U.S. President Donald Trump is not helping the combined U.S.-Mexico-Canadian World Cup bid. Not at all.
On Monday, in a joint-press conference with Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, Trump asked for African countries, and others, to support the campaign for the three North American nations to land the 2026 edition of the world’s biggest sporting event.
“I hope all African countries and countries throughout the world — that we also will be supporting you, and that they will likewise support us in our bid along with Canada and Mexico for the 2026 World Cup,” he said. “We will be watching very closely and any help that they can give us in that bid we would appreciate.”
It was widely inferred that the last sentence was a thinly veiled threat. Because it came in the context of a Trump tweet on Thursday in which he all but demanded global support for the bid, in exchange for American “support” for them. It was unclear what he meant by the latter, or how he conflated it with a United Nations gripe.
The U.S. has put together a STRONG bid w/ Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2018
Trump seemed to put Buhari on the spot by asking for Nigeria’s backing for the U.S. bid.
This is problematic for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, it violates a FIFA rule against government interference into domestic soccer affairs. The U.S. is the leader of the triple-bid — 60 of the 80 games, including the opener and the final, would be played stateside — but its portion of the bid is handled by U.S. Soccer, under the domestic soccer federation’s authority. It is no business of the government’s, and in the past, FIFA has come down hard on similar interference.
In 2014, for instance, Nigeria, of all countries, was suspended from international competition by FIFA for two months because of government interference.
Then there’s the fact that Trump famously insulted African nations yet now expects their loyalty, even though the only rival bid to North America’s comes from Morocco. It’s fairly standard for nations to back bids from their own continent.
Donald Trump just put Amaju Pinick and Nigerian Football Federation in an awkward situation with that direct solicitation of vote for 2026 FIFA World Cup bid. NFF chief is one of CAF president's closest allies and Pro-Morocco.
— Saddique Shaban (@SaddiqueShaban) April 30, 2018
Whatever help Trump believes he’s contributing is more likely to backfire than actually buttress the bid. This isn’t a partisan point. And it isn’t even necessarily about the violation of FIFA rules — which are unlikely to result in significant punishment for the bid.
This is about anti-American sentiment. The biggest issue with the United States-led bid is that it includes the United States. You’ll recall that when a series of law enforcement raids swept through FIFA meetings almost three years ago, putting a fair few of the game’s power brokers behind bars, or at least expelling them from the sport, the FBI and Department of Justice were the primary forces. A lot of soccer nations haven’t forgotten that. And they’re not exactly grateful.
For the first time, every soccer federation will have a vote in assigning the 2026 World Cup, after that privilege was stripped from the notoriously bribe-able Executive Committee, which has since been replaced by an expanded FIFA Council. And a lot of them still harbor resentment toward the U.S. for shattering the lucrative status quo and ushering in an era of increased scrutiny and accountability.
Aside from that, a lot of senior soccer officials grate under the same government interference FIFA has outlawed. National soccer federations tend to be fiefdoms, and life at the top of them usually remains cushy for longtime administrators of the sport. Those administrators won’t welcome pressure from their own governments because the president of the United States has suddenly taken an interest and made their votes a bargaining chip in the greater game of international relations.
In truth, the only hope Morocco has ever had in landing this World Cup is that voters would rather like to deal a blow to the United States for political reasons, an urge outweighing the obvious superiority of its bid. Because the bids aren’t exactly competitive. North America offers a ready-made World Cup, with most of the stadiums and infrastructure ready to go — a proposal free of risk or the controversy that inevitably follows the towering cost of construction. Morocco has it all to build, proposing to spend almost $16 billion on 14 new or refurbished stadiums and other things, when its nominal gross domestic product only just exceeded $103 billion at last count.
Indeed, in its bid inspection, FIFA found Morocco’s offering so shaky that it returned for an unusual second visit. Which is to say nothing of an anti-homosexuality law in Morocco that is in violation of FIFA’s human rights requirements.
The race for the 2026 World Cup is one between a jet ski and a paddle boat. All that can sink the North Americans is the growing animosity towards America. But Trump is the very face of anti-Americanism in 2018. Polls demonstrate clearly that the world’s opinion of our country has declined sharply since he’s taken office.
The best thing to do for Trump, and indeed all American politicians, is to lay low. This product doesn’t need selling. And it especially doesn’t need public pressure from the very person who has likely damaged its chances the most.
It’s hard to say why Trump is getting involved in the bid. Perhaps he sees another opportunity to pick up a PR win. Or maybe he views it as a chance to test his foreign policy muscle. The nationalist messaging is perhaps a play for his political base.
But whatever Trump thinks he’s doing, he’d better re-think it. That is, if he actually cares about bringing another World Cup to our shores.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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