The U.S. moved a big step closer to landing the 2026 World Cup during last week’s FIFA Congress in Bahrain. But at the same time, the organization that governs world soccer may have taken a step back from its pledge of transparency and reform. —
Although the ruling council voted to extend the bidding process for the 2026 tournament for three months to allow rival nations to contest the U.S.-led offer, FIFA’s full membership voted overwhelmingly to fast-track the North American proposal. That means the bid for the U.S., Mexico and Canada to share the 2026 World Cup could officially be approved in June 2018, two years ahead of schedule.
"The most important thing was having an expedited process rather than a two- or three-year process and the council agreed with that," Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, told the Associated Press. "We are happy to have competition because we are fully confident in the bid we can put together and the sort of World Cup we can put on."
The three North American countries came to Bahrain hoping to convince FIFA to give them an exclusive window to meet technical specifications to host the tournament. But the executive council, aware that past World Cup bidding processes have been tainted by charges of bribery and corruption, declined, instead setting an Aug. 11 deadline for other nations to join the process.
No other country has publicly expressed interest in hosting the 2026 tournament which, with 48 teams and 80 matches, will be the largest and most logistically complex ever. Morocco, which has made four losing World Cup bids since 1987, was reportedly interested in entering the race again although it has not officially done so.
With Russia and Qatar playing host to the next two World Cups, nations from the European and Asian confederations are forbidden, by FIFA rules, from bidding for the 2026 event. And both Oceania and South America have thrown their support behind the U.S.-led bid, leaving only Africa undecided.
Whether Morocco enters the competition or not, the U.S., Mexico and Canada now have nine months to put their bid together. That means providing details about the stadiums in which matches will be played, the accompanying infrastructure, hosting facilities, obtaining necessary government guarantees and preparing human rights and environmental reports.
Preliminary plans announced last month call for 60 matches to be played in the U.S. while Canada and Mexico would each get 10 group-play games.
But while FIFA was giving a green light to a revolutionary three-nation World Cup bid, critics said the organization was flashing a yellow caution light at reform efforts by deciding not to renew the terms of its two chief ethics investigators, German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and Swiss prosecutor Cornel Borbely.
The two men led the probes that resulted in the suspensions of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, secretary general Jerome Valcke and European soccer president Michel Platini. The FIFA council decided last week that it would not nominate them for reelection now that their four-year terms have expired.
They will be replaced by Maria Claudia Rojas, the former president of the council of state in Columbia, and Vassilios Skouris of Greece, the former president of the European court of justice.
According to the London Guardian, Eckert and Borbely said that of the 13 remaining members of the investigatory and adjudicatory chambers, only two were put forward for reelection. Cornel and Borbely told the newspaper that means years of collective experience in bringing difficult cases will be lost.
“The impending and clearly politically motivated nonreappointment puts de facto an end to the reform efforts,” the two men said in a joint statement. That will leave “hundreds of cases” stalled for years, the men said.
“This is a huge setback,” Borbely said at a press conference. “The reform process has at least stepped backwards for several years.”
Maybe. But Eckert was also the man who blocked the release of a 350-page investigation into FIFA corruption authored by former U.S. investigator Michael Garcia, leading Garcia to resign. It apparently took the actions of U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch, who brought indictments against nine soccer officials in May 2015, for Eckert to take the corruption charges seriously.
And FIFA’s ruling council was certainly within its rights not to renominate the two men once their terms had expired.
More troubling, however, were the reactions to the decision. Prince Ali of Jordan, a former candidate for the FIFA presidency, said the actions of last week’s congress represent the status quo, not change.
“This is the kind of congress that we have seen before,” he said. “The system, the way business is conducted, it is the same. I don’t see the refreshing change, the openness, the transparency that everything talks about taking effect on the ground.”
Then there was FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s response to the criticism. Rather than welcoming a dialogue, the man who was elected FIFA’s president 16 months ago amid calls for reform, charged his critics with spreading “fake news” and engaging in “FIFA bashing.”
“We took over the organization at its deepest point,” he told reporters in Bahrain. “We are rebuilding FIFA’s reputation after all that happened.”
In other words, move along everybody, nothing to see here.
But it’s that policy of “judge us by what we say, not what we do” that rotted FIFA to the core in the first place. Infantino – and global soccer – would be better served if its president chose to debate his critics and not just denounce them.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11