World Cup 2026 Is Awarded to United States, Canada and Mexico

After months of meetings and arm-twisting, a campaign that began last August when Morocco jumped into the race on the final day that countries could announce their intention to bid, ended in an instant: with electronic vote totals suddenly flashing onto a giant screen.

The victory spared U.S. Soccer a second stunning defeat in less than a year; the United States men’s team is missing the World Cup this summer, its first absence since 1986. The American federation spent more than $6 million — out of a combined budget of about $8 million — to bring the World Cup back to North America, and its first-term president, Carlos Cordeiro, had criss-crossed the globe to meet voters since his election in February.

North American Bid Wins World Cup 2026: How Each Country Voted

Here’s how each soccer federation in FIFA voted on Wednesday.

The North Americans had offered FIFA’s member associations a ready-made World Cup; the 23 stadiums they offered as potential hosts are already built, as is most of the infrastructure the expanded 48-team tournament will need: training sites, hotels, airports, rail lines.

And, like Morocco, the North Americans also had the full support of their governments. The nations’ so-called United Bid was a rare topic on which the presidents of the three countries found common cause, and the United States government, including President Trump, had mounted a stealthy shadow campaign to try to win over FIFA and its member federations.

The North American bid’s signature selling point, however, was delivered in a language FIFA members long have understood: revenue. The North Americans promised FIFA a record $11 billion profit — a staggering amount of money that could mean as much as $50 million for each national association.

Morocco, which pledged a profit of less than half as large as its rival’s, criticized the focus on money over soccer until the bitter end.

“The United Bid is proposing an offer that is mainly a business proposal for football,” one Moroccan official, Moncef Belkhayat, said Monday. “Their offer is based on dollars, on profit, while Morocco is offering an offer that is based on passion for football, for development of football — not only in Morocco, but also in Africa.”

Morocco’s proposal, too, came with serious concerns. The 2026 World Cup will be the first with 48 teams, a significant expansion from the current 32 and a massive undertaking for any host, especially one going it alone. Morocco would have needed to spend billions of dollars to build nine stadiums and to significantly renovate five others, and do all of it in eight years — four fewer than the 12 FIFA gave to Qatar, which still has not finished the job of getting ready for the 2022 World Cup.

Then there were the hotels, the highways, the rail links and the facilities to host a tournament set to bring more than 1,100 players and millions of fans to North Africa; all would have needed to be built, at a cost of billions more.

Infantino Has the Last Word

In his closing remarks, Gianni Infantino saves the big news for the end: he confirms he will stand for re-election as FIFA president at next year’s congress in Paris. No one expected him to walk away, but now he’s officially running.

Morocco Makes Its Closing Argument

Morocco opens with a really-deep-voiceover video about its pitch, but it is uncomfortable to boast a $5 million profit for FIFA when the other guy just dropped a number more than twice as big. Morocco’s representative, stepping away from the lectern in an open space on the stage, speaks with passion and calls its campaign “the bid of a whole nation.” Then he restates some of the same talking points it has used all along about domestic support (97 percent), coming infrastructure projects and one final dig at the United States and Mexico about guns and visas. “Weapons are formally banned in Morocco,” he says.

“Will Morocco be ready for the World Cup in 2026? Yes,” says the former Nigerian national team star Daniel Amokachi, who has worked as an ambassador for the Moroccans.

The Bids Speak: North America First

Each bid gets one last chance to make an appeal to FIFA voters. The North Americans send up the 17-year-old Canadian national team player Alphonso Davies first, and he stresses his roots in Ghana and Canada in appealing for his country. The Mexican federation president Decio De Maria follows him, speaking of passion for soccer in his country. Brianna Pinto, a member of the U.S. under-20 women’s national team, follows De Maria. Now Steve Reed, the Canadian federation head, and the Mexican youth international Diego Lainez. U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro comes on as the closer.

He drops the $11 billion profit line, how that can be turned back to FIFA members for development.

