The football association is looking toward a time when the dust has settled among North America’s three amigos.
By Musa Okwonga
Mr. Okwonga is a writer, poet and football fanatic. He has published two books on the sport.
This is part of Offsides, a newsletter on the broader issues and hidden stories around the World Cup. You can sign up here to receive it in your inbox.
The games have begun. The World Cup kicked off on Thursday week with Russia facing Saudi Arabia, during which the host country pummeled the Saudis in a match ending 5-0. But some of the biggest drama was resolved a day earlier.
On Wednesday, FIFA announced who will host the games in 2026 — two World Cups from now. The United States, Canada and Mexico prevailed over the other top contender, Morocco. In some ways, I was a little disappointed. Part of me had hoped that a second African country would have a chance to host the tournament. And Morocco’s unique culture — the food, the music! — would have brought something special to this global event.
Still, there are a couple of nice touches to the United States-Mexico-Canada decision. For one thing, there’s something nostalgic in it: Mexico, which will be hosting the World Cup for the third time, was one of eight participants in the inaugural tournament in 1930. It also recognizes the hosting expertise of Canada, which held the immensely successful Women’s World Cup in 2015.
What’s going on? The golden rule in international football is that if something looks odd, it’s pretty likely that behind the scenes money is saying all the right things.
FIFA and the Vatican have several things in common: They are both largely self-regulating, they’re both wealthy, they both enjoy remarkable tax breaks, and they are both exponents of religion to the masses. The two institutions are also alike in strategy: They take a very long view. FIFA is looking toward a time when Trump will have sent his last tweet and the dust has settled among North America’s three amigos. And in that distant future, North America is a glorious choice: It provides the vast area needed to host games among 48 countries — and thus to generate equally vast profits.Estimates say the 2026 games will rake in $11 billion. Even Mr. Trump, who doesn’t seem to be a fan of either football or international institutions, seems to get this. According to reporting in The Times, he sent FIFA letters assuring that the United States would grant visas to officials and visitors related to the tournament.
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.
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.”
Continue reading the main story
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.
Continue reading the main story
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.
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.
Continue reading the main story
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.
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.
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.
Continue reading the main story
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.
Continue reading the main story
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.