Support for the United States-led bid to host the 2026 World Cup is more divided than most predicted, with some estimates of voting totals having Morocco not just threatening the North American bid but actually beating it, multiple high-ranking football executives within FIFA and the continental confederations told ESPN this week.
The United States won't be playing in the World Cup in Russia this summer, but bringing the 2026 tournament to North America had always been seen as significant solace. Yet now, with just over three months until the pre-tournament FIFA Congress -- at which the body's 211 member nations will vote on those hosting rights -- even that consolation prize for American soccer fans might be in doubt.
Losing out would be hard to stomach for the North American contingent. After all, public perception among many in the soccer world has long been that the joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico would fairly easily beat the one from Morocco -- a North African country with a population of about 33 million -- to host. But according to multiple sources, a confluence of events and circumstances in recent months -- some related to football and others having little to do with it -- have left the outcome of that vote far murkier.
One official who is in regular contact with all of the continental confederations estimated that Morocco has the support of much of Asia and South America, as well as its home continent of Africa, which would put it over the 104 votes needed. All four bid nations cannot vote while the Guatemalan federation is currently suspended.
Other officials questioned the breakdown showing Morocco in a position of strength, saying that while the North American bid's winning margin might be tighter than expected, it would still emerge cleanly on top with the Americas, Oceania, most of Europe and part of Asia backing it.
The ballots will be cast just days before the opening match of the 2018 World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia in Moscow -- with the 2026 hosts expected to be announced on June 13.
Any late bids are due in by a deadline of March 16.
Regardless -- and despite the seeming disparity between the two bids in terms of resources and infrastructure -- there also is no denying that the race is far from a foregone conclusion.
Sunil Gulati, the former president of U.S. Soccer who is heading the North American bid, declined to discuss specifics regarding support, but he said in an interview that it would be foolish for anyone to assume anything about the outcome.
"We've never taken anything for granted in this process," Gulati said. "We understand that in a competitive election -- and that's what this is -- a lot of different things go into a decision."
In this case, those different things run the gamut. There is a technical component -- the 2026 event will be the first with an expanded 48-team field, putting an even greater importance on a country's stadiums and venue-city setup -- but the United States' superiority in that area is unquestioned.
The trickier question for the North American bid is actually something remarkably basic: At this particular moment in time, does the world want to give something nice to the United States?
There already was a leeriness toward the United States in corners of the football world, particularly in South America, as some national federations remain upset over how an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice exposed widespread corruption among their executives.
More recently, however, the North American bid has had to counter an anti-American sentiment that stems largely from actions taken by President Donald Trump's administration, multiple sources said. Those actions include a travel ban affecting mostly Arab countries, public comments that perpetuate stereotypes and the reported use of profanity in describing poorer countries.
When North American bid officials visit with federation officials in a foreign country, they rarely get questions about stadiums or hotels, according to sources; rather, they have been quizzed about whether the United States can be considered a friendly place for foreigners.
That is why the North American bid -- which Gulati's successor Carlos Cordeiro has made a top priority after being elected the new USSF president -- is trying as much as possible to stress the Canadian and Mexican involvement. The United States will host the vast majority of the games if the bid wins, but organizers are pushing the notion that their bid is about unity -- a concept they believe is critical in the current global environment.
Asked about how the Trump administration has affected the canvassing for votes, Gulati would not address any individual circumstance but said, "All three countries' governments, at the highest level, have been very supportive of the joint bid and the desire to bring the World Cup to North America."
"The partnership between the three countries is an extremely important part of our story," he added, "especially given what is going on in many parts of the world."
The setup of the balloting also presents a situation in which non-football influences could be considerable. Previously, hosting bids were awarded by FIFA's executive committee, a process that was beset by corruption and led to the tainted 2010 vote, in which Qatar beat the United States for the right to host the World Cup in 2022.
Now, each federation will vote and will have its vote made public, a situation that is better for transparency. That reality will make bloc votes -- all of Africa voting for Morocco, for example -- more likely, since any potential outlier won't have the coverage of a hidden ballot. Every vote will have to be defended going forward, both to a country's continental confederation members as well as to other officials within that nation's leadership.
Sources said they expect the race to come down to the final days. Morocco, whose bid was recently endorsed by disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, has lost on four previous attempts to win World Cup hosting rights, but this attempt is not a token operation. Morocco had 11 representatives at the recent UEFA Congress in Bratislava, Slovakia, and, as one official quipped, "They weren't there for the weather."
Representatives from the North American bid also were in attendance at the UEFA gathering, and officials will make similar appearances at an Asian Confederation gathering this spring before focusing in on specific countries for targeted visits closer to the vote.