“It will be our honor to host the most extraordinary World Cup ever,” Cordeio says.

These brief speeches are an interesting, inclusive closing argument. Short enough to stress diversity and not bore the audience.

Breaking News: Spain Fires Coach Julen Lopetegui

In a stunning move two days before its World Cup opener against Portugal, Spain has fired its coach, Julen Lopetegui. Lopetegui accepted the vacant Real Madrid job this week, and that infuriated his bosses at the Spanish federation. But now one of the World Cup’s top contenders has been thrown into disarray only days before its first match. Rory Smith is working the story, and we’ll have more in a bit.

Votes vs. Votes Cast

Just to clear up something before we head to the final vote: the decision on the 2026 host will be made on “a simple majority (more than 50%) of the valid votes cast,” according to the rules. That’s important, since about 10-15 votes have been missing in each of the votes so far, for reasons of disinterest or problems with voters who cannot sort out the electronic voting device in order to submit their votes correctly.

Back From the Break

The congress returns from a half-hour coffee break with a third test of the electronic voting system. This time the question is, “If FIFA headquarters located in Zurich, Switzerland?” And yet again, not everyone casts a valid vote, and the percentage of correct answers is only 95. Hmmmmm.

South Africa Flipping?

South Africa’s Sunday Times reports South Africa’s soccer federation will go back on its early support for Morocco and back the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup instead. “South Africa will break ranks with the majority of the rest of the continent and vote for the joint North American bids rather than Morocco,” the paper’s Mark Gleeson reports.

Putin Arrives in the Hall

Well this was not on the printed agenda, but Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has arrived to address the FIFA Congress. Infantino greets him with a modified bro hug — baller move — and Putin steps to the lectern.

“Our goal is for all our guests — football stars or regular fan — to feel the hospitality and welcoming nature of our nation, to understand our unique culture and unique nature and for the fans to want to come back,” he says. “We hope to see you all at the opening match. Welcome to Russia.”

Annnnd we take a half-hour break. Surely wonderful news to Americans who woke up in the middle of the night for this.


“Welcome to Russia,” the country’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, told the FIFA delegates.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press


Compliance speeches and budget reports at 4 a.m. on the East Coast of the United States are a special kind of sleep aid. Kudos to anyone toughing it out while they are waiting for the 2026 vote.

Blatter Weighs In

From The Associated Press: The former FIFA President Sepp Blatter is claiming credit for Morocco’s not being eliminated by inspectors as a candidate to host the 2026 World Cup.

Blatter, who was ousted from power at FIFA in 2015 over financial misconduct, has publicly backed the Morocco bid.

He told the A.P. that “I was fighting for Morocco and for Africa because at a certain time (FIFA) wanted to eliminate Morocco before going to the vote, and now, they are at the vote and I think it’s a victory also of my intervention, especially.”

Morocco was scored 2.7 out of 5 by FIFA’s inspection task force, which marked the North America bid a 4 in the same report last month. Morocco would have been disqualified if it had scored lower than 2.

Back From the Dead

More Infantino: the president also reminded members of the state the organization was in when he took control in 2016, describing FIFA as “clinically dead” then. He then tells them that under his stewardship it is now “alive and full of passion with with a vision for its future.”

Infantino Sings the Standards, in Four Languages

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, shifting effortlessly among four languages, uses his address to the congress to highlight FIFA’s development spending and his work expanding revenues. This is a standard for FIFA presidents when they talk to the organization’s many smaller countries, and it is a point that got him elected in 2016 — after he promised to double development payments to member nations. But experienced listeners among you probably got the subtle hint he was sending ahead of the 2026 vote that one bid promises to bring in more than twice as much revenue as the other.

Those billions of dollars from the World Cup are where FIFA’s development money comes from, and Infantino is basically saying today that the more of that revenue there is to spread around as investments in global soccer, the better.


