Canada and Mexico will only get a slice of soccer’s biggest prize if the joint North American bid for the 2026 World Cup is successful.
The proposed blueprint calls for 60 of the 80 games in the new expanded tournament format to be held in the U.S. with 10 going to Canada and 10 to Mexico.
"The final decisions on those things are up to FIFA. It’s their tournament. But that will be our proposal and that is our agreement together," U.S. soccer president Sunil Gulati told a news conference atop the Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan.
Gulati was flanked by Victor Montagliani, president of both the Canadian Soccer Association and CONCACAF, and Mexico Football Federation president Decio de Maria.
Their agreement calls for all games from the quarter-finals on to be held in the U.S., making for a set of ground rules that will likely leave Canadian and Mexican fans feeling like Oliver Twist.
But the good news for Canada, which has qualified just once for the men’s World Cup — in 1986, when host Mexico was out of the CONCACAF qualifying picture — is the push to maintain the tradition of having the tournament host(s) automatically qualify.
Gulati said the issue of host qualification is ultimately up to the FIFA Council, but added: "What I can say is there has never been a World Cup where the host country or host countries have not been automatically qualified for the World Cup."
Montagliani echoed that view.
Mexico has been to 15 prior World Cup finals, including two as host (1970 and 1986). The U.S has been to 10, including one as host (1994).
Canada is currently ranked No. 109 in the world, compared to No. 16 for Mexico and No. 23 for the U.S. The Canadian men are rated 15th among CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The 2026 tournament, whose host is due to be decided by FIFA in 2020, will be the first using FIFA’s expanded format.
The current tournament structure, which will be used in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, involves 32 teams and 64 matches. The new format will feature 16 groups of three with the top two from each pool advancing to a 32-team knockout.
The tournament time period will remain at 32 days.
Asked whether he expects bid competition, Montagliani replied: "Could be."
But it’s unlikely. FIFA has said bidders from Europe and Asia will be barred from hosting the 2026 tournament because Russia is staging the World Cup in 2018 and Qatar has the showpiece in 2022.
Montagliani, a FIFA vice-president, sits at world soccer’s inner table and will have done his homework.
And CONCACAF is due.
When 2026 comes round, there will have been 32 years and seven World Cups since the 1994 one held in the U.S. with Europe (3), Asia (2), Africa (1) and South America (1) having served as host.
The exact number of venues in the 2026 bid, as with many other issues, remains unclear. It will take another month or so before FIFA even issues its technical specifications for the bid.
"We’ve first got to obtain the World Cup and what we’re most focused on right now is making sure that the World Cup comes to CONCACAF, comes to North America," said Gulati.
But he suggested that given the number of quality stadiums in the three countries, "we would generally be in favour of more venues than less."
There would be a similar process, likely in each country, to what happened before the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, with cities bidding to be part of the tournament.
Cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver would work well given they are close to other major U.S. cities and so could limit travel in group play.
Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton served as host cities for the 2015 Women’s World Cup — with Toronto electing to focus on the Pan-American games that summer. The World Cup final was held in Vancouver with semifinals in Edmonton and Montreal.
Choice of playing surface will be up to FIFA although Montagliani said the answer was probably easy to guess.
"Obviously every men’s World Cup has been on grass. I would assume this would be the same," he said.
The original Canadian bid for the Women’s World Cup involved grass and artificial turf. FIFA wanted one playing surface and the decision was made to go with approved artificial turf.
Canada’s major stadiums, with the exception of Toronto’s BMO Field, are all artificial surfaces although as one soccer official noted — perhaps hopefully — much could change technology-wise by 2026.
Should the joint bid win out, Canada could also benefit from infrastructure improvements to training fields for teams that stage their tournament bases here. A pre-tournament qualifying event could also see games in Canada, which would likely also host friendlies in the leadup to the main competition.
Gulati noted how hosting the 1994 World Cup helped kick-start soccer in the U.S.
"Another World Cup here would further that and it would do the same in Canada. And maybe Canada is where we were 20 years ago and what a growth spurt would happen there."
Gulati agreed that the U.S., whose bid for the 2022 tournament failed, could have made a solo bid again this time. But he said the joint approach made for a stronger bid, was positive for soccer in the region and serves as a "hugely positive signal and symbol of what we can do together."
And he injected some politics into the discussion by saying the bid has the backing of President Donald Trump, whose talk of illegal immigrants and a planned border wall has raised the ire of many including his southern neighbours.
"We have the full support of the United States government in this project,: said Gulati. " The president of the United States is fully supportive and encouraged us to have this joint bid. He is especially pleased that Mexico is part of this bid and that’s in the last few days we’ve got further encouragement on that."
Montagliani, who has long promised to bring the World Cup to Canada, said the joint bid is a "testament to how football has changed in our region."
It is also a statement on how CONCACAF — once synonymous with corruption — has cleaned house, according to Montagliani.
"I’m not sure you can make a bigger statement than the men’s World Cup. I think it’s definitely a statement in a very short time … I think we’re through the tunnel and now it’s up to us to start going up the hill," he said in an interview.
In addition to the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Canada has also hosted the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup, the 2007 U-020 Men’s World Cup, the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup and the 1997 U-16 Men’s World Cup (now a U-17 event).