Chicago and Vancouver have both declined to be part of a North American World Cup bid, citing financial risks. Will others follow?
The North American bid for the 2026 World Cup, a joint venture between the United States, Canada and Mexico, delivered its official pitch to Fifa on Friday with 23 cities listed as potential venues.
But behind the fanfare, four major cities – Chicago, Minneapolis, Vancouver and Glendale– told Fifa and the United Bid they didn’t want to be part of a World Cup. Local authorities from those cities cited heavy-handed requests from Fifa and the United Bid that included potentially huge taxpayer bills, as well as hosting contracts that exposed their cities and residents to immense financial and legal risk.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on Wednesday that Chicago was out – even if the bid was successful. A city official told the Guardian that although Chicago considered itself a “big event city” the requirements for the 2026 tournament “just didn’t feel right”. One demand from Fifa was that the organization could require Chicago to construct a dome over Soldier Field, the venue that hosted the 1994 World Cup opening game and would have hosted matches in 2026.
Fifa’s requirements also included an open-ended ability to modify the agreement at any time; no indemnity to protect the city or taxpayers from legal and financial risks; for Chicago to meet requirements that fall outside of its jurisdiction and authority and therefore could not be ensured; and for contracts to be governed and interpreted under Swiss law (Fifa is headquartered in Zurich).
The cities may well have looked at warnings from the past before pulling out: some venues used for recent World Cups in Brazil and South Africa stand as publicly-funded monuments to a demanding and brief affair with Fifa.
Cape Town Stadium, for example, has been a financial burden on the local government with calls for the 2010 World Cup venue to be demolished and replaced with affordable public housing. The stadium is losing a reported $10m annually and a recent idea to offer naming rights to a sponsor led internet jokers to suggest renaming the stadium “The Lonely Elephant” or “The Money Pit”.
Rio’s famed Maracana was a global icon used during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics before legal battles and unpaid bills saw it fall into decay. A year after the 2014 tournament, Brasilia’s stadium was converted to a bus parking lot and Cuiaba’s never-quite-completed stadium hosted homeless people after standing idle – arguably both better uses for public money.
Stadiums are not just a problem for World Cups. Ten years after the 2004 Games, Olympic venues in Athens looked post-apocalyptic, while in Australia plans are underway to tear down the Sydney Olympic Stadium, which is now considered obsolete less than 20 years after it opened for the 2000 Games.
It’s something Chicago seems to have noticed. “After conducting a robust due diligence process and participating in the World Cup 2026 United Bid Committee bid process, Fifa could not provide a basic level of certainty on some major unknowns that put our city and taxpayers at risk,” Matt McGrath, a spokesman for Mayor Emanuel said in an email to the Guardian. “The uncertainty for taxpayers, coupled with Fifa’s inflexibility and unwillingness to negotiate, were clear indications that further pursuit of the bid wasn’t in Chicago’s best interests.”
Hosting World Cup matches could have provided soccer around Chicago with a legacy for generations – many American fans claim the 1994 tournament was a game changer for personal engagement – but Emanuel’s decision was applauded by the president of MLS club Chicago Fire.
“We fully support Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision, one that he made in the best interest of the city,” said Fire’s Nelson Rodríguez. “In the end, this is the event’s loss not to have games in one of the world’s greatest sports cities.”
Minneapolis, Vancouver and Glendale (home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals) cited similar concerns with Fifa’s policy that demands cities hand over powers to an organization crippled by controversy surrounding previous World Cup bids.
A Fifa spokesperson did not directly respond when asked if its World Cup demands were too demanding, instead referring the Guardian to a 12-page document titled “Overview of Government Guarantees and the Government Declaration”. The document outlines Fifa’s need to establish a legal framework when it imports its own infrastructure to operate within a host nation and the need for a local government to accommodate football’s governing body (the “Fifa World Cup Courts”, for example, attracted raised eyebrows in 2010).
“An event of the magnitude of the Fifa World Cup cannot be organised without the broad support of the relevant government authorities in the Host Country,” the document reads.
Fifa’s requirements for host nations also demand that the US, Canada, and Mexico guarantee a visa-free environment or “issue non-discriminatory entry procedures” for representatives of Fifa nations during the World Cup. The demand effectively grants close-to-diplomatic status to anyone connected to a national federation or Fifa. Work permit, labor law, and tax exemptions are also required from national governments.
Fifa also requires the agreements must be signed by the “highest national government executive authority” meaning, in the US, Donald Trump must sign off on the tournament if the joint bid receives a majority vote from the 211 Fifa members.
Of course, some may welcome US cities dropping out. The dominance of US cities – 17 of the 23 candidates are in the States – in a shortlist to be cut to 16 underlines the widely-held perception that the United Bid is a US-hosted tournament with Canada and Mexico as junior partners.
Sources close to both the United and Morocco bids say Trump is considered a liability to North American hopes. With global politics, foreign policy, and tweets spilling into football politics, 57 African nations are expected to back Morocco, Asia’s diverse 47 votes are split, and there remains resentment among some Uefa and South American nations in the role of the US Department of Justice in exposing Fifa corruption. The three United Bid co-chairmen – from the US, Canada, and Mexico – have spent the past weeks crisscrossing the globe lobbying for votes hoping to minimize the Trump effect.
Morocco is the sole rival to North America, and June’s vote will be the first time all 211 Fifa members have had a direct say on the host rather than a 24-member committee vulnerable to claims of corruption and vote rigging.
Still, even if the US were to bid alone for the 2026 World Cup, its immense geography means it can still host a strong and successful tournament even without several major cities agreeing to host. It is, with no irony, too big to fail. The concern for the US Soccer Federation is that MLS cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis (and Vancouver) are disinclined to be part of what should be a soccer homecoming. Fifa and the International Olympic Committee should pay attention, too. Being the TV backdrop to a sports event, even one with a global audience, is not the big deal it once was.
-- The United Bid 2026 and US Soccer Federation declined multiple requests to comment for this story. Soccer Canada referred requests to comment to the United Bid 2026.