FIFA President Gianni Infantino highlighted the organization’s improved financial state in his remarks.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Sweden for North America

The president of Sweden’s soccer association, Karl-Erik Nilsson, told a radio interviewer that his country would vote for the North American bid today. That’s three Nordic countries to commit to the North American bid in the last hour.

No Ghana

Ghana is announced as absent in the roll call. That leaves 210 members in attendance at the congress, and since the four bidding nations cannot cast a ballot, it means that the magic number to guarantee victory in the 2026 vote remains at 104. Morocco has been pressing to bar four American territories from voting, too, but the North Americans will be expected to contest that.

Late Night? For Many, Yes

A note from a bleary-eyed Tariq Panja, who was out very late reporting on Tuesday: Teams from both bids worked well into the early morning Wednesday to target swing voters from Europe and Asia. Shortly after 12.30 a.m., a delegation from Morocco swept into the five-star Baltschug Kempinski hotel. They were followed less than 10 minutes later by a team from the North American bid, including U.S. President Carlos Cordeiro.

The two bid teams had been shadowing each other’s movements for the entire week in Moscow, visiting various confederation meetings, and the trip to the Baltschug Kempinski, the Asian associations’ hotel, was a sign that both bidders remained convinced they still had a chance to secure sport’s biggest prize.

The North American bid was able to lean on vocal and practical support from Saudi Arabia weeks before the final vote. The Saudis arranged meetings with other Asian nations in Jidda last month, and, leaving nothing to chance, they lobbied on behalf of the North Americans until the final moments.

Hours earlier, and perhaps the biggest sign of the unpredictable nature of FIFA elections, the Netherlands, which had given the North American bid every indication that its vote was secured, announced it would support Morocco instead.

Two More for North America

Finland and Denmark both announced this morning that they would support the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup.

A Little Comedy to Start

The congress begins with two tests of the voting system that will become the star later. FIFA’s Secretary General, Fatma Samoura, asks the members to answer two questions: Is the 68th FIFA Congress taking place in Moscow? And, Is the 2018 World Cup taking place in Moscow. Troublingly, the correct answer — “yes” — gets only 95 percent. “I think those that have voted no have had a long night, or a short night, depending on how you want to see it,” FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, jokes before starting his welcoming remarks.

One other curious thing about those votes: 18 voters didn’t answer the first one, and 22 didn’t answer the second. Let’s hope it’s that they just couldn’t be bothered, instead of a problem with (or a misunderstanding of how to use) the electronic voting devices.

What Else Is on the Agenda Today?

The 2026 vote is the headliner, but FIFA has other matters on the agenda, too. There will be consideration of proposed changes to FIFA’s statutes, and the potential for the suspension or expulsion of members (Ghana’s soccer association, for example, is in the middle of a serious corruption crisis). FIFA will approve a budget — The Times got hold of those numbers yesterday — and plenty of arcane talk of rules and committee assignments.

World Cup 2026 Top Story Lines

• The race for the 2026 World Cup began last August. For a while, it appeared the North Americans — who had announced their intentions in April — would bid alone. But Morocco jumped in on the final day for countries to announce they would bid; the decision forced the North Americans to rewrite their news releases, but it did not diminish their role as the favorite.

• FIFA technical inspectors performed site inspections during visits to both bids in April. Their resulting report rated the North American bid as “very good” but declared the Moroccan effort merely “sufficient.” While the inspectors did not eliminate Morocco from the race, they noted pointed concerns about its ability to host.

• To win the right to host the World Cup, one bid must gain a simple majority of votes from FIFA’s member associations, who each get a say this year. It is the first time FIFA’s membership has had a say; in the past, the hosting rights were awarded in a secret vote of FIFA’s governing council.

• The North American bid is built around the words “unity, certainty and opportunity.” It is offering a choice from among 23 existing stadiums in 16 cities in the three countries. But its main selling point is money: the bid’s leaders have tempted voters with the promise of a record $11 billion payday for FIFA and its members.

