FIFA Delays Have Cities Worried About 2026 World Cup Plans

When FIFA announced several years ago that it would take the preparations for soccer’s 2026 World Cup in-house, it argued the change would streamline the planning for a sprawling championship that would be larger and more complex and require greater expertise than ever before. That the change would also grant FIFA greater control over the $11 billion in revenue it expects from its biggest cash cow was perhaps even more important.

But as teams begin their campaigns to qualify for the tournament, cities across the United States are growing frustrated with the tortured pace of FIFA’s preparations and communications and a lack of clarity about their roles in what will be the biggest, and richest, sporting event ever staged on American soil.

Cities and stadiums still do not know, for example, how many matches they will host, or on which dates. Opaque rules about sponsorships have left local governments unable to secure deals to cover the millions of dollars of public money they have committed to spend. And delays in hiring could leave FIFA without the kind of seasoned operations, marketing and hospitality professionals required to put on its showpiece tournament.

Even the most basic facts remain in question: Five years after the United States, Canada and Mexico were awarded the hosting rights to the World Cup, and more than a year after FIFA selected the 16 host cities, the date of the opening game is still not set.

In interviews over the past two months, many officials overseeing World Cup preparations in several cities also expressed concerns about public relations missteps, leadership confusion and sudden changes of plans by FIFA that have left them scrambling to form and adjust their own plans. A few worried that soccer’s global governing body, now far behind the pace of preparations in the past two World Cups, in Russia and Qatar, might be squandering its greatest opportunity to entrench the sport in the United States market.

A crucial bit of clarity could come in the next few weeks, when FIFA finally reveals the tournament’s full match schedule, including which city will host the final. FIFA has whittled its choice to two contenders: New York, a global powerhouse city with immense cultural importance, and Arlington, Tex., home to an ultramodern stadium complex and an 80,000-seat arena with a retractable roof to keep out the rain, and the heat. FIFA expects to make an announcement next month or, at the latest, in November, in order to meet its self-imposed deadline of releasing the schedule by the fall.

All the while, there has been growing disquiet in several U.S. cities that FIFA’s lack of urgency is wasting valuable time.

Alan Rothenberg, who as president of U.S. Soccer led the preparations for the 1994 World Cup and now works as a consultant to a group of 2026 host cities, said that FIFA had had “its hands full” and that had resulted in “more uncertainty and confusion among host cities than they’d like to have.”

“The uncertainty makes it difficult to plan,” Rothenberg said. “When it all shakes out, it will be a spectacular event. It’s just a little frustrating.” His concern was echoed by officials in several U.S. cities; all asked to speak anonymously to describe confidential planning discussions.

Mexico, a World Cup co-host, played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., outside Dallas, in a friendly match this month. The stadium is one of two contenders to host the 2026 World Cup final.Credit…Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Asked about concerns from its partners, FIFA said in a statement that “the existing infrastructure and local know-how when it comes to major sporting events are impressive and reassuring.”

“We are working hand-in-hand with our hosts to develop strong operational plans,” FIFA said, “and our efforts remain on pace to deliver an unforgettable event for fans in 2026.”

Awarded to three North American neighbors on the eve of the World Cup in Russia five years ago, the 2026 World Cup was always going to be a monumental planning challenge.

No previous sporting event will compare to its scale, profile and complexity: more than 100 games, played in 16 cities in three countries over about a month. The event has already required the coordination of multiple federal bodies both for security reasons and to ease the movement of fans as they follow their teams across the borders of the United States, Mexico and Canada. A State Department spokesman confirmed that the World Cup “will be categorized as a national security event.”

The government’s efforts are being led by the National Security Council, which earlier this year started to coordinate interagency meetings that also included representatives of FIFA and U.S. Soccer, which until then had largely been sidelined by FIFA.

The White House has been coordinating similar meetings for the Los Angeles Olympics, an event that does not take place until 2028. Yet that planning started years earlier, in part because the lines of communication were much clearer, and because Los Angeles established an organizing committee much earlier than FIFA.

The World Cup’s procrastination, some of it related to the coronavirus pandemic but much of it self-inflicted, has come as FIFA has labored to find ways to reconfigure the event after expanding it to 48 teams from 32. It changed the tournament’s format for a second time in March, a move that will require it to stage 104 games in total, a major increase from the current 64.

In previous World Cups, FIFA delegated much of the on-the-ground planning to local governing bodies, usually led by the host country’s soccer federations. But starting with the recent Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, it took on those responsibilities itself; this year, that led to grumbling from soccer officials in those countries — sometimes publicly — about the new planning model, which granted FIFA almost total control over the event.

With FIFA in charge of the 2026 preparations, U.S. Soccer has found itself largely excluded from major decisions, even as a FIFA office that was set up in Coral Gables, Fla., has struggled to recruit staff members and has failed to enlist the commitments of partners, tournament ambassadors and influencers who might carry the tournament’s messaging to new and wider audiences.

Clouding matters even more was the sudden departure this summer of Colin Smith, the top FIFA official responsible for organizing the World Cup. Smith’s interim replacement, his former deputy Heimo Schirgi, is expected to visit the 2026 host cities this fall to provide much-needed answers and reassurance.

In May, when FIFA held an event for the tournament’s brand identity in Los Angeles. The event, a prime opportunity to trumpet the tournament to consumers and sponsors, was a public relations dud, notable mostly for a lack of coordination with existing American soccer properties like Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer, which were not engaged in amplifying the organizers’ message.

A senior FIFA official directly involved with the 2026 tournament planning acknowledged “being behind the eight ball” but said the circumstances were not as dire as some critics were keen to portray. The official asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the planning and the potential embarrassment for FIFA.

Some of the acrimony and frustration is related to money. By taking total control of organizing its biggest event, FIFA now has more leverage over how the World Cup can be commercialized. Its own revenue projections are almost double the pretournament figures for the most recent tournament in Qatar, which itself broke income records. But cities still mired in negotiations with FIFA over their share in revenue sources, like local sponsorships and hospitality packages, fear that they are missing out on the commercial benefits of hosting, the bulk of which will flow to FIFA.

At the same time, FIFA’s relationship with the U.S. government also appears to have cooled. Its president, Gianni Infantino, was a frequent visitor to the White House during the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, and he made a welcome speech at a dinner hosted by Trump in 2020 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But Infantino has not visited the White House since Trump left office, and his relationship with the current U.S. leadership is not nearly as close. Infantino had hoped to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Qatar World Cup late last year, but Blinken, there to attend games involving the United States, declined to carve out time in his schedule, according to a senior soccer official who was present at the time but was not authorized to discuss the events publicly.

Rothenberg, who ran the planning for the 1994 World Cup, said some of the tension in host cities might ease once FIFA announces the tournament schedule. But he also said Infantino could help by loosening FIFA’s iron grip on the preparations.

“Better that he just turns over some authority to us in the U.S. and stay in Qatar or Zurich,” Rothenberg said. “We know how to get things done. There’s a huge event going on virtually every day.”

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