The World Cup is coming back to the United States.
Just where and when is still be determined, but with the 2026 tournament the next one to come up for a vote, Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, is feeling pretty good about his chances.
“We’ll host it. No doubt,” Gulati, who is also a member of the FIFA executive council, predicted Thursday during a panel discussion that closed the two-day IMG World Congress of Sports in Los Angeles. “It’s at least as important for the international community to be in the United States as it is for the United States to have the international community here.”
Bidding for the 2026 World Cup is expected to begin in June, and the U.S. is considered the favorite after finishing second to Qatar in balloting for the 2022 event. That vote was later overshadowed by allegations of bribery.
The selection of Qatar has embarrassed FIFA in other ways as well. According to Amnesty International and other organizations, workers constructing World Cup venues in the country are being held in slave-like conditions. Also, Qatar’s oppressive summer heat forced FIFA to move the tournament to the fall for the first time.
The next World Cup, set to be played in 2018 in Russia, has also proved controversial following Russia’s seizure of the Crimea region from Ukraine. Last week, 13 U.S. senators joined Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in asking FIFA to move the tournament, a call FIFA has rejected.
“Sports has to stay out of politics,” said Thierry Weil, FIFA’s marketing director.
Given the problems in Qatar, Russia and even Brazil, where last summer’s World Cup was marred by street protests, a U.S. World Cup would give FIFA welcome stability. The only previous World Cup held in this country, in 1994, remains the most successful in history, having drawn nearly 3.6 million spectators while banking a surplus of approximately $50 million.
A U.S. bid would also get a boost from FIFA’s preference to move the World Cup around its confederations. The last four tournaments have been held in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America, and the next two are scheduled for Europe and the Middle East.
“The next round, after Qatar, it will be another continent which will host the World Cup,” Weil said. Other countries thought to be mulling a bid include Morocco, Mexico and Canada. China may also join the process.
Gulati said the U.S. is so rich in infrastructure -- stadiums, airports, hotels and the like -- that if could play host to a World Cup next week if needed.
“But,” he added, “if we had a choice between hosting a World Cup next week or, I’ll say 11 1/2 years from now, I’d take 11 1/2 years from now.”
That would give U.S. Soccer and FIFA a chance to build support and develop sponsorships while thoroughly evaluating as many as 50 cities that Gulati expects to seek World Cup games.
Plus a 2026 tournament here has one more factor going for it: By scheduling the opener for July 4, a Saturday, FIFA could guarantee the U.S. a game on the country’s 250th birthday.
Or Gulati could ask for the final to be played that day in hopes the U.S. makes it to the championship game.
“Winning the World Cup at home? That would be pretty cool,” he said.
“Doing it tomorrow would not be the fulfillment of what a World Cup can bring to a country,” Weil said. “You need to have the lead-up. You need to have the preparation. You need to have the communication. The people locally also to start to think about [the] World Cup.”
Next year, the U.S. will stage the Copa America, a 16-team, 23-day-long tournament many consider to be the third-most important competition in soccer behind only the World Cup and the European Championships. However, Weil said that tournament, which will be played in as many as 13 cities, should not be looked at as a dress rehearsal for a U.S. World Cup.
“They have every week a rehearsal here in the U.S. by what events they’re conducting. In all different sports,” he said. “For me it’s a given that the U.S. would be ready any time to do it.”
In addition to accepting bids for the 2026 World Cup this summer, Weil said FIFA will also try to polish its battered image by inviting 100 fans from around the world to its headquarters in Zurich to participate in a dialogue about how to reform the organization.
“The way we communicated some things was not efficient enough,” he said. “We need to listen, we need to open up to criticism.”