• Morocco has bristled at all the talk of money, perhaps because there is no way it can match it. Instead, the Moroccans have billed their country’s “passion” for soccer and its proximity to valuable European television markets, where its matches would air in prime time.

• Morocco’s main problem is infrastructure; it would need to build nine stadiums for the event, not to mention roads, rail lines and hotels, among many other investments.

Correction: June 13, 2018

A news alert about the vote to host the tournament gave an incorrect distinction to the winner. It was the first time a joint bid from three countries was selected; it was not the first time any joint bid was selected.

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Why Groups of 3 Will Ruin the World Cup (So Enjoy This One)

If you’re a World Cup aficionado, you may want to take the time to savor this one, because it may be the last version with a format — groups of four teams — that has a fair and consistently exciting opening phase.

The new opening format — two teams advancing from groups of three in an expanded 48-team field in 2026, and possibly as soon as the next World Cup in 2022 — raises a very serious issue: The risk of collusion will be much higher.

In many cases, the two teams playing the last game in the group will know exactly what results will let them both advance to the knockout stage — at the expense of the third team of the group.

Once this goal was scored by West Germany’s Horst Hrubesch against Austria, both teams all but stopped attacking in the last 80 minutes in perhaps the most controversial game in World Cup history, in Gijon, Spain on June 25, 1982.CreditAssociated Press

A match in the 1982 World Cup in Gijón, Spain, is probably the most infamous example of World Cup collusion. In what became known as the Disgrace of Gijón, West Germany and Austria appeared to arrange a 1-0 Germany victory that would let both teams advance to the second round. The clear signs of coordination, in which little attempt was made to score in the final 80 minutes, came at the expense of Algeria, which had played its last group game against Chile the day before.

An Algeria fan showed his disgust with the West Germany-Austria game by flashing money to photographers, implying the game was fixed. CreditAssociated Press

Since then, all teams in a given group have played their last group match at the same time. Although this has not eliminated the possibility of coordination, it has reduced it significantly.

But of course this arrangement is impossible when groups have an odd number of teams, such as three.

Let’s look at hypotheticals in the new format. In a group of three, we’ll call A the team that plays the first two group matches, and B and C the two other teams. If we use the current World Cup rules (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss, with ties in the standings decided by higher overall goal difference, then higher overall number of goals scored), risk of collusion will occur exactly in the following cases, after Team A has played its two matches:

Case 1: Team A has one win and one loss, and a goal difference that is negative or 0.

Case 2: Team A has two draws.

Case 3: Team A has one draw and one loss.

In these situations, there is a result of the last group game (B vs. C) that eliminates A.

Let’s imagine that the United States is Team A and that Canada and Mexico are teams B and C. (This would not be a realistic World Cup group, but we’re using these three as examples because on Wednesday they’re expected to win the competition to jointly host the 2026 World Cup, which will feature the new format.)

If the United States (A) won by 1-0 against Canada and lost by 2-0 against Mexico (Case 1), Mexico could agree to lose by 1-0 against Canada in the last group game and would still win the group, with Canada as the runner-up.

If the United States has two draws of 0-0 and 1-1 (Case 2), Mexico and Canada could arrange a 2-2 draw to eliminate the U.S. because of a higher number of goals scored. In Case 3, any draw between Mexico and Canada eliminates the U.S.

In all other cases, Team A will already have advanced or been eliminated before the last group game. To minimize the risk of match fixing, Team A should be the strongest team in the group, so that it has higher chances of having already advanced. Or it should be the weakest team, if very weak, so that there are higher chances that it is already eliminated with two losses. But arbitrarily deciding which team will play the first two games in a group seems unfair because it’s the only team that may be the victim of collusion.

My computations show that, for a realistically unbalanced group, the risk of collusion is about 15 percent in any given group if Team A is the strongest in the group. But it climbs to around 50 percent otherwise. This means that it will be almost certain — around 90 percent in the first case (if Team A is the strongest in the group) and more than 99 percent otherwise — that at least one of the 16 groups will face suspicion of match fixing.

