The Long Read: Is Concacaf really a shoo-in for the 2026 World Cup?

Not so long ago, Concacaf’s name was taboo in soccer circles, tainted by years of bribery and corruption. Now, such is the Fifa way, the confederation looks set to be rewarded with the sport’s greatest prize.

The Long Read: Is Concacaf really a shoo-in for the 2026 World Cup?

Fifa’s decision to expand its World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026 onwards has drawn the inevitable ire of soccer-occupied minds the world over. The decision, dreamt up as part of Gianni Infantino’s presidential manifesto, has been criticised as having apparently been made for political, financial and commercial reasons, as opposed to purely moral or sporting ones. But while the 48-team proposal is undoubtedly flawed - not least in its 16-groups-of-three format, its flagrant disregard for supporter concerns, and its implications for qualifying (see the many internet rantings for more on all that) - it is fair to say there are few complaints coming out of the Western Hemisphere.

Take Conmebol, the governing body for South American soccer, for example. If the reports are true, South America could receive at least six World Cup spots under Fifa’s expansion plan. That amounts to some 60 per cent of Conmebol’s ten-nation membership. Even if the quality and competitiveness of Conmebol’s qualifiers could suffer, as has been suggested, under the expanded format - the region’s powerhouse members would be all but guaranteed to reach the finals before a ball has even been kicked - the reality is that no other continental confederation comes close to having such a high portion of its nations represented.

Yet the real winners reside further north, where there is a growing consensus behind the notion that the USA, which last hosted the World Cup in 1994, will now bid for the 2026 edition either on its own or in conjunction with either or both of its neighbours, Canada and Mexico. In the months leading up to last Tuesday’s vote, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati refused to confirm or rule out a bid, joint or otherwise, until Fifa had outlined the rules by which any bidder must play. Yet it now seems inevitable that a US-led proposal will be forthcoming, especially since countries in Europe and Asia are excluded from the running due to Russia and Qatar’s hosting of 2018 and 2022 respectively.

“I think any one of the countries could probably put on a good show on their own,” Victor Montagliani, the Canadian head of Concacaf, soccer’s governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, said last week. “But I think there seems to be a prevailing thought that a confederation-type bid with multiple hosts is probably good for football.”

According to Bloomberg’s Tariq Panja, Montagliani, an increasingly influential Fifa vice president having been elected to Concacaf’s presidency in May, met for late-night talks with the leaders of the US and Mexican soccer federations in Zurich last Monday. It is not clear exactly what was discussed, but Montagliani has since said a formal World Cup proposal could be presented to Concacaf members ahead of Fifa’s next Congress in Bahrain in May. That proposal is likely to be predicated on the fact that, as Montagliani suggests, the USA, Canada and Mexico all have much of the infrastructure and facilities required to host 48 national teams and 80 matches - up from 64 - already in place. And, as it stands, such a proposal is a compelling one, particularly given only Morocco has so far shown any intention of submitting a rival bid.

"I think there seems to be a prevailing thought that a confederation-type bid with multiple hosts is probably good for football” - Concacaf president Victor Montagliani

Incidentally, another entity likely to be rubbing its hands together at last week’s decision is Fox Sports. Like just about every major club and league on the planet, the US network opposed Fifa’s unprecedented decision to move Qatar 2022 to the winter, citing the disruption it would cause. Keen to quieten such concerns, Fifa controversially handed Fox the rights to the 2026 tournament for around US$400 million without conducting an open tender process, much to the dismay of rival broadcasters.

Now, in light of last Tuesday’s vote, Fox’s deal looks even more of a bargain. With an expanded slate of teams and matches, the value of World Cup media rights will inevitably rise - possibly by as much as US$505 million overall, according to Fifa’s own projections. And if the 2026 tournament is indeed given to North America, it stands to reason that the US rights would be worth far more - certainly far more than the US$400 million Fox paid.

