Can soccer unite Mexico and Trump’s United States?

(AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Nelson Mandela once said that sport has the power to inspire and unite people. That creed can prove to be more important than ever for the United States and Mexico.

Yesterday’s announcement of a United States-Mexico-Canada joint bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup has set hopes of normalizing the relationship between the U.S. and its southern neighbor.

At a time when diplomatic relations between both countries have stalled — a time when the newly elected American president has called for tougher immigration law enforcement and a wall to physically divide both countries, and a time when the Mexican president has declined to visit the White House —futbol could stabilize the friendly relation both countries have enjoyed for more than a century.

After all, the FIFA World Cup is the most-watched sports event around the globe — the last one reached more than 3 billion viewers.

The odds of the joint bid winning are very high. The proposal has the full support of the Trump Administration said US Soccer chief Sunil Gulati. He assured the press that President Trump was “very pleased” that Mexico was involved.

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

“We believe this is a hugely positive signal and symbol of what we can do together in unifying people, especially in our three countries,” said Gulati on Monday at a press conference in New York.

Now the question is what leverage — if at all — will the bid give Mexico going into the NAFTA renegotiation talks.

An event like the FIFA World Cup requires full cooperation between countries. Not only logistics, but infrastructure spending, security operations, commercial deals and revenue sharing.

For the U.S., partnering with Mexico doesn’t only make practical sense, it makes a lot of strategic sense. By making a joint bid with Mexico, the U.S. has partnered with it’s biggest competitor to host the tournament in 2026, thus almost guaranteeing a win.

“The U.S. could’ve won the bid by itself. But by doing it alongside Mexico and Canada, it’s now a virtual lock that [the U.S.] will have World Cup games in 2026,” ESPN’s Sam Borden said on Monday.

But, even though the North American bid looks strong, President Trump’s harsh stance on immigration could derail the project. According to several analysts, the proposed travel ban, issues with entry visas and the border wall could prevent many Federations from voting for the project.

The clear favorites

Why is the joint bid a virtual lock? Because all European and Asian countries are prohibited from bidding for the 2026 tournament after their soccer confederations will host the next two events — Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

If that wasn’t enough, US Soccer has an ace up their sleeve. FIFA President Gianni Infantino was elected last year thanks to the efforts of Sunil Gulati.

“If you go back to the election, there’s no question that Sunil Gulati was pulling the strings on the ballot where Infantino won. The biggest debt [FIFA] owes is to Gulati and the United States,” said the ESPN commentator.

Outrage in Mexico


That’s the way the Mexican media and fans received the announcement of the joint bid. The outrage came after it was announced that Mexico would only host 10 games, while the U.S. gets 60.

While the outrage is understandable, — after all, Mexico and the United States have a strong rivalry in soccer that goes back decades — the reality is that Mexico is not capable of hosting the tournament with the new format.

Last year, FIFA voted for an expansion of the World Cup, going from 32 teams to 48, and from 60 games to 80. That entails more stadiums and more fans traveling to he country and seeking accommodation. A logistical and financial nightmare.

South Africa 2010 FIFA World Cup highlights. (FIFA Youtube)
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