Keith Strudler: FIFA Vs. Trump
There is perhaps no greater insult and hypocrisy than when FIFA, the institutionally corrupt federation that oversees global soccer, when they insinuate you might lack integrity. But they did just that, and remarkably in this case, they may be right.
I’m referring to FIFA’s soft rebuke of Donald Trump, who has twice in recent days lobbied for North America’s collective bid to host the 2026 World Cup, an event that would be contested throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. Assuming we’re all still talking then. He did this both in a Rose Garden press conference and, of course, via twitter. But it’s really the message more than the medium that’s problematic.
In his address during a visit from the Nigerian President, Trump said that he hoped that all African nations would support the North American bid, while also reminding the collective that we, the US, support them. In other words, suggesting something of a quid pro quo. If that was just a bit too subtle, Trump left essentially nothing for the imagination in a subsequent tweet, where he asked hypothetically why the US should support nations that don’t support us for the World Cup. As if the World Cup should be analogous to military alliances or trade deals. And no, I’m not asking you to make any reason of this nonsense. Just to know what he said.
This hard sell from the American president is largely because the North American bid is receiving surprising competition from Morocco, the other remaining bid nation. Now to be clear, there are about 100 reasons why North America is a better choice than Morocco. And I won’t list them all. But North America already has the necessary stadium and transit infrastructure. It’s would sell a whole lot more tickets than Morocco and play in sold-out stadiums. North America would be less likely to crumble in debt in the event’s wake, unlike a single, less affluent host. And the US and Canada are strong emerging markets for soccer, so it’s a great business play for the sport. Meanwhile, Morocco would have to build seven new stadiums and all the infrastructure that goes with it. Just ask Brazil how that worked out. Morocco also criminalizes homosexuality, which is not great optics for a sport hoping to counter a history of bigotry and one on the ropes for awarding the next two Cups to Russia and Qatar. And from a geographic perspective, the last North American World Cup came in 1994. Africa hosted in 2010, although for the first time in history. But still, all logic points towards the States.
And it would, if these were logical times with a logical President. Instead, there seems to be a strong backlash from FIFA voting members against the US – particularly amongst African and Middle Eastern FIFA reps, most of whom aren’t fond of Trump’s rhetoric towards their respective continents and nations. To steal a phrase from the last election cycle, a lot of FIFA voting members may be Never Trumpers. That includes France, Russia, and a whole lot of Asian and South American nations, all who seem content to hand the 2026 Cup to a country that probably can’t handle it rather than let Trump have the pleasure of victory.
So, when Trump decided to express his displeasure with this possibility, and quasi-threaten people from voting against North America, he managed to do two things. First, he may have put the final nail in the coffin of what should have been a sure thing, grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. And second, he may have violated FIFA guidelines by politically interfering with the bid process, which could disqualify North America. That is why FIFA publicly hand slapped the US President for his advocacy, even if they used a soft glove in the process.
There’s plenty to take away from this affair, beyond the clear hypocrisy of FIFA’s moral high ground. First, it’s important to understand the interdependence of sport and nation and its divide. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, it’s not elected politicians that vote on the World Cup. It’s sport federation representatives from member nations. So asking countries to vote for your World Cup bid is like asking a car salesman to rebuild your engine. It’s not like Trump is even appealing to the right public. But when you insult a country, you insult its sports interests as well. Which is Americans historically mocked soccer while pretty much the rest for the world makes fun of football – the American kind. And why those insults are taken personally.
Second, for all that say that sport is or should be free of politics, good luck with that. This current World Cup selection process feels like a vote at the UN. People aren’t choosing a host – they’re picking sides, based on geopolitics far more than sport or even economics. Sport and politics may not be synonyms, but they’re certainly complimentary constructs.
Will North America get the World Cup? It’s hard to say. But if we don’t, it’s yet another insult from FIFA that’s actually right on target.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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