Global perception of Trump-led U.S. could harm 2026 World Cup bid, says Gulati

Sunil Gulati referred to some of President Trump’s foreign policy decisions as factors that were out of the 2026 North American bid committee’s control. (Getty)

The United States, Canada and Mexico are heavy favorites to jointly host the 2026 World Cup. They have just one competitor, Morocco. Less than five months before the decisive FIFA vote, Morocco’s bid doesn’t even have a website.

It is not a stretch, therefore, to suggest that the biggest threat to the North American bid is not Morocco; it’s President Donald Trump.

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To be clear, nobody that matters is saying that. At least not specifically. But when asked Thursday whether the current political climate could affect FIFA’s June vote on 2026 hosting rights, Sunil Gulati, the outgoing president of U.S. Soccer, gave a blunt answer: “Yes,” he said. Or, “Sure.”

Gulati, who is also the chairman of the United Bid Committee, expanded on the concern: “This is not only about our stadiums and our hotels and all that,” he said at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia. “It’s about perceptions of America, and it’s a difficult time in the world.”

Since Trump was elected president in November 2016, perceptions have taken a hit. A recent Gallup poll of people in 134 nations revealed that the worldwide approval rating of U.S. leadership has dipped to 30 percent, the lowest recorded since the poll was first conducted over a decade ago.

Gulati reiterated Thursday that the North American bid has the support of the White House. But that isn’t the issue. “We can’t control what happens at the 38th parallel in Korea, we can’t control what happens with embassies in Tel Aviv, and we can’t control what happens with climate change accords,” he said, implicitly referring to some of the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions.

It’s impossible to tell exactly how or how much Trump’s divisive governing could affect voters. But one thing is clear: this time around, there are more voters to affect.

After concurrent votes for 2018 and 2022 hosting rights, which were won by Russia and Qatar, were enveloped by scandal and allegations of bribery, FIFA overhauled the process. Whereas the decision previously lay in the hands of the 24-member FIFA executive council, it now rests with FIFA’s entire membership. Each of the 207 member associations – 211 minus the four bidding nations – will have one vote.

It will therefore take 104 votes to win. “We have to go out and convince what eventually will be 104 voters to vote for us,” Gulati said Thursday. “We would like to get a few extra to not make it a one-vote swing. But this won’t be easy.”

Gulati said he is spending “90 percent” of his waking hours trying to lobby for those 104 votes. The North American bid already has the support of the 11-member Oceania confederation, and is expected to get all 32 votes from the remainder of CONCACAF, the confederation comprising North America, Central America and the Caribbean. But if Trump continues to refer to some of those nations as “shithole countries,” all bets are off.

Trump’s remark certainly won’t help the North American bid steal any of the 54 available African votes, though those are all likely to got to Morocco anyway. That leaves Europe, Asia and South America up for grabs.

Gulati’s comments echo last month’s Washington Post story that cited “growing concern in some U.S. circles” that a North American World Cup wasn’t a foregone conclusion. One source close to the bid recently described that story as a bit “alarmist.” But nobody on the bid committee – which Gulati will still chair even after his U.S. Soccer presidential term ends next month – is taking anything for granted. Superior infrastructure and revenue-generating potential don’t guarantee a victory on June 13. And especially not when the rest of the world increasingly despises one of the three countries involved.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.