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Column: United Bid Committee tries new approach to rescue 2026 World Cup bid

With final applications for 2026 World Cup bids due Friday, last week’s restructuring of the group working to bring the tournament to North America indicates the joint U.S.-Mexico-Canada campaign may be in trouble.

In a letter to FIFA’s 200-plus member associations, the three-nation United Bid Committee announced that former U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati will no longer chair the effort. Instead, Steve Reed of Canada Soccer, Decio de Maria of the Mexican federation, and Carlos Cordeiro, the newly elected USSF president, will serve as co-chairs. Gulati will remain on the committee’s board of directors.

The change was apparently inspired by two things: Cordeiro’s desire to become more visible in the effort to bring the World Cup back to the continent for the first time in 32 years and the need to sell the bid as something other than a U.S.-led effort.

The first reason is understandable and smart because it allows three co-chairs, with equal power, to join the well-connected Gulati in lobbying FIFA voters on behalf of the year-old United bid.

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The second reason is worrying because it suggests politics will be a major factor in determining who gets to host the tournament. Morocco is the only other country seeking the event. A vote on the competing proposals will be held June 13 during the FIFA congress in Moscow.

People close to the United Bid Committee confirmed last week that anti-U.S. sentiment is growing and many countries may use their World Cup vote to punish the country for the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric toward developing countries as well as for the Justice Department’s role in leading the investigation of FIFA corruption.

And though Trump will be out of office by 2026, the only chance many countries will get to vote on his foreign policy will come this June.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the letter from the United Bid Committee emphasizes the group’s “unified vision that transcends national borders and politics” and promises FIFA members that the committee is “determined to listen to and learn from each of you.”

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“This is only really an extension of a reason that the joint bid was done in the first place,” said Scott LeTellier, a Southern California attorney and one of the key members of the bid committee that brought the 1994 World Cup to the U.S. “A fear of how a Trump presidency would be seen internationally is one of the key reasons that led to the decision in creating the United Bid Committee in the first place. And it only has become heightened by more international antipathy toward Trump.”

But there’s more than national pride at stake. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group says the World Cup could generate more than $5 billion in short-term economic activity and support 40,000 jobs across North America.

This shouldn’t even be a contest. With the World Cup field expanding to 48 teams, the 2026 tournament will be the largest in history, and the North American countries are far better prepared to handle it.

The U.S., Mexico and Canada have combined to stage six World Cups — three for men, three for women — including the 1994 tournament, the most lucrative and best-attended in history. The biggest soccer event Morocco has hosted was this winter’s 16-team African Nations Championship.

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FIFA will require stadiums with at least 40,000 seats for all 80 matches of the 2026 competition. The U.S., which would play host to 60 of those matches, has 130 venues that size. Morocco, about as large as Texas, has six, none of them big enough to host the tournament opener or final.

It would take enormous investment for Morocco, which has shared few details about its fifth World Cup bid, to meet even the most modest FIFA standards.

Logic rarely trumps politics though. And with a change in FIFA rules giving smaller, developing countries a bigger voice in the process of selecting the World Cup host, those nations are determined to use it.

Previous World Cups were awarded based on a vote of FIFA’s 24-member executive council, but that procedure was scrapped after the 2022 tournament was awarded to tiny Qatar in a vote that was widely seen as corrupt. Now every FIFA member has a vote and that makes Comoros, an African country of less than 850,000 people, as important as China, with a population of 1.4 billion.

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It’s unlikely all countries will use that vote independently; many will instead vote in a bloc, giving them even more clout. If Africa’s 53 FIFA members all line up behind Morocco, for example, it would give the country more than half the 104 votes it needs to win.

That would make the math difficult for the United Bid, which also figures to face opposition from Muslim-majority members of the Asian confederations, as well as from some of the 10 South American countries that saw at least one of their officials indicted following the 2015 Department of Justice probe. Voting against the United Bid would be their way of retaliating.

“I don’t think that can be ruled out,” LeTellier said.

In response, the United Bid has strategically split, pushing Canada and Mexico forward while the U.S. recedes. Who, after all, doesn’t like Canada and Mexico?

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But for others, like disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the move reeks of desperation.

“They give the impression that they are not any longer very sure that they will win,” Blatter told reporters last week. “I don’t know why they are afraid.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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