By Steve Graff
With the news that Mexico would only host 10 of the 80 games in a joint bid with the United States and Canada to host the 2026 World Cup, there are many people who are rightfully upset that Mexico did not get more World Cup games out of the joint bid.
Given the importance of the two FIFA World Cups that Mexico has hosted before, one in 1970 and the other in 1986, its past history should have been on Mexico’s side in earning more games. But instead, as presenters and writers from TV Azteca, ESPN, Record, The Guardian (Duncan Tucker) and MedioTiempo, as well as our own Jonny Rico Aviles, have pointed out, it looked from a distance that USSF president Sunil Gulati walked all over FMF boss Decio De Maria in the negotiations process and left Mexican football fans without a fair deal.
In this way, it is fair to see Sunil Gulati as a younger Julio Grondona whose king-making abilities and negotiation abilities have allowed USSF to escape a lot of accusations of wrongdoing in the FBI’s FIFA corruption probes back in 2014-2016 while sending in Dan Flynn as the “fall guy” to face questioning from U.S. Congress and sending MLS commissioner Don Garber to cast a vote at the FIFA Congress only last year.
And it’s also fair to see how Mexico playing almost no meaningful games from 2023 until 2026 besides two Gold Cups and Confederations Cups in which they already automatically qualified would not be a good penalty to pay for hosting so few games. And the concerns that many of those friendlies would be opportunities for Soccer United Marketing to send El Tri on a tour across the United States, instead of playing meaningful games in Mexico, under the bright lights and examination by the futbol culture within Mexico proper. But by that time, a proposed CONCACAF Nations League could already be in its second cycle, and the concerns of having to play meaningless moleros across the United States for nearly an entire World Cup cycle would disappear.
But there’s another catch, and one that’s more significant. The famed Estadio Azteca is no longer a pollo de primavera and neither are several of the other stadiums that hosted the 1970 and 1986 World Cups, especially the Estadio Jalisco (Guadalajara), Estadio Cuauhtemoc (Puebla), El Vulcan (San Nicolas de los Garza), Estadio Olimpico Universitario (Mexico City). Although the Estadio Chivas (Zapopan) and Estadio BBVA Bancomer (Monterrey) are brand new, it will not be clear that even those would meet the FIFA requirements out of World Cup stadia until FIFA actually issues its own evaluation on the proposed stadia.
If Mexico got more games out of the deal, there are other costs the municipalities and metro areas within Mexico would have to worry about, including sites that could serve as base camps for the teams, transportation infrastructure, and that FIFA would deem none of the stadiums as being “good enough” for the bid. Given the pressure from sponsors for luxury boxes throughout the stadia, it’s possible that all would need renovation, or “brand new versions of the stadia”, like what happened with the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro or brand new stadia in locations that do not currently have a suitable stadium, would need to be built. Even if no new stadiums are built, having more World Cup games would create added stress on the country’s airports and roads as fans travel between locales their team may be playing in. To host more than 20 games, Mexico would likely need at least one or more airports upgraded to the capacity of the Mexico City International Airport of the Cancun International Airport.
But what a roundtable for The Guardian missed was a dangerous brew that was coming together in the United States, with relatively poorly developed, maintained, or operating public transportation systems in many cities, including dense cities like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Baltimore, and sprawled cities like Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, or Salt Lake, where to have the same level of penetration and service of the neighborhoods and suburbs, there have to simply be more miles of subway system (or bus or train routes) built to reduce the burden on highway traffic.
The politics of public transport and where highways and roads go between many cities and metropolitan areas in the United States and which suburbs, towns, neighborhoods, are also extremely important. These are often instances in which class, racial, and identity politics of communities often intersect and compete against each other for how transportation policy should be shaped and the communities prioritize different solutions in their decision-making.
And overall, a series of high-profile franchise relocations and blockages of stadium proposals, whether it was Charles Wang’s privately-funded failed Lighthouse Project on Long Island or soccer stadium proposals in St Louis, Missouri, or San Antonio, or new stadium proposals in Las Vegas, Boston, Washington DC, San Diego, Los Angeles, their surrounding communities, and elsewhere, has revealed to a public that in many ways has become much more resistant to funding new stadiums that don’t really improve the welfare of those in the communities, and one who recognizes that the owners of the teams who want to build those stadiums do not really want to understand the many issues they face, other than to profit off of them (even with regards to high-level university-sponsored and wealthy donor-funded athletics, when compared to other needs that universities are asked to meet; however, athletics are often the most public-facing front of many land grant state universities).
How can people, many of whom whose real wages have not increased since the 1970s, and whose sense of meaningful career and identity, including ones coming from their communities, continue to identify with something that they’re finding out more and more does not really care that they are the driving force of sport and culture? Stadium projects are often sold based on what sort of “jobs” or economy they bring. But for those people, it’s often only an every-so-often gig that would not pay the bills when the stadium is not in use. And at the same time, are these stadiums really geared around the needs of the people who are living in or around the cities, especially with the traffic that is to happen when the 2026 World Cup rolls around?
And these people, separated from “the other United States” by education, race, or even ‘class’, may also see the World Cup for what it might be at that point—a series of high-priced molerosthat are too sanitized for them to gain meaning from them.
Potential stadia that could be among the many that host the 2026 World Cup in the United States are also surrounded by highways are consistently at risk. Recent interstate disasters, like the I-45 bridge collapse in Minnesota, and the I-85 thruway collapse outside of Atlanta, are graphic reminders of the endemic problems of the United States’ infrastructure, at least according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card.
And the divisions in the United States, resulting already in what seems there to be hyper-polarized politics that really has paid little real attention to the plight of declining de-industrializing towns and its working (blue-collar) classes, could result in the U.S.’s decision to host 75% of the 2026 World Cup games putting a lot of its social issues, including divisions between what some call “the front row” (who will likely attend all the games) and “the back row”, as journalist Chris Arnade calls them, in the bright lights on the world stage for years on end.While Trump may certainly be no longer be president by the time the 2026 FIFA World Cup kicks off, the divisions that his presidency revealed could be much more pronounced and intense by that time.
Luckily for Mexico, the nation would be hosting World Cup games without its social problems, drugs, crime, and institutional breakdowns, being examined under a microscope by the world’s eyes. For whomever might be leading the local and national Mexican governments by that time, getting the short end of the World Cup games stick might not be so bad after all.
And if it turns out the countries hosting the 2026 World Cup are not the United States, Canada, and Mexico, then those host nations will be the ones to bear the burden and have their social problems in plain view.