Aware of this danger, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, has considered forbidding draws during the group stage. Games ending in a draw would be decided by penalty shootouts. This would indeed rule out Cases 2 and 3.

But FIFA is deluding itself if it thinks that would eliminate the risk of collusion: Case 1 would still be possible. Worse, Case 1 would actually be more likely, because banning draws automatically increases the probability of wins and losses.

According to my calculations, banning draws would indeed decrease the risk of collusion, but not by much: The risk would still be around 10 percent if the strongest team plays the first two group games, 30 percent otherwise. The probability that at least one group faces suspicion of collusion would still be very high, about 80 percent in the first case (with the strongest team playing the first two group games) and still more than 99 percent otherwise.

Not only would this make the Disgrace of Gijón possible all over again, but it would also make the risk of its repetition very high. Of course, not all teams would collude if given the opportunity, but even suspicions of coordination could damage the World Cup, and the reputation of soccer in general.

Consider an example in which Teams B and C compete honorably but randomly produce a result that eliminates Team A. In this case, a perfectly legitimate result would still be called into question by many.

When collusion does occur, it need not be explicitly agreed upon before the match. It may take the form of two teams satisfied with the current score late in a game and refusing to attack each other. It’s actually the most likely form of collusion (with an example last October between Peru and Colombia, during the last match day of the South American qualifiers).

In fact, with groups of three, risk of collusion is unavoidable: Whatever rule FIFA will use to rank the three teams in a group, there will always be situations in which Team A has neither advanced nor been eliminated after its second match.

Another, less serious issue raised by groups of three is that teams cannot enjoy an equal number of rest days between games.

Increasing the teams to 48 (from 32) seems a certainty for 2026. But maybe FIFA will reconsider the rest of the format, which calls for a knockout phase starting with a Round of 32 after 16 teams are eliminated from the three-team opening groups.

With 48 teams, 12 groups of 4 seems a better format. The eight best third-place teams could advance to the Round of 32. However, with 72 group matches and a total of 104 games, the World Cup would then last at least one more week, assuming four group matches per day. Both the current format (64 games) and the three-team group format (80 games) can be completed in 32 days.

Perhaps readers can come up with a more reasonable, fair and scandal-free system for 48 teams. Let us — and FIFA — know what you think.

Julien Guyon is a French mathematician and soccer fan. He is a quantitative analyst and adjunct professor in the Department of Mathematics at Columbia University and at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University.

On Soccer: The Jamaican Who Isn’t Sure He Wants to Play for Jamaica

That is not the only feeding frenzy Bailey has triggered, however. He has played only once for Jamaica, his homeland — in an exhibition game for its under-23 team in 2015.

The senior team “would love” to be able to call on him, according to Michael Ricketts, the president of the Jamaican Football Federation, but to date Bailey has refused frequent invitations to join up. Until he does, as far as FIFA is concerned, he is a citizen of nowhere.

Given his gifts and his youth, that has not gone unnoticed. Soccer officials in Belgium have investigated whether Bailey might be able to represent them. England, encouraged by a suggestion that Bailey has British ancestry, has sent scouts to assess him. His current home, Germany, has fielded several naturalized players in recent years, drawn from nations as diverse as South Africa and Brazil.


Bailey with a Jamaican flag after a game in Belgium in 2016. “If I played for Germany,” he said, “it does not mean I do not love my country.”

Yorick Jansens/Belga Images

Just how feasible any of those options are is open for debate: While Bailey believes he is eligible for England, for example, the link seems to be through his adoptive family, which would not meet FIFA’s criteria. What is beyond question is that Bailey is prepared to explore any and all options — including, perhaps, even reassessing his Jamaican one.

“Of course, if something was put down in front of me by a country that could compete, I would consider it,” he said. His priority, at this moment, is his club career, but he said he was conscious that “in football, the years you play are limited, and I cannot wait all my life to play in a national team.”

