Not that long ago, the United bid of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada seemed like a lock to win the right to host the 2026 World Cup. The competition, after all, was Morocco, a nation that seemed almost completely unprepared to host an 80-game, month-long tournament.

But much has changed since then, largely because of things that have nothing to do — at least directly — with FIFA, and instead with geopolitics. The Trump administration may have its loyal base in the U.S., but it has difficulty finding a constituency among the voting membership of FIFA, a group that includes nations that have been publicly insulted by Trump, and others that have been subjected to unilateral travel bans. There’s no question that part of the original thinking behind proposing the bid as “United” was to use Mexico and Canada as buffers to partially shield the U.S. from negative opinions among FIFA voters. But at the time, that strategy was mostly to do with the fact that soccer officials were infuriated with the U.S. because of the massive corruption investigation undertaken by the Justice Department. That case, which broke open in 2015, shook the corrupt sport to the core and galvanized many soccer officials against the U.S., leading them to believe the entire case was some sort of vendetta from Washington against soccer.

The Trump administration has shifted the focus. Now the hope of those behind the United bid is that the presence of Mexico and Canada will distract FIFA voters from whatever actions President Trump may have taken on the international stage in any given week. That’s tougher to do when Trump mounts personal attacks against the political leaders of the other countries in the United bid.

MarketWatch: What lessons should the U.S. learn about its new place in the world, if it wins or if it loses the bid?

Bensinger: In the U.S., a president who is in office at the time of the decision is never still around when the event takes place. No matter what happens in Moscow on Wednesday, President Trump won’t be in office by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around. And as disliked as the current administration may be on the global scale, the next president could be immensely popular overseas. The very long lead time on such events diminishes the value of specific takeaways from the process.

What is true about FIFA today was not true in 2010 when the last vote was held, and will certainly not be true when the following World Cup site is selected. The same is clearly true about the U.S. In 2010, the U.S. attempted to win rights to host the 2022 World Cup. It had in Barack Obama a president who was immensely popular abroad, paired with an economy that was still struggling to rebound from profound recession. But the U.S. bid was beaten by Qatar’s, a shocking result that many blame on corruption within FIFA. Today, America has a president who is deeply unpopular abroad, paired with a very strong economy. FIFA, meanwhile, has dramatically reformed the voting rules, opening it up to the entire membership rather than just its executive committee, and doing away with secret ballots. Will that make for a truly fair vote? Hard to say. Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn is that when it comes to FIFA, nothing is predictable.  

Expect a furious response from President Trump if FIFA’s membership selects Morocco over the United bid.

MarketWatch: If FIFA does send a stinging rebuke or gets revenge, what is the potential blowback for countries that voted for Morocco?

Bensinger: If recent history is any guide, expect a furious response from President Trump if FIFA’s membership selects Morocco over the United bid. Currently, Trump is in Singapore, meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The FIFA vote is scheduled for Wednesday, June 13, so he’ll be fresh off his summit, another wild card if ever there was one. Typically, the president doesn’t take rebukes lightly, and one could expect harsh words — if not immediate punitive action — in such a circumstance.

But this could be trickier because of the sheer number of nations casting ballots. The winning bid will need at last 104 votes, which means that should the United bid lose, America will have to be mad at well over half the countries in the world. Another potential response would be to look for ways to punish FIFA, but that, too, seems tricky because the U.S. Justice Department already has an open investigation of corruption at the organization. It’s hard to see what else could be done against an NGO based in Switzerland. The U.S. can’t even boycott the World Cup since the national team flamed out last October, failing to qualify for the first time since 1986. Perhaps a more likely outcome would be that each country’s vote would be noted by the Trump administration, and adverse votes could be brought up as levers against countries on different issues, on a case-by-case basis, as evidence of why their interests are not aligned with Washington’s.

Simon & Schuster

Author Ken Bensinger

MarketWatch: Which countries stand to gain if Morocco gets the bid? Because this really isn’t just about Morocco.

Bensinger: After the government of Morocco recently pledged to engage in bilateral cooperation with the government of Dominica (population 73,000 and change), the head of that tiny Caribbean nation’s soccer federation pledged full support for the Moroccan bid. Around the same time, South Africa pledged support for Morocco, only to withdraw that promise. At latest count, roughly 23 nations have come out in support of the U.S. bid, with 17 backing Morocco. But since neither has anywhere near the 104 votes required for victory, the vast majority of votes are still very much in play.

As a Muslim nation, Morocco has significant support from some other Muslim nations, such as Algeria and Qatar. But Saudi Arabia has said it will back the United bid, and many other Muslim nations are still on the fence. Soccer politics is rough and tumble, and it would come as a surprise to nobody that nations might try to leverage their valuable votes for political favors, even if that’s against FIFA rules. Recent history has shown that the actual consequences for such actions are practically nonexistent: despite very dark clouds over both the Russia and Qatar World Cup bidding processes, both countries have retained their rights to host.

Read: Here are 10 players to watch at the 2018 World Cup