FIFA awarded World Cup 2026 (WC26) to the United States, Canada and Mexico in June 2018. But more than 30 months later, football’s highest governing body has still yet to disclose which U.S. cities will host games, even though the host cities in Canada (Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto) and Mexico (Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey) have long been known. Perhaps even more concerning for the 17 domestic contenders is the lack of guidance FIFA has offered in terms of the rubric on which they will be judged. Conversations with several WC26 insiders suggested the selection process has been cloaked in mystery. “While there’s been a lot of talk about 10 out of 17 [cities being selected, even that] has never been confirmed,” Jason Siegel (CEO, Greater Orlando Sports Commission) explained.
Our Take: The timeline within the U.S.’s original bid documents specified U.S. Soccer was to submit their Host City recommendations to FIFA in June 2020, with the governing body confirming those locales before the end of the year. FIFA blamed COVID-19 and other priorities (like the ’22 WC) for missing the deadlines. But those familiar with the process say there was little meaningful progress between when the bid was awarded, in June ’18, and when COVID-19 became a global threat in late 2019, suggesting the organization had been behind the eight-ball even before the pandemic emerged. It remains unclear when FIFA intends to make the U.S. sites known; candidate cities have been told to expect an updated timeline shortly.
From an operational standpoint, blowing through the 2020 deadlines is a non-issue. Plenty of time remains to work through the logistics of putting on a 30-day global soccer competition–it’s not as if stadiums need to be constructed. In fact, John Kristick (who served as the executive director for North America’s successful bid to host the WC26) suggested FIFA “could probably wait several [more] years” before deciding on the host cities and still successfully pull off the event. Siegel agreed saying the delays would not be an issue “in any manner.”
But there is an argument to be made that the legacy WC26 leaves on the three countries, the relationships developed among them and the growth of the game on the continent are all more important than the tournament itself. As Kristick said, “There has never been a time in U.S. history when you have had this sport, at this level, with so many stakeholders (think: MLS teams/owners, politicians, Convention & Visitors Bureau leadership, youth sports leaders) aligned, excited about and willing to invest in the game. It’s a special opportunity–one of those once-in-a-generation type of things. So, the longer [FIFA] waits [to announce the cities], that’s opportunity lost which [the stakeholders] won’t be able to get back.”
It’s not clear why FIFA has been unwilling or unable to set a definitive end date to the selection process. All of the necessary information and documentation is already in their possession (think: contracts for stadiums and training sites). It was part of the North American bid, which won out over Morocco. The organization insists multiple site inspections must still be completed, but Kristick contends, “If the U.S. only included the minimum number of cities in the bid [as Mexico and Canada did], we would know who the host cities are, and FIFA wouldn’t have done site inspections [in those markets].” It’s worth mentioning FIFA also did site inspections in four U.S. cities (plus one in Canada and one in Mexico) prior to selecting the bid. The FIFA Media Office told JohnWallStreet in a statement that the FIFA Council is “looking to appoint the FIFA World Cup 2026 host cities in 2021.”
Given FIFA’s corruption-ridden past and the fact that new president Gianni Infantino promised—and delivered on—a fully transparent bidding process in awarding WC26, it was expected that a similar approach would be applied to this next phase. But that has not been the case. In fact, Siegel said FIFA has not given the cities any guidance in terms of how they intend to select host cities. “For now, we assume [all of the criteria] are equally weighted,” he said.
The problem with a lack of transparency is that it spawns speculation FIFA has already decided on the sites (meaning some cities are simply spinning their wheels)—or worse, that politics will ultimately determine where the 60 games on U.S. soil are played. When asked for clarification on the selection process, the FIFA Media Office issued the following statement: “While stadiums remain the foundation for the successful hosting of a FIFA World Cup, it’s absolutely paramount to ensure the best possible hosting conditions in relation to key infrastructure and services (both sporting and general), the commercial potential in each venue, as well as sustainability, human rights and event legacy.”
Pundits have suggested FIFA will ultimately pursue either a national strategy that spreads game sites out across the country evenly or a more efficient cluster approach that minimizes travel. If they’ve already decided on the cluster approach (which would align with their green values), it’s certainly unfair to string along cities that seemingly wouldn’t fit the model, like Seattle, Denver and Kansas City. As Kristick said, “No one should underestimate how much is being asked of the cities and how long this process has been.”