He will not definitively rule out that team being Jamaica — “I would never say never” — but he does not seem hopeful. He has called for sweeping changes at the J.F.F., but he knows such things “take years” to carry out.

“If I saw change, that would help me make a decision,” he said. “If they are willing to put a system in place, develop as a nation, then it would make me want to play. But until they make that change, I will focus on myself.”

There is limited sympathy in Jamaica for Bailey’s concerns, of course. Usain Bolt has offered his support, and the Jamaica Gleaner columnist Tanya Lee has said she does not take his “refusal to play personally,” pointing out that Jamaica itself has fielded foreign-born players in the past. But others are less understanding.

“You either want to play for Jamaica or you don’t,” the former international Paul Hall said this year.

Ricketts has suggested that Bailey is caught in the middle of a power struggle. He has accused Bailey’s adoptive father, agent and mentor, Craig Butler, of wanting “a job at the Jamaican Football Federation in exchange for his son” playing for the national team.

Outside the Caribbean, too, Bailey’s equivocation sits uneasily. Choosing a country is not supposed to be like choosing a team: It is meant to be a matter of the heart, not the head. Some, like the Brazilian-born Portuguese internationals Pepe and Deco, change nationality with little problem; it was accepted that their loyalty to their adoptive nation was genuine.

Others attract more scorn: Diego Costa, choosing between Brazil and Spain; Adnan Januzaj, working out whether to represent Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, England or Belgium; or Jonathan Gonzalez, preferring to represent Mexico over the United States. All were seen to be putting their own interests first, asking not what they could do for a country, but what a country could do for them.

Bailey’s case does not lend itself to such a binary assessment. He is in no doubt that he is Jamaican — “100 percent Jamaican,” he said — and he rejects the idea that he is considering shedding his nationality, or his identity.

“If I played for Germany, it does not mean I do not love my country,” he said. “You know you are still Jamaican. That is where you were born.”

That is something Bailey has been conscious of ever since he left Jamaica — perhaps earlier, right back to the moment, at the age of 8, that he first encountered the key figure in his rise: his adoptive father, Butler.

Bailey remembers his childhood fondly. He grew up in Cassava Piece, a troubled suburb of Kingston not far from the Phoenix All Star Academy, a soccer training center Butler owned. Bailey started attending when he was 8 and quickly grew close to Butler. He remembered “staying at his house, going to school from his place, doing everything together.”

Eventually, though Bailey remains in touch with his birth family — his younger sister led him out onto the field for a Leverkusen game in March — Butler formally adopted him. It is Butler whom Bailey refers to as Dad, and Butler’s son, Kyle, whom Bailey considers his brother. “Blood,” he said, “does not make you family.”

When Bailey was 12, Butler, convinced he could not fulfill his potential amid the privations of Jamaican soccer, decided to take him and Kyle Butler to Europe. They flew to Austria, for a trial with Red Bull Salzburg.

They had little money to tide them over and no idea how long they would be away. “I did not know when I would come back,” Bailey said. “I was 12. I just did whatever my dad said.” He would not go home, or see his mother, for four years.


Bayer Leverkusen signed the 20-year-old Bailey in January 2017, but it knows it won’t be long before bigger, richer suitors come calling.

Friedemann Vogel/European Pressphoto Agency

He played for various teams in Austria — some officially, some simply on trial — and had spells training with Genk in Belgium, Ajax in the Netherlands and A.S. Trencin in Slovakia. At 17, he was forced to return to Jamaica because of problems with his paperwork. But at 18, as soon as FIFA’s rules allowed it, he signed a contract with Genk. By the end of his first season, he had been voted the best young player in Belgium.

Leverkusen had become aware of him years earlier, during a trial at Ajax. “We heard there was this crazily talented Jamaican kid there,” said Jonas Boldt, the club’s sporting manager. As Bailey started to attract notice in Belgium, the club’s scouts recommended him again. Intrigued, Boldt went to watch him. He made up his mind instantly.