More broadly, though, were a Concacaf bid for 2026 to prove successful, it would represent a swift and remarkable change in fortunes for soccer in the Western Hemisphere. Who could forget that when Swiss authorities raided Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel, Fifa’s favoured haunt up until last year, on that fateful morning in May of 2015, the finger of blame pointed squarely at the Americas? You may recall how, not so long ago, a slew of high-level officials from Concacaf, Conmebol and their marketing partners were rounded up on counts of bribery, money-laundering and wire fraud. You may also recall how fugitives took flight, retreating to safe havens in South America, how court cases ensued, and how, with each guilty plea that was entered, the tarnished reputation of soccer in the Americas was dragged through the proverbial quagmire once again.

Indeed, the names of Concacaf and Conmebol have been taboo in Fifa circles for years. Disgraced officials like Jack Warner, the slippery former Concacaf president who continues to fight extradition to the US, and Eugenio Figueredo, the ex-Conmebol chief, are synonymous with the lavish lifestyles and cancerous corruption that has brought the global governing body to its knees. Many of Fifa’s top brass, eager to distance themselves from the still-simmering scandal, have willingly pointed out that the federation’s problem was largely an American problem, never mind that its kickback culture was rife elsewhere.

“All that corruption was the fault of Americans, south and north,” claimed Sepp Blatter, who, slapped with a lengthy ban, sought to vilify “American companies” that sponsor Fifa for their part in his downfall and branded the US-led corruption investigation a direct result of the American “bad losers” missing out on the 2022 World Cup. 

But herein lies the rub: to the wider world outside of Blatter’s bubble, perhaps even to Infantino himself, the Americans were seen not as villains, but as heroes. The US authorities, led by the outgoing attorney general Loretta Lynch and her fellow Feds, were openly thanked by many in the western media, hailed as the only ones powerful enough to finally take down Blatter and end his long-running stranglehold on the world’s game. 

In the event, the US found itself imbued with greater global influence. During last February’s Fifa presidential vote, Gulati was widely credited with helping engineer the election of Infantino at the expense of Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman, an Asian powerbroker straight from Blatter’s school of questionable dealings. Gulati was said to have rallied support for Infantino between voting rounds, despite having initially backed Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, and it just so happened that as many as ten Concacaf member federations switched their allegiances in similar fashion.

On reflection, Gulati’s string-pulling was a political masterstroke. Not only did he get the president he wanted and, more importantly, a close ally in soccer’s highest executive office, but in publicly backing the victorious candidate he also succeeded in positioning the USA as the clear frontrunner to host the 2026 World Cup, the first edition of the event to be awarded under Infantino. As many seasoned Fifa observers concluded at the time, presumably through their knowledge of how the federation tends to do business, any support for Infantino was unlikely to go unrewarded. To some extent, last week’s decision only supported that conclusion. 

There will, of course, be those who argue that awarding the 2026 World Cup to Concacaf would simply be a sensible idea; an operationally sound, commercially lucrative and wholesomely symbolic move that would help draw a line under the malpractice of previous regimes and serve as a kind of second chance for the much-maligned confederation. After Russia and Qatar, it would certainly return a degree of rationality to the World Cup bidding process. On the other hand, though, it might merely be a case of Concacaf posing the best of a bad bunch of options.

But let’s not count our chickens just yet. Let’s give Fifa the benefit of the doubt. Let’s suspend our disbelief for the time being and accept this is not the done deal many are insisting it is. Much remains up for discussion, after all, and there are no guarantees things will play out as widely predicted.

For all the talk of the USA - possibly plus Mexico and/or Canada - being a shoo-in for 2026, Fifa operates in strange and mysterious ways. Remember Blatter’s assertion that a behind-closed-doors agreement had been made back in 2010 for Russia to be awarded the World Cup in 2018 and the USA to get 2022, only for his accomplice Michel Platini to go against this ‘diplomatic arrangement’ by voting for Qatar under pressure from the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy? Few would be surprised if similar posturing takes place when Fifa makes its selection for 2026 in three years’ time.

Michael Long (@_MichaelLong) is SportsPro's Americas editor.