While soccer lovers across the globe eagerly await the World Cup to kick off Thursday in Moscow, many North American fans are looking forward to Wednesday almost as much. Tomorrow, on the eve of Russia 2018, FIFA is expected to award hosting rights for the 2026 tournament following a vote by its 207 eligible member nations, which will decide between Morocco and a joint bid from Canada, Mexico and the United States.
The United Bid, as it’s called, is the favorite. But one can understand why North Americans, and particularly those in the U.S., might be worried. After all, they’ve been down this road before. It was only eight years ago that another strong USA-led bid was surprisingly beaten out by the tiny Gulf state Qatar, in part because of a culture of corruption within the highest levels of FIFA, a sprawling criminal investigation later found.
Given that history, hoping for the best but expecting the worst is logical. Yet there are real reasons for supporters of the United Bid to be optimistic about its chances of winning when the ballots are counted on Wednesday.
The main one, as always, is money.
A North American World Cup would be about twice as profitable for FIFA as one in Morocco. The African nation of 36 million is projecting a haul of $5 billion. That isn’t chump change, but it’s also a far cry from the $10-11 billion profit projected by the United Bid. Six billion dollars is a lot of money to leave on the table.
The United Bid is also far superior technically. With a vast portfolio of hotels, airports and state-of-the-art stadiums already in place, new infrastructure wouldn’t need to be built the way it would in Morocco, to the tune of $14 billion according to FIFA’s own estimates.
Of course, technical superiority meant squat in 2010, when Russia beat out England and Qatar pipped the U.S. But those controversial decisions also drew immense scrutiny, and FIFA has been forced to change since the 2015 scandal that resulted in the ouster of then-president Sepp Blatter and others shook global soccer’s governing body to its rotten core.
There are significant differences this time around. Rather than rely on FIFA’s secretive 22-person executive committee (now known as the FIFA council), every member association (minus the four bidding nations) will receive one vote.
Another key change is that for the first time, the vote is public, making the sort of backroom deals that many suspect impacted previous selections far less likely. That cuts both ways, of course, as politics, which aren’t supposed to be part of the process but always are, could prevent certain nations from backing a political adversary. (It’s hard to see Iran, for example, publicly casting a ballot for the North Americans.) But overall, having an open vote holds federations accountable. That would seem to work in favor of the United bid by forcing voters to actually consider FIFA’s own technical reports on the bids, which deemed the North American entry superior by almost every metric.
Speaking of politics, lobbying by Steven Reed, Decio de Maria and Carlos Cordeiro, the heads of the Canadian, Mexican and U.S. federations, seems to have successfully assuaged any concerns that fans from specific countries wouldn’t be allowed to travel to the United States. The New York Times reported Tuesday that personal assurances in the form of signed letters from U.S. President Donald Trump have helped to that end.
But again, what it really comes down to is money. Morocco simply doesn’t have the resources that oil-rich Russia and Qatar did back in 2010, and the relatively transparent nature of this bid process compared to the last one means that even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to use it to swing the decision.
Remember that member associations share in World Cup profits, with a mandate to use those funds (at least in theory) to grow the game at home.
Those countries need the income, too; on Monday, the CONCACAF region reported a $47 million deficit for this year. With World Cup profits serving as the golden goose, it’s hard to see a majority of voters – especially the ones in Asia and Europe that might be on the fence – volunteering to hand themselves half the available cash.
More soccer from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• Everything you need to know about the 2026 vote and bid
• Sunil Gulati’s exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports
• 2018 World Cup contenders, tiered and ranked 1-32
• Carlos Cordeiro’s first 100 days