While Bailey’s other suitors debated his merits, Leverkusen moved in hard in January 2017 and signed him.

“It has been a long journey,” Bailey said. Through it all, though, he has been driven not only by his own ambition to be “classified as the best player in the world,” but by something grander.

“Everyone’s dream at the Phoenix academy is to become a pro,” Bailey said.

“We were the best from the academy, so we had to go and show our quality so we could open the doors for the others,” he added. “We were just the first pioneers to break through, to pave the way for young Jamaicans.”

To Bailey, that is the best way to represent his country, and he does not need to wear its jersey to do that. He pauses when asked if it would mean as much to play for Germany, Belgium or England as it would to pull on the green, black and gold of Jamaica, then says he thinks it would.

“When you live in a place for a while, you get to know its culture and its people,” he said. He draws a parallel with Raheem Sterling, a close friend who was born in Kingston but now represents Manchester City and England.

“Raheem considers himself Jamaican, but he still loves England,” he said. “He lived in England, and he lived in Jamaica, and he feels more the vibe coming from Jamaica. But if you have a decision to make to play for England or Jamaica, there is nothing to think about.”

Bailey will always be Jamaican. He will always consider himself a representative of Jamaica, whatever nation he ends up choosing. But that does not mean he believes that nationality is fixed, that who you are is only where you are from.

Blood does not make you family, and wearing a jersey is not the only way to fly a flag.

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Landon Donovan’s Continuing Education

In purely soccer terms, the move has been a test of patience: Donovan has spent most of the games since he arrived sitting on the bench. But with his wife, Hannah, and their two young sons in tow, it has also been a chance for him to reset his relationship with Mexico, a soccer-crazed country where he may be more widely known than in the United States — though also widely loathed.

For years, as the soccer rivalry deepened between the neighboring countries, Mexican animosity toward the American team seemed to concentrate with laserlike focus on Donovan. He did not shy from this role, stoking the fires with provocative comments and once even urinating near the field at Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara before a practice, an act that was caught on video and has never been forgotten in Mexico.


Donovan had a combative relationship with Mexican fans for much of his playing career. He lobbed barbs. They lobbed cups.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

During matches in Mexico, particularly at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, fans greeted every touch of the ball by Donovan with searing choruses of jeers and epithets, and they bombarded him with cups and coins and sometimes far worse as he set up for corner kicks.

In an interview in 2012, Donovan took some of the blame for this caustic relationship, admitting he had been “a punk kid” earlier in his career. “I ran my mouth a lot and I said a lot of stupid things and I was very ignorant and I caused a lot of, probably, hatred toward me,” he said.

But he was viewed by many in Mexico as a worthy adversary, with his playing prowess — and ability and willingness to conduct interviews in Spanish — earning him a grudging respect. Late in his career, perhaps in a sign of a softening in the relationship, Donovan appeared in a series of ads for the Mexican lottery that played off the country’s distaste for him.

“Mexicans hated him in a joyous way,” said Robert Andrew Powell, author of “This Love Is Not for Cowards,” a book about soccer and violence in Juárez, a Mexican border city. “They got a lot of pleasure out of hating him.”

Donovan has often said that he owes his career in part to Mexicans, specifically the immigrants and their children he played soccer with while growing up in Southern California. Had he grown up in a place where the sport was not a central part of the culture, he said, he might never have taken it up.

Still, despite all the times he played in Mexico as a member of the United States national team, he said, he never really saw or experienced much of the country beyond its airports and hotels and the infernal caldron of its stadiums.

The León offer, he said, was a chance to set aside a “pretty simple and easy” life of family and daily recreational tennis in California and really get to know the country in a deeper, more meaningful way.

“When this opportunity came up at first, it was a hard no,” Donovan said in an interview this week. But the team persisted, and in short order, Donovan was on a plane to León to check it out. He attended a match, met the team and the coaching staff, and took a tour of the city.


More than 7,000 León fans turned out to greet Donovan when he was introduced at the club’s stadium in January.

