Despite criticisms, joint CONCACAF World Cup bid the right deal for all sides

Spencer Platt
Complaints surfaced from all three countries involved in the CONCACAF World Cup hosting bid, which shows it isn't the lopsided deal some think it is.

NEW YORK — After a long day of interviews, and explaining and defending the three-country World Cup bid he helped orchestrate, CONCACAF chief and Canadian federation president Victor Montagliani put his big arms around a pair of colleagues as he walked out of the One World Observatory for an impromptu group hug. You couldn't really blame him. After all, he had just moved the region, and his native country, one giant step closer to hosting the biggest sporting event on the planet.

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Not everyone shared in Montagliani's joy. Complaints have poured in from critics from all three participants in the joint bid — the United States, Mexico and Canada — with issues ranging from the breakdown of the games (75 percent of which would be held in the U.S.) to the fact the countries even agreed to combine their bids after all three initially showed interest in bidding independently.

"I think in the end it's a fair result, and listen, there's going to be people in Canada that are going to be upset at me too," Montagliani said. "Saying, 'Hey, we put on the great Women's World Cup. We did this, we did that. How come we didn't get more games?'

"We didn't look at it that way. This is not a thing about possession. This is about taking a step back, and thinking, 'This is a FIFA World Cup, and we want it to come to our region. What's the best scenario?' And we believe this is the best scenario."

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati walked away looking like the big winner Monday, but even he suggested the U.S. wound up sacrificing in the negotiations.

"I think it's safe to say both (Canada and Mexico) would have liked more (games), and they would say it was probably hard to sell me on 60," Gulati said. "In the end, it was a discussion, a negotiation, but a very friendly one. This wasn't, 'OK, we're walking away — do it with the other one,' or any of that. It was quite friendly, but not easy because it's a zero sum game on the number of games obviously.

"The key principles in that discussions were that we felt that we should host the lion's share of the games, and if we went alone we had potentially the strongest bid," Gulati added. "Mexico and Canada had then to assess the same thing we did, the likelihood and so on. We wanted also — all three of us — parity between Canada and Mexico because we're true partners in this. There was a lot of negotiating about it, and at different numbers one or more of us may have chosen to bid alone."

Sunil Gulati, Victor Montagliani, Decio De Maria, 041017

Gulati secured 60 of the projected 80 matches for the U.S., including all of the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the final. Asked how the U.S. wound up with all of the knockout round matches from the quarterfinals on, Gulati replied with a remark that is very telling of just how shrewd a negotiator he is.

"Because I couldn't get the round of 16 all in the U.S.," Gulati said. "Negotiation. Bigger stadiums generally — Azteca (in Mexico City) is obviously a bigger stadium. Those all came down to a discussion, and that's where we ended up."

So what exactly did the U.S. really surrender? It gave up the chance to be the lone host, which an American bid certainly could have won with. Given the expanded size of the World Cup — which will see an increase from 32 teams to 48 teams — the U.S. is in line to host almost as many games (60) as it would have hosted under the previous format (64). That made giving up solo hosting rights much easier, especially given the likelihood that a joint bid has a stronger chance of securing the necessary votes from FIFA.

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"If you have a 90 percent [chance] — or whatever the numbers are, I'm not saying it's 90 percent — of getting 75 percent of the tournament, or a 75 percent chance of getting 100 percent, what do you do?" Gulati asked. "That was part of the analysis and calculus, but the other part was we think there's a benefit beyond football, beyond soccer, to a joint bid, especially with Mexico — which, as I mentioned, is fully supported by the president, which is a big plus."

Montagliani tried to downplay the notion that Gulati was simply the strongest negotiator at the table, saying all sides made sacrifices to make a joint bid a reality.

"It wasn't so much a deal — we all know what needed to get done, we all knew what was also fair, and what also was in the best interests of the World Cup," Montagliani told Goal. "You can't look at it from a proprietary standpoint. You've also got to be realistic. The U.S. infrastructure is unbelievable. They could host the World Cup in California if they wanted to."

Montagliani acknowledged what had to be clear for Canada and Mexico: that the U.S. bid was clearly the strongest of the three potential CONCACAF bids, and that fact was always going to result in more games on American soil than in the other countries. He did seem surprised to see the backlash from Mexico about the split, which saw Canada and Mexico wind up with the same number of matches.

"I don't know what they're unhappy about," Montagliani said of Mexican critics of the joint bid. "One guy (from Mexico) asked me, 'Canada's not a soccer country, (Mexico) is, but you get 10 and we got 10?' I said, 'The last time I looked you've won the same number of World Cups as we have: none.'

"So I said, 'Listen, you can't look at it that way,' I think we all need to be pretty happy about it.

"Listen, Mexico's a tremendous footballing country and we know that. But you know what? (Canada) is a tremendous footballing country," Montagliani added. "The stats bear it out. In Brazil and South Africa, the No. 1 (non-participating) country that attended those World Cups was Canada. And if you factor in participating countries we're No. 10, so it's not like we're not consumers of football as well."

Mexico's representatives certainly didn't look unhappy at Monday's announcement of the joint bid. Mexican federation president Decio de Maria could be seen hugging delegates from CONCACAF and Canada well after the event, and even gave his trademark Mexico green tie to one such colleague as a gesture of good will. The 62-year-old official helped provide some context to why, in his eyes, it was so important for Mexico to agree to this joint agreement.

"I remember well the World Cup of 1970. I remember well how Estadio Azteca was built. In 1986 it fell to us to host, I remember that World Cup well," De Maria said. "Today, to be able to give the Mexicans, Americans and Canadians an opportunity to experience a World Cup in Mexico is a great honor.

"My children didn't see the World Cup in 1970, my children didn't see the 1986 World Cup, but they will see the World Cup in 2026, along with my grandchildren," De Maria said. "That's the blessing of soccer. To be able to make that magic, and offer it to the world."

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De Maria also helped put an interesting perspective on Mexico's 10-match allotment, which may not seem like that many games but isn't a number that will necessarily keep scores of Mexicans from attending matches at the 2026 World Cup if the bid is successful.

"I think with what we have agreed to today, we'll be able to offer the Mexicans in Mexico a great World Cup, and the Mexicans in the United States will have the other 60 matches in the United States to enjoy (the World Cup)," De Maria said.

Ultimately, all three countries came to the same conclusion: that combining forces would bring them all closer to helping realize a World Cup dream. And Gulati offered a not-so-subtle reminder of why the joint bid should be considered the runaway pick to secure the 2026 World Cup.

"A World Cup in North America, with 60 games in the United States, will be, by far, the most successful World Cup in the history of FIFA in terms of economics," Gulati said. "The economic power of the American market — we've got 500 million people in these three countries — this will be an extraordinarily successful World Cup on financial and economic grounds.

"That's critical because most of FIFA's revenue comes from one event. The 209 people voting all get funds from FIFA, and so they should also recognized that FIFA's finances — on which many countries rely — will be greatly enhanced by a tournament in North America."

That is why officials from all three joint-bid nations looked so happy, because they succeeded in keeping politics and egos from bringing them together to join forces. Even as criticisms flew Monday, the men who made it happen remained resolute.

"I think we all knew that this was a lot more than venues and games and who gets games," Montagliani said. "This was about an opportunity of a lifetime for all three countries, and you know what? I'm confident that we're going to pull it off."