Could President Trump's Policies Derail a U.S. World Cup Bid?

Noah DavisContributing Soccer WriterMarch 3, 2017

US President Donald Trump attends an operations briefing at the pre-commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier in Newport News, Virginia, March 2, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

The 2026 World Cup won't kick off for nearly a decade, but the election of President Donald Trump might've already hurt the chances that it'll be held in the United States.

Before November, the U.S. was a favorite to host the quadrennial event, possibly sharing duties with North American neighbors Canada and Mexico. But the President's "America First" vision coupled with policies like his travel ban and proposed Mexico border wall could dramatically alter FIFA's calculus.

While it's still early—so early that the United States Soccer Federation has not even committed to putting its bid in for a tournament that won't be awarded until 2020—there are reasons for concern for fans who hope to watch the world's grandest sports tournament on American soil.

In February, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin expressed anxiety about how any travel restriction could negatively impact the U.S.'s bid. "It will be part of the evaluation, and I am sure it will not help the United States to get the World Cup," he told Rory Smith of the New York Times. "If players cannot come because of political decisions, or populist decisions, then the World Cup cannot be played there. It is true for the United States, but also for all the other countries that would like to organize a World Cup."

The UEFA president is not alone in believing a travel ban could impact America's chances at hosting the event. "I think that's an early signal of how FIFA might consider any restrictions on travel," Scott Jedlicka, an assistant professor of sports management at Washington State University, told Bleacher Report. Additional restrictions will only increase the level of scrutiny when the 211 nations that make up FIFA cast their votes three years from now.

In the end, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is looking to win what amounts to an international popularity contest.

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 08:  Mexico fans wave a flag before the start of an exhibition match between Mexico and Iceland at Sam Boyd Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mexico won 1-0.  (Photo by David J. Becker/Getty Images)
David J. Becker/Getty Images

In May, FIFA executives will convene in Manama, Bahrain, for the organization's annual congress, and they will announce the rules for the bidding process. Federations have until December 2018 to submit a bid, which will then undergo a 13-month evaluation phase. European and Asian countries are unable to bid due to FIFA regulations, and South America is likely waiting until 2030 so Uruguay can host the centenary tournament, so an American bid should only have competition from Mexico (if the U.S. and Mexico bid separately) and countries in Oceania and Africa.

For FIFA, the advantage of the U.S. is obvious: money. The 2026 World Cup, the first to feature 48 teams, is projected to make more than $6.5 billion in revenue, potentially more if it's held in America. In a vacuum, the U.S. makes a lot of sense as the host.

But of course, FIFA does not exist in a vacuum, nor does the rest of the world. Iran, one of the seven countries included in the recent U.S. travel ban, qualified for the World Cup in 1998 (defeating the U.S. 2-1 in group play), 2006 and 2014 and sits atop its qualification group for the 2018 tournament. Both Syria and Iraq have an outside chance to reach Russia as well. All three, and other countries listed in the travel ban, could figure in the 2026 tournament.

While accurately projecting American immigration policy a decade into the future is nearly impossible, it's something voters will keep in mind for practical reasons, if nothing else. "FIFA isn't looking to make a principled stand about immigration policy," Jedlicka said. "FIFA just wants to make sure that the people who want to come and watch the World Cup—and the athletes competing in the World Cup—can actually get here."

Persepolis's players pose prior to the AFC Champions League qualifying football match between UAE's Al-Wahda and Iran's Persepolis on February 28, 2017, in Abu Dhabi. / AFP / NEZAR BALOUT        (Photo credit should read NEZAR BALOUT/AFP/Getty Images)
NEZAR BALOUT/Getty Images

In some ways, however, concerns over how President Trump's policies might affect a U.S. World Cup may be a bit overblown. Any bid will include a series of Federal Government Guarantees—roughly 10 FIFA contracts signed by various government departments that detail how the U.S. will handle everything from visas and taxation issues to work rights and the protection of foreign dignitaries. These guarantees can include exceptions to a country's normal regulations, like the easing of Russia's visa policy for visitors during the 2018 World Cup. In theory, any travel ban could be decreased or paused for the duration of the World Cup, as could any other forthcoming policies.

David Downs, who oversaw the U.S.'s 2022 World Cup bid and worked closely with the Obama administration to get the "onerous" paperwork signed, thinks the Trump administration would play ball. "If they wouldn't be willing to sign those documents in any form, then it's a dead deal, so that's a worry," he said. "But I suspect that the USSF will find a way to get a Trump administration to sign some sort of watered-down version of the Federal Government Guarantees, and that will be enough to have the bid not get disqualified." Sources within the federation agree with this perception, according to Rory Smith's report for the Times.

It's not unreasonable to think Trump, a former soccer player and a man who loves spectacle, would have an interest in the U.S.'s winning the right to host the biggest sporting event in the world on his watch.

US men's national team fans are seen following the team 2-1 loss to the  Mexico men's national team during the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Columbus, Ohio on November 11, 2016. / AFP / Paul Vernon        (Photo credit should read PAUL VERNON/AF
PAUL VERNON/Getty Images

For Downs, the bigger issue is prevailing in the actual FIFA vote. "I'm far more concerned that if the Trump administration continues to pursue an incredibly aggressive policy toward what appear to be our former allies in terms of trade, immigration and foreign aid support, I don't see us winning a popularity contest," he said. As an example, Downs posited a hypothetical about the U.S.'s cutting off foreign aid: "There are more than 50 countries in Africa that have a reason not to vote for the U.S. all of a sudden." Considering that a host needs to win 106 out of the 211 available votes, it wouldn't take much backlash to an increasingly insular America to hurt a U.S. bid's chances.

If that's the case, it might not make sense to bid at all. The U.S.'s 2022 bid cost around $10 million, and the USSF footed the entire bill. A 2026 bid could cost more. (Australia and England, which had government backing, reportedly spent $34 million and $25 million respectively, while Qatar dropped $143 million on its 2022 efforts.) A failed bid would be catastrophic for the federation's finances since the only way to recoup losses is through revenue generated by hosting the tournament.

America is far from out of the 2026 running. Only a few other countries can realistically bid, and a U.S. effort—whether it combines bids with Canada and Mexico or goes it alone—remains the strongest option. But the policies of President Trump can certainly impact the chances that the United States hosts the tournament—whether directly or by reshaping the perceptions of the outside world.