How 3 Letters From Trump Might Help Bring the 2026 World Cup to the U.S.

  • Football
  • Wednesday, 13 Jun 2018

MOSCOW — When the officials leading the U.S. bid to host the 2026 World Cup — a joint effort with Mexico and Canada — hit the campaign trail in earnest this year, they quickly encountered uncomfortable questions from soccer associations around the world concerned about President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions on people from many countries.

How could a country host the world’s most-watched sporting event if it were inhospitable to visitors? Would visas be granted, some federations asked, to all teams and their fans if their countries qualified?

With a rival bid from Morocco mounting a surprisingly strong challenge, the concerns could not be ignored. But if the North American bid is victorious Wednesday, when soccer officials around the world will vote to award the 2026 World Cup, the U.S. soccer leadership will thank one person for helping them convince the world that Trump’s policies would not be a factor: Trump himself.

Since March, Trump has provided U.S. soccer officials with three letters addressed to Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. Each letter, part of an extensive but largely unseen U.S. government effort to support the bid, contained increasingly specific guarantees that foreign teams, officials and even fans will face no restrictions on entering the U.S. for World Cup matches in 2026 if their countries qualify for the tournament. In effect, the letters assured officials voting on the event that Trump’s hard-line stance on visas would not apply to the World Cup.

The letters were reviewed by The New York Times. They have not previously been reported.

In the most recent letter, dated May 2, Trump cites the 1996 and 2002 Olympic Games and the 1994 World Cup as examples of major international events hosted by the United States, and he assures Infantino — and by extension FIFA voters — that “I am confident that the United States would host the 2026 FIFA World Cup in a similarly open and festive manner, and that all eligible athletes, officials and fans from all countries around the world would be able to enter the United States without discrimination.”

Of course, a second Trump term would end in 2025, more than a year before the event, a fact the United Bid officials also have pointed out to voters. That has not seemed to matter, soccer officials from the United States, Mexico and Canada said Monday. What has eased the minds of some voters, U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro said, is the mere existence of his letters — printed on crisp White House letterhead and marked with Trump’s distinctive, inch-high signature at the bottom in thick black pen strokes.

“You know, in this environment, he says that, in writing — it’s pretty powerful,” Cordeiro said.

To produce the letters from Trump, the White House began an interagency review to craft the language in them, according to a person familiar with the bid. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and his team also kept in touch with Canada and Mexico in what were sometimes the only harmonious interactions with the United States’ neighbors amid loud public clashes over trade and immigration.

And just as Morocco has enlisted current and former government ministers to take its 2026 message abroad, the U.S. government has at times played an even more active role: the National Security Council has been in touch with other countries whose votes could help put the United States over the top, the person familiar with the bid said, and Kushner leveraged his relationship with the Saudi royal family to get Riyadh to publicly announce its support for the North American effort.

The 2026 World Cup will be the first with 48 teams, up from the current 32, and the sheer scale of the undertaking — more than 1,100 players, plus the requisite stadiums, training sites, hotels and transportation infrastructure to accommodate their federations and their fans — had made the North American bid an early favorite.

But the World Cup also requires that the host open its doors to all, and Trump’s public comments about immigrants, African countries and Muslims quickly became a talking point as North American soccer executives made the rounds campaigning for votes. For example, Iran, one of six predominantly Muslim countries on a list of eight countries Trump has sought to limit travel from, has qualified for the past two World Cups. Syria, another country singled out by Trump’s travel restrictions, narrowly missed out on the final day of qualifying last year for the 2018 event.

Trump has made only two public comments on the World Cup bid and neither was seen as particularly helpful. On April 26, he tweeted, “It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid.”

Then, days later, in a Rose Garden appearance with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, he pressed African countries to support the North American bid. “We will be watching very closely and any help that they could give us in that bid, we would appreciate,” he said. Many observers, inside soccer and out, saw each remark as a threat toward nations whose federations voted for Morocco.

But there were other issues, too. A North American World Cup almost certainly would mean increased cross-border travel at a time when Trump has pushed for tightened borders. So even before Trump’s public remarks about the 2026 race, officials with the bid began asking for letters to reassure FIFA and its voters that its effort had the full support of the U.S. government, and Trump began signing them.

On March 9, he wrote to Infantino expressing his support for the North American bid in “the spirit of continental partnership.” Three days later, he sent a second letter, which included five bullet points pledging that the United States would respect FIFA rules that required, for example, the playing of any country’s national anthem, the display of any national flag and respect for human rights.

Then, in mid-April, after members of FIFA’s technical committee visited Mexico, the United States and Canada to evaluate the bid’s readiness, Cordeiro met with Kushner at the White House. Cordeiro thanked White House officials for the administration’s support throughout the bidding process, a person familiar with the meeting said, and then asked for one final set of clarifications from Trump guaranteeing access to all visitors should the Americans win the bid.

“FIFA could have red-flagged us if we hadn’t been able to give these assurances,” Cordeiro said.

The North American bid had entered the 2026 race early and nearly ran unopposed. But Morocco, a four-time loser with its previous World Cup bids, including to the United States in 1994, has proved a resilient opponent.

Morocco has stressed its passion for soccer, its proximity to the European television market and, curiously but pointedly, its “very low gun circulation.” Once prohibitive favorites, the North Americans remain cautiously optimistic that they will prevail — “I feel we have a path to victory,” Cordeiro said Sunday — but they also remained wary as they crisscrossed the globe seeking support.

In the five weeks since Trump’s May 2 letter was created, it has traveled the world. Cordeiro and the presidents of the Canadian and Mexican soccer federations, Steve Reed and Decio De María, have been to Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe in the past two months. They knew at each stop that should a potential voter raise the issue of visas, they could refer to the president’s letter, an image of which always was available for reference with the swipe of a finger across a cellphone.

Cordeiro even quoted it in a letter of his own, sent May 25 to the top officials of each of FIFA’s 211 member federations and shared with The Times on Monday.

“In our bid’s discussions with football associations around the world, one topic has been visa and entrance requirements to the United States in 2026,” Cordeiro wrote. “I want to assure you that we take this matter very seriously and that the U.S. government has made strong commitments to FIFA.”

Cordeiro also cited a March 12 letter from the secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, in which the United States confirmed its intention “to issue visas, subject to eligibility under U.S. law, without regard to race, skin color, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, disability, wealth, birth or any other status, or sexual orientation.”

“We are confident,” Cordeiro added in his letter, “that these guarantees will ensure that every eligible fan and member of our FIFA family will have unhindered access to our country to experience and celebrate the 2026 FIFA World Cup.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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