Gustavo Becerra/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The only Mexico I’ve really known is Cabo San Lucas, where you don’t really leave the hotel, or Mexico City or Guadalajara for games,” he said. “So all I see is the hotel, a drive to the stadium where people are yelling at you, cursing at you. In the stadium, people are throwing stuff at you, booing you. That’s the only Mexico I’d ever known in a real way. So having the chance to just see it through a different lens was really enjoyable, even for just that 24 hours.”

With his wife’s encouragement, he signed a one-year deal.

Donovan quickly turned his decision into something of a political statement, taking an apparent swipe at President Trump’s proposed border wall in a Twitter post.

“I don’t believe in walls, I want to go to Mexico, dress in green and win trophies in León,” he wrote, endearing himself to León fans and to Mexicans more broadly.

The León fan base — or a significant part of it — was quick to shelve its grievances and welcome him. On Jan. 15, he landed at the regional airport and was whisked to León’s stadium where, even though it was 9 p.m. on a Monday, more than 7,000 fans turned out to greet him.

In some quarters of the city, however, the club’s decision to bring an aging former star out of retirement, no matter how good he may have been, was viewed as a cynical act of marketing with only a marginal chance of helping the team’s performance.

But interviews with a range of fans outside the León stadium last Saturday evening, before the team’s most recent game, reflected a generosity of spirit toward Donovan, even if he has made only six appearances — all as a late-second-half substitute — in nine league and cup matches since joining the roster.

Alan García, 25, a León fan who works in a store that sells air compressors, said the news of Donovan’s signing “was like a bomb for us.”

“What us fans are asking for is that they give him more playing time,” he added.

But there would be none for Donovan that night. He remained a shadow on the bench in a 2-2 draw against Lobos BUAP, a team from the city of Puebla, and avoided reporters by ducking onto the team bus afterward.


Donovan has made only six appearances, all as a substitute, since joining León, but his coach has suggested he will start when the team plays a friendly against Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night.

Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Donovan acknowledged some irritation at his lack of playing time in the interview days later at the team’s practice facility, a bare-bones compound, with three soccer fields and a weight room, at the end of an unmarked dirt road.

“I just want to help, and that’s where it gets frustrating,” he said. But his maturity, he said, has helped to keep his frustrations in check. Instead, he has been trying to help the club in other ways, providing guidance to younger players and setting an example on and off the field.

At the practice facility, he was unfailingly courteous to the grounds crew and other staff members, greeting everyone he encountered. An intern working for the team said Donovan, unlike most of the team’s players, frequently stopped by the offices to say hello to the staff before heading to the locker room.

His schedule has been relentless: He did not have a day off until last weekend, and he seized the opportunity to take his family to San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city popular with tourists. There, as with everywhere else he has gone, strangers recognized him on the street and greeted him warmly, eager to talk about the team and soccer.

“Had I come here to live as a U.S. soccer player, it’s different because they don’t view you as one of their own,” he said. But now that he had joined a Mexican team, he had, in essence, become a welcome part of Mexico’s fabric.

While Donovan and his family’s home is in a guarded residential enclave, he said they tried to live their lives as normally as possible, venturing out often to eat at the city’s restaurants and shop at its stores. Even his decision to take his family with him, rather than leaving them in San Diego, was a commitment to a fully immersive experience, despite his initial and very serious concerns about the country’s reputation for violence.

It’s also why his thoughts during an interview easily returned to the pineapple salesman, to the few moments of pleasantries exchanged at the roadside, to the 50 pesos left behind as a tip and a thank you. In a country that once cursed the mere mention of his name, Donovan is now revealing a kinder face, and receiving one in return.

“They’re hardworking, they’re nice people, they’re trying to do good, they’re trying to support their families,” he said.

“It’s a perception I would never have had if I had just gone to Mexico City, to the Azteca, back to the hotel and back to the United States. And now I have such a greater appreciation for